ELKO, Nev. - A panicked starling flaps under the rafters and the Beastie Boys shout from the overhead loudspeakers, but the tribal gymnasium seems as still and serious as a classroom before a final exam. On the edge of the basketball court, a young woman stands at a folding table, resting her forearms on an unlocked wooden ballot box and wearily reading the results of the day's vote. "Number One, yes ... Number Two, yes ... Number Three, yes ..."
As each vote is chalked up on a dusty blackboard, the two dozen people around me slump a little further into the bleachers. Today, more than 1,800 enrolled members of the Western Shoshone tribe voted whether or not to accept $120 million from the federal government - about $20,000 for each tribal member. The money is payment for tens of millions of acres of ancestral land, including most of Nevada and parts of California and Idaho.
Most of the people here on this early June evening say that, rather than accepting the money, the Western Shoshone should continue to fight - as they have for generations - for the return of their land, much of which is now owned by the federal government. They say voting "yes" will forever confine them to their tiny reservations, scattered throughout the Great Basin like so much birdseed. They say voting "yes" means their tribe will never invest in wind power or commercial development or any business that requires land as capital. They say these "forevers" and "nevers" will keep siphoning their young people off the reservation, gradually shrinking the tribe and diluting its already shaky sense of identity.
The next day, ballot boxes arrive from the other nine Western Shoshone reservations and colonies. That evening, as the votes are recounted, a different two dozen people surround me in the gymnasium. Most of the "no" crowd, despondent about the likely outcome, has stayed home. The mood of the others is ebullient: "Get in there before you get ambushed," Felix Ike, chairman of the Te-Moak Bands, teases a woman lugging a ballot box.
The final results are overwhelming.
Larry Piffero, one of the leaders of the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee, announces that more than 85 percent of the voters have backed payment of the federal funds. The majority has voted "yes." Though the long-delayed payment requires an act of Congress to move forward, Nevada Sen. Harry Reid, D, has promised to champion a distribution bill once he's convinced it's what the tribe wants. As Piffero walks back to his seat to delighted applause, he calls out, "Now, just wait for your money!"
Don't think the federal government is a hero to this crowd. The Western Shoshone know their tribe has been trod upon by a long line of presidents and Congresses, lawyers and courts. But they've had enough of their tribe's intricate arguments over principle. They're sick of the internal debates about money, and land, and something that might be called the quality of justice.
Not all of them are proud of their stance. Outside the gymnasium, many of these "yes" voters push past me with only a word or two, heads down. Those who speak often refuse to give their names, but all say they are ready for something more tangible than talk. Some of them want enough money to send a daughter to college, or buy a car, or start a business. Some of them want something entirely different.
"You know what I'm going to do with my money?" says Kay Lynn McQueen. "I'm going to buy a plot in the cemetery, that's what. Then I'll finally have my damn land."
"Peace and friendship"
The Western Shoshone made their home in the toughest place in the West. The high desert of the Great Basin is by turns too hot and too cold, always short on food and low on water. The Western Shoshone used to survive in extended-family bands, whose members helped one another gather pine nuts in the fall and find shelter in the winter. Though these bands shared a common language, they were isolated from one another by the desert's brutal corrugations, ungovernable by any single leader.
In this country, the scarce resources were always worth fighting for. While the Western Shoshone lived relatively peacefully in the Great Basin for centuries, they had occasional conflicts with the neighboring Paiutes. Then in the 1800s, when white trappers picked off the beaver in the Humboldt River, a violent conflict began. Wagon trains on their way to the California gold rush inundated Nevada Territory, battles over food and water escalated, and in 1862, the federal government established a fort in northeastern Nevada's Ruby Valley.
Col. Patrick Connor, charged with guarding white settlers traveling through the Elko area, promptly ordered his California Volunteers to "destroy every male Indian whom you may encounter."
By the fall of 1863, after the massacre of hundreds of Western Shoshones, the tribe was desperate for safety. A dozen tribal leaders from northeastern Nevada gathered under the Ruby Mountains to sign a treaty of "peace and friendship" with the federal government.
Almost 150 years after the signing of the Treaty of Ruby Valley, the two-page document is both a rallying cry and a point of caustic controversy. The treaty says "the country claimed and occupied" by the Western Shoshone extends from the Snake River in Idaho, across most of Nevada and into the Mojave Desert of Southern California. Even by the most conservative estimate, that's 24 million acres of desert, an area about the size of Pennsylvania. Many Western Shoshone say this part of the treaty preserves their ancient right to the land.
