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Cliven Bundy wasn’t the first to fight the feds over public land in Nevada — but the details of those fights make all the difference

This is whose land?

Ranchers, heirs to the land, claim ancestral rights and battle the Bureau of Land Management and other agencies over who controls it. Supporters flock to their side and celebrities lend aid. Federal officials become involved, and the outcomes aren’t exactly what anybody wanted.

This refers to the Dann sisters. Who were you thinking of?

The Cliven Bundy story offers the same basic premise. How their stories differ speaks volumes about the Western — and the American — past and present.

For the Danns, the trouble began in 1863, more than a century before their fight with the BLM. The combination of the Western Shoshone attacking travelers across Nevada Territory, and the army forcing Native Americans to work as scouts led to a treaty negotiation. Territorial Governor James Nye and the Western Shoshone leader Te-Moak agreed to the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which eased the immediate problem.

Unfortunately, it created another. The treaty said, “The several routes of travel through the Shoshone country, now or hereafter used by white men, shall be forever free, and unobstructed by the said bands, for the use of the government of the United States, and of all emigrants and travellers under its authority and protection, without molestation or injury from them.” Nowhere did it say that the Shoshone gave up any land.

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But, obviously, they lost it. Or did they? In 1946, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission so tribes could sue the federal government for redress — namely, money for lands taken from them. Some of the younger Western Shoshone were agreeable, but older ones insisted that they remained the rightful landowners and wanted no money.

[Hear more: Should the states control land in the West?  Hear a discussion on KNPR's State of Nevada.]

Mary and Carrie Dann were among the latter. In 1974, the BLM charged them with illegally grazing their cattle on federal land. The Danns replied that they had been on their land, and sued the feds. A young filmmaker, Joel Friedman, turned the story into a documentary, Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain, narrated by Robert Redford, an advocate of environmentalism and Native American rights. The film sympathized with the Western Shoshone’s plight, and other documentaries and reports raked the BLM over the coals.

But the government didn’t give up, and in 1985, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the tribe had ceded its rights to the land — not in the 1863 treaty, but when the Indian Claims Commission set aside money for the claimants in 1979. However, the Native Americans could sue for “original aboriginal rights,” and U.S. District Judge Bruce Thompson of Nevada held that the Danns could graze their cattle on the land but couldn’t claim ownership.

When the Bundy family gained its land depends on who’s telling the story. Cliven Bundy said his family’s claim goes back to 1877, when Mormons settled Bunkerville. But 13 years before that, the Nevada Constitution had ceded control of the land to the federal government. Also, KLAS Channel 8’s I-Team found that the Bundys didn’t start grazing cattle there until 1954.

Meanwhile, Sean Hannity of Fox News and other conservative media outlets defended him against the BLM, which had dunned him for more than $1 million in grazing fees, which he had refused to pay for two decades.

The Dann sisters certainly were tough and difficult, by anyone’s definition. They denied the authority of the federal government over the land they claimed. Even some members of the tribes resented the Danns and their allies for delaying a settlement, much as other ranchers and advocates of federal divestiture of public lands feel that Bundy has hurt their cause far more than he has helped it.

But neither of the Dann sisters ever went quite so far as to say, “I don’t recognize the United States government as even existing,” or claim that the sheriff of their county had the power to disarm the U.S. government. No militia groups showed up to help them, or talked about placing women and children on the front lines in case of violence. Nor did the Dann sisters discourse on how slavery had shaped the African-American experience.

Some of the comparisons between Mary and Carrie Dann and Cliven Bundy are apt: the use or abuse of federal government powers; vast differences in how the land is used and perceived; the sense that all of them may have belonged to an earlier time and certainly seemed to prefer that time to this one. In certain ways, they served as equally attractive representatives of the causes for which they fought.

But they also had their faults. The Danns and their allies fought for a principle rooted in centuries of mistreatment of Native Americans, but there’s also such a thing as knowing when to hold ’em and knowing when to fold ’em.

Bundy’s faults have become well-known and certainly are legion. Beyond his views of African-Americans and choosing not to acknowledge the U.S. government, he and his allies promote several fallacies, including that the land should be his to use as he pleases. If the land belongs to the public, it belongs to all of us. By his logic, he should have to avoid portions of the land belonging to those who don’t want him grazing cattle on it.

But the main fallacy is the contention that the land isn’t the federal government’s because it extorted Nevada’s acreage as the price of statehood — which would be fine if anyone had forced Nevada to become a state. No one did. Nevada could have remained a territory forever, completely under federal control, down to the president choosing the governor, his cabinet and the courts. Bundy wouldn’t much like that, either.

The Danns ultimately represented a cause — Native American rights — centuries in the making. Meanwhile, Bundy and his allies demanded that the sheriff arrest BLM representatives and threatened a lawsuit over his and the governor’s failure to act. In a subsequent attempt to confront the BLM, Bundy’s supporters drove their ATVs over sacred Native American land to protest federal control of public lands. Like the Danns, they claim to have rights, and they will keep claiming them. The question is how many other Americans feel similarly — and how many feel that those claims are trampling their rights.