Heroes or spoilers? Shoshone sisters battling feds also fight their own

CRESCENT VALLEY -- They sit side-by-side under a poplar tree they once climbed as girls, talking about what they have talked about endlessly for decades.

On this day, two dozen wide-eyed college students, all bandannas and braids, have come hundreds of miles to a remote swath of Nevada high country to hear the story of the Western Shoshone sisters who for 30 years have battled the federal government over claim to their aboriginal lands.

The old women speak of a spiritual death, of Mother Earth being destroyed, of their land and the Shoshone way of life being sacrificed for profit.

Here, on the front lawn of the ranch their father built, Carrie and Mary Dann are heroines to the outsiders who listen, icons of a monumental fight.

Many of their own people see something else.

Once, before the lure of cash settlements and discouraging court decisions, the Western Shoshones stood united in their fight to recover the land. Now, they fight each other.

Once, the Dann sisters were inspirational leaders taking on the mighty U.S. government. Now, some consider them their adversaries -- their cause and its publicity foiling years of attempts to distribute $137 million to tribal members under a decades-old land-claim award.

What divides the Western Shoshones is the very thing that once sustained them: The 24 million acres of land their ancestors settled, and the question of who owns it today.

The U.S. Supreme Court says the land was lost to the United States, and many Shoshones agree. Last summer tribal members voted almost 11-to-1 in favor of taking the multimillion-dollar land settlement.

Yet the Danns and their supporters insist the land still belongs to the Shoshone people. On that premise, they oppose distribution of the money and also have refused for 30 years to pay to graze livestock on a federal allotment near their ranch.

To them, taking the cash means sticking a "Sold" sign on their land; paying to use it is no different.

"There's the good Indian who sits back and doesn't ask and doesn't challenge, and there are the Indian people like Mary and Carrie Dann," says a longtime supporter, Mary Gibson. "They're out there making waves, but they're labeled as bad.

"Even the Western Shoshone people see them as trouble."


Friends and relatives call them the "old ladies," though just how old the Danns won't say. Some guess Mary has hit 80, while Carrie is in her 60s, but these are anything but typical grannies.

Wearing their standard uniform of sweatshirts and dirt-smudged jeans, Mary and Carrie Dann still reign over the 800 acres once run by their father. Cussing and smoking like hardened ranch hands, they'll hit the corrals from dawn until dark, separating cattle and hauling hay.

Though tender as mother hens with the youngest of the Dann flock, including Carrie's three grandchildren, the sisters are brazen and bossy. They will cut you off the moment you broach a subject they don't much like, and talk your ear off when trying to convince you they're right.

And when it comes to the land they hold dear, they insist they always are.

"We're the ones that know which is right and which is wrong," says Mary. She is the quiet thinker who stays home while Carrie -- nicknamed "the mouth" -- travels, promoting their cause.

"We're the only gutsy ones," adds Carrie. "Either gutsy or stupid, I don't know which."

It is that "innate stubbornness and cantankerousness," says friend Chris Sewall, that enables them to endure their long fight.

"They're like mountains," says Sewall, who runs the Western Shoshone Defense Project in support of the sisters. "They might get a little weathered, a little worn, a little gray on top like a mountain, but they still stand there."

The Danns grew up on this land, a blend of sagebrush, pine trees and snowcapped mountains 60 miles southwest of Elko in northern Nevada. It is but a speck of the 24 million acres once roamed by their ancestors, stretching from the Nevada-Idaho border into California's Mojave Desert.

The Shoshones called their homeland Pia Sokopia -- Earth Mother. They hunted for sustenance, collecting jackrabbit, ground squirrels, antelope and pine nuts. Families were named after food resources: eaters of buffalo berry, eaters of rice grass.

Once gold was discovered, their peaceful life changed. As white settlers headed West, warfare erupted between the Indians and the newcomers.

In 1863, with the U.S. government desperate to secure safe transport routes West and the Shoshones tired of fighting, the two parties signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The accord allowed settlers to build telegraph lines and railroads, mine for gold and silver and establish townsites. The Indians, meanwhile, agreed to abandon their "roaming life" and move to reservations in exchange for cattle.

Today, some 5,000 enrolled Western Shoshones live on tiny reservations and town colonies scattered throughout Nevada. The largest concentration, made up of 1,500 people, lives in the Elko colony, a 160-acre parcel smack dab in the town of 34,000. They work in tribal, federal or local governments or in nearby mines.

Few people today live off the land, home to lucrative mining operations and what is slated to become the main U.S. repository for nuclear waste.

Nevertheless, the Danns and their backers believe the Shoshones still hold aboriginal title to the land. They argue the 1863 treaty was a peace accord that only granted settlers access to their territory and that it defines -- not cedes -- their title by describing the area "claimed and occupied" by the tribe.

Tribal leaders retained an attorney to pursue that position as early as 1932. The fight escalated in 1946 with the formation of the federal Indian Claims Commission to determine monetary awards to settle disputes over illegal land seizures and broken treaty promises.

Suddenly, "traditional" tribal members who still relied on the land were facing off against so-called modern Shoshones who preferred a cash deal. Dewey Dann, Carrie and Mary's father, was among those who in 1947 formally chose to fight for land.