Others say the Treaty of Ruby Valley gave everything away. "I've heard our rights are hidden in that treaty," grumbles Felix Ike. "Well, if I show that treaty to a game and fish warden and tell him, 'Hey, my hunting rights are hidden in here,' he's just gonna take my hidden butt to jail."
Though the treaty defined Western Shoshone territory, it opened the land to wagon trains, mail and telegraph lines, military posts and railroads. It also stated that whenever the president decided it was "expedient" for tribal members to settle down and start ranching and farming, he would establish reservations for them within "the country above described."
The reservations, created sporadically over the next 70 years, are tiny islands, ranging in size from an 80-acre tract in Wells, Nev. - the size of four Wal-Mart parking lots - to the 290,000-acre Duck Valley Reservation on the Nevada-Idaho border. Some reservations hang onto the outskirts of interstate pit stops; others enjoy water and good grazing land; still others occupy some of the driest, loneliest acreage in the West.
None of the reservations has opened a casino; there's little chance they could draw enough customers to compete with the private casinos along I-80. On the urban and suburban reservations, known as "colonies" in Nevada, tribal members often work in town and send their children to public schools. Western Shoshone further into the outback sometimes ranch or work for gold mines, but the options are few. Ninety-seven percent of the Duckwater Reservation's per capita income comes from the federal government. Less than half of the reservation's enrolled members live within its borders.
Under the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934, each reservation retrofitted itself with its own U.S.-style council and constitution, and the four reservations near Elko created an umbrella government called the Te-Moak Bands Council.
Yet the tribe's anarchic past couldn't be overhauled quite so neatly - especially when it came to deciding the future of the land claimed in the Treaty of Ruby Valley. The first deep schisms surfaced when President Truman signed the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, a law that allowed tribes to sue the federal government for lost land. If a tribe won its suit before the claims commission, its members would be awarded not land, but cash.
A phalanx of white lawyers soon encouraged the Western Shoshone reservation governments to push for a cash settlement. But unlike most tribal land, Western Shoshone territory had not fallen into private hands. Most of it had been claimed by the Bureau of Land Management, the Forest Service and the military, not by homesteaders. Many traditional tribal members thought they had a chance at winning some of it back.
Despite wrenching controversy within the tribe, the lawyers pursued a Western Shoshone settlement for more than 30 years. In 1979, the Indian Claims Commission awarded the tribe $26.1 million, little more than $1 an acre. More than $2 million of that went to lawyers' fees.
The ruling only inflamed debate within the tribe. On July 26, 1980, the Bureau of Indian Affairs held a meeting in Elko to discuss distributing the claims money. They were confronted by an audience of more than 400 people and a succession of furious speakers who opposed the very idea of a cash settlement. Historian Steven Crum, who grew up on the Duck Valley Reservation and now teaches at the University of California at Davis, remembers the gathering.
"It was a huge, heavy-duty meeting," he says. "People were vocal and emotional, they were angry and crying. At that point, they were saying, 'We don't like the decision of the Indian Claims Commission. We want to fight for what's right.' "
Two sisters and a hippie
One of the most vocal and emotional people at that meeting was Carrie Dann. In the 1974 documentary Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain, Dann appears as a stylish, intense young woman with thin lips and angry eyes, standing up at public meetings to skewer a Bureau of Indian Affairs representative or tribal chairman or whoever happens to be saying something she doesn't like. "Answer my question!" she shouts, shaking a pen at her adversary.
Dann is now in her mid-60s, and her sister Mary is in her late 70s, but they still live in the wide desert valley where they grew up. Their father, Dewey Dann, bought the Crescent Valley homestead southwest of Elko in the 1920s, and the family has ranched on the land ever since. Carrie and Mary, who share in the care of Carrie's severely disabled son, have help on the 800-acre ranch from a web of extended family they call the Dann Band.
On an afternoon in early June, the sisters' most immediate concern is the platoon of Mormon crickets marching toward the house. Soon, though, their attention turns to a different sort of ranch business: the political struggle that's consumed most of their lives.
The sisters inherited some horses and cattle from their grandmother in the late 1950s, and they began grazing them outside the homestead without a permit. If anyone asked why, they said the Bureau of Land Management allotments belonged to their tribe under the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
"Our dad, he always told us, 'You girls are going to get in trouble one day,' " says Carrie.
Trouble arrived in the spring of 1973, when Mary Dann came home from a ride to find a BLM official waiting at the house. "I offered him coffee," she remembers wryly. "He didn't want any, so I had coffee by myself."
He asked if Dann knew she was trespassing. "I said, 'No, I don't think so. If I was down on Paiute land, then I'd consider myself trespassing.' " Though the Danns must have told this story hundreds of times, they both burst out laughing as they tell it again.
