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Home » Literature Archives » Mary Dann: Uncommon Valora

Author of this essay:

Ming Zhen Shakya, OHY
(10 May, 2005)

by Ming Zhen Shakya

A poem in the blog Crowsmouth, by Robert Rhodes, a member of our sangha who contributes poetry to our site, pays tribute to an heroic Shoshone native of Nevada, the late Mary Dann.

She is survived by her sister Carrie and by the remaining Shoshonean people of the west. A long time ago I wrote an essay in which I said, "... and aside from the Bureau of Land Management, I have no natural enemies." If I had to write Mary Dann's epitaph it would be, "... aside from the Bureau of Land Management, she had no natural enemies."

The BLM, the Jack Booted Thugs nominally of the Department of the Interior, have a public relations' staff that Leni Riefenstahl would die for; and this is why outside of the board rooms of various corporations - the gold, copper, uranium, and titanium mining interests; the oil and timber interests; the cattle interests; the corporations and municipalities who want the water that is on Indian land; and an assortment of other conscience-free investors - few Americans have ever heard of a couple of elderly sisters in Nevada who set standards for courage and tenacity that are the stuff of combat Marines. Let's go back in time a bit....

The California Gold Rush of 1849 created a transportation problem for the Union. Between the gold fields and the more settled states lay the arid lands of the Western Shoshone, the desert lands on the east side of the Sierra Nevada mountain range.

In 1862 Congress passed the Homestead Act which gave 160 acres to anyone who filed a claim and lived on the land "improving" it by farming or tree planting. Easterners and foreigners raced westward.

By 1863, the Union was desperate for gold and for people to cross safely to and from California. Congress ratified a Treaty of Peace and Friendship with the Shoshone Nation "giving" them 43,000 square miles of desert land from the Mojave of Southern California up through one-third of Nevada. In exchange, the Shoshone allowed roads and telegraph wires and the necessary maintenance stations to be built across their land and the safe passage of people.

The west was filling up fast and settlers and cattle violated boundaries. If Indians objected, the cavalry came in and arbitrated.

At least a fourth or a third of most western states were territories that belonged, by treaty, to various Indian Nations. But somebody had to pay for all that arbitration, and in 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act which leased huge parcels of land to cattlemen.

Indian Nations were definitely in the way of progress. But the world was at war and the solution to the Indian problem had to wait. In 1947 the time came and Congress created the "Termination Policy" in which it was envisioned that Indian reservation lands would be abolished.

Public Relations' flacks, new at the game, put the story out that since Indian people were being demoralized by reservation isolation, they would prosper the way other "immigrant" groups prospered if they were forced to intermingle with the general population. Indian groups didn't appreciate being regarded as immigrants, but the government moved ahead and such tribes as the Klamath of Oregon lost valuable timberland and the Aqua Caliente of Southern California lost the land that is now called Palm Springs.

By 1964, 2.5 million acres of Indian lands had been "terminated," i.e., removed from Indian ownership and sold or leased to private interests.

But still there was a nagging suspicion that Native American people were not really immigrants. Well then, what else could they be but hostile aliens? And so, during the Viet Nam era, along with Napalm came the Bureau of Land Management.

The public relations' blunders of the Termination Policy were nicely avoided by by the flacks of its descendant Bureau of Land Management. Other federal agencies took the heat generated by pressures that were increasingly put on Indian peoples. The BLM issued cutsey-pie maps and slogans that reassured everyone that they were serving and protecting American soil for all Americans, even the buffalo.

Press notices camouflaged BLM atrocities just as legalese obscured the equally destructive actions of a complicit judiciary. Counting on the impotent fury of sentimental defense mechanisms, literary grants insured the production of books that clogged bestseller lists. The intention was to divert attention away from live Indians and onto dead ones. And it worked beautifully. People who had never laid eyes on an Indian wept for the 150 Sioux who were killed at the 1890 battle of Wounded Knee.

