Speak Your Piece: Double-Standard Standoff

When Cliven Bundy stood up to the Bureau of Land Management, the media circus -- and armed militia -- came to town, resulting in a peace gesture from the federal government. So what’s different in the case of two Shoshone sisters who had an even better claim?

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 A curious story has been playing out in Nevada for over 30 years. The Bureau of Land Management has been rounding up cattle grazing on public lands, selling them at auction and punishing the owners with millions of dollars in fees and trespassing fines.

This is not the story of recent frontier hero Cliven Bundy. It is the story of Carrie and Mary Dann, two members of the Shoshone Indian tribe. The Dann sisters have violated the same laws as Bundy, and the Bureau of Land Management has reacted with unsettling aggression, at one point arriving “heavily armed and fortified with helicopters.” And even though their battle with BLM stretches further back than Bundy’s, it has received little national press coverage. They have received approximately zero support from armed militia groups.

This is a shame, because their legal claim to the public land on which their cattle graze is far more legitimate than Bundy’s. The land in question is traditional Western Shoshone land, and their supporters argue that the Shoshone tribe never legally ceded these rangelands to the federal government.

This raises the question: Why, in all of the posturing and equivocating induced by the stand at Bundy Ranch, has there been no mention of the Dann sisters?

The answer might rest in an article by the National Review’s Kevin Williamson. Aside from comparing the freedom-fighting Bundy to nonviolent civil rights activist Mohandas Gandhi, Williamson locates Bundy’s motive along a spectrum of classic American dichotomies: libertarianism vs. collectivism, East Coast intellectualism vs. West Coast individualism. He writes: “Mr. Bundy is tapping into a longstanding tendency in the American West to view the federal government as a creature of the Eastern establishment, with political and economic interests that are inimical to those of the West and its people.”

Photo by Ronnie Farley
Mary and Carrie Dann at their ranch near Crescent Valley, Nevada, in 1992. The sisters said the Shoshone tribe never ceded their land to the federal government.
 This simplified branding of the West is expedient for Williamson, because it allows him to erase Native Americans from the equation. What is left is a convenient justification to take up arms against a foreign government’s illegitimate encroachment. But Bundy’s opponents do not have much of a rebuttal that does not champion the authority of the Bureau of Land Management. They could say that, from a legal standpoint, the BLM’s armed response to Cliven Bundy’s stubbornness was appropriate. After all, the agency never hesitated to punish the Dann sisters with armed force. But they still must explain why the BLM backed down from a conflict with armed white ranchers, but not with unarmed Shoshone Indians.

The origin of this strange policy requires a short look at the history of the Bureau of Land Management. The BLM manages 264 million acres of public land. Most of these lands were stolen from indigenous tribes with a combination of force and legalese. A common strategy was to break a land treaty previously made with a tribe, then back up the betrayal in the courtroom. This includes the treaty the government made with the Dann Sisters, and it goes back to 1863. In 1985 the Supreme Court upheld the government’s ability to break this treaty – and thereby extinguish the Shoshone’s title of occupancy – by paying the tribe large sums of money.

Since the acquisition of many of these public lands, the BLM has set a disturbing precedent for how the lands are managed. For example, the BLM frequently colludes with private companies to trade away publicly owned land at below-market prices. Their non-competitive coal auctions have cost taxpayers as much as $28.9 billion over the past 30 years. They are working at a dizzying pace to expand fracking on public lands. Until recently, they allowed the clear cutting of millions of acres of forests in the Pacific Northwest.

Clearly such unpopular policies affect not only Indians but all rural Americans. They indicate the government’s willingness to support corporate activities at the expense of the American taxpayer. MSNBC’s Timothy Noah calls this “corporate mooching,” and he patiently explains how the mentality that guides the Bureau of Land Management to exploit Western lands for corporate gain is cousin to Cliven Bundy’s assumption that the land is his to begin with. 

With this in mind, rural Americans must realize that the same restraint and consideration for public safety that the BLM granted to Cliven Bundy will not be granted universally. This is a lesson that the Dann sisters and their ancestors cannot forget; that environmental activists are now learning; and that the Cliven Bundys of the world will continue to exploit.

 

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