The Dann Sisters Blazed an Anti-Nuclear Trail

The Dann sisters on their ranch. Photos ©Ilka Hartmann/IlkaHartmann.com

In the world of anti-nuclear activism — against both nuclear power and nuclear weapons — hope can sometimes feel illusory; victories almost impossible. A moment of glory, such as the passage of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, is tempered by the recognition that the nuclear powers won’t sign it. Worse, they work actively to derail it.

We sound the warnings about the dire risks of a nuclear power plant embroiled in the war in Ukraine. Meanwhile, the UN watchdog agency seemingly intent on preventing a nuclear disaster there, is at the same time assuring its certainty, in Ukraine or elsewhere, by continuing to promote nuclear power.

Those battling the stubborn resistance to do the right thing on global warming must confront — and overcome — “climate despair”. We face a similar challenge to our wellbeing and psyche, perpetual Cassandras who can foresee the Armageddon of nuclear war or the looming catastrophe of another Chornobyl, but who are unable to shake our leaders awake to avert such outcomes.

The Dann sisters on their ranch. Photos ©Ilka Hartmann/IlkaHartmann.com

But, miraculously, one thing remains immutable in our movement — the steadfast dedication of its members to avert the worst. We fail to mention them enough. When we do get a win, we sometimes forget to celebrate.

While our movement has won the Nobel Peace Prize, twice, (IPPNW in 1985, ICAN in 2017) we must also fete our own. So we have the Nuclear-Free Future Awards, established in 1998 and whose 2023 winners you can read about here.

And there is the Right Livelihood Award, also known as the “alternative Nobel.” Our people have won that one, too. The Award “honors courageous change makers” and “the actions of brave visionaries working for a more just, peaceful and sustainable world for all.”

Some of the Right Livelihood winners who have worked for a nuclear-free world include Vladimir Slivyak, Tony de Brum, Paul Walker, Alyn Ware, David Suzuki, Daniel Ellsberg, Chico Whitaker Ferreira, Mycle Schneider, Hans-Peter Dürr, John Gofman, Alice Stewart and Rosalie Bertell.

In 1993, the Right Livelihood Award was given to sisters, Mary and Carrie Dann. Mary died in 2005, and Carrie in 2021.

The Dann sisters campaigned to assert the rights of their Indigenous Western Shoshone people, committing themselves to a political and legal battle to retain their ancestral lands, harmed by nuclear tests carried out by the US government, then threatened with the deep geological radioactive waste dump at Yucca Mountain (for the time being defeated).

The Dann sisters also worked for the preservation of the traditional way of life of the Shoshone people, fighting against repeated attempts by the US government to impound their livestock grazing on Western Shoshone territory.

With the recent announcement of the 2023 Right Livelihood Award winners —Eunice Brookman-Amissah, Mother Nature Cambodia, SOS MEDITERRANEE and Phyllis Omido — the time seemed right to revisit what Carrie Dann had to say in her 1993 acceptance speech, in which she reminded us of the importance of stewardship, of living in balance and harmony with Nature. Hers are lessons that still resonate today and are still needed, now more than ever. If we love Mother Earth, now is the time to act.

Said Carrie in 1993:

“I am from the Indigenous nation of the Western Shoshone People, the heartland of the Great Basin, also known as Nevada. I was born and raised there in our traditional ways. I am a hard working person raising livestock on the Western Shoshone land. I have spent most of my life around livestock and crops.

“We, the human children of this Earth, all have our own cultures and traditions, languages, and we all like to keep them, as they identify us as one of the many kinds of peoples of the Earth.

“The Indigenous people believed that this earth (land) is our Mother, as Sweden, a small part of Europe, is your Mother. Our Mother, the Earth, gives us all the necessities of life. It feeds us, gives us clothes, shelter, and cradles us.”

Those ways were, of course, quickly destroyed, as Carrie described it, by people who also came from “oppressive communities to join in a supposed nation built around constitutional rights and humanity.”

That was not the way things turned out.

“We, the Indigenous People, have withstood wave after wave of foreigners, starting with the Spanish, English, Dutch, French and most nations of the world, coming to our country. They called it a New World. However, it was – and still is – populated by Indigenous people. People that had a civilization, lived in harmony with the natural surroundings, with respect towards all forms of life.”

Yucca brevifolia at the Nevada Test Site growing on land that, warned Carrie Dann, will be contaminated by the nuclear testing for thousands of years. (Photo: National Nuclear Security Administration / Nevada Site Office/Wikimedia Commons)

Instead, she went on, “To most Indigenous thinking people, the United States is not a melting pot; it is a boiling mess. No longer do we have the clear blue skies, but acid rain, maybe soon cyanide and nuclear rain, destroying life on land and water. No longer clear cool waters, but outrageous pollution destroying all forms of water life – believe it or not folks, if we cannot drink our once clear blue waters, we are the next to go! The nuclear test site will be contaminated by the nuclear testing for thousands of years. To my way of thinking nuclear testing is not national security, but a national death sentence for us, our children, the unborn and to all that we know as life.”

Two of the earliest winners of the Right Livelihood Award, which began in 1980, were also a couple of pioneering women, researchers, Alice Stewart and Rosalie Bertell, who won in 1986. Women in a man’s world, they sought the truth about exposure to low-level radiation and were early on ridiculed for their work. But they were right of course (Stewart’s findings halted the taking of x-rays for pregnant women).

“The Earth gives us all the necessities of life,” said Carrie Dann. Life; something surely better treasured, respected and preserved, rather than, as too many seem intent on doing, wantonly destroying it.

This story first appeared on Beyond Nuclear International. 

Linda Pentz Gunter is the editor and curator of BeyondNuclearInternational.org and the international specialist at Beyond Nuclear.