The Dissenter

While Big Gold booms, an old battle rages on

Carrie Dann’s ranch is in Crescent Valley, about 10 miles north of Mount Tenabo as the crow flies, tucked near the northern slopes of the Cortez Mountains. “My family has been here since the time they start remembering,” she says.

Dann has short gray hair and wears round glasses. She won’t say her age, but news reports put her in her mid-70s. The lines in her face speak of wisdom and worry, but a wry sense of humor suggests a good fight helps get her out of bed in the morning.

Dann is Western Shoshone. She raises cattle and horses on the family ranch. It’s land that once belonged to the Western Shoshone, as did a vast chunk of the Southwest from Southern California to southern Idaho, including most of eastern Nevada; this vast territory was known as Newe Segobia. For Dann, the enduring deed to this territory is the “treaty of peace and friendship” signed in nearby Ruby Valley in 1863 between the Western Shoshone and the United States. Her people, she says, are the rightful owners of this land. She will not rest until they get it back.

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The Ruby Valley Treaty allowed settlers to traverse the land, build railroads, graze livestock and mine. With those activities came permanent residents, homesteads, businesses and cities. In exchange, the Western Shoshone were given formal title to their ancestral land. But their ownership rights were never upheld. In 1951, the tribe filed a claim with the federal Indian Claims Commission seeking redress. Eleven years later, the commission decided the land had indeed been taken via “gradual encroachment,” meaning they couldn’t put their finger on precisely when the Western Shoshone lost their land, only that they did. There had been a wrong, the government decided, and the Western Shoshone were due some cash—$26 million—to make it right.

But the Western Shoshone weren’t after cash. Tribe members feared accepting the money would be tantamount to selling out cheap, considering the vastness of Newe Segobia. They refused the payment, and the money sat in a federal account accumulating interest until 2004, when U.S. Senators Harry Reid, D.-Nev., and John Ensign, R-Nev., pushed through legislation to get it out of the treasury and into the hands of the Western Shoshone. By then the $26 million had grown to $140 million. Divided among those who claim Western Shoshone heritage, that’s about $22,300 per person. This time, many Western Shoshone took the money.

But Dann didn’t. “People get $23,000 in their hands and they think, ‘Wow, I’m rich,’ she says. “Bullshit on being rich. I would never sell the earth. I would never sell the land.”

Her own bitter dealings with the government date to 1974, when the feds sued her and her sister, Mary Dann, for trespass, claiming they were grazing cattle on public land without a permit. The Danns cited the Ruby Valley Treaty as the only permission they needed to run their ranch as they pleased and fought back in court. United States v. Dann made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1985, where justices ruled that the $26 million payout issued in 1979 ended the matter.

For the Danns, the issue was far from resolved. Video shot in April 1992 shows Carrie Dann yelling, “You’re hurting me!” at a ranger trying to stop her from climbing into a cattle pen to save her animals from being carted off by the BLM. That November, the BLM returned with trucks and helicopters. Carrie’s brother, Clifford Dann, met them on a dirt road leading to the ranch, standing in the back of a pickup truck with a milk jug of gasoline in one hand and a cigarette lighter in the other. He poured the gas on his jacket and lit himself on fire. Police doused the flames and arrested Clifford Dann, charging him with assaulting a federal officer. He was sentenced to nine months in prison and a $5,000 fine.

Carrie Dann went international, bringing a complaint before the United Nations’ Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination in 2006. (Mary Dann died in 2005 in an ATV accident on the family ranch.) The U.N. issued as strong a rebuke as that august body is capable, concluding that the U.S. wasn’t treating its own citizens fairly under the law. The federal government never responded to the citation.

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Mount Tenabo is spiritual to the Western Shoshone, a place for nourishing body and spirit. Its springs are a source of water, the juniper and pinion pine trees on its slopes are a source of traditional food and fuel. For Dann, Cortez Hills is a wound. The open pit is the most obvious scar, but not the only one. Above the mine, Barrick clear-cut stands of juniper and pinion pine to make way for expansion. To keep the underground mine dry, the company pumps up to 20,000 gallons of potable groundwater per minute, sending it to ponds in the valley to soak back into the ground.

In 2008, five plaintiffs, including the Western Shoshone Defense Project, sued the Bureau of Land Management over its approval of Cortez Hills, saying the BLM didn’t adequately address the religious importance of Mount Tenabo or the mine’s environmental impact. They won a small victory in 2009 when an appeals court judge issued a partial injunction prohibiting Barrick from transporting ore from Cortez Hills to another of its operations for processing. But the injunction was overturned in 2010, and Cortez Hills went into full operation this year, eight years after permitting for the site began.

Barrick, meanwhile, is not directly involved in the legal battle. The company claims to have no stake in the fight over title to Western Shoshone lands, even as it extracts vast wealth from them. “It’s a historic wrong,” says spokesman Lou Schack, “but [the tribe’s] real dispute is with the federal government, not with us. We can’t fix those things.”

Dann’s philosophical divide with Barrick is unbridgeable; she sees no possibility of reasoning with people who cart a mountain away truckload by truckload because there is money to be made. “Part of our teaching is that you look at the earth as a sacred thing. What would you do without the earth? You would have no clothes to wear, you would have nothing to eat,” she says.

“But you know the saying. He who has the gold makes the rules.”