U.S.-Indian Land Feud Heats Up : Property: Two sisters lost a suit claiming 26 million acres for the Western Shoshone. Now the women plan to resist federal agents who intend to remove their cattle.


It’s a fight about cows. Or is it?

Two Indian sisters have a federal permit to graze 170 cattle on a patch of public land in the desolate belly of Nevada. Instead, Mary and Carrie Dann have set loose as many as 640 head--plus hundreds of horses. The excess livestock are trampling the desert, government landlords say, harming plants and wildlife along with the incomes of neighboring ranchers.

Such claims, reply the Danns, are the white man’s fiction. The range is in fine shape, they say, and besides, cows are not the issue. Under an 1863 treaty, much of Nevada--and slivers of three other states--belongs to the Western Shoshone people. This is Indian land, the sisters insist. The government has no say.

For 17 years, the Danns pressed their argument in the courts, finally losing this summer. On Monday, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management began advertising for wranglers to remove the Dann livestock, a step that threatens to bring the standoff to an ugly climax in peaceful Crescent Valley next month.


The sisters are mobilizing supporters to foil the government cowboys, and many--Indian and non-Indian alike--are answering the call. Already, members of two Nevada-based peace groups have arrived at the Dann ranch, pitching tents amid the sage and rabbit brush. Hundreds more are said to be on standby, ready to journey to the desert at a moment’s notice and confront the BLM buckaroos with nonviolent “guerrilla” tactics.

Today, the sisters and Western Shoshone leaders will meet with BLM authorities in Reno, aiming to avert a confrontation. The Indians, however, are not optimistic.

“We are ready for a meeting on the land,” said Raymond Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone National Council, which is urging all tribal members to rally behind the sisters. “It is not the way we choose to go. Who would? But it (may be) the only way we have left.”

The government’s determination seems equally solid.


“The issue is overgrazing, and the range out there has been hammered way too hard,” said Billy Templeton, the BLM state director for Nevada. “I don’t want a confrontation. But we have been very patient. . . . The (court) case is closed and yet the Danns are continuing with excessive, unauthorized use of the land.”

The Dann sisters, who describe their ages as “heading toward 70,” lament that their fight has reached this bitter deadlock. The short, sturdy Western Shoshone women, their faces lined by decades of herding cows and fixing fences in Nevada’s harsh elements, say they would rather tend their ranch in peace, free from the political ruckus their stand has stirred.

But make no mistake. The Danns seem unswervingly committed to what they say is the fundamental issue underlying their personal dispute--the rights of the Western Shoshone to 26 million acres stretching southwest from Great Salt Lake across Nevada to Death Valley, Calif.

“If they are God, if they are that powerful, then let them come round up the cattle, let them take our livelihood away,” said Carrie Dann, her voice rising. “We will not stop fighting. . . . This land is our mother.”


Set in this remote valley 80 miles southwest of Elko, the Dann ranch is a rare splotch of green on a tableau of relentless brown. Shaded by billowing cottonwood trees, it includes a cluster of ramshackle outbuildings, trailers housing various family members and the home where the sisters and five siblings were raised.

Dewey Dann, Mary and Carrie’s father, began raising cattle shortly after he homesteaded 160 acres in the valley in the early 1920s. When Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act in 1934, he obtained permits to run his herd over public land--just like other ranchers in the West.

“My father had very little education, he was ignorant of what these white man laws meant,” said Carrie Dann. “He felt he had to (comply with the grazing rules) or he would be run off the land.”

His daughters have always held a different view.


“Our grandmother gave us the traditional teachings, that all these lands are Western Shoshone lands and that the government could not make rules for us,” Carrie Dann recalled. “That was our background, our belief.”

In 1973, those beliefs collided with federal law. A BLM agent paid a call to the ranch after neighbors complained that Dann cattle were straying across land on which the sisters had no grazing rights.

Mary Dann told the agent such a thing was impossible because her cattle were grazing on Western Shoshone territory and needed no permission to do so. The BLM soon answered with a trespass suit, and the battle was joined.

At the center of the Danns’ defense is the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley. Signed by Shoshone chiefs and the U.S. government, it permitted whites to cross the land, build railroads, even settle in towns. But, unlike other treaties signed by Americans Indians, it did not convey title to the tribe’s ancestral land to the U.S. government.


Through the years, some Western Shoshone bands have attempted to enforce the treaty and establish legal rights to the land. But in 1962, the Indian Claims Commission ruled that tribal ownership had been wiped out by the gradual encroachment of white pioneers. Later, the commission awarded the Shoshone $26 million for the 24 million acres, money placed into an account for the Indians.

Refusing to accept the payment, tribal leaders contested the commission’s finding, insisting that their lands had never been surrendered. They united behind the Danns, hoping the sisters’ lawsuit would provide the vehicle for re-establishing Shoshone land rights.

At one point, the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the Indians’ position. The Shoshones’ jubilation, however, was doused in 1984, when the U.S. Supreme Court reversed the lower court.

Then last June, the Danns’ lawsuit drew to a close when the sisters chose not to pursue their last remaining legal option--the chance to assert a right to some portion of the ancestral lands as individual Shoshones.


Since then, BLM officials have been laying plans to round up the hundreds of livestock exceeding the Danns’ permit limit. Pushing them forward are neighbors of the Indian ranchers, who say they have been forced to thin their herds because of overgrazing by the sisters’ animals.

The angriest among them is Maynard Alves, who owns 50,000 acres next to the Danns. Alves says that under normal conditions, he would graze 3,000 cattle on his property and on public land shared with the Danns and five other ranchers under a grazing allotment. Because of the sisters’ large herd, Alves says “there’s no (forage) left and I can only run 500 head.

“These people have taken my livelihood away from me, and I have to stand here and watch with my hands in my pockets,” said Alves, who estimates he has lost $1.2 million in income since he purchased his ranch three years ago. “In my opinion, they are hiding behind their lineal ancestry to steal.”

The BLM has also won some unusual support from Nevada’s environmental community, whose members typically count themselves as foes of the land management agency. Charles Watson, a public lands advocate in Carson City, derides the Danns as “sagebrush rebels in Native American clothes,” and a Sierra Club spokeswoman said her group “always opposes trespassing on the public lands, no matter who is doing the trespassing.”


The Danns, however, have marshaled considerable sympathy--in the West and from tribes as far away as the East Coast, Alaska and Canada. Locally, the Nevada anti-nuclear group Citizen Alert is orchestrating plans to foul up the BLM roundup by blocking cattle trucks and using “guerrilla tactics"--such as blaring air horns--to thwart wranglers.

Yowell, the Western Shoshone chief, hopes the threat of a nasty standoff next month at the Dann ranch will force the federal government to delay the roundup and negotiate a settlement restoring tribal title to the 26 million acres.

But many other members of the tribe--which numbers between 5,000 and 10,000--abandoned hope of an agreement long ago, saying it was unrealistic to expect to ever regain title to 26 million acres. Some members would prefer to have the money paid by the government for the land--never touched and now grown to $60 million--paid to individual tribe members.

For the sisters, Carrie Dann said the bottom line is survival. Thinning the herd, she said, would mean economic disaster for the family business.


“If they do this, I would have no livelihood here, and I would probably become a welfare case,” Carrie Dann said. “Is that what they want? I don’t know. I can just keep on fighting, living day by day.”