Showdown in Crescent Valley

Two Western Shoshone grandmothers have been fighting a 30-year war for their way of life

Photo by Debra Reid

Inside the trailer, the phone’s ringing. Julie Fishel, an attorney for the Western Shoshone Defense Project, answers call after call with frenzied energy.

“I’ve already been on the phone with the BLM this morning,” she says. “They told me to tell Carrie to bring her cattle in. They’ll be coming. Not this week, but it’ll be soon. They’re going to impound.”

Bureau of Land Management personnel recently flew over Crescent Valley, just off I-80 around 45 miles to Elko, and made a list: eighty head of cattle, 800 horses and eight goats grazing without a permit. Most of the horses were likely estray animals. But the cattle probably belonged to Mary and Carrie Dann, two Western Shoshone grandmothers who’ve spent their lives here in a house built by their parents, who homesteaded the land. The Danns refuse to buy grazing permits from the BLM because, in their view, the land doesn’t belong to the BLM. They’ve taken their battle for ancestral lands all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, but now, things finally seem to be reaching a critical juncture.

The WSDP office is in a trailer on a large dusty lot facing Sixth Street in the hamlet of Crescent Valley. The only sign to mark the home of the nonprofit set up a decade ago to help the Danns in their 30-year struggle for the land is written in faded marker. The words, “Western Shoshone Defense Project Office,” are barely readable. The back of the sign is partly obscured by a wooden fence post, but it’s much easier to make out: “Do we oppose nuclear waste in Nevada? You BET! Our families are not expendable.”

In between phone calls, Fishel shows off new T-shirts with a photo of the smiling Dann sisters—a pair of women known to the United Nations, the U.S. Supreme Court, Amnesty International and influential media across Europe and the United States. The shirt caption says, “Homeland security: Fighting terrorism since 1492.”

The Dann sisters are sitting in the kitchen of their home that a writer from the New York Times called “ramshackle.” Outside, a generator hums, giving them the electricity that runs their refrigerator, lights, radio and television.

“That’s the stand-by generator,” Carrie explains. The square-faced woman is nearly 70, with salt-and-pepper hair and a quick, broad smile. Smoke curls up from the cigarette in her hand. “The regular generator went to go see the doctor.”

Fishel quickly delivers the news that the BLM called this morning.

“Eight goats?” Carrie asks. “We should have asked them how many jackrabbits. And what about crickets? Did they count the bugs, too?”

Grandson Michael Smith, a 20-something buckaroo wearing worn leather chaps, boots and a wide cowboy hat, walks into the kitchen and pours some Pepsi into a jam jar-turned-drinking glass. Carrie speaks to him in Shoshone. He pauses, looks down at his cup and replies with one word, which sounds like, “Ha-ga?”

“I like to talk to them like that,” Carrie tells me.

“What did you say?”

“I asked him, ‘How come you don’t speak the language? I can make fun of you.’ “

“What did he say?”

“He said, ‘What?’ “

She chuckles dryly. Carrie and Mary frequently speak Shoshone to each another. They’ve spoken the language since their youth. It’s one of the many ways they keep their heritage alive. But other aspects of their beliefs—which include a sacred reverence for and inability to “own” land, air, water and sunlight—are under attack, it seems to them, by no less than the freedom-propounding U.S. government.

“The land is part of our beliefs,” Carrie says. “We are tied to the land. It’s the mother of all life. They may try to force us off the land, but to me, that’s spiritual genocide. I cannot separate myself from the land.”

Last week, the Dann family prepared once again for a face-off with the BLM in what will be just the latest battle in a 30-year war with the federal government, which says that the Danns can’t allow their livestock to graze in Crescent Valley without a permit.

The Danns point to a controversial 140-year-old treaty that gave the United States limited rights to use the land that comprises most of Nevada. The treaty did not purchase the land from the Shoshone tribe.

The BLM has been threatening to round up and impound the Danns’ cattle since the early 1990s. In 1992, the Danns and various supportive activist groups such as Citizen Alert met the enemy head-on. A six-day standoff with the feds was highlighted by brother Clifford Dann threatening to light himself on fire and going to prison. The feds took a couple of hundred horses.

Carrie Dann shares a joke with her sister as she mends a cattle chute at the Danns’ Crescent Valley ranch.

Photo by Debra Reid

Over the next decade, the battle became a war of words and legal actions. In September, armed with a court decision and new resolve, the feds sent about 40 gun-toting men with helicopters and ATVs to Crescent Valley to take 232 cattle branded with the Danns’ 3M brand. The ranch brand, Carrie jokes, just happens to stand for the approximate amount of money they owe in illegal-grazing penalties, $3 million. The seized cattle were auctioned in early October for about $60,000.

