A long battle for Western Shoshone land
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Carrie Dann has spent most of her adult life fighting a government that denies her rights exist. Along with sister Mary, she has been to the highest court in the land, she has gone to the United Nations and she has met with countless leaders to discuss her struggle to make the United States keep its one promise to her people.

It's a tough battle, even for a Western Shoshone rancher who grew up in a harsh environment, raising cattle in Nevada on land passed down to her father and which her has been in her family for generations. "They try to do psychological damage to our mind," she says.

But after 40 years of legal and political battles, this grandmother shows no signs of slowing down. An activist at heart, her fiery nature belies her age as she makes the rounds to fight the latest threat: a bill to distribute $138 million for land the United States says no longer belongs to the Western Shoshone.

"Western Shoshone people are basically homeless people," Dann says.

Today, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee holds a hearing on the legislation, an initiative of Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.), the third ranking Democrat in his chamber. It's a bill that means death to the Danns and other activists within the Western Shoshone Nation, a group of tribes that "lost" ownership of 23.6 million acres of land.

"Show me a piece of paper that says the Western Shoshone ceded the land," Dann insists.

The paper does not exist.

The United States admits as much. In 1966, the Indian Claims Commission, a body created by Congress to resolve outstanding land disputes, determined that white encroachment -- not a treaty, law or other agreement -- extinguished the Shoshone title.

Dann and other Western Shoshone fought the award, going all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But their claim has been rejected numerous times as the trust has grown from its original $26 million.

Dann and other activists don't want the money. "I would like to see that the land is reserved for the Western Shoshone people," she says.

The United States doesn't have plans to do that. In a scathing analysis sent last December to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR), the federal government accused the sisters of failing to exhaust their avenues in the domestic court system.

"The United States rejects the commission's report," states the December 17, 2001, document, "in its entirety."

But the U.S. court system won't decide if the land was indeed taken away -- the ICC decision was final, the Supreme Court said. U.S. courts also won't decide if the ICC process was fair -- that issue is settled too. And the ICC? It wasn't authorized to return land to any tribal group.

Dann knows the deck is stacked against her. "I would never go back ot the American court system," she says. "It put us on a different level than anybody else -- we sat there by ourselves without any rights and without even what you call the constitutional rights that everybody else enjoys."

International law might be the Western Shoshone's only avenue for justice. The IACHR, an entity of the Organization of American States, to which the United States belongs, issued a preliminary report that finds numerous violations of the Dann's human rights.

"All of these circumstances suggest that the Danns have not been afforded equal treatment under the law respecting the determination of their property interests in the Western Shoshone ancestral lands," the October 15, 2001, report stated.

The finding -- and the U.S. response to it -- was to be kept secret, even from the Danns, until the commission found out the Department of Interior was providing copies to the press. The commission finally gave Dann and her legal advocates the report last week.

"I think they had ulterior motives to do that," Dann says of the government leak.

The Dann sisters won't be testifying today on the Reid bill. One opponent, however, is scheduled to appear before the Senate committee.

In June, a vote was held among the Western Shoshone tribes and their members, who are spread throughout Nevada, Utah, Idaho, California and area states. Support for the bill and the distribution of the money was overwhelming: 1,703 to 230.

To Dann, the numbers and the payout can't replace what she says will be lost for future Western Shoshone generations. She strongly believes the bill, if passed, will destroy Shoshone culture and way of life.

"Right is right and wrong is wrong," she says. "Let's face that."

Get the Bill:
S. 958, A bill to provide for the use and distribution of the funds awarded to the Western Shoshone identifiable group.

Relevant Documents:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights Report | Cover Letter | Summary of Conclusions

Relevant Links:
Inter-American Commission on Human Rights -
Dann Tresspass Questions and Answers, Bureau of Land Management (Note: the IACHR refers to this document in its cover letter) -

Western Shoshone Treaty of Ruby Valley, 1863 -

Related Stories:
Report finds human rights violations (8/1)
Shoshone land 'not for sale' (7/22)