Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Western Shoshone Nation, Part I - Story of a Broken Treaty

The Western Shoshone's struggle to retain their homeland and the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley should be mainstream news. The history of this struggle and the incredibly vacuous argument used by the United States to justify land theft goes back to 1979, when the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) placed a cash settlement in an Interior trust account for lands deemed taken from the Western Shoshone by “gradual encroachment.” Legislation then tried to force the distribution of this money, an amount set at the 1872 fair market value of 15 cents an acre. The Western Shoshone have always maintained that their homeland is not for sale. The struggle continues to the present time. Two important video documentaries focus on the issue: Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain and the sequel, To Protect Mother Earth (also referred to as Broken Treaty II).

Please visit the Western Shoshone Defense Project at for full and current information and how to help. The following is some historical background I used to announce the videos when I screened them in the mid-1990s on the Washington State University campus.

The United States made close to 400 treaties with American Indian Nations. Every treaty grants rights from Indians to non-Indians. In the Treaty of Ruby Valley (13 Stat. 663), the U.S. agreed to recognize the boundaries of the traditional Shoshone homeland in exchange for Shoshone commitments of peace and friendship. The Shoshone provided right-of-way through their lands, allowing safe passage and even a railroad, but never agreed or intended to give up land. However, the U.S. has been using it for nuclear testing and now claims that native (aboriginal) title has been extinguished.

In January of 1995, Peace Brigades International issued a report on the case:

"Before Europeans came to America, the Shoshone numbered about 60,000 and lived throughout a large area extending from what is now Southern California through Nevada into parts of Idaho and Utah. They travelled widely during the summer to hunt and gather, but would spend the dry winter in clan groups around various springs. In the spring and fall, representatives from all the clans gathered together - these were spiritual gatherings as well as meetings for decision-making.

After the European conquest of the Americas, Shoshone lands were first claimed by Spain and later Mexico. In 1848, after the United States defeated Mexico, Shoshone territory came under official control of the United States. Discovery of gold in 1848 in California caused a westward migration of European settlers, who traveled directly through Shoshone territory.

In seeking to negotiate with the various Shoshone peoples, the U.S. divided the Shoshone people into five groups - the Western, Eastern, Northwestern, Lemhi and Goshute - and signed treaties with each group in 1863. The Treaty of Ruby Valley was signed between the Western Shoshone and the United States, allowing safe passage of US citizens through the territory. The treaty also allowed railroad, mining and timber activities. According to the Shoshone, when the treaty was signed they did not imagine that so many people were going to come and live on their lands. They also say that the treaty contained many words that they did not understand and did not exist in the Shoshone language.

For the US, however, the treaty was a signal to begin the exploitation of the region's resources. Minerals were discovered and mining began. The bull pine and juniper forests that had been thick were cut down to construct the mines. The railroad was built through Nevada, for which the government sold off large amounts of land. Following the Civil War, soldiers who hadn't been paid were given land in the west to begin homesteads. The railway also sold some of its land to farmers. The remaining land was designated as public lands under federal control, administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Today this still makes up 85% of Nevada's lands.

Alongside of this process, the Euroamerican ways of life, beliefs and laws became the dominant culture. Europeans settled near the springs where Shoshone homes had been, causing the Shoshone to become homeless. Many Shoshone were forced onto reservations. Yet, by scattering when US soldiers came to round them up, many of them were able to remain on their land. Some started living in colonies near the towns established by whites, while others congregated around ranches.

The Indian Reorganization Act of 1934 forced the Indians to establish a new form of government known as the IRA system and assigned the U.S. as trustee of the reservation lands. Because not all Indians lived on reservations, only a part of the Western Shoshone came under the IRA governments. With the traditional settlement patterns changing and pressure from a series of U.S. laws, the clan system, a primary basis for Shoshone government, was slowly lost.

