The raiders arrived at dawn. Contract cowboys backed by Bureau of Land Management rangers and other heavily armed law enforcement personnel fanned out across the desolate, but alluring, Nevada countryside to confiscate livestock owned by a family that — under a controversial claim of sovereignty — had grazed on public lands without paying fees to the Federal government.
“They have been overgrazing and damaging the land for years,” asserted BLM spokesman Mike Brown, who also pointed out that the family — the last holdouts in the region — had been fined millions of dollars for trespassing on public land. In defiance of Federal judicial rulings and the “consensus” of their representatives, the family persisted in claiming that they had a right to graze cattle on land their ancestors had settled many decades ago. The dispute had been going on for decades, and the institutional patience of the Federal government had been exhausted.
A previous roundup nearly resulted in tragedy when a member of the family doused himself in gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire. The 59-year-old man, who had no previous criminal record, was tackled, beaten by law enforcement officers, arrested and prosecuted on terrorism-related charges.
After spending several years in prison, that supposed terrorist, Clifford Dann, was allowed to return to the tiny, ramshackle homestead he shares with his 82-year-old sister, Carrie, who is the same age their elder sister Mary was when she died in an accident while repairing a fence in 2005.
Like the Cliven Bundy family, their distant Nevada neighbors, the Dann family, spent two decades fighting in Federal courts to defend their property against the depredations of the Federal government. As members of the Western Shoshone nation, the Dann family had inherited land that was protected by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley and the U.S. Constitution — parchment barricades against aggression that were quickly reduced to ashes by the flame of elite ambitions.
When the United States assimilated northern Mexico following the aggressive war of 1846-1848, it exacerbated the regional tensions that would lead to the War Between the States. Nevada’s continuing status as a quasi-colony, rather than fully realized State, is a lingering echo of that conflict.
Such statehood as Nevada enjoys resulted from partisan machinations by Republicans who wanted additional Congressional seats in the event that the election of 1864 was thrown into the House of Representatives.
Statehood was rushed along with the help of an enabling act promising that Washington would sell off surplus lands beyond what would be necessary for the construction of military bases and similar facilities.
The promises made to statehood advocates proved to be as ephemeral as assurances of marriage and strict fidelity offered to a reluctant young woman confronted by an irrepressibly libidinous suitor. Washington’s treatment of the Western Shoshone was immeasurably worse.
Although the territory that would become Nevada was included in the cession made through the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, Mexico never had a permanent presence there; and the Shoshone, quite understandably, never considered themselves to be Mexican subjects. The territory acquired huge strategic significance after the war began, owing to its abundance of silver and its location astride transportation and communication routes from California to the East. This is why Article 2 of the Ruby Valley Treaty specified that in exchange for leaving travel routes “forever free, and unobstructed” and for allowing stage and telegraph routes to continue “without hindrance, molestation, or injury,” the U.S. government promised that the then-extant boundaries of the Shoshone bands would remain inviolate.
The Ruby Valley Treaty, like all such measures, acknowledged the supposed authority of the U.S. President to consign the Indians to reservations when he considered it “expedient for them to abandon the roaming life, which they now lead, and become herdsmen or agriculturalists…” Those reservations were to exist within the boundaries of their ancestral lands, which once again were promised to them in perpetuity. The Shoshone were likewise promised annuities from the United States, and “compensation and equivalent for the loss of game and the rights and privileges hereby conceded.”
Those promises, like all others extended to American Indians, may as well have been written on the wind in disappearing ink.
“The Shoshone kept their end of the bargain,” recalled Western Shoshone National Council Chairman Raymond Yowell. “The United States did not. As more and more emigrants settled on our lands, the promise of peace wasn’t enough for the United States. Instead of dealing with us as a sovereign nation, the United States implemented a scheme to acquire title unlawfully.”
In 1946, the regime in Washington created a pseudo-judicial body called the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), the purpose of which was to dispose of outstanding land claims. The 1946 act permitted that Commission (it is axiomatic that any body called a “Commission” was created to facilitate fraud) to recognize as authoritative tribal spokesman any “identifiable group” within a given tribe, no matter how unrepresentative it might be.
In 1951, one tiny Shoshone band, the Te-Moaks (descended from a signatory of the 1863 treaty) filed an ICC claim on behalf of the entire nation. Eleven years later, the ICC settled that claim by ruling that the Shoshone claims had been extinguished through “gradual encroachment” of American settlers. Furthermore, the Commission ruled that the “taking” had occurred on July 1, 1872 — a date used to establish the value of the land, long before discovery of gold and other valuable minerals had occurred. In 1979, the Commission offered the Shoshone a $26 million settlement — an amount equivalent to about 15 cents an acre for the same land commanding $2.50 an acre when purchased by gold mining interests.
When the Shoshones refused to accept the settlement (which had been reached ex parte), the Department of the Interior paid that money to itself, absorbing it into an Indian trusteeship bureaucracy that was riddle with corruption and fraud.
About a decade ago, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid sponsored a measure that would have “settled” the long-standing dispute with a one-time payment of $26,000 to each member of the Shoshone tribe. That bill was never enacted, and the money remained unpaid — which suited the Dann family just fine. They had never agreed to surrender their land, had never signed any documents and insisted on exercising their right to raise livestock on land that had been peacefully and productively used by their family for generations.
