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.

Here's the catch to the Western Shoshone's suit against the feds: A now-defunct U.S. department, the Indian Claims Court, ruled against the Western Shoshone's claims that the U.S. had stolen their land on the grounds that the U.S. had already encroached on it for decades. In other words, the Western Shoshone couldn't reclaim the land because the U.S. had already taken in. Finders, keepers.

The case continued, with the Western Shoshone losing each time. In 1979, the tribe was awarded $26 million for more than 20 million acres the U.S. had taken illegally, but the tribe, refusing the claim, refused the money. This backfired on them when the Department of Interior, acting on the tribe's behalf without its consent, agreed to take the money (which has gathered interest ever since). When the Danns sued the federal government, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of the federal government, claiming that because the U.S. had paid the tribe for the land, even though the tribe had refused the money, the payment extinguished the Shoshone's land claims.

Desperate for relief, the Danns finally asked the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination for help to recover the millions of acres of land in Nevada and bordering states that belonged to the Western Shoshone. The U.N. ordered the U.S. to stop its actions against the Western Shoshone, and agreed with all the tribe’s grievances. This victory on paper did nothing; the U.S. government ignored it.

The kicker to this story is that while the Bureau of Land Management’s fight against the Danns claimed the sisters' herds were overgrazing—and thus harming—the land, much of the land the Danns have fought for has been leased to gold mining companies that have conducted resource-intensive extraction methods.

The land surrounding the Danns' ranch sits atop one of the most significant deposits of gold ever found in the United States. Only a few months after the Danns' horses were first rounded up, Nevada's headlines blared about gold finds in Crescent Valley, at the exact locations where the horses were removed. Most of the world's largest gold mining companies have some interest in the land, which involves using cyanide to extract minuscule amounts of gold from rock. Because the gold dust sits under the water table, it also involves pumping 20,000 to 70,000 gallons of water per minute every day and moving tons of soil and rock, leaving open pits. The extraction methods are so energy-intensive that the production of a single gold ring generates 20 tons of waste land.

Carrie Dann is no Tea Party hero. But she vows to fight until her last breath.

"Right is right," she said in an interview. "And wrong is wrong."