In 1946, the U.S. passed the Indian Claims Commission Act. It was designed to clear up any outstanding land title disputes with respect to the Indians and to pay for the land that had been taken from them and damages done to them. It was under this Act that the Temoak Tribes, a group within the Western Shoshone, filed a land claim to obtain payment for their land. They were heavily criticized by other Shoshone tribes because the Western Shoshone had never ceded their land, either through a treaty or through losing a war. However, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) determined that the land had been taken - by gradual encroachment of whites. This finding allowed the ICC to choose 1872 as the year the encroachment process was completed and establish the value of the land at the time of its taking.

By the time the government was ready to pay the Shoshone at 1872 prices, the Shoshone were determined to refuse any money and maintain their title to the land. In 1979, the government transferred $26 million from the Treasury to the Secretary of the Interior, who accepted the money "on behalf" of the Shoshone as their trustee. The Shoshone appealed this action, but the court ruled that the transfer of money represented payment and therefore, the Western Shoshone had lost their rights to the land.

In 1982, traditional government of the Western Shoshone was formalized as the Western Shoshone National Council (WSNC). The Council consisted mainly of traditional tribes and bands not recognized under the IRA system, but included some IRA governments and offered participation to non-represented Shoshone. In striving for recognition as the government of an independent nation, the Council circulated a declaration of sovereignty, issued its own passport, appointed marshals and an envoy in Europe and began to hold gatherings at the Dann Ranch. Chief Raymond Yowell is the current Chair of the WSNC.

In the non-native community, a movement called Wise Use has been growing among Nevadans and residents of other western states to gain local control of public land from the federal government. People feel resentment toward the federal government which dictates from afar how they should use their land. Mistrustful of outsiders - some counties have formed citizen groups to control immigration from the south - this movement's position relative to the Shoshone struggle for sovereignty is unclear.

Currently, consultations are taking place between the U.S. government and the different Shoshone bands and tribes about how to settle the land rights question. The negotiations are held in secret, and while the government mostly wants to talk about the distribution of the money they set aside, Shoshone leaders insist that they want to talk about land. However, many Shoshone individuals, who do not believe they will get the land back anyway, would be willing to accept the money to relieve difficult economic conditions.

The Dann Case

Carrie and Mary Dann are the leaders of the Dann Band in Crescent Valley, Nevada. They live on the Dann Ranch, which has cattle and horses that graze on the surrounding land. In October 1973, the BLM (Bureau of Land Management, administrators of federal lands) sued the Danns for trespass, for exceeding their grazing permit by 332 cattle.

The permits issued by the BLM are for a certain number of animals and months per year. Having more animals for a longer time or grazing outside the official grazing season is considered to be "overgrazing". As there are few fences and no particular places for each rancher's cattle, overgrazing is not determined by the state of the land, but rather the politics of land ownership.

From 1974 to 1991, the Dann case went through many courts. The Danns maintained the land they used had been recognized under the Treaty of Ruby Valley as Shoshone aboriginal territory, and challenged the U.S. to prove its ownership of the land. After many contradictory rulings and appeals, the case ultimately reached the Supreme Court which ruled that aboriginal rights had been extinguished. At that point, Carrie Dann says she has lost all faith in the American court system and decided on peaceful resistance. According to Chief Raymond Yowell, Chair of the WSNC (Western Shoshone National Council), the Dann case has become a test case for the Shoshone's rights to the land.

Recently, the WSNC established a national security zone around the Dann Ranch, and formed the Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP) to protect it. Most of the volunteers in the WSDP are non-native supporters, but they follow the leadership of native people. The volunteers are committed to nonviolence, which they define as not being aggressive and not hurting people.

In 1988, the Alves family bought the neighbouring Dean ranch, where they raise quarter horses and have cattle. Maynard Alves has sued the BLM to force them to take action against the Dann sisters, because of their overgrazing of federal land and his own private land. According to Alves, he has been forced to feed hay to his cattle and horses, which is very expensive, and has also had to take on different jobs to earn extra money. He feels caught in the middle of the conflict, and did not know about the
conflict when he bought the ranch.

Recent Chronology of Events

In June 1991, the BLM sent a notice to all livestock permittees saying that all non-authorized livestock could be impounded within 30 days. Between November 1991 and February 1992, the Danns through a contractor gathered about 1800 horses and sold them. The BLM later gathered another 161 horses.

