Documentary filmmaker Joel Freedman has just returned from Western Shoshone country, where he has shot many hours’ worth of images over several trips for the third in his classic series on the tribe’s efforts to protect its land and rights. The new work will include both the latest footage and material that goes back 40-some years—first seen in Broken Treaty at Battle Mountain, released in 1975, and To Protect Mother Earth, which came out in 1989. After some additional shooting, Freedman will go into production with editors and producers to help shape the film, tentatively titled Land of the Brave.
Robert Redford narrates both existing hour-long movies, which examine the fight against violations of the Western Shoshone’s 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley and the many related depredations that ensued. Among other scenes, Freedman filmed the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ripping up entire pinyon forests with giant chains pulled by tractors. This deprived Western Shoshones of a staple food, created vast environmental damage and increased fire risk. The policy continues to the present day in Nevada and other Western states. “In the film, it looks like they’re tearing human beings out of the earth,” said Freedman.
The late Aggie Jackson, who was 115 years old when Freedman interviewed her for the first movie, describes dancing joyfully to celebrate the pine nut harvest. But, she told Freedman, the chaining of the trees and the disruptions to her world made her feel like she was going mad.
The pinyon holocaust recalls the decimation of buffalo and salmon in the United States, undertaken to cripple tribes that relied on them, as well as Canada’s 1960s and 1970s Arctic-wide extermination of Inuit sled dogs. Killing the dogs forced the nomadic Inuit into villages and onto welfare; this, in turn, made it easier to ship their children to abusive and violent boarding schools.
Freedman’s films are credited with increasing mainstream understanding of the ways—blatant and insidious—in which the United States has broken agreements with indigenous people. The filmmaker captured dramatic meetings, during which Glenn Holley, the late father of Joseph Holley, made impassioned speeches in defense of his people’s rights.
So did Mary and Carrie Dann, sisters who refused to pay fees for grazing their horses and cattle on what they believed the Treaty of Ruby Valley defined as Western Shoshone land. The BLM eventually impounded their animals. Freedman, who describes himself as an activist filmmaker, visited Carrie on his latest trip to bring his latest film up to date on her lifelong advocacy on behalf of her people. “We’re both elders now!” he recalled saying to her.
Trick or Treaty
The Treaty of Ruby Valley, which Freedman calls “one of the biggest rip-offs of Native Americans ever,” looms over all of this. Signed in 1863, it was a treaty of friendship that did not cede any land, as many other agreements did. Instead, the short text describes a trade.
The federal government guarantees Western Shoshones a homeland encompassing most of Nevada and contiguous portions of Idaho, Oregon, California and Utah. In return, Western Shoshones give the United States the right to traverse the area, maintain existing telegraph and stage lines, construct one railroad and engage in specified economic activities. The agreement allows the U.S. president to designate reservations, but does not tie this to land cessions.
The following year, according to an American Bar Association history, Nevada was rushed into statehood. This brought its valuable mining claims under U.S. law, guaranteed that Nevada gold could pay the Union’s Civil War costs and ensured Abraham Lincoln’s re-election by delivering Union-friendly Nevada’s Electoral College votes. To this day, Nevada is both a state and a federal appendage. The mining-friendly BLM controls a whopping 83 percent of Nevada, making it a kind of federal protectorate for mining companies.
During the 20th century, Freedman’s movies show, the federal government belatedly tried to create the illusion, with the collusion of the Supreme Court, that it had purchased the Western Shoshone territory guaranteed by the Treaty of Ruby Valley. It did this by shifting payments among its own agencies—“from one pocket to another,” according to Carrie Dann.
In the 21st century, Senator Harry Reid (D-NV) pushed a bill through Congress to settle the issue by paying tribal members directly. Many Western Shoshone consider the individual disbursements illegal, since the treaty was signed by headmen acting on behalf of their tribes, not by individuals acting for themselves.
After decades of filming Western Shoshones and their ongoing struggle to have their treaty honored, Freeman concludes, “They, and their values, are still here.”