In 1974, the U.S. government sued the Dann family, claiming that they had committed “trespassing” by grazing their horses and cattle on land that legally belonged to them. Successive rulings by Federal judges upheld the government’s claims.
The Supreme Court declined to hear the Dann family’s appeal, insisting that the matter was closed when the Federal government paid itself $26 million to consummate the theft of the Shoshone lands. The Feds would eventually claim that the impoverished Indian family owed nearly $5 million in grazing fees and interest.
The BLM staged its first cattle rustling raid against the Danns in April 1992. At about 4:30 a.m., the ranch lands were invaded by a column of vehicles that decanted a platoon of BLM Brownshirts. Not intimidated by the bullying display, Carrie Dann plowed through the picket line and cast herself into a cattle chute to prevent hireling cowboys from loading her stolen cattle onto a truck.
“My land has never been for sale,” she told Eureka County Sheriff Ken Jones, who rather than defending his constituent’s rights was aligned with the invaders. “It’s not for sale now, it’s not for sale tomorrow, either. And that’s the way it is, Mr. Jones.”
As would happen more than 20 years later at Bunkerville, the BLM backed down and withdrew, restoring the stolen cattle to their rightful owners. But this gesture was purely a public relations ploy.
When the raiders returned the following November, Clifford Dann used a vehicle to block a road, cutting off a convoy of BLM trucks carrying the family’s livestock. Sitting down in the bed of his pickup, Clifford Dann immersed himself with gasoline and threatened to set himself on fire unless the federally licensed rustlers relinquished the stolen animals.
Feigning sympathy with the Dann family’s plight, Sheriff Jones told Clifford Dann that the cattle weren’t being confiscated and invited him to see for himself. When Clifford Dann stepped down from his truck, he was surrounded by a thugscrum of BLM Brownshirts, some of them sprayed him with fire extinguishers, others surrounding the 59-year-old man and assaulting him.
“Get him down! Get him down!” exclaimed Jones. “Break his f**king arm if you have to!”
Carrie Dann ran to help her brother, only to be seized from behind by a BLM agent.
“You’re hurting me — I’ve got a bad shoulder!” cried Carrie Dann.
“Then be a good old lady and quit struggling,” sneered BLM special agent Terry Somers, his voice dripping scornful condescension.
The stolen livestock escaped, but Clifford did not. Beaten and bloodied, he was taken into custody. Four months later, he was sentenced to nine years in prison for “assaulting an officer with gasoline” — that is, for being seized and beaten by BLM agents after he had poured gasoline on his own body. As he pronounced sentence, Federal Judge John McKibben pointedly said that the severity of his ruling was intended “to send a message to journalists, activists, and the Western Shoshone.”
With their brother behind bars, and their supporters understandably intimidated, the Dann sisters weren’t able to resist as several subsequent Federal raids systematically deprived them of their stock, much of which was left to die of neglect by the BLM.
For decades, the BLM had accused the Danns of damaging the delicate Crescent Valley ecosystem by “overgrazing” their herds — even though BLM commissar Somers admitted in 1994 that there was no evidence to sustain that charge. Once their grazing lands had been denuded of cattle and horses, the BLM leased it to a Canadian conglomerate that gouged huge open-pit mines out of the landscape and left the countryside contaminated with lead, mercury and cyanide.
It should be recalled that the Department of the Interior placed the value of the Shoshone lands at 15 cents an acre. It charged gold mining companies up to $2.50 an acre for leasing the lands that had been stolen from the Dann family. Gold mining is a worthy undertaking — when it is carried out through honest, mutually beneficial commerce, rather than government-abetted theft.
The Dann family and the Western Shoshone, acting out of desperation, made a futile effort at redress by filing a grievance with the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination at the United Nations, an organization that is utterly worthless when it isn’t being aggressively harmful. In the meantime, the BLM directed its malevolent attention at non-Indian ranchers in Nevada.
In 2001, BLM hired contractors to steal the cattle of Nevada ranchers Ben Colvin and Jack Vogt, whose argument against paying grazing feeds was similar to that made by the Danns, to wit: The U.S. government had no legal and Constitutional authority to claim ownership of the range land.
The BLM and Forest Service likewise pilfered cows belonging to rancher Wayne Hage, who like the Danns spent decades fighting the Feds in court. Last year, in what must be regarded as little short of an epoch-shattering miracle, a Federal judge ruled that those agencies had conducted a criminal conspiracy against Hage and recommended that their administrators face criminal prosecution.
Unlike the Bundys, who are materially comfortable but not opulently wealthy, the Danns — like many American Indians — are desperately poor. Their ancestral claim to the land is stronger than that of the Bundy family, but this didn’t prevent the Feds from stealing their livestock and leaving them destitute.
Despite the significant differences separating the Bundys from the Danns, both families are involved in what can accurately be described — without the unfortunate ideological baggage — as an anti-colonialist struggle. The U.S. government had no legal right to ratify the theft of Western Shoshone lands, nor does it have the Constitutional authority to occupy and claim to own more than 80 percent of Nevada’s territory.
Bundy and his family were hardly the first Nevada ranchers to confront federally licensed cattle rustlers who operated under the protection of militarized law enforcement agents. They were, however, the first to fight back.
–William N. Grigg