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The Dann Sisters


Carrie Dann born 1932 in Crescent Valley, Newe Sogobia; died January 1 2022 in Crescent Valley, Newe Sogobia;

Mary Dann born January 2 1923 in Crescent Valley, Newe Sogobia; died April 22 2005 in Crescent Valley, Newe Sogobia

My aunts, Mary and Carrie Dann, although they were leaders in defending the Western Shoshone people’s ancestral land against the federal government, were always my teachers and loving family. My mother, Barbara Jackson Ridley, was first cousin to Mary and Carrie. Their mothers, Sophie Dick Dann and Alice Dick Jackson were sisters.

As a child, my mother traveled back and forth from Beowawe to the Dann Ranch, as her parents would help with haying, branding, and sheep shearing. Oftentimes, Grandma Sophie and Grandma Alice were out in the hay field turning the hay by hand because they didn’t have a hay rake.

As a child I would travel from Elko to Crescent Valley with Aunt Mary and Aunt Carrie to spend weekends and summers on the Dann ranch. I and my seven cousins lived at the ranch and there was so much to do, learn and experience. Growing up with my Dann cousins and spending time at the ranch mirrored how my mother, aunts, uncles, and grandmas and grandpas lived and worked as an extended family group. I feel so fortunate to have been able to have that connection to my Dann family, the ranch and the valley(s) where my family and ancestors lived off the land.

It’s hard to imagine that if you live in Nevada that you haven’t heard of the Dann sisters. Mary and Carrie Dann were two traditional Western Shoshone ranchers, grandmothers and activists who lived and worked the land in Crescent Valley, the heart of unceded Western Shoshone ancestral Nevada homelands.

Mary and Carrie took on the world’s most powerful nation, the United States of America, asserting Western Shoshone land rights and human rights. The Dann sisters were an international beacon for other Indigenous Peoples’ fight to retain and reclaim their aboriginal land rights as well.

Some might describe the Dann sisters as courageous, brave, heroic, strong, feisty, and powerful. Others might describe them as troublemakers, loud, and angry. But they were Western Shoshone women who valued their heritage, family, truth and justice.

I simply know them as my aunties. Aunties whom I admire not solely because of the important work they did to advance Western Shoshone land rights, but because they taught me about Newe (Shoshone) cultural values and beliefs. They taught me that all life that surrounds us, the animals, birds, fish, mountains, trees, water, plants, are our relations. They taught me that it is nature’s law, not man’s law, that Newe live by and that the old relatives who came before us taught us how to live. They taught me about our families’ ties to the land and some of the stories associated with the area. They taught me that the Earth is our Mother and she provides everything we need.

Just as their ancestors did, the Danns lived with other members of their extended family on the Dann Ranch. Their parents were Dewey Dann and Sophie Dick Dann. Dewey was born on the Grass Valley Ranch in 1898 and Sophie Dick Dann was born in Cortez. Sophie was the daughter of Mary Hall, a noted Western Shoshone basketmaker and craft artisan who spent part of her life with the family living on the Dann ranch. They settled in Crescent Valley where Dewey homesteaded the land. Sophie’s three sisters, Jenny, Alice and Eva, along with their families resided in Beowawe, which is about 20 miles from the Dann Ranch and about 70 miles southwest of Elko. The Danns’ extended families, whether living at the ranch or in Beowawe, would help brand, shear sheep, drive cattle, hay and just about anything else to help keep the ranch going.

