A Farewell Tribute to Mary Dann

Steven Newcomb

On Saturday morning, April 30, 2005, Dann family members, relatives, friends and supporters gathered at the Dann family ranch in Crescent Valley, in the Western Shoshone Territory (Nevada), to honor Mary Dann.

As white billowing clouds hovered in the distance above beautiful desert mountain peaks, people gathered to honor Western Shoshone elder Mary Dann, who died on Earth Day, April 22, in an all-terrain vehicle accident while checking a fence line at the Dann ranch.

Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney said a prayer in the Shoshone language and blessed the food. He reminded everyone that Mother Earth provides us with all the food we eat, the water we drink, the air we breathe and the land we live on. He advised everyone to stay mindful of this fact.

A number of Mary's immediate family members reminisced about Mary's life and told everyone how much they had learned from her life, her wisdom, and from the powerful example that she set, with her quiet and plain-spoken style.

Deborah Harry, a Paiute woman who travels internationally publicizing the issue of bio-piracy as it affects indigenous peoples, told everyone that she continually meets indigenous women in other parts of the world who view Mary and Carrie Dann as role models and a source of inspiration for their own human rights struggles.

The Dann family has lived for generations in the specific region of the Western Shoshone territory where the Dann ranch is located. A small black and white photograph of Mary was handed out to those attending the honoring. The photo shows a gray cloud-streaked sky above the vast expanse of the land in Crescent Valley. Mary is looking out across the land, sitting among the sagebrush on the desert terrain. Desert mountains can be seen in the distance. The following text is printed on the back of the photo:

“Mary Dann,
born in Eureka County Nevada
To Dewey and Sophie Dann on
January 1, 1923.

Our Beloved Daughter, Sister, Auntie, Gagoo, Friend and Inspiration, left this world on April 22, 2005.

She will return to mother earth, her voice will be heard in the whispering wind.

She reminds us that we are loved.

Her desire is for her people to take up the good fight and do what is right.

Mary may be gone but never forgotten.”

People traveled from as far away as Connecticut, Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego and Reno, and from many Shoshone communities in Nevada. They came to pay their respects to an indigenous woman with unwavering resolve who will be dearly missed; a woman who was determined, to her last breath, to resist efforts by the U.S. government to suppress the traditional Western Shoshones. She, her sister Carrie, and other Western Shoshones vehemently opposed efforts by the United States to force a monetary payment upon them for Western Shoshone lands described in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.

Western Shoshones, such as the Danns; the Western Shoshone National Council; and the Te-Moak Tribal Council say the disputed lands still rightfully belong to the Western Shoshones as recognized in the Ruby Valley Treaty.

In the 1970s, the United States filed a lawsuit against the Danns for grazing cattle on what the U.S. government claimed was U.S. "public lands." The United States claimed that the Danns were trespassing on "public lands" by grazing their cattle without having obtained a permit from the United States. The Danns took the position that they should not have to get a permit from the United States to graze cattle on Western Shoshone lands recognized by treaty.

The case went all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court, only for the court rule against the Danns because the government had paid itself some $26 million dollars for Western Shoshone lands, or roughly 15 cents an acre on average. By 2004, this amount had, with interest, accumulated to some $140 million.

Last summer, Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Rep. Jim Gibbons, R-Nev., succeeded in getting a bill passed through Congress to distribute the monies to Western Shoshones for lands the United States says were taken from the Western Shoshones by "gradual encroachment." President Bush then signed the distribution bill.

In 2002, despite the Treaty of Ruby Valle—despite the lack of any specific evidence that the Western Shoshones ever ceded or relinquished their land rights and despite the lack of any evidence that the United States ever engaged in a specific taking of Western Shoshone lands—armed agents of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management stole hundreds of cattle and horses from the Danns and other Western Shoshones, such as Raymond Yowell and Byron Tybo, to punish them both economically and emotionally. At the time, Carrie referred to such actions as "domestic terrorism" by the federal government.

Mary Dann and her sister Carrie received international recognition for the work to protect Western Shoshone rights.

They worked together courageously and tirelessly to maintain a traditional Western Shoshone lifestyle culturally and spiritually rooted in the land. In addition to facing off with the United States government, the Danns have fought against the poisoning of Western Shoshone land and water by international gold mining corporations and by the nuclear bombing of their lands.

At the April 30th honoring of Mary, Carrie Dann assured everyone in attendance that "the work" will continue. However, she also spoke of the need for younger Western Shoshones to begin to assume a greater role in maintaining the struggle to protect the Western Shoshone ancestral homeland. Another Dann family member spoke of the need for Western Shoshones as a whole to come together and fight for their rights. Western Shoshone elder Mary McCloud, who was unable to attend the gathering, said of the Dann sisters: “Shame on the United States for trying to strip them of their land” and for taking their livestock.

In a released statement, Carrie said: "Mary would want us to be strong. She believed in living her life for the protection of her family, the life—the sacred (the land, the air, the water, the sun)—and for the future generations … I will continue to do this, even with my sister gone … We must always remember the future generations and protect the sacred things so that the little ones coming behind us will be okay. The struggle will go on.”

After everyone at the honoring had eaten, a strong spring rain moved in from the west and blessed the greening Earth.

Steven Newcomb, Shawnee/Lenape, is the Indigenous Law Research Coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College, a co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and an award-winning columnist for Indian Country Today.


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