Carrie, with the support of half a dozen activist groups, from the left-wing Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada to the right-wing Committee for Full Statehood, led a protest in the parking lot of the BLM’s Reno office.

“They wouldn’t even let me in to go to the toilet,” Carrie says of the BLM office employees. As the Dann sisters talk, their brother Cliff drives a tractor in a semi-circle and grandson Tyson shovels hay off the back of a trailer to feed the horses.

“A person could get wet,” Mary says.

“I felt like doing it on their lawn,” Carrie says. “It’s a public place. It belongs to every goddamn taxpayer.”

Legally, the Danns’ case seemed so clear that Fishel, 35, left a job at a high-end Minnesota law firm to join the Western Shoshone Defense Project. Her long, straight brown hair and light complexion reveal her own heritage—Irish and German. In September, she moved her two teen daughters from Minneapolis to Crescent Valley, where the family lives in a rented trailer with two dogs.

Fishel is an optimist. She views the Dann sisters as an indigenous version of Rosa Parks, who sat down on a bus and changed the face of the South.

“There’s nobody who cares more about the land than these Western Shoshone people,” Fishel insists. “They’re just standing up for their rights … for the past 30 years. How have they done it? They are incredible women.”

The story of the Western Shoshone’s struggle with the United States goes back much further than the past three decades of the Danns’ fight.

In 1863, the Western Shoshone Nation signed a Treaty of Peace and Friendship, also referred to as the Treaty of Ruby Valley, with the United States. This agreement allowed safe passage of settlers through about 26 million acres of Shoshone territory, an area that stretched from Wyoming to Death Valley, including parts of Idaho, Utah, Nevada and Oregon. The Europeans passing through this area weren’t terribly interested in owning it. Not in 1863. The treaty generously allowed for a $5,000 annuity to the Shoshone to compensate for environmental damages incurred by passers-through.

This outrages Carrie.

“Damages! The rape of your mother is a damage?!”

The Shoshone received $5,000 worth of provisions and clothing when the treaty was signed. But no other annuity payments were received. Mining and trapping had taken a huge toll on the land—and on the Shoshone way of life. Plants from which the Shoshone gathered grain were disappearing. Piñon pines were chopped down for lumber. The nomadic hunters and gatherers were encouraged to settle down and take up such livelihoods as, say, ranching. Some did. 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.

The Danns settled in Crescent Valley. Sometimes it seems to Carrie that they’re the only Shoshone family left in the area. She motions to the east, to the Cortez Mountains.

“Across the hill, people with feelings—I don’t feel anything—say they hear voices crying, mourning the people,” Carrie says. “Besides us, not one family that used to live here is still here. … Ninety-eight percent of our people died.

She sets her face fiercely.

“During the smallpox, they were dying like flies in the valley. People went up into the mountains and jumped off the cliffs. It’s a sad story, and it pisses me off.”

In 1946, the Indian Claims Commission was established to compensate Indians for lands and resources taken by the United States. Within about 15 years, the Western Shoshone had been approached by a group of lawyers who wanted to represent the nation. By the 1960s, the promised annuity plus interest due to the Shoshone was calculated by some to be around $4 billion. But payment of the annuity wasn’t the topic on the table.

In 1961, the Carlin Trend, a mining hot spot about 30 miles from Crescent Valley that would produce more than 40 million ounces of gold in the next four decades, was discovered. The next year, the Indian Claims Commission determined that Western Shoshone homeland had been taken through “gradual encroachment.” Because of this, the land now belonged, it seemed, to the United States.

“This is a country of laws,” Carrie complains. “Gradual encroachment is not a law. Show me where gradual encroachment is a law.”

The Shoshone decided to fight the best way they knew how, but the attorneys who claimed to be representing them ended up making bargains with the feds that the Shoshone didn’t support. The Danns remember these days well.

“We are two crazy sisters,” says Carrie Dann, (right). Mary Dann (left) just laughs.

Photo by Debra Reid

“We fought with our so-called attorneys, but we were always being intimidated by them,” Carrie says. The attorneys recommended accepting a settlement, though more than three-quarters of the Shoshone elders were against this. The Shoshone fired their attorneys, but the U.S. government continued to hold negotiations with the attorneys, saying they were the representatives of what the feds dubbed “the Shoshone identifiable group.”

Carrie remembers how the lawyers, who stood to take a fat cut of the settlement for themselves, behaved toward the Shoshone.

