That fiercely emotive power is something the Dann story has generated among nearly every group it has been shared with, from small audiences at film festivals to large groups at major governmental meetings. At its simplest, it is the story of a Western Shoshone family who stood up to dominant government forces that threatened to uproot their livelihood by illicitly taking ownership of their ancestral lands. But in the deeper sense, the Dann narrative touches upon the weightier subject of indigenous peoples’ innate relationship with the land and the struggles their way of life faces amid modern perceptions of property rights.
Dann will return to Telluride next week to continue the dialogue begun after the film’s showing at Mountainfilm, as the filmmakers host a benefit for the Western Shoshone Defense Project on Thursday, Aug. 16 at the Sheridan Opera House. The evening will showcase a screening of a condensed version of the film, a concert by Grammy Award-winning Native American singer/songwriter Joanne Shenandoah, and the opportunity to speak with Dann and Western Shoshone Defense Project lawyer Julie Fishel.
“What really struck us about this story is the passion,” says George Gage. “When people look at Carrie, they see a 70-something woman trying to run an 800-acre ranch, whose income has been stripped away by the government. Yet she has completely dedicated herself to this fight. She is the reason people become so inspired, and why they get so outraged by what the U.S. government is doing.”
The Dann story began when the U.S. government sued sisters Carrie and Mary Dann in 1974 for trespassing on U.S. public land – despite the fact that the Dann family had always grazed their livestock on the open range outside their northern Nevada ranch. The land that was part of a 60 million-acre tract recognized by the U.S. government as Western Shoshone land by the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley.
The dispute began as a matter of grazing rights. Yet, as the film portrays, that dispute escalated into a three-decade crusade addressing the rights of indigenous people, the high-powered sources that threaten to disrupt their land-based culture, as well as the power of a few fervent voices speaking out against a seemingly unassailable force.
“The Western Shoshone – we’ve always been here,” Dann explains at the beginning of Our Land, Our Life. “Our duties as humans here on earth… the most important things are the land, the water, the air, and the sun. As we were young people they told us those are the most sacred things [because] each one of those represents life, and if you don’t have one of those things, there will be no life.”
Throughout the film, scenes of the sisters’ tender relationship with the land – collecting nuts from the pinon tree, participating in Western Shoshone ceremonies – are juxtaposed with disturbing scenes of government helicopters perilously herding horses through fences during aggressive confiscations of the Danns’ livestock, or vocal showdowns on empty country roads where members of the Dann family plead their rights as stewards of the land to authorities.
“She is fighting for what she feels are the rights given to her people from the creator – and that is such a strong spiritual belief she simply isn’t able to back down,” explains Beth Gage, who wrote the script for Our Land.
Dann’s unrelenting dedication has brought the Western Shoshone conflict to the foreground of indigenous land rights issues around the world. Dann has spoken at United Nations’ conferences, Coalition of Native American Nations’ meetings, and has become legendary among both indigenous rights groups and conservation circles as one of the most outspoken opponents to gold mining, nuclear testing and the misappropriation of indigenous peoples’ lands. The film has, in turn, become the amplifier for Dann’s passion.
With each showing of the film, the Gages find that more people become inspired by the story. A law student asked if she could use the film to show other law students how they could make a difference. Film festival patrons have inquired if the film could be shown at their local library or university. OxFam, an international organization dedicated to fighting against social injustice and poverty, will show a condensed version of the Gages’ film at conferences addressing the Western Shoshone conflict.
“It’s now beginning to be used on a grassroots level to inform people of the issue,” George Gage says.
Thursday evening’s benefit is yet another outlet through which the Gages, who have become deeply involved in the issue, hope to spread the word about Dann and the Western Shoshone issue.
“It’s just one more event to help get this story out,” Beth Gage says. “Our best hope would be that after seeing the film, someone could be turned around enough to personally start putting pressure on the government to at least begin talking to the Western Shoshone.”
Like the Gages, singer/songwriter Shenandoah felt compelled to join the fight for the rights of the Western Shoshone after learning of their story. She met Dann and the Gages a few months before the film was released, and agreed to provide music for the soundtrack. She wrote “Riding Free,” a ballad dedicated to the Dann sisters, for the film. She will perform the song publicly for the first time at Thursday’s benefit, along with more of her award-winning music.
A short auction will follow the film and concert, where items like a locally made teepee, guided fishing trip and new Orvis fishing equipment, a five-night stay at the Franz Klammer lodge, and more will be available. Dann, Fishel and Shenandoah will be available after the auction to answer questions.
Cost for the event is $125 per person, or $300 for patrons (including reserved seating, a signed poster, and a reception with Dann, Fishel and Shenandoah and the filmmakers at 6:30 p.m.). For more information, send an email to the Gages at email@example.com.