Western Shoshone activist urges attention to mining’s destruction of tribal heritage

Carol Berry, Today correspondent
2/26/09

BOULDER, Colo. – Carrie Dann, iconic voice for Western Shoshone traditionalists, told an audience that Mount Tenabo in northeast Nevada sits atop gold deposits worth $8 billion to the mining industry, but it is central to tribal religious practices and “a lot of our creation stories stem from there.”

A federal judge in Nevada denied tribal and environmentalists’ request for an injunction against Barrick Gold Corp.’s nearly 7,000-acre Cortez Hills Project that places a huge open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mine at Mount Tenabo. A notice of appeal from that ruling was filed in the 9th Circuit Court Feb. 9.

“We are the only ones the international corporations and the United States government can hear,” Dann said, explaining that while everything has life, human beings must be “a voice to protect those spirits that cannot speak for themselves.”

Dann spoke to a packed auditorium at Boulder International Film Festival in a session Feb. 14 sponsored by the festival and the Boulder-based Native American Rights Fund.

Her appearance was in connection with the showing of a documentary, “American Outrage,” directed by Beth and George Gage. The film traces the struggles of Dann and her sister, the late Mary Dann, who were prosecuted by the U.S. government for grazing their horses and cattle on Western Shoshone ancestral land without a federal permit.

The Dann ranch is located in Crescent Valley, southwest of Elko, Nev., in an area targeted by transnationals because of its massive gold reserves.

In frigid temperatures outside the Boulder showing, volunteers passed out pink “anti-valentines” to be mailed to headquarters of Wal-Mart, which they accuse of advertising a “Love, Earth” jewelry line as planet-friendly when in fact it allegedly uses gold from Newmont Mining Corp. open pit mines on Western Shoshone lands, causing damage to air and water quality.

Dann and other Western Shoshones claim federal approval of the project involving Mount Tenabo would violate the Religious Freedom Restoration Act because it would significantly burden those attempting to practice their religion in the traditional way on ceremonial grounds located there.

It is wrong to allow mining companies “in the name of all of you – ‘the public,’ (to say) it’s good for ‘the public.’ Who benefits from these mines?” she queried, observing that the public actually gets “very little.”

The gold companies ought to do their share in helping the current economic crisis and they should pay for the use and destruction of land where their mines are located, she said to loud applause.

Gold is currently selling at $800-$900 an ounce and there are billions of dollars worth of gold beneath Mount Tenabo, “but it’s part of our history.”

“Everything comes from the earth,” and open pit gold mining is a “total destruction of the Western Shoshone ways.”

Dann said it is rumored locally that archaeologists had to excavate below six inches to locate burials and artifacts, indicating “we’ve been here a long, long time.”

Although she and other Western Shoshone said they never surrendered rights to their ancestral lands reserved under the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Indian Claims Commission held that the Western Shoshone had surrendered their homelands “by gradual encroachment” of waves of settlement, a position upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985.

The high court ruled that aboriginal title to the tribal lands had been extinguished because the U. S. through the secretary of the Interior accepted Indian Claims Commission-awarded monies – based on about 15 cents an acre for 24 million acres – on behalf of the Western Shoshone.

“If you can find me a court of justice, show it to me and lead me to it,” Dann said. “Someday, if the United States treats you as they’ve treated us, you’re going to find yourselves in trouble.”

Dann concluded on a note of cautious optimism: “The Department of the Interior is not our friend (but) maybe under this administration it could be different.”

Dann is active in the nonprofit Western Shoshone Defense Project, an affiliate of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development and an outgrowth of years of effort by Western Shoshone traditionalists to obtain federal recognition of the terms of the Ruby Valley Treaty.

Legislation forcing the distribution of the money intended to offset the loss of treaty lands was passed in 2004. It awarded approximately $20,000 to individual tribal members and, while some Western Shoshones agreed to accept it, other tribal members refused and some wanted compensatory land rather than cash.

According to the Defense Project, the U.S. did not respond to the U.N. Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, which directed the U.S. to begin talks with the Western Shoshone and to halt any actions potentially harmful to their tribal lands or resources.

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