By Ghida Fakhry in Nevada – For more than 30 years, Carrie Dann, a native Shoshone American, has been fighting the US government for her people’s rights to their ancestral land.
Dann accuses the US government of ignoring her case in favour of multi-national corporations whose interests she says lie in their bottom lines and not in the environment.
Since the dispute began 30 years ago, US armed federal agents have seized hundreds of horses from Dann’s Crescent Valley ranch in Nevada, leaving her with only a few cows.
The US government’s actions were a response to Dann’s refusal to pay cattle fees.
She says that it is her right as a native American to live off her ancestral land.
Speaking to Al Jazeera English, Dann said: “I can’t believe that this is happening supposedly in America where everybody talks about democracy, and how good democracy is. As far as the indigenous people go, we have not seen that democracy.”
Dann is actively challenging the legality of the US government’s claim of ownership to millions of acres of traditional Shoshone territory.
But the US bureau of land management insists that Dann has broken the law by not applying for a grazing licence and refusal to pay fees.
Al Jazeera made repeated requests to interview US officials about the case, but they refused to appear on camera and sent an email in response to journalists’ questions.
Dann said she also received a short email saying that removing and impounding livestock was “an action of last resort” and the bureau had made “hundreds of attempts over the years” to work with Dann, but that she “had chosen not to” resolve her issues with the government agency.
Although Dann is worried that one day the government will seize her ranch, she has no intention of paying the outstanding fees.
The ranch sits atop some of the most valuable real estate in the world. It is the second-largest gold producing region on earth.
Julie Fishel, a lawyer and an activist who has volunteered to help Dann, considers this case one of the biggest “land swindles” in modern history.
Fishel, of the Western Shoshone defence project, told Al Jazeera: “They are offering the Shoshone people approximately 15 cents an acre. And at the same time they then turned around and were waiting to open up the same land for privatisation for multinational corporate interest.”
Dann says multi-national corporations are profiting at the cost of the environment
But it is estimated that the land may be worth a far greater fortune.
Mount Tenabo is estimated to be worth $8 billion to the Gold Mining industries – but to the Western Shoshone, it is one of their most revered spiritual sites.
Ruby Valley is the site where the US government and the Western Shoshone signed a treaty of peace and friendship in 1863. It was the last agreement between the two. Since then, the land has been developed without the agreement of the Shoshone.
Everywhere you look, corporate activity is growing in Nevada. Examples of this development are water and geothermal projects and an open-pit gold-mine.
Such projects could cause damage to the environment.
The US government is now offering every Western Shoshone $20,000 as a final settlement. But many, like Raymond Yowell, one of the elders and a cousin of Carrie Dann, have refused to take the offer.
Yowell, chief of the Western Shoshone national council, told Al Jazeera: “The mother earth is not for sale and that’s what I stand on. I will not accept it if it’s a million dollars. If it’s 20 million I will not accept it.”
Not all the Western Shoshone agree. Some just want to take the money and move on.
Diana Bukcner, chairwoman of Ely Shoshone Tribe, said: “This has been a dream. The Indian money they called it so many years ago. We’re not going to get the land back. That’s not going to happen.”
However, some members of the next generation do not agree with Bukner and see accepting compensation from the government as turning their back on history and their roots.
Yowell said: “We’re giving up a lot more than just 20 grand. You know that’s just a payout.”
Robert Hager, a lawyer for the Western Shoshone, said that the US government has been awarding contracts in this area to major corporations
He said: “Barrick, Newmont and Halliburton are major corporations that have ties to elected officials in terms of campaign contributions and, in terms of contracts, are major players in Western Shoshone territories.”
Another corporation accused of exploiting the Western Shoshone land is Bechtel, a major contractor of the US defence department in Iraq.
A Bechtel spokesman dismissed the complaints of the Western Shoshone and called them misplaced.
Jonathan Marshall, media relations manager at Bechtel, told Al Jazeera: “The real issues are land claims against the federal government.
“Instead of taking their claims to Washington, they think it might be more politically opportune to make a demonstration outside of Bechtel.”
But protestors who gathered outside the company’s San Francisco headquarters disagree.
After the US supreme court threw out Dann’s case, she took her fight to the United Nations in Geneva where she won a moral victory. The UN told the US to stop all actions against the Western Shoshone people and uphold their rights.
It may not change anything. But Dann’s faith is still strong.
“I’m willing to stand up for the future generations of our people,” she said.
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