The BLM official, unimpressed, told the Danns to come to a meeting at the agency office in Elko. So the Danns got in touch with John O'Connell, a young lawyer from Salt Lake City who had done some research for the American Indian Movement. When they arranged to meet at the Centennial Hotel in Elko, O'Connell told them he could be recognized by his tan suit and long ponytail. "He was the first hippie I ever met," says Carrie.
O'Connell didn't know he was about to commit to a decades-long project. He represented the Dann sisters when the Bureau of Land Management eventually sued for trespass damages, and his legal strategy turned the case into an excruciatingly complex test of the Treaty of Ruby Valley. After an early defeat in district court in 1977, he convinced the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that the treaty was unresolved.
This seemingly sympathetic decision changed tribal history. In the early 1980s, inspired by the 9th Circuit ruling, the reservation governments formed the tribe's first centralized government: the Western Shoshone National Council. The National Council, a staunch supporter of Western Shoshone land rights, was even recognized by the Bureau of Indian Affairs at one point as the entity which "represents by far the majority interests of the Western Shoshone people."
In 1985, the case arrived in the U.S. Supreme Court. The court ruled that the Western Shoshone land claim had been extinguished in 1979, when the secretary of Interior accepted the claims money on behalf of the tribe. Since the money was collecting interest in a government trust account, the court said, the federal government had effectively paid the Western Shoshone for their land.
Hope had held the disparate Western Shoshone bands together under the National Council. Following the Supreme Court decision, many council members remained determined to fight for land, rather than settle for money. Their popular support, however, started to crumble. With their legal options exhausted, frustrated tribal members said they had no choice but to accept the money and move on.
By the mid-1990s, most reservation governments had pulled their support from the council, and some started to complain that the council was representing them against their will. When Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt expressed interest in returning some land to the tribe, divisions between the National Council and the reservation governments contributed to a disastrous breakdown in the negotiations. Today, only the Ely, Yomba and Timbisha governments send official representatives to the council's monthly meetings.
"Our patience is wearing thin"
The Danns continued their campaign for grazing rights after the Supreme Court decision, and in 1992, a kind of modern warfare erupted. Just before Thanksgiving, the Bureau of Land Management seized and sold more than 250 of the Danns' horses. During a six-day standoff, federal agents arrested the Danns' brother, Clifford, when he soaked himself with gasoline in protest.
Soon afterward, the National Council founded the Western Shoshone Defense Project, dedicated to preventing future seizures of the Danns' livestock and to hounding the open-pit gold mines that operate throughout the Great Basin. The Defense Project, funded by donations and private foundations, has one full-time staff member. Christopher Sewall, 32, has worked for the Defense Project for almost a decade. Though he talks wistfully about his native Maine, he says he can't leave the valley until the Danns have claimed a victory.
"I'm treated like family here," he says. "The longer I'm here, the harder it is to walk away."
Once a hard-line environmental activist, Sewall now finds himself sticking up for a pair of cattlewomen who practice what he calls "old-school" ranching. "The range isn't in the best condition, but it's not in the worst condition, either," he says. He'd like to convince the sisters to practice more sustainable grazing, but that's not his main concern. He's battling for the Western Shoshones' unacknowledged treaty rights.
That long fight may soon be punctuated by another crisis. The Bureau of Land Management has put off enforcing its grazing regulations in hopes of reaching an agreement with the Danns, but it's not likely to hold out for much longer. Since the agency seized cattle from renegade white ranchers in the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument in southern Utah almost two years ago, it's been accused of applying a double standard (HCN, 12/4/00: Ranchers take law into their own hands). "The fact that we have not taken action against the Danns has not gone unnoticed in the grazing industry," says Nevada BLM director Robert Abbey. "We're constantly taking criticism."
Though the Department of Justice might allow Abbey to forgive the Danns' unpaid grazing fees - up to $1 million at last count - Abbey says the Supreme Court decision makes it impossible for the Danns to continue to graze their horses and cattle without a permit. The sisters took about 160 horses off the range this summer; agency officials are encouraged, but say several hundred horses are still trampling the land. "Our patience is wearing thin," says Abbey.
It doesn't look like the Danns have much room to maneuver. But they have a stalwart network of family and friends in Shoshone country, and an annual spring gathering at the Dann Ranch attracts supporters from throughout the United States and abroad. The sisters' pleas for land rights and their polemics against gold mining and nuclear testing in Shoshone country have found thousands of sympathetic listeners at environmental conferences.