Dewey and Sophie had seven children. Aunt Mary was the second oldest and Aunt Carrie the second youngest. The remainder of their children were Thomas, Richard, Iris, Clifford, and James. The family ranched, hunted, gathered plants, grazed livestock and practiced their Western Shoshone ceremonies. The Danns lived their lives in their traditional way-of-life as Newe. They lived and cultivated the land they considered to be Western Shoshone ancestral territory as sanctioned by the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

Both Aunt Mary and Aunt Carrie attended school in Beowawe, staying with their aunt Jenny, Sophie’s sister, during the week and going home to the ranch on the weekends. The Beowawe School taught grades one through eight. After completing the eighth grade, Aunt Mary attended school until the eighth grade. Her father, Dewey, needed Mary to help operate the ranch. So, with an eighth-grade education, Aunt Mary became a cattle owner with a few cows and business manager for the Dann ranch. She kept the books and dealt with ranch business all the while rounding up cattle, branding, haying, and all the tasks associated with running a ranching operation.

In the 1950s Aunt Carrie and brother Clifford moved to Eureka to attend high school. Their father bought a house there so the two siblings would have a place to live. While attending Eureka High School, Carrie was a reporter for the school newspaper, The Huddle. She excelled in civic and government classes and attended Nevada Girls State. In her sophomore year, Carrie was in a play, Shock of His Life: A Comedy in One Act. She played Connie, the oldest daughter in the family. During her time at Eureka High School Carrie received several academic awards, girl’s athletics, drama, and student council. After high school she attended one year at Westminster College in Salt Lake City. Aunt Carrie’s aspiration was to be a nurse. However, it seems auntie was destined to be a leader as she would lead the Western Shoshone to fight for their inherent right to their land.

My aunties awed and excited us cousins when they were running wild mustangs. They would leave early in the morning headed towards Hand-Me-Down Mountain to round up up the mustangs to add to their herd. They would be gone all day. All of us cousins anticipated seeing the dust of the mustangs coming down the mountain getting closer to the ranch. We would climb to the roof of our lookout point, the tack house. And finally, seeing the dust we’d run to the corrals and position ourselves on the fence quietly watching and being perfectly still so that we wouldn’t scare the mustangs into different directions. Watching my aunties skillfully direct the mustangs into the corral was such a sight to see. They both had such grace and horsemanship. Part of the excitement too, was watching my cousins pick their colt to take care of and raise.

My aunties were always together, traveling, ranching, attending meetings and ceremonies, or visiting with friends and relatives. It was like they were joined at the hip. I saw them laugh together and get into verbal arguments and then laugh again. Aunt Carrie appeared to be the dominant force in the relationship along with being the family spokesman. However, it was Aunt Mary who always had the final say.

As children my cousins and I learned of Aunt Carrie’s leadership capabilities and her understanding of the workings of the U.S. government, truth and justice. Aunt Carrie’s lesson about truth and justice was demonstrated when we were involved in a mock trial in “her” court regarding an incident none of us would confess to. We were all summoned to Aunt Carrie’s court to find out which one of us was the culprit who got into paint in the shop without permission and made a mess. At the end of court, the guilty cousin got his due and justice was served. Though we thought it was a fun exercise in play, Aunt Carrie was serious about educating us about the intricacies of a court trial and the consequences that followed. Ironically, years later, she and Aunt Mary would end up in a court system that would not provide her or the Western Shoshone justice.

Aunt Mary loved animals. The ranch was a perfect place for her to grow up; in the country and surrounded by nature, wildlife and livestock. When she was a young girl, Aunt Mary adopted and raised a fawn as her pet. She loved her pet deer. However, the deer didn’t like Aunt Mary’s mother, Sophie, or her sister, Iris. So, Mary had to keep her deer contained when mother and sister were near-by. Reaching adulthood, it was time for the deer to move on, especially since it was mating season. Aunt Mary said before her pet left, it came to her bedroom door and with its hooves, tapped on her door. She believed the tapping noise was her pet deer saying good-bye. Aunt Mary was sad her friend left, never to be seen again. But even sadder when she learned that the deer was shot by a hunter.

During calving time, it wasn’t unusual for Aunt Mary to bring a calf or lamb home to nurse back to health. She loved horses too. Her favorite work horse was Everyday! She named her horse Everyday simply because she could ride him every day! Everyday was as gentle and patient as Aunt Mary was.

