In the midst of mounting gains across Indian country, particularly on the east and west coasts, it is still not hard to find horrible cases of big government abuse, particularly among the struggling Western tribes.
Relentlessly, as precursor to a lucrative privatization of Nevada lands, including coveted gold deposits, the federal bureaucracy has declared war on one of those outposts of traditional Indian life and culture, targeting in particular the incredibly decent and sincere elder Indian ranchers, Mary and Carrie Dann.
The hardy Western Shoshone sisters are folk heroes to horse people everywhere and of course, to Native activists everywhere, who value the path of standing up for what is right against powerful forces. The sisters are the type of Indian elders who stand for something sacred and something practical: the traditional position that Western Shoshone people never agreed to give up title to their traditional holdings, as defined in the Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863. The Dann sisters claim the right to graze their herds of horses in lands that they consider treaty lands of their Shoshone people. They have raised healthy horses for generations.
The Bureau of Land Management and Interior Department have targeted the Dann sisters and other Western Shoshone horse and cattle ranchers for diminishment and extinction. A major battle over the use of grazing lands has ensued. Confiscation of horses—very controversial and ultimately costing the lives of some 50 mares and foals—was the move this past spring. Cattle have been confiscated and traditional Indian ranchers nearly put out of business. For years fines of nearly three million dollars have accumulated as the Indian ranchers contend for the use of their own land to graze their animals. The Bush administration bases its harsh actions, where other possibilities offer themselves, on a Supreme Court decision that assumed Western Shoshone title extinguished, though it never was relinquished by the tribe. The myth holds that title transferred when gradual encroachment by settlers usurped Indian rights to the land. This legal "sleight of hand" is worth contesting for the corrupted justification that it is, but at core in this case is the much valued Indian pride in the use of their ancestral land. This is the force that drives the Danns and other Western Shoshone to continue to struggle against very large odds. For this reason alone, they are worth supporting, even if others among the Western Shoshone population are willing to accept a paltry final cash settlement for their lands. Meanwhile, economic interests in the state salivate at the mere thought of open access to the vast Western Shoshone wealth.
Most people will agree, even those who would settle the land claim with money payouts, that the Western Shoshone never ceded the lands in question. A hemispheric commission at the Organization of American States rebuked the U.S. in this case. It urged reconsideration on the taking of Indian lands under such a might-makes-right policy. Traditional Western Shoshone leaders have sought to inform Congress and make a clear defense of their Treaty of Ruby Valley. But to little avail.
Over the past few months, the BLM has pressed its might and confiscated hundreds of horses. At the time of the armed and dangerous confiscation of the several hundred Dann Ranch horses, the BLM claimed to be saving the horses from starvation and death on a drought-stricken range. But after the stress and over stimulation of the federal round up in late August came word of the death of some 50 mares with foals, some starved, others trampled to death in pens too small for their numbers. The news has upset the horse community and the many supporters of the Dann sisters decry the huge injustice of such a treatment.
Now comes further word in what is likely an even more troubling shift in the BLM's stance toward the Danns and other Western Shoshones. There are serious signs that BLM directors are ready to criminalize the tribal elders and ranchers, throw the book at them, as it were.
As Steve Newcomb, Indigenous Law research coordinator at D-Q University at Sycuan and Indian Country Today columnist, has eloquently documented in these pages, plenty of shenanigans accompany the intense pressure of the past two years to quiet Western Shoshone land claims forever. To view the U.S. treatment of the Western Shoshones at this time is to witness how harshly and unfairly the loss of Indian assets has been throughout history. It stands as a living textbook example of the theft of billions upon billions of dollars of American Indian assets, complete with all the necessary plot conventions any swindle of this magnitude requires. The United States can be a hospitable and fair sovereign but it can also be blind when ruthless behavior and greed results in the dispossession of tribes. This is neither fair nor honorable. Too often, documents Newcomb, the well heeled and the corporations end up with land and resources worth billions, while the Indians end up "with a pittance." Newcomb points out how the powerful forces that most ardently advocate for a final settlement over Western Shoshone lands are precisely in the company of those who would profit most from the quieting of Indian title. Writes Newcomb, "The traditional Western Shoshones contend that Senator Reid is attempting to remove any Indian title-cloud from their homelands so that he can privatize those lands for wealthy real estate developers and mining companies, and so vast Shoshone water resources can also be privatized."
We honor Steve Newcomb for his insights and powerful pen on this and other subjects. Steve's prolific and insightful research takes on the powerful and reveals the injustices brought forth against Native peoples by the legal doctrines and political processes that have unfairly stolen Indian properties and disrupted Indian communities and families. His superb work on the Western Shoshone case, which remains incontrovertible, reveals shoddy official behavior at many levels. It behooves everyone to let the BLM and the Interior Department know that nothing is gained by making criminals out of Indian elders who should be respected in their issues. Indian country needs Indian elders and leaders like Carrie and Mary Dann—steadfast traditionalists who stand firm for their beliefs and who are not dissuaded from the truth.
We extend our utmost respect to Carrie and Mary Dann. May you yet find a peaceful way to graze your cattle and horses on your Western Shoshone homelands.