“They said, ‘We know what is best for you,’ “ she says. “They treated those people as if they were nothing, worse than you’d treat cats and dogs. … We fought the best way we knew how. We’re not educated people.”

In 1979, an Indian Claims Commission decision became final. It ruled that a payment of more than $26 million to the Shoshone would settle the score—not for the annuity but for the title to the land itself. That amount offered represented the value of the land in 1872, some 15 cents an acre. The Shoshone would receive no land and no back annuity payments.

“The attorneys used to say, ‘They don’t have to give you a penny. They’re doing it out of the graciousness of their heart,’ “ Carrie says.

The settlement was never accepted. The money, now more than $136 million with interest, remains in trust for the Shoshone. Legislation introduced by Sen. Harry Reid would distribute some $20,000 to each Western Shoshone and set aside another chunk in a fund for education. The legislation finally passed the Senate last year but failed in the House. Reid’s staff says the senator intends to introduce it again this session.

Fishel theorizes that that’s why this year—after more than a decade of threats—the BLM has been more determined to confiscate the Danns’ cattle.

“I think it’s all about the distribution bill,” she says. “The government wants title to these lands. There’s something going on. … Reid is using all his political weight to get this bill through. Why use all your political weight to get $20,000 apiece for the Western Shoshone? It doesn’t make sense.”

A few new gold mines have been approved to open in the area. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently agreed to stop complaining about longstanding environmental damage in the area so that Newmont’s Phoenix Mine could get started. Newmont’s also been approved to expand its Gold Quarry Mine and begin its Leeville Mine, both on the Carlin Trend.

The land also has huge potential for geothermal energy plants.

And then there’s Yucca Mountain.

Carrie thinks that the Treaty of Ruby Valley should be used to fight those who want to store high-level radioactive waste at Yucca Mountain. If the land, in fact, doesn’t belong to the federal government, then the dump could easily be stopped.

“I call Senator Reid a liar,” Carrie says. “He says, ‘I will do anything to keep nuclear waste out of Nevada.’ But if he doesn’t use the Treaty of Ruby Valley to keep nuclear waste out of Nevada, then he’s lying.”

Mary, who’s nearly 80 years old, is much quieter than her younger sister. But she’s just as quick with a wry comment. Her frame is slighter, and her eyes glow warmly. It’s she who works with the wild horses—not “breaking” them, but “gentling” them over a period of weeks and months. While walking near a row of hay bales, she stops to pick up a small rock. She turns it over in her hands and then drops it back on the ground.

“Sometimes I find pretty rocks in the bales,” she says. “I have boxes of them. I don’t know what I’m going to do with them all.”

Mary doesn’t have as much to say as does her sister on the subjects of Yucca Mountain or mining or the horrific struggles of the indigenous people. She simply repeats that, before taking the Danns’ cattle again, the U.S. government should show the Danns exactly how the United States gained title to the land it says it controls on behalf of the public.

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

“The way I look at it,” Carrie says, stopping to sit down in the dirt of the pasture, “if we were really wrong, why didn’t they come in and move us a long time ago?”

Good question.

JoLynn Worley, a BLM spokesperson from the Reno office, recalls that the BLM did round up horses in 1992.

“Around that time, the Danns removed a number of their livestock and horses from the range land,” Worley says. But by 1995, the herds were again building up. “Over the years, we’ve tried to give the Danns every opportunity to come to an agreement with us. Then there are court decisions and an appeals process that slows things down. We’d wait for a resolution, and before you know it there goes two or three years.”

Carrie Dann forks some hay to a few dozen pastured cows.

Photo by Debra Reid

The history of the federal court case United States v. Dann is complex. The United States argued that the Danns were trespassing on federal land. After a trip to the Ninth Circuit and back to the district court, the case was appealed. The Ninth Circuit reversed the district court decision. It maintained that that payment had not occurred under the Indian Claims Act because there was no plan of distribution. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which reversed it, arguing that payment occurred when the funds were placed by the United States into an account for the Western Shoshone. There were more appeals. The Supreme Court refused to hear the case again.

Worley confirmed that the BLM does plan to do a roundup of animals in the area that the BLM terms the South Buckhorn Allotment. She wasn’t aware of any count that included goats, but workers in helicopters had tallied 808 horses and about 80 head of cattle. She admits that it’s not likely many of the horses belong to the Danns.

“There are a lot of horses out there on a range that can’t support them,” Worley says. “They’re living in a couple of canyons with riparian streams. The damage there is bad.”

The roundup of Dann cattle, Worley says, will be incidental. “When we go out there to round up the horses, if there are cattle in trespass on public land, we would impound them, as well. If they were Dann livestock, they’d have the opportunity to pay outstanding trespass fees to get them back. Or we would offer them for sale like we did back in September.”

