Carrie Dann sees a circle as a symbol of the way we were meant to live on this Earth. "You are born in a certain place," she explains, "and when you die there you complete the circle."
Perhaps at the midpoint of your life you have children. Their lives too are circles. They stay on the land, have children, die in the place they were born. For the Shoshone, a life that loops back upon itself is endless.If circles are a comforting pattern in nature, they are less so in government. If she has to leave her land, Dann believes, it will be because the U.S. government has been circuitous in dealing with the Shoshone people.
The Shoshone lived in what is now central Nevada for thousands of years before white men came. In 1863, at the height of the Civil War, when the U.S. government was most anxious to protect its access to the gold in California, the president and 12 Shoshone leaders signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley.
The treaty defined 24 million acres - approximately one-third of what would become the state of Nevada - as Indian territory. It allowed for miners, railroads and telegraph lines to pass through the area. It allowed whites to settle, too. At the same time it guaranteed the Shoshone the right to hunt and fish and live on the land.
Today, Chief Raymond Yowell estimates that the Western Shoshone are living on less than half a million acres of land - non-reservation and reservation land - in Nevada.
Carrie Dann and her sister Mary run 700 head of cattle on part of that property. When, in 1973, they got a notice that they were trespassing, they were stunned. Their grandparents lived in a wickiup on the land, near the house that their father built, the house they live in now.
Since that first notice, what has transpired in the U.S. legal system is, as the Danns see it, an example of circular reasoning. Shoshone land, which leaders say has never been for sale, now belongs to the U.S. government.
In 1979, the Indian Claims Commission decided that, because whites had been allowed to encroach upon Shoshone land, beginning at the time of the Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Shoshone had in effect given up their right to the land. Since no money had ever been paid them, the Indian Claims Commission awarded the Shoshone people $26 million - at $1.05 an acre. That's the amount the land was worth in the 1800s.
The Shoshone refused the money. The U.S. government put it in a trust for them. Later, the Ninth Circuit Court in San Francisco upheld the Shoshone right to the land. But in 1985 the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision and upheld the Claims Commission's right to pay them for it, and the secretary of the Interior's right to accept money on their behalf and put it in trust.
"That enrages the Danns," says their Salt Lake attorney John O'Connell. "Since they aren't even on a reservation they don't think the secretary of the Interior has any right to act as their guardian."
In 1989, the Danns got another court order: Reduce their herd to 21 head. The fact that the Danns are self-sufficient bothers the U.S. government, says O'Connell. "The government seems to think all Indians should be on the dole."
The plight of Carrie and Mary Dann is illustrated in the documentary film "To Protect Mother Earth." The film was produced and directed by Joel L. Freedman and narrated by Robert Redford. Carrie Dann came to Utah earlier this month to present the film at the Museum of Natural History Lecture series at the University of Utah.
Yowell came too, as did David Lewis, a history professor at Utah State University. O'Connell also spoke. All four tried to answer audience questions about the complicated legal processes.
"What can we do about this injustice?" a frustrated voice eventually asked. "Write your congressperson," Yowell suggested.
The Danns' presentation about the Shoshone was the first in the lecture series. The next week Linda Sillitoe, Rose Hulligan and Clyde Benally talked about current Navajo issues. Last week, Larry Cesspooch and Gary Montana discussed the Ute Tribe in the Uintah Basin, specifically how the CUP project and water rights will affect their future.
The lecture series continues Tuesday nights at 7:30 p.m. in the Fine Arts auditorium. On Tuesday, Oct. 23, the lecture - with Geneal Anderson, Travis Parashonts and Gary Tom - will explore the changing world of the Paiutes.
On Oct. 30, a panel will discuss urban Native Americans. The moderator is Nola Lodge, a clinical instructor in ethnic studies at the U.
Victoria Smith who directs the series for the museum says Native American issues are now national issues. Everywhere, she says, "treaties are being challenged over taxation, hunting and fishing rights, nuclear testing."
It could be that Carrie Dann's life will have a different shape soon. If she has to leave the land, she may live a linear life. Like an Anglo, she could find herself moving from one job to another, from one place to another, until she dies.
She says she will never leave willingly. Nor will she willingly sell the herd that supports her family. Dann says, "I would like to see my children and my grandchildren live off this land." Then she would have passed on her religion and her traditions. Then she'd have lived successfully.
"We have to complete the circle," she explains, again.