Washington bureaucrats, irrespective of party, had their eyes on western lands, and the Indians were blocking their view. There was beef to be raised on tribal land... and gold, uranium, copper, and titanium to be mined on tribal land... and oil to be pumped from tribal land... and timber to be cut down from tribal land. And nobody wanted hostile aliens to control any part of the nation's wealth. Grazing, mining, and drilling fees were illegally or immorally imposed and ruinously litigated. Indians would institute suit against the government for treaty violations; and the court would rule in the Indians' favor but would allow an appeal that would be won by the government; and then the Indians would appeal, and on and on it went. And people who were so poor and demoralized that they needed to be terminated from their lands were supposed to match lawyer for lawyer, suit for suit, the horrendous legal costs of defending their rights. Not only Indians, but thousands of small ranchers and small, independent miners were in the way of the large development corporations and so they were ground down by paperwork and fees and government attorneys and armed BLM lawmen. The Termination Policy was alive and well.

And so in 1976, Jimmy Carter gave away the Jewel in the Crown of American Engineering, the Panama Canal, to real hostile aliens; and then balanced the books by canceling the Homestead Act and sharpening the shark's teeth of the BLM. Now, they could claim "encroachment" The Taylor Grazing Act trumped any treaty the U.S. had ever signed with an Indian nation.

Now, if a cow sauntered onto Indian land and the Indians did not immediately remove it, the cow and its owner were given the right to remain there in perpetuity, providing Taylor Grazing fees were paid.

In 1977 The Homestead Act was repealed. And as to the desert lands of the Shoshone and their Peace and Friendship Treaty, in 1978 the Government admitted that they had sort-of violated the treaty by granting the privatization of land and mineral rights, by construction of military bases, and by conducting of above ground nuclear testing, among other possible infractions. The Government decided that the Indians should be compensated for their land and offered them $26 million dollars for the 43,000 square miles of Nevada the Shoshone owned. For some reason, the Shoshone said, "No Deal." The Feds put the $26 million dollars in a trust account and considered the negotiation successfully concluded. The Indians would not touch the money and figured that as long as they didn't, there was no deal. Wrong.

The few thousand Shoshone left in Nevada asked to be left in peace to live upon what little land was fit for human habitation. But near Ruby Valley, where the Dann Sisters lived, lay a deposit of gold and the Bureau of Land Management determined to rid the land of any interfering Indians. The Cortez Cold Mine needed to expand its operation.

Back in the 1930s, when the sisters were children, their father, trying to avoid trouble, had purchased a grazing rights' permit; but as the sisters grew old enough to understand U.S. Treaty obligations, they refused to apply for permission to live on land that was granted them by the treaty of 1863.

In 2002, the BLM invoked the Taylor Grazing Act and forty armed BLM agents came onto the Dann Sisters little ranch and removed 227 cows and some 800 mustangs which would be sold as partial payment of the $3,000,000.00 the BLM said the sisters owed for having grazed their cows on land covered by the Taylor Grazing Act. The Indian sisters were also charged with trespassing on public land.

The sisters sued and the Court ruled that since no Shoshone had ever accepted the original money, a sale of land did not exist. But the BLM appealed and won in a higher court. Back and forth the law suits went. Armed BLM agents came onto their land again and removed the sisters' last remaining cattle and more mustangs.

The BLM blocked roads to the Dann Sisters' little ranch house and tore down fences. But even without electricity or other conveniences, the elderly sisters persevered. To them, the BLM had trespassed on their land and rustled their cattle. The BLM was much amused. They disposed of the animals

Small miners who had worked their claims devotedly were put through the same tyrannical delight (the joy BLM clerks took in harassing ordinary folks is beyond description). And where did such arrogance come from? According to the National Wilderness Institution's State by Sate Government land Ownership map: http://www.nwi.org/Maps/LandChart.html "The BLM is the largest landholder with 268,462,800 acres or 38.2% of the federal estate."

The BLM is the "landholder" of "38.2% of the federal estate"? This is the arrogance of feudalism. Does it help anyone to understand that Ken Starr of the Clinton probe litigated the suit against the Shoshone?

It is perhaps of interest to those Americans who have never had to deal with these "aristocratic hit men" that the only organization that stands up to them is the National Rifle Association. (The Taylor Grazing Act and a complicit judiciary are not much loved by NRA sportsmen who won't shoot mustangs and can't shoot cows. People out west who don't even own a gun join the NRA.)

Anyone who doubts the contempt for U.S. treaty obligations has only to listen to Donald Trump campaign against the gambling casinos on tiny tribal lands near his holdings. Those casinos don't pay the taxes he has to pay on his Taj Mahal in Atlantic City and it pains him no end that those Indians, treaty or no treaty, should be given this unfair advantage. Not to worry. He'll prevail.

