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Never Mind Cliven Bundy: Here’s the Real David vs. Goliath Story Between Ranchers and Feds

Shoshone sisters have battled against the U.S. over land and cattle.

Photo Credit: Ronnie Farley


The decades-long standoff between Nevada cattle rancher Cliven Bundy and federal officials trying to push his cows off public, protected land came to a head last week when Bundy's armed supporters forced the feds to back off on live TV, scoring a public relations victory. Now Bundy is a folk hero, at least to Libertarians, the Tea Party, conservative talk-show hosts and other right-wing critics of the government.

Bundy, a multi-millionaire farmer who hasn't paid for grazing rights on public lands for more than 20 years, also stands to garner substantial support from some very wealthy enemies of President Obama. Americans for Prosperity, a conservative group backed by billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch (which spent $122 million trying to defeat Obama and other Democrats in 2012), is already instigating a campaign against the Bureau of Land Management on Bundy's behalf. It began a social media campaign, using the hashtag #BundyBattle, and is taking to the Internet to mock the time and money the bureau has wasted (some $1 million according to its poster) fighting the "little guy."

But Nevada is home to another epic battle between ranchers and the feds. As in Bundy's case, it involves ranchers Mary and Carrie Dann, whose ancestors lived on the land long before the federal government staked a claim to it.

Unlike Bundy, who claims his ancestors were homesteaders on his ranch in 1877 and never ceded it to the federal government, the Danns, two Western Shoshone sisters, were not trampling over land set aside for sensitive plants and animals. Nor were they getting rich off the land while, in essence, robbing the taxpayers of grazing fees.

The Danns have lived without running water or electricity their entire lives. Their tribe, the Western Shoshone, have lived in Nevada and parts west since time immemorial. The land was Shoshone land, and the U.S. formally agreed that was the case when it signed the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which explicitly stated that the Shoshone would never have to give up their land. That is, until the U.S. began encroaching on the land, claiming it for its own without the tribe's consent or knowledge.

The Danns' battle goes back to the early 1970s, when the federal government first sued them to stop grazing horses and cattle on land the U.S. claimed as its own. The Danns said the land was Western Shoshone land that the U.S. had taken illegally, and refused to pay grazing fees. Mary waged this battle until her death in 2005 at age 82, in an accident while she was repairing a fence. Carrie, 82 years old, is still fighting.

Unlike Bundy, the Danns endured five roundups of their herds starting in 1998. These were operations more suited for what the feds confronted at Bundy’s ranch than at the ramshackle farmhouse of two elderly sisters barely five feet tall. Scores of heavily armed, jack-booted federal agents descended on their homestead, usually at dawn, and would confiscate hundreds of cattle and horses in helicopter roundups with dozens of trucks and other vehicles plowing through the land, as if anticipating an army. Many horses and cattle died during the roundups, starving to death in holding corrals where they were provided no food or water. The horses and cattle that managed to survive were sold at auction.

Both the Danns and their tribe tried legal means of support. The Western Shoshone filed suit decades ago to try to clear up the ownership of their land, which the U.S., through congressional legislation, began taking for various means. Some of the land was used for nuclear testing— the Department of Energy has detonated more bombs there than anywhere else on earth—while other plots were leased to mining companies digging for gold.

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