MAC/20: Mines and Communities

Defiance In The Land Of The Free

Published by MAC on 2006-04-23
Source: The Sunday Times Magazine

Defiance in the land of the free

The Sunday Times Magazine,,2099-2142374.html

23th April 2006

A Native American woman is at war with the US. For 30 years she's been fighting to keep her ancestral land and now the United Nations is on her side. Report by Nicola Graydon

The government came for the horses at dawn. It was spring 2003 and it was foaling season. A helicopter flew low over Pine Valley, herding them to corrals. Some prematurely gave birth, others were trampled. Armed federal agents stood by. By the end of the day, over 500 horses were taken to be auctioned off to a local rancher. Not long afterwards some 50 carcasses were dumped the horses had starved to death.

Carrie Dann, a diminutive Western Shoshone grandmother who owned the horses, refuses to talk about it. "Indians love horses," is all she'll say. But she thinks it caused the death of her sister, Mary, who died last April. "After that," she says, "Mary went down real fast."

The 2003 round-up was the fourth military-style operation in one of the longest-running land disputes in the history of America. For over 30 years, Carrie and Mary Dann have fought the US government for Western Shoshone rights to 60 million acres of land that stretch through Nevada into neighbouring states. Until now, the harassment has hardly scratched the conscience of America, but that might be about to change.

In March, in an unprecedented document, the UN demanded that the US government halt all actions against the Shoshone and find a solution acceptable to them and in accordance with their rights. This landmark decision could force the government to transform antiquated federal Indian law. And if it does it will be in no small part down to the Dann sisters.

What she lacks in physical stature she barely scrapes 5ft Carrie Dann makes up for in presence and sheer bloody-mindedness. Her face is weathered by decades in the saddle and a 20-a-day habit and her swearing doesn't endear her to government officials. "The Indian wars ain't over yet," she says fiercely. "They're still happening here and now." But, despite her defiance, she admits she's still afraid the US government will confiscate her ranch to pay outstanding fines for disputed grazing fees.

The Dann ranch isn't much to look at. A single-story rambling clapboard house, it's surrounded by tall cottonwood trees and rusting wrecks. Uncle Clifford, who famously threatened to douse himself in gasoline when the "feds" first confiscated the family livestock in the early 1990s, earning nine months in state prison as a result, lives in a trailer in the garden. He's now profoundly deaf. Carrie's severely disabled son is playing in the cabin of a tractor in the front yard.

Panes of glass have been replaced by cardboard and there's no central heating. Cooking is done on a wood-burning stove. The only things that place the ranch in the 21st century are the solar panels that replaced the generator last year. But Carrie doesn't care about home comforts. Her grandmother, she tells me proudly, never had a bed. Anyway, the land is all that matters. "We've been here since time immemorial," she says, as we make our way to a small dam to catch brown trout for dinner. "I was born here and this is where I'll die, whatever the government says."

The ranch is dwarfed by the Nevada landscape. Crescent Valley stretches away from it for miles like a vast carpet of desert shrubs and wild flowers.

To the naked eye, it's a vast plain of nothing much but the ranch is on some of the most expensive real estate in the world. Carrie Dann is, quite literally, sitting on a gold mine.

Just down the road, the Carlin Trend, discovered in the 1960s, is the second largest gold depository in the world after Witwatersrand in South Africa, but the entire state is covered with open pits. Mining has always been Nevada's raison d'etre. There was a lull at the beginning of the 20th century; silver ran out and gold was yet to be discovered so the state legalised divorce, gambling and prostitution. But today nearly 10% of the world's production of gold ? over half of US production comes from Nevada.

Carrie's ranch sits on the slopes of the Cortez mountain range, first prospected in the original gold rush but as yet untapped. Not long before the 2003 round-up, Cortez Mining (a joint venture between Placer Dome, the largest mining operation in the area, and Rio Tinto) tried to introduce legislation to privatise 60,000 acres for mining around Mount Tenabo, the most imposing mountain in the range. Tenabo is sacred to the Shoshone for reasons other than gold, and the ensuing uproar killed the bill but, for the Danns, this was just another battle in an ongoing war of attrition.

The Danns' legal dispute began in 1973 when the Bureau of Land Management fined the sisters for grazing their livestock on "public lands": that is, land owned by the federal government. The sisters never had any intention to pay. As far as they were concerned, they were grazing ancestral land ratified in the Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863. Collection notices still arrive at the tiny local post office but Carrie doesn't even bother to open them. "I probably owe $5m by now," she laughs hoarsely.