My Aunt Mary was a healer and she healed me and my sister. I had a bothersome wart that Aunt Mary cut off a piece of. She told me to get up the next day in the early morning, go to the creek with the cutoff wart and pray in Shoshone to the water. Aunt Mary told me to tell the water that the wart on my finger was like an ornery old husband that wouldn’t let go of me and that I didn’t want him anymore. She told me after praying to give the piece of wart to the water and say goodbye to my husband. I did precisely what Auntie told me to do and a day or two, the wart on my finger disappeared.

Another time Aunt Mary used her healing powers was with my sister, Mandy. Mandy was riding a horse and jumping it over the fences. Mandy didn’t cinch the saddle tight enough and the final jump, off came the saddle and Mandy flying into barbed wire. The horse ran off and Mandy struggled to free herself and the saddle from the barbed wire. Mandy suffered a deep cut on the chin, she held her bleeding chin and dragged the saddle home. Aunt Mary stitched Mandy’s chin with a buckskin needle, to keep Mandy from focusing on pain, Aunt Mary made her laugh about the accident and found a teaching moment about the importance of saddling your horse. That was the power of our aunt’s gentle doctoring. Aunt Mary loved to read us her favorite subject, Archie Comic books. She would read the comic books to us each night before we went to sleep. If Aunt Mary read negative books about American Indians she would get so mad and livid, saying they wrote lies and really don’t know anything about Indians. She would burn the books.

The Dann family were hardworking, independent and dedicated Western Shoshone ranchers. From the time Dewey Dann homesteaded the 800-acre ranch until the time Aunt Mary and Aunt Carrie inherited the business, they continued to keep the ranch functioning and afloat. They were branding, rounding up cattle, irrigating their hay fields into their 70’s and 80’s. They were tough women. They had to be. Especially in light of their decades long battle with the United States to retain millions of acres of Western Shoshone land. They also endured three confiscations of their cattle by the U.S. government. Which finally, ended their ranching business in 2003. Yet through all the hearings, fighting against the mines, fighting against nuclear waste and military encroachment on Newe land, they still remained upbeat and had the energy to laugh. They never showed their sadness enduring these hardships. My aunties remained dignified, strong, proud and independent spirits.

Aunt Mary and Aunt Carrie’s stand to protect their land and livelihood began in 1973 when their way of life was in jeopardy. Aunt Mary was approached by a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee, notifying Aunt Mary their cattle were grazing on alleged “public lands” without the proper permit.

Aunt Mary’s response was indicative of the Indigenous knowledge she possessed and lived by, if she were guilty of trespassing, it would be on Paiute land rather than United States land. The Dann sisters knew they were not trespassing because they lived and ranched in the heart of Western Shoshone unceded territory, as accorded by the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

After a series of court proceedings and several appeals, the United States ruled in 1985 that the Western Shoshone had lost the title to the land. Consequently, the Danns “lost” the trespassing case. But that did not deter Aunt Carrie and Aunt Mary from elevating the injustices of the dispossession of Western Shoshone ancestral treaty lands. Holding the US accountable for the violations of the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Aunt Carrie and Aunt Mary engaged in countless appeals and appeared before several international bodies and tribunals.

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights issued a final report finding the U.S. in violation of the rights of Western Shoshone petitioners to equality before the law, due process, and property under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. In addition to the Inter-American Commission ruling, the UNCERD (United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination) released an Early Warning and Urgent Action decision and urged the U.S. to immediately freeze, desist, and stop any further actions against the Western Shoshone including legislative efforts to privatize their land. UNCERD ordered the U.S. to stop immediately and initiate dialogue with the Western Shoshone. Despite these findings, to date, the United States has yet to comply in good faith.

