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Carrie Dann, Defender of Her Ancestral Land, Dies

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Carrie Dann, who spent decades fighting the United States government to reclaim the ancestral land of the Western Shoshone Nation, died on Jan. 1 at her home in Crescent Valley, Nev.

Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, a longtime friend and fellow activist, confirmed the death and estimated that Ms. Dann was between 86 and 88. Ms. Dann did not have a birth certificate, she said.

The roots of Ms. Dann’s dispute with the government can be traced in part to 1962, when the Indian Claims Commission ruled that members of the Western Shoshone Nation, like Ms. Dann and her sister, Mary Dann, had lost their claim to their land through “gradual encroachment” by settlers.

The Dann sisters were at the forefront of a fight over a tract of land spreading across four Western states. They said their rights to the territory were enshrined in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, in which the United States formally recognized the Western Shoshone claim to about 60 million acres now covering parts of Nevada, Idaho, Utah and California.

The Western Shoshone Nation sued the government for failure to honor the treaty, but courts ruled that they were not entitled to compensation. The tribe appealed, and the Indian Claims Commission awarded it $26 million in 1979. But the tribe refused to accept the money in exchange for the land. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1985 that the tribe had lost title to the land when the $26 million was deposited earlier as payment, even though the tribe had not collected the money.

All the while, the Dann sisters — who spent most of their lives on what had been their fathers’ 800-acre ranch — continued living in a manner reminiscent of their ancestors. As late as 2002, when Carrie Dann was approaching 70 and Mary was nearly 80, they were still breaking in horses and mending fences. They eschewed electricity, hot water and even furnaces, The New York Times reported.

The sisters and other Shoshone ranchers refused to pay grazing fees on traditional Western Shoshone land — nearly 26 million acres in Nevada, roughly two-thirds of the state. The government considers it public land.

In 2002, 40 agents from the Bureau of Land Management descended on the Danns’ ranch, backed up by helicopters. They confiscated and then sold 232 cattle. It was one of a series of punitive measures by the U.S. government stretching over decades.

Some members of the Western Shoshone Nation ultimately accepted government cash in an attempt to end the dispute, but the Danns persisted. Representatives of the Western Shoshone Nation have appealed to international bodies, including the United Nations, and they pressed their case with U.S. government officials as recently as the fall of 2019.

Ms. Dann helped lead other efforts to protect her ancestral land. As a gold mining project expanded at Mount Tenabo, in the Cortez Mountains, Ms. Dann made the case that the area was home to several Western Shoshone creation stories and that the water running beneath it was sacred.

Credit…Laura Rauch/Associated Press

“This area is where the seasons of the year were named — in the time before people were here,” she said in 2011.

Carrie Dann was born to Dewey Dann and Sophie (Dick) Dann in the early 1930s in Crescent Valley. Her parents ran the family ranch. She graduated from Eureka County High School in the early 1950s and spent one year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City.

Her marriage in 1968 to Harvey Knight ended in divorce in 1972. Ms. Dann is survived by her daughter, Patricia Paul, and three grandchildren. Her son, Mark, died in 2015. Mary Dann died in 2005.

The permanent collection of the Nevada Museum of Art includes artwork that touches on the Dann sisters’ activism, and the museum’s deputy director, Ann M. Wolfe, said she had worked with contemporary artists to make sure that their story would not be forgotten.

“Carrie Dann and Mary Dann fought tirelessly to defend Indigenous land rights as outlined in the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley between the U.S. and Western Shoshone leaders,” Ms. Wolfe said in an email on Tuesday to The Associated Press. “The Danns’ story is essential to understanding the collision between Indigenous people and colonial settlers that has led to conflict time and again since America’s founding.”

The New York Times contributed reporting.

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