Fighting terrorism since 1492

“We’re the two craziest sisters in the whole wide world, I think,” Carrie Dann told me as we walked across the Dann family’s ranch in Crescent Valley.

“Not crazy,” her sister, Mary, added softly, “just on the right track. But nobody listens to us.”

The two Western Shoshone ranching women, renowned for their feisty activism, were showing me around the homestead. It was 2003, and the Danns were once again battling the Bureau of Land Management, the federal agency charged with impounding and selling the Danns’ cattle to pay grazing fees.

On Friday, Mary Dann, in her early 80s, died in an accident on the ranch where she was born.

Mary was a quiet woman deeply attuned to her surroundings. She spent afternoons “gentling” wild horses—not breaking them. She cared for livestock and pets as she cared for grandchildren. Her eye for beauty extended from panoramic mountainscapes to the pebbles she collected in boxes—pieces of earth that caught her eye as she roamed the valley.

I met the Danns when I was a student reporter at the University of Nevada Reno. I covered a lecture in which Carrie described how the federal government never legally acquired title to most of the Great Basin, cheating tribes out of billions.

I walked away perplexed: Who owned the land around us—casinos, gold mines, residential subdivisions?

My perspective shifted as I researched the facts.

In 1863, the Western Shoshone Nation signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, a.k.a. the Treaty of Ruby Valley, with the United States. For an annual payment of $5,000, settlers would be given safe passage through 26 million acres of Shoshone territory, an area that stretched from Wyoming to Death Valley. No one wanted this barren land in 1863.

The Shoshone received $5,000 in provisions and clothing when the treaty was signed. No other annuity payments were received. Mining and trapping took a toll on the land and on the people. Many didn’t survive smallpox epidemics or a turn-of-the-20th-century law that allowed a white man to shoot a Shoshone male older than 12 on sight.

In the 1960s, the Western Shoshone were approached by a group of lawyers who wanted to represent them before the Indian Claims Commission. By then, the United States owed the Shoshone around $4 billion in back annuity payments.

The Shoshone would never see that money.

In 1961, the Carlin Trend, an area 30 miles from Crescent Valley that would produce more than 40 million ounces of gold, was discovered. The next year, the ICC determined that Western Shoshone homeland had been taken through “gradual encroachment.” The land belonged to the United States—and could be transferred to companies like Newmont Mining Co. and Barrick Goldstrike Mines for mineral extraction.

Like it or not, the Shoshone would be paid for the land—at an 1872 rate of about 15 cents an acre. The Shoshone didn’t want the money. In 1979, the feds put $26 million in an account and called it a payment. That money has grown, over the years, to around $150 million.

The Danns took their case to the U.S. Supreme Court—and lost. Still, they refused to pay grazing fees to the feds. Mary never stopped demanding proof of the federal government’s ownership.

“Why don’t they show us the documents of how the land was transferred?” Mary said. “If they show us that, we’ve said we’ll stop.”

At dusk the day of my visit, Mary showed me how to peel sheets of hay from large bales and break them apart to feed cows. As the sun set over the Shoshone Range, Mary spoke softly to more than a dozen calves that had been orphaned by a BLM roundup. She stooped to pick up a rock. She brushed it off and slid it into her pocket.