And so the armed BLM agents came onto the Dann Sisters' land and removed a few hundred head of cattle and, because horses ate the grass that the commercial cattle could eat, the mustangs were also "removed." The demise of Mustangs under BLM "care" is a national disgrace. But the gold mine operation is doing very well.

It is to Robert Rhodes' credit that he did not let his tribute to Mary Dann slip into the mucky sentimentality that traps many authors and observers of native Americans. Too often we hear florid phrases that extol the Indians' love of the land, their indomitable respect for old and honored ways, their pristine spirituality. Somebody litters and an indian cries. These piteous testaments are for ceramic Indians, the ones that breathe have more pressing problems than litterbugs. The high cancer rates their children are experiencing because of uranium waste runoff and atmospheric nuclear tests do not make for spiritual union with the landscape.

Sentiment is fine for Mother's Day cards; but when we're talking about groups of human beings - especially those who have had an historical grievance against our government - sentiment often masks an author's defense mechanism or contributes to a reader's making of one; and to whatever extent it does either it is a pernicious emotion.

It is easy to adopt a cause and then to abandon it, to go from supportive interest to bored indifference. We often find that when we hear a sudden outcry that romanticizes victims and demonizes those who are charged with abusing them we are witnessing the crier's defense of his own ego. This diseased process of reaction formation is subtle and by its very nature bears, in the presentation of its symptoms, no resemblance to the vector or the virus that caused it.

Rhodes is neither condescending nor patronizing in expressing his concern for the plight of the western Shoshone and other Indian nations as well. If there is a danger in his stirring verse it is that it will feed into the kind of sugary sentimentality that those who are susceptible to reaction formation suck up in preference to the bitter taste of self-confrontation.

And this is what the sentimental nurturing of defense mechanism does. It gives us bread, circuses, and scapegoats. And while our attention has been diverted, sends in the cavalry.

Years ago I received a call from a lady who had learned that I was once a member of the Indian Rights Association. She was a middle aged widow who could well afford the passion she had developed for New Age Indian culture. "All my life," she gently confided, "I had cared only about myself. My children fledged and flew; and when my husband died and I was truly alone, I saw how empty and unfulfilling that care had been." Having learned the error of her way, she wanted now to set her feet upon a more altruistic path; and for this she wanted advice from me.

I am not known for being a guide to wayward matrons, but I agreed to meet her for lunch in the event I had some latent talent in that regard.

No sooner had I sat down at the restaurant table and exchanged greetings with her, she invited me to attend a forum on Native Americans which a club she belonged to was hosting; and I, with unwonted sociability, accepted. Through several courses of an excellent meal she talked about Indian poverty and an assortment of atrocities that our government had committed against various tribes. Her eyes literally filled with tears as she recounted the infamous Trail of Tears of the Cherokee nation.. which occurred in 1838..

Over creme brule and Kona coffee, she told me it was in Santa Fe that she first awakened to the plight of these unfortunate victims of government greed and deceit. She unknowingly had dropped a change purse and the sweetest Indian girl this side of the Mississippi had picked it up and carried to her.

She bit her lip and shook her head in wonderment. "That child could have kept the purse.. but in her simple honesty...."

Carlos Casteneda's books were much on her mind and she thought it was nothing short of miraculous that such wisdom could adhere to Don Juan's bare-boned existence. She also thought that the chef could have caramelized the sugar on the brule a bit more.

I was a coward in those days. I went to the meeting.

A Sioux woman was led to the podium with a sheaf of notes that she had difficulty reading. She squinted and stammered and in the most lugubrious phrases informed the audience that American soldiers had given blankets loaded with small pox to her people in order to spread the fatal disease among them. A reporter in the disappointingly small audience asked when this had occurred. She searched the paper for an answer, gave up and ventured, "All the time." "Where?" he asked her. She didn't know but kept to the line, guessing, "Everywhere." This wasn't specific enough for the reporter and when he said something about documentation, she began to shuffle her papers and stutter and then people in the audience began to berate the reporter who closed his notebook and left the room. The meeting degenerated into an attack on the press.

My companion had joined in the attack and if anything her feeling for the smallpox victims noticeably increased. The principal speaker was ushered from the room and then a lady took the podium to offer "the most likely explanation" for the speaker's lack of information: "She had been drinking before the meeting," she intoned.

"It's no wonder," my companion allowed, "After all she's suffered. I'd drink, too."