On April 10, 1992, the BLM tried to confiscate 25 head of Dann cattle that were grazing before the beginning of the official grazing season. When the cattle were gathered in a corral to be loaded on a truck, Carrie Dann got into the corral, so that the cattle could not be driven onto the truck without risking harm to her. After some negotiation, BLM District Manager Rod Harris gave the order to release the cattle. Later, he was heavily criticized for that decision, which he says was made out of a concern for Carrie's safety.

On November 20, 1992, the BLM rounded up 269 horses in Crescent Valley. Many federal police were present when they tried to leave with the first load of horses. Clifford Dann, the brother of Carrie and Mary, poured gasoline over himself and threatened to set himself on fire if they did not turn the horses loose. An ensuing scuffle to separate Dann from the lighter resulted in gasoline getting on a police officer, and in Clifford being hurt. No fire occurred, but Clifford was convicted in federal court of having assaulted a federal officer and spent nine months in jail before being released on probation.

The WSDP says that in the case of another round-up, its task would be to stop the BLM from taking away cattle or horses until the Dann sisters or Chief Raymond Yowell could arrive to negotiate. They are concerned about the possibility that the BLM might come with a lot of police again and use violence to take the animals away.

In April 1993, a BLM pickup with three people drove on a road 6-8 miles north from the Dann ranch. They were stopped by two cars from the WSDP, and asked about their business. Being outnumbered by people who appeared strong and determined, the BLM people chose to avoid a physical confrontation and drove away. They were followed for several miles. There have been several other reports of Dann supporters confronting people telling them to get out, and threatening them. At one point, Maynard Alves was confronted by Dann supporters, and fired his automatic gun in the air.

We understand that both the BLM and the Danns and their supporters are concerned about possible acts of violence around the Dann case. Yet, independently from each other, both Rod Harris, District Manager of the BLM, and Carrie Dann made the statement that this whole issue was not worth hurting or killing a single person. The BLM employees we met with do recognize that it is not possible to resolve the local problem without resolving the source of the problem. But they are not authorized to deal with land rights issues, and their regulations impede them from efficiently addressing cultural and spiritual issues that result in conflict.

The Mining Issue

Crescent Valley is also home to the Cortez Gold Mine whose operations are located about four miles south of the Dean Ranch. Mining, the most important economic activity in the area, supports many shops, restaurants, transportation enterprises and other industries. The mining company wants to extract a recently discovered gold ore body by open pit mining. To prevent water from filling the pit, Cortez would need to lower the groundwater level by pumping. Bound by law to promote mining, the BLM is currently receiving public comment on its Environmental Impact Statement for the project.

Because the mine dewatering could affect wells at both the Dean Ranch and the Dann Ranch, in this issue Maynard Alves is an ally of the Danns. He approached Chief Raymond Yowell to suggest they join efforts to oppose the mine dewatering. According to both Alves and the WSDP, the cooperation in the struggle against the mine has decreased the tension that existed between them around the grazing issue.

Two Levels of Conflict

On the surface level of this conflict is the Dann case. PBI may have a role in decreasing the violence in confrontations arising from this issue.

However, this is just one part of the underlying, or source conflict. By an overwhelming process of assimilation, backed by violence and political power, US Americans have taken use of the land away from the Western Shoshone. The Shoshone now wish to reclaim what they consider to be their legal and sovereign rights over the land. On both sides of the conflict, the land is an essential part of their livelihood and culture.

The situation might very well remain calm in the future, but this would not mean an absence of violence: the lack of political autonomy, cultural and spiritual self-determination and economic opportunity is a form of violence from which the Shoshone have been suffering for some time. Creating space for nonviolent change in this context is part of our ongoing challenge.

The Project Committee of the North America Project is currently evaluating the findings of the team. Although our understanding of the situation is still limited, we have gained some basic knowledge which would help us to act quickly if we received a request from any of the groups involved in this conflict. We hope that our visit to Nevada has helped people there to understand about PBI and its possible roles and limitations, so that they can choose to request our presence if they feel it would be helpful."

The foregoing report was issued in 1995. For up-to-date information, including how you can help, please visit the Western Shoshone Defense Project's website at

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