From 1974 to 1991 their case was shunted from court to court: through the US District Court and bouncing backwards and forwards between the Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court, which ruled against the Danns in 1985. "It was all totally wrong. I felt like we were being screwed by the federal court system all the way along. But sometimes I think that being Indian means they can screw us whichever way they want."

The Western Shoshone had been screwed by earlier findings of the Indian Claims Commission on which the Supreme Court based their final ruling. Set up by President Truman in 1946, ostensibly to honour Indian rights and treaties, the commission ruled in 1977 that the Shoshone had "lost" their lands in 1872 by "gradual encroachmemt" and awarded $24m as compensation "Gradual encroachment by what?" Carrie Dann sweeps her hand angrily over the emptiness. "There's nobody else here but the drilling rigs. In 1965 the word was 'taken'. T A K E N. Now it's become 'lost to gradual encroachment'. As far as I know, the constitution states that nobody can take another's land unless it's by the federal government for public use: and, even then, there are procedures to follow." However, the Western Shoshone refused to take the money. "It's still there drawing interest," says Carrie. "I understand it's now over $130m." She snorts in derision. "But no amount of money will make us give up the rights to our lands."

The Peace and Friendship Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863 is one of the few Indian treaties that didn't cede land, because nobody wanted it. It was a parched high desert; vicious in winter and equally so in summer.

The white settlers were looking for safe passage to the gold mines in California during the great gold rush that began in 1848. Until then, the Indians of the interior had barely come into contact with white people. But once the rush began, thousands of settlers began moving west with rifles to shoot wild game and herds of livestock that grazed Shoshone land to dust. In just one year, 70,000 gold-seekers passed through Shoshone territory.

The gold rush was devastating for native peoples. From 1848 to 1870 the population dropped from 150,000 to 31,000. According to Carrie, only 10 families survived massacres in Ruby Valley itself.

The treaty allowed settlers to mine, ranch, cut timber and extract natural resources but, crucially to the Danns' case, it recognised the Western Shoshone as landowners.

The Shoshone nation stretches over four states: from Snake River in Idaho, through much of Nevada to the edge of the Mojave desert in California and taking up a small corner of Utah. The treaty awarded the Indians compensation for use of land at $5,000 a year for 20 years. It was never paid, and neither was a promised royalty for extraction.

The HQ of the Western Shoshone Defence Project (WSDP), set up by the Western Shoshone National Council in 1991 to help the Danns' case, is a trailer on scrubland off 6th Street in Crescent Valley, a barely-there town that is mainly made up of mine workers.

Julie Fishel, a human-rights lawyer who's been with the WSDP for three years, points out of the window: "There it is: the mountain they're desperate to get their hands on." Mount Tenabo dominates the horizon. Fishel became involved with the Danns in 1998, beginning full-time work on their case in 2001 when she received a desperate call asking her to help them respond to a bill that was being introduced by Harry Reid, Nevada's Democratic senator, to force the distribution of the disputed monies the Shoshone have never claimed. Fishel began to turn their case around.

Reid has widely-reported links with the mining and gaming interests that have made Nevada one of the fastest growing states in the US. The Los Angeles Times recently revealed sizable sums his sons and son-in-law have received for lobbying on behalf of mining companies in Nevada.

"They really needed my help. The spin against them in Washington was claiming, basically, that they were almost terrorists. That really alarmed me. I finally got to talk to someone in authority. When I explained the situation, he said, 'This is completely different to what I have been told.' I asked him where he was getting this from. And he said, 'Senator Reid's office'."

Nonetheless the Western Shoshone Distribution Bill was signed by George W Bush in July 2004, forcing the Western Shoshone to accept the award at $20,000 at person. But still the money is languishing in state coffers.

While the first gold rush was devastating to native peoples, the modern gold rush that began in the 1980s and intensified in the 1990s is disastrous for the environment. Thousands of acres of woodlands have been cleared, streams have been contaminated with cyanide and mercury, wildlife is disappearing and the landscape is scarred by open pits a mile wide and towering waste dumps. Environmental experts say it could take 100 years for the land to recover, and fear the consequences of the rapid depletion of the aquifer a vast underground lake by an industry that wastes some 10m gallons of water a day per mine in the most arid state in the US. About 383 billion gallons of water have already been pumped from one mine alone. Yet the gold industry remains one of the least regulated of all extractive industries, with no federal environmental guidelines and no requirements to clean up after the mines become defunct.