The sisters followed their father, rejecting a claim. Says Carrie: "Our spiritual ways are connected to this Earth. It's the mother of all life. They can't force me to sell my mother, can they?"

But another group within the tribe did file a claim, and in the late '70s, the Indian Claims Commission awarded the Western Shoshones $26 million. The commission ruled that the Shoshones had lost their land by the "gradual encroachment" of white settlers and that aboriginal title had been extinguished.

However, the money went untouched because a majority of Shoshones could never agree to accept it. Interest added, the award has grown to more than $137 million, or about $20,000 per qualified Shoshone.


While the claims panel was one front in the battle, a pasture near the Danns' ranch became another.

In 1973, Mary returned from a horseback ride at the ranch to find a Bureau of Land Management agent waiting. He informed her she was breaking the law by grazing more cattle than legally permitted on adjacent federal land.

"He told me I was trespassing. I said I wasn't," recalls Mary, who proclaimed the pasture to be Shoshone land, not the U.S. government's.

The following year, the BLM filed suit. What began as a trespass case became the biggest test yet of whether the Shoshones still held aboriginal title to the land.

The case made its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which in 1985 ruled the tribe had lost title when the $26 million was deposited as payment -- even though the money was never collected.

To many Shoshones, the fight was over.

"In the beginning we all supported that issue," says Felix Ike, chairman of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, composed of nearly half of all enrolled Shoshones. "When the attorneys told us, 'We just lost,' we said we better try to get the best deal we can."

Over the next 10 years, attempts to negotiate congressional agreements for both the return of some land and the distribution of the claims money failed.

Meanwhile, the Danns repeatedly refused to pay for a grazing permit. In 1992, the BLM impounded several hundred horses for unauthorized grazing, including 27 with the Dann brand.

Non-Indian activists established an office near the Dann ranch to fight for their cause, even as some Shoshones began to question just what that was.

"They just don't want to pay," grumbles Larry Piffero, a Shoshone fighting for the claims money.

"It's a very popular position in Indian Country: 'Mother Earth is not for sale.' You get worldwide recognition," adds Ike, who has press clippings about the sisters from The Hollywood Reporter, The New York Post, even Playboy magazine. In 1993, the Danns won an international award for "asserting the rights of indigenous peoples."

But, says Ike, "What they have done is really exploited Western Shoshones."

One hears grousing among other tribal members.

"What land?" said a woman working the counter at the Shoshone smoke shop in Elko.

A co-worker, noting she has a four-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a big yard in the Elko colony, agreed she has no use for "the land." Both women declined to give their names.

But a no-thanks to land settlements is not unique to the Danns or the Western Shoshones.

Some two dozen tribes have rejected payment for their ancestral lands, experts say. The Sioux Nation has refused to accept a half-billion dollars -- for the taking of the Black Hills in South Dakota.

Others have successfully negotiated for the return of some land or are working to buy it back.

"Many tribes have gone to the most extraordinary lengths to put their time and energy into land returns," says Charles Wilkinson, a University of Colorado law professor who mediated one agreement. "There are moral and political positions in not accepting the money."

But also practical reasons for taking it.

"We have grandparents who want to put their grandchildren through college. A lot of our people have poor transportation or no telephones," says Nancy Stewart, a Shoshone who wants the cash. "There's an opportunity for our people to be able to invest that money to enrich their lives."

At 92, Laura Townsend is one of them. She wants to use her share of the settlement to put down money on a house. For now she lives at Elko's Highland Manor Nursing Home, sharing a small room with another woman -- their narrow, hospital-style beds separated by only a curtain.

"I just need a couple of bedrooms," says Townsend, who sees this fight for the land as fantasy. "It's kind of like a fable. You close your ears after you've heard it for a lifetime."


The "lifetime" battle is coming to a head -- with both the BLM and the tribe taking action.

The agency warned the Danns last March of another impoundment if the sisters did not negotiate a settlement of $3 million in unpaid fees and penalties for alleged unlawful grazing.

It has severely depleted the forage base of an allotment shared by five other ranchers, all holding valid permits and all having reduced or removed their herds as a result, says Helen Hankins, head of the BLM office in Elko. She noted that even the Danns' father had a grazing permit.

In September, 227 cattle were confiscated and sold, though one buyer later returned four bulls.

The BLM is weighing another impoundment after it discovered 800 horses and 80 cattle illegally grazing. The sisters last month began moving animals off the allotment, leaving them with about 300 cattle and 150 horses restricted to their private ranch, according to Sewall.

Meanwhile, in an election organized by those pushing for distribution of the claims money, 1,647 Western Shoshones voted last summer to accept the $137 million; 156 voted against it.

In November, the U.S. Senate passed legislation to distribute the money, but the House failed to act before adjournment. A Nevada senator and congressman vow to reintroduce the measure this year.

Though their opposition carries less weight following the people's vote, the Dann sisters are holding out for a binding commitment from Congress to address their land concerns before any money is distributed.

"Payment," says Carrie, "that's a material thing. What we're fighting for is our culture and our beliefs, and that is not material." Accepting the money means accepting "all the things that I think are wrong."

"I just can't do that."

"Got it?" Mary interjects. But it is a statement more than a question.


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