Since the Danns owe about $3 million in penalties, it seems unlikely they’d pay. Worley explains that trespass fees add up pretty quickly. To get a grazing permit for public lands costs a rancher about $1.35 per animal unit month, a measurement of the forage it would take to feed a cow and calf for one month. But once someone goes into “willful trespassing,” the fee leaps to $20 per animal unit month.

“That’s the penalty that comes with putting livestock out without a permit,” Worley says.

Can the range sustain the Danns’ additional 80 or so cows? Well, five other ranchers are legally grazing a maximum of 4,200 head of cattle during the summer months in the South Buckhorn Allotment.

“They’re not really worried about overgrazing,” Carrie says. “It’s about money. It’s about control of the land.”

And even if the BLM does seize and sell the Danns’ cattle, it won’t make any money, and in fact will lose some. Worley says that the September roundup cost $160,000, between the private contractor hired to round up the Danns’ cattle using helicopters and wranglers on horseback and the cost of law enforcement personnel, a veterinarian, EMTs and a fire truck that needed to be on hand.

“It is an expensive operation,” Worley says. “There’s no way we came out ahead.”

The BLM understands that the Danns have issues with the ownership of the land.

“We’re trying to stay away from that argument,” Worley says. “Our goal is to keep the range land healthy. Basically, we have been told by the U.S. courts that it is public land, and BLM, go do your job. We’ve tried to work out some agreements with the Danns to reduce the number of animals out there, but we have not been successful in negotiations with them.”

In related news, two lawyers claiming to represent the Western Shoshone—whom these lawyers portray as merely wanting the 1979 settlement money as soon as possible—testified in August to the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs. They say the Danns are unfairly standing in the way.

“Every one of our clients who has mentioned the Danns … has made a point of disclaiming any interest or sympathy with their cause,” testified attorney Paul M. Durham, who along with fellow attorney John Paul Kennedy would potentially stand to make millions if the settlement money were distributed. “The Danns are relatively wealthy people who do not need or care about the judgment distribution.”

We are eating fried Spam sandwiches for lunch.

“Carrie, isn’t this what you fed to the guy from the New York Times?” Fishel asks. “I remember him eyeing the last one on the plate.”

On one end of the kitchen is a wood-fueled cooking stove that Carrie says is at least as old as is she. In various places on the floor, ancient linoleum is held down with large staples. The sisters talk about attorneys Durham and Kennedy and laugh at the assertion that the two of them, who will later head out to mend a fence with recycled sun-bleached wood and scraps of wire, are “wealthy.” The Danns and Fishel, who’s been traveling Nevada talking to tribal councils, don’t know whom exactly the attorneys are representing.

“Most traditional Shoshone still oppose taking the settlement money,” Fishel says. A much-publicized vote among the Shoshones that indicated support for the settlement wasn’t conducted according to tribal laws, Fishel says, calling the results unverifiable.

The Danns also talk about activists—environmentalists and grassroots groups who protest Yucca Mountain and get arrested at the Nevada Test Site. These groups frequently come and camp on the outskirts of the Danns’ ranch. Carrie believes in the kind of activism that doesn’t have to consume a person—merely take up a small percentage of his or her time. This activism is essential.

“If people want to continue to have children, we have to protect the environment,” she says. “Or there’ll be a time when we see our babies and grandchildren suffer and there’ll be nothing we can do about it. I’d rather be an activist and stop it before it happens.”

But what kind of activism can the average person do?

“Lobby,” Fishel says. “It’s the only thing that can be done. Lobby Ensign, Gibbons, Reid and Berkeley. Ask them to come out here and do the right thing. The Western Shoshone don’t want anything unreasonable. They’re not trying to kick anybody off the land. Once, the federal government agreed to have a homeland established, but that wasn’t done. There’s never been anything done.”

It’s evening and time to feed the cows again. A cow and a calf have gotten into the corral where the hay is stored, and Carrie swears at them as she chases them out with a pitchfork. Mary shows me how to peel sheets of hay from the large rectangular bales and break them apart for the cows, which gather expectantly. The sun is setting over the Shoshone Range to the west. Carrie forks hay in silence for a minute, then turns to me.

“Eight goats. Isn’t that ridiculous? Eight goats.”

Mary hikes to another smaller corral to tend to about 20 calves. Some of these small animals were orphaned by the September BLM roundup. She finishes feeding the calves and stoops to pick up a rock. She turns it over, brushes it off and slides it into her pocket.