In a memorable indictment in The New York Times recently, John Leshy, a lawyer for the Department of the Interior in the Clinton administration, said: "Nevada is being written off as a sacrifice area for gold."

For the Indian communities that, like Carrie, still rely on the land for ranching and subsistence farming, sacred pools used for ritual are diminishing or poisoned; mountains of legend and folklore are dynamited and turned into toxic waste dumps. "For us, the Earth is a sacred thing," explains Carrie, seeming slightly frustrated at having to explain once again what is, to her, a basic tenet of life. "We were taught the Earth is like our mother, and we have to take care of our mother because she gives us life.

The Earth, the air, the water and the sun are all sacred to us and they are being destroyed, polluted and contaminated. For us, this is like spiritual genocide."

She admits that the treaty allows mining on Western Shoshone lands but points out that, in 1863, this amounted to a few men with pickaxes and explosives. But she's still willing to talk with mining representatives. "We're prepared to meet with them. Is there such a thing as responsible mining? I'll have to work that out for myself."

The Danns were one of the few Indian families who avoided moving to the reservations or into town. They would retreat to caves in the mountains to avoid trouble. Once, her grandmother told her, they had hidden for months during an epidemic when clothes distributed as gifts by the military infested the tribe with smallpox. "Their own records tells that 98% of our people died killed by bullets or disease," she says bitterly. "If you don't call that genocide, what is? But they still treat us badly."

In 1951 the Atomic Energy Commission chose Western Shoshone land to set up a test site for nuclear weapons. Between 1951 and 1992, the US and Great Britain exploded around 1,000 nuclear devices there. More recently the Western Shoshone invoked the treaty in a lawsuit against a Department of Energy plan to make Yucca Mountain into a dump for the country's nuclear waste. "We call that mountain Snake Mountain because it moves," one elder told me. And, sure enough, geological surveys indicate the area around the mountain has more than its share of seismic shifts and mini-earthquakes.

The Western Shoshone call their land Newe Sogobia, meaning '"the people's earth mother", and their creation myths tell them they were placed here to take care of the Earth. Unlike other tribes who were placed in reservations far from their original homelands or migrated to safety, they have, at least, managed to stay.

The Dann ranch is as good a place as any to conduct a last stand. At night, Carrie watches the lights of exploratory drilling rigs or "metal horses", as she calls them as they move around in the valley below her. She has no idea how she will survive financially without her livestock but continues to catch fish and gather pine nuts. The few horses that remain stay close to the ranch now, as if for comfort, and the land is missing the cattle to graze back the grass that has overgrown in an unusually wet summer. Fishel recalls the day of the round-up: "Carrie was nearly broken by it. She was on the ground sobbing. She said to me, 'Julie, I'm done. They've destroyed us.'"

The weekend I visit, the Shoshone are conducting the first sun dance in Ruby Valley since 1941, after which Indian religious rites were banned by the Department of the Interior until the 1970s. It's an extraordinary ritual where dancers fast for three days and three nights while they dance to the point of exhaustion. It's said to connect the people to the sun in an act of self-sacrifice to both the Earth mother and the community. In this case it has brought together hundreds of Western Shoshone in the place where the Treaty of Peace and Friendship was signed over a century ago. Nobody is downplaying the significance. Carrie is hopeful it's a sign of a cultural resurgence.

"I want the spiritual rights of our people to be restored," she says. "And that means we need our rights to the land, for that is where we worship."

The UN decision in March has given long-awaited recognition to her struggle and a July deadline for the US to report on compliance. The Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in Geneva has also demanded the US recognise and protect the Shoshone's cultural and spiritual practices. Carrie admits it's a huge step in the right direction but she has further ambitions. "I want the United States government to come to us and say, 'Our history is long and painful. We have mistreated you. We massacred, raped, humiliated and starved your people. We admit we committed acts of genocide.' That would be a good thing. If they decided to put a price on that, I would accept the money. But I will never accept money for this land.

"We've been put here by our creator to be custodians of this land. But believe me when I say to you that we are not caring for these things just for Indian children. We are caring for these things for everyone's children."

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