An Elder Passes: Mary Dann, Western Shoshone

Editors Report

Mary Dann, one of a duo of renowned and beloved activist elders from the Western Shoshone Nation, passed away on the evening of Friday, April 22.

Mary Dann, along with her sister Carrie Dann, conducted a courageous and extremely difficult fight with the federal government on behalf of the Shoshone Treaty of Ruby Valley. She was in her 80s, a grandmother and active rancher who kept and herded cattle and horses. She died in an-all-terrain vehicle accident while fixing fence on her Crescent Valley, Nevada (Newe Sogobia) ranch. She was considered a highly knowledgeable traditionalist who had lived on the land all of her life. A woman of deep commitment to the justice of her case for the sovereignty of Western Shoshone land, Mary Dann died, as her niece Patricia Paul stated, “as she would have wanted—with her boots on and hay in her pocket.” 

We express our most sincere and respectful condolences to her sister, Carrie Dann, and her family and friends on the passing of Mary Dann. May your sorrow be soothed by the example of a life lived well and full of the good fight during times of high injustice and greed without bounds.

Mary and Carrie Dann have been the focus and primary line of resistance in the fight to protect Western Shoshone land from confiscation by the U.S. government. The Dann siblings—Mary, Carrie, Richard and Clifford—contend that the land was never transferred to the U.S. and that the ranching sisters ran their cattle and horses on the open range. They refused to be ruled by federal regulations and declined to pay grazing fees.

The U.S. Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946 to “compensate” tribal groups for claims to land and resources confiscated or “lost” to the U.S., awarded the Shoshones $26 million in the late 1970s. This was intended to pay for lands that the federal government held the tribe had lost to “gradual encroachment” of non-Indians. On principle, the tribe for many years successfully refused the payment, which grew over that time to more than $140 million.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management sued the Danns in 1974, and in 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court held that the tribe had lost title when the money—although unaccepted by the Western Shoshone—was deposited by the Indian Claims Commission in an account held in trust for the tribe by the Interior Department. Last year, Congress, under pressure from Nevada’s senior senator, Harry Reid, a Democrat, forced the disbursal of the funds to tribal members.

As Carrie expressed for the family in a work published at Cornell University in 1996: “We don’t want any damn money from them … my land is not for sale … they can’t buy my rights … to them the land is real estate, to me it’s my Mother.”

A standoff occurred in 1992, when heavily armed agents from the BLM moved in to round up 250 of the Danns’ horses. The Dann siblings and tribal supporters fought as best they could during a six-day crisis that saw Clifford Dann douse himself with gasoline and threaten to light it if the BLM persisted. The beginning of the end for any justice in the case came in 2002, when the BLM seized 277 head of cattle from the Danns’ herd. In 2003 the BLM, which claimed jurisdiction over the same range, charged that the Danns owed $3 million in fees and penalties.

Perhaps this case, more than any other in recent history, exemplifies America’s pathology for stealing Indian lands and resources. Mary Dann was quoted as telling the federal range managers—in a sentiment echoed by Indian leaders to European governments since the time of first contact—”Just leave us alone.”

In time, Robert Redford and other Hollywood luminaries came to recognize and film the Dann sisters in their milieu, and many people around the world prayed and wrote letters in their behalf. In the end the BLM, representing the U.S. government, claimed the land by force as if to say, in the most consistent message heard by Indians in five centuries, “We stole it fair and square.”

All social struggles have complexity. In the Dann case, the federal government found allies among some tribal members who supported the distribution of federal monies as a quit-claim over the disputed lands. This side of tribal culture considered the Dann sisters an obstacle to a one-time payment of some $20,000 per eligible tribal member. Nevada’s congressional delegation and, significantly, Democratic Sen. Harry Reid led the fight to legalize the controversial and essentially forced distribution of the payment. It should also be noted that President Bush readily signed the legislation that purportedly would open the doors wide to resource excavation of Western Shoshone lands. While the case of two elder Indian sisters might have appeared hopeless in confrontation with the mightiest land-gobbling power on Earth, the quest for justice and American Indian freedom the Dann family has represented will live on for a long, long time.

Of the four courageous siblings, Carrie did most of the speaking in court and in public rallies and events. About the passing of her beloved sister, Carrie Dann, as always, provided the strongest, most appropriate words:

“You must remember she [Mary] came from the earth and she is returning back to the arms of her mother, the earth. She has completed the cycle. This Earth Mother will cradle her forever. The wind will carry her body in all four directions … Those of us remaining here in the physical world … must be strong—stronger now for those who have passed ahead of us and those who are yet to come. Mary believed in living her life for the protection of her family, the life—the sacred [the land, air, water and sun] and for the future generations.

“We must remember that Mary stood proud, strong, dignified [and] respectful against all types of racial discrimination, [and the] desecration of her spiritual ways by the [Bureau of Land Management and] Department of Interior … She stood up against the mining industry, the nuclear industry, the energy industry.

“Mary never took ‘no’ for an answer but she stood her ground for what she believed in and for the Truth. Not because she wanted to, but because she had to. I will continue to do this, even with my sister gone. I believe in these things also.”

Aho, receive our condolences, and a tribute to you, too, strong sister: You are not alone.

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