Aunt Carrie established and led the Indigenous non-profit, Western Shoshone Defense Project (WSDP), which advocated and asserted Western Shoshone land rights. She organized a fight against the destruction of Western Shoshone lands caused by the United States and corporate entities including, in particular, mining, military, and nuclear storage. Mining was in the Dann’s backyard. They were neighbors to one of the largest Canadian gold mine companies in the world, Barrick Gold. It’s no surprise knowing how destructive mining is to land, air, water, sun/spirit (LAWS) that Aunt Carrie’s concern regarding the devastation and destruction to sacred sites and her beloved relative, water spirit was expressed in the following manner, “They’re pumping this virgin water so we as human beings can enjoy wearing gold. Ladies and gentleman, you are killing the Earth. The Earth is dying because of the way people act”. She continued to plea, “We as Indigenous people are yelling, ‘Stop that, you’re killing our Mother!’ Who’s going to hear us? Stop that. You’re killing the Mother of all life, for God’s sake!”

Aunt Carrie’s belief that the foundation of Western Shoshone cultural identity is the fundamental connection to the land. The transmission of cultural traditions and stories from elder to child was important to Carrie. She always emphasized to children and young adults to know their history, know who they are and know where they came from. Aunt Carrie stated, “As far as the Western Shoshones being here in this valley, they’ve always been here from forever, I guess. Our stories don’t tell us coming here from anyplace. It tells us that as the Creator went by He planted His children. We’ve heard that from the time we were little.”

I saw Aunt Mary and Aunt Carrie embody the spirit of our ancestors. They were confident of their cultural identity, traditions and practices. They knew their land, their country, Newe Sogobia, The People’s Earth Mother, and they loved her dearly. When asked about her fierce attachment to the land, Aunt Carrie credits her father, Dewey Dann, for the “strength of spirit and mind” and the strong, traditional family matriarchs who raised her on the land where her people have lived since time immemorial.

When Aunt Mary took her journey to the spirit world, Aunt Carrie would say this about her sister, “She stood up against the mining industry, the nuclear industry, the energy industry. Aunt Mary never took no for an answer but she stood her ground for what she believed in and for the Truth. Not because she wanted to, but because she had to. I will continue to do this, even with my sister gone. I believe in these things also.”

My aunties, Mary and Carrie, lived by the principles of respect, responsibility, reciprocity and reverence in relationship to the land, people, nature and the universe. As the years passed, family-by-family either moved from the ranch or Beowawe, to make a living elsewhere. In a valley that once served as home to numerous Western Shoshone families, the Danns were the only Newe family to remain in their valley homeland.

I am a librarian by profession and have recently founded an educational and cultural preservation non-profit, the Noowuh (Shoshone) Knowledge Center. Prior to the passing of both of my aunts, they asked me to be the family knowledge keeper.

As I look back, my Aunt Carrie prepared me for these teachings, but I didn’t realize it at the time. I was about twelve years old, and Aunt Carrie told me to pack some clothes as we were going on a trip. I didn’t know it then but this trip would be an educational journey about our people and our land. On this trip, we stopped in Wells visiting friends and then on to Ely where we spent hours talking with an Elder about the Ruby Valley Treaty and the history of the Newe. As we traveled a partial circumference of Newe Sogobia, Aunt Carrie pointed out different areas where there was significant Newe culture history. The one story that sticks in my mind was the massacre of hundreds of Western Shoshone people by the U.S. military at Bahsahwahbee or Swamp Cedars near Ely, Nevada.

Mary Gibson

She told me that historically, the U.S. Military would shoot Shoshones on sight. They were given orders to shoot any adult male or child simply because we were considered savages and in the way of progress. Yes, both my aunts were very special. They were good teachers and mentors. I appreciate what I learned from them. I am proud of my namesakes, Aunt Mary Dann and Great Grandmother, Mary Hall. I am honored to have known these two little old ladies, a moniker they often used and enjoyed, Mary and Carrie Dann.

For more information about the Noowuh Knowledge Center, please visit our website.

Written by Mary Gibson


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