The Danns, along with a few other Shoshone ranchers resisting the federal government, also have admirers from the Sagebrush Rebellion set. Anti-federal activists from the Jarbidge Shovel Brigade (HCN, 7/31/00: Kicking and screaming in Nevada) and the Nevada Committee for Full Statehood have shown up at several Western Shoshone land-rights demonstrations, proclaiming that BLM grazing policies trample constitutional rights as well as tribal treaty rights. Though Sewall has some sympathy for these groups' anti-federal stance, he says the local control they support would be a "disaster" for the Western Shoshone people. State and county governments in the Great Basin, he says, have often opposed even the mildest expressions of tribal sovereignty.
The Danns have also traveled to Geneva, Switzerland, to testify before the United Nations, and to Washington, D.C., to speak to the U.N.'s regional counterpart, the Inter-American Commission of the Organization of American States. While the U.N. only expressed "concern" about U.S. treatment of the Western Shoshone, the Inter-American Commission apparently took a much tougher stance. Though its report is not yet public, BLM officials have seen it, and their response indicates that the commission was strongly critical of the U.S. government.
A tribe of many voices
Such high-profile support for the Danns' cause has drawn international press attention, and it's resurrected a persistent riddle: Who speaks for the Western Shoshone? Nancy Stewart, a retired schoolteacher from Fallon, Nev., says the Danns and their supporters do not. "Carrie Dann has become an icon," she says furiously. "She's aligned herself with a lot of non-Indians, and they're using the Western Shoshone name to raise money."
Stewart is a leader of the Western Shoshone Claims Steering Committee, a group of about 60 tribal members that supports direct payment of the claims money. Four years ago, the committee helped develop Senate Bill 958, which would distribute an equal share of the money to each tribal member. A straw poll of tribal members at the time collected more than 1,230 votes for claims payment and only 53 against, results that persuaded Sen. Reid of Nevada to sponsor the bill.
But in March of this year, after land-rights supporters sent a copy of the straw-poll ballot to the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, some committee members called the ballot "misleading." Reid cancelled a scheduled hearing on S. 958, and requested that the claims committee put together a new, clearer ballot.
Though the chairpeople of all four Te-Moak Bands reservations opposed a yes-or-no vote, arguing that the new ballot oversimplified the issues, Te-Moak Bands Chairman Felix Ike sidestepped their opposition and pushed ahead with the new vote for all Western Shoshone country.
Ike is a Vietnam veteran and a former tribal policeman, and he has been in and out of tribal office for more than 20 years. His support of the vote has made him a sworn enemy of land-rights advocates, who question his character, his ethics and his legitimacy as Te-Moak chairman.
Ike, who seems fed up with his tribe's inability to agree, insists that a vote was the only way to settle the emotional issue. "It's a very popular thing in Indian Country to say 'Mother Earth is not for sale,' " says Ike angrily. "Well, I'm tired of hearing about Mother Earth. Those days are gone, and we have to deal with reality."
For Larry Piffero, another leader of the Claims Steering Committee, the results of the vote are a relief. "We've all gotten tired of fighting with each other," he says. "There are just a few out there who are still saying no." Piffero hopes his young grandchildren will one day use the money to pay for their college tuition.
Soon after the vote, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee rushed to set a hearing on S. 958 for early August. The bill could hit the president's desk as early as this fall.
It's hard to believe that the vote, or even the passage of S. 958, will quiet the tribe's internal controversy. The Bureau of Indian Affairs estimates there are 3,375 adult members of the Western Shoshone tribe, but only about half of them voted. Those who stayed away include some stubborn opponents; at least five tribal members say they followed the old tradition of voting "no" by abstention.
The Western Shoshone, always wary of centralized power, may never speak with a single voice. Then again, maybe they don't have to.
Evelyn Temoke Roche is the great-great-granddaughter of Chief Te-Moak, the first signer of the Treaty of Ruby Valley. She voted "no" in early June, even though she knows she's in the minority. "It's for our hearts that we're voting 'no,' " she says, her stars-and-stripes earrings glinting in a blast of sunshine. But even if the checks are cut, she says she'll still be hopeful. She thinks the Western Shoshone bands could negotiate independently. With luck, they could follow the lead of the Timbisha Shoshone of Death Valley, who recently gained title to some land near Death Valley National Park (see story above).
The land isn't exactly there for the taking, says Roche, but it may not be completely out of reach. The harsh, hard Great Basin has been pockmarked with gold mines, battered by military installations, and poisoned by nuclear tests, but much of it remains undeveloped and wild. Someday, more of it might once again belong to the Western Shoshone.
"The land will be here whether or not we vote 'no,' " she says. "It'll still be here."
Michelle Nijhuis, a former HCN editor, writes from Paonia, Colorado.
The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:
Copyright © 2002 HCN and Michelle Nijhuis