The speaker had not looked drunk to me. She looked like somebody's mom who had been told she'd be paid a nice speaking fee if she would come and tell "her" story - so she came and learned that nobody wanted to hear about reservation crime and punishment, rampant unemployment, inadequate medical care, horrendous high school dropout rates, or her recipe for rabbit stew. The ladies didn't need to bring a woman down from North Dakota to talk about these problems. We had enough of them on our own doorsteps.

I voiced my suspicion that a topic change was a more likely explanation than the drunkenness theory, and a couple of women agreed, saying that they had heard the club's president say that there was a direct ratio between donations and sympathy and they'd get a whole lot more money for their planned scholarship fund if the "victim angle" was emphasized rather than the "irresponsibility" one.

My New Age Indian friend called me again several months later. She had heard about Charles Loloma who was considered the Rembrandt of Indian Jewelry. He had gained a certain mystique, the story in circulation being that he would meet a person and meditate on that person's psychological need and then he would design a piece of jewelry that would fulfill that need. Whenever he agreed to make a piece for a customer, he made only what he thought the customer required. (After a lifetime of creating beautiful but expensive art - most of his pieces are now in museums - Charles Loloma died in 1991)

She wanted to see some of his pieces before she made an appointment with him to produce a piece of jewelry for her. I wanted to see his work, too, so I went with her to an upscale Indian jewelry store.

She asked the clerk to show her some of Loloma's work. "I don't think we carry any," the clerk responded. Incredibly, my companion suspected that this was a strategy to discourage the hoi polloi. Archly, she asked that the owner be summoned. The clerk went into a room at the back of the shop.

We had come at a bad time. The owner was in a foul mood. "No Loloma!" he said abruptly. "We don't carry his pieces. We have many other fine artists."

She didn't like his attitude. "I'm sure you do. Do you know where I can buy Loloma's work?"

He snarled, "What do I look like, his goddamned agent? You want to buy a name... not a piece of jewelry!" And as he returned to his office, I could hear him say, "Stupid bitch."

I mumbled some expression of regret and guided my companion out of the store. She was livid. The first thing she said when she got in the car was, "After all I've done for those ingrates..."

I met her again at a yoga class months later. She had switched the object of her righteous indignation to the CIA's involvement in El Salvador and to banana agribusiness. She was also taking Librium. I asked about her interest in Indians and she told me that friends of hers owned a large ranch upstate and after listening to them about their problems with Indians she was glad she had not tossed any more of her assets in the ingrates' direction. She was also glad that the Bureau of Land Management was putting teeth in the enforcement of the Taylor Grazing Act, converting wasted Indian lands into something good and productive.

This is the essential problem with sentimentalizing the plight of groups of people. Sentiment lends itself to perpetuating an attitude that on its surface is supportive but in fact is concealed contumely. Concerns for people's problems and an insistence for justice to be shown them are meritorious in themselves. Reason can be brought to bear upon the problems and solutions found; but when sentiment enters the deliberations, the unconscious mind finds an easy and fortuitous way to avoid painful responsibility for its own failures. The Lex Talionis assures us that this shifting of guilt away from ourselves is a very temporary relief. We will will suffer consequences. Our mind will turn upon itself. Symptoms of distress which may seem utterly unrelated to the avoided problem will appear. Our body, too, can turn upon itself. Again, the Lex Talionis is divine law. It is the punitive karmic fate from which no man can hide.

And just as a sentimental defense mechanism is harmful to the one who expresses it, so too is it harmful to those who are the recipients of it. Regardless of the kind of defensive strategy that is used, the recipient suffers. Displacement punishes him for the faults of another. Projection likewise finds him accused of something that his accuser is guilty of. Rationalization brushes his problems away with facile excuses for demeaning them. And reaction formation in which he is seen as the helpless victim of imperial power does not do much for his self-esteem. If he does not stumble under the weight of his assumed inferiority, using the estimations of his substandard ability as the reason for his weak performance, he puffs himself up with angry bravado and rejects both those who would try to assist him in gaining justice for himself and those whose interest in his problems extend no further than the alleviation of their own psychological distress.

Mary Dann, a lady in her eighties, died in an accident while trying to repair a fence. She died with honor and dignity - two qualities of which her tormentors are bereft.

The poem can be found here at http://crowsmouth.typepad.com/crows_mouth/2005/05/a_white_mans_la.html.

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