A group of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal descendants walk through Thacker Pass protesting development of a lithium mine. (Photo by Gabriella Angotti-Jones)
After tribes secured the death of the Keystone XL pipeline, Native organizers in Nevada are looking to get the same results for the planned Thacker Pass lithium mine.
Excavation on sacred native lands was allowed to proceed at the Thacker Pass project earlier this month after a federal judge denied tribal leaders’ requests to temporarily halt digging.
Now, opponents of the Thacker Pass lithium mine are regrouping to plan their next steps to oppose the mine, including an appeal of the court’s decision, and possible direct action, such as occupation of the site.
Will Falk, the attorney for the three tribes fighting the mine, said U.S. law is written to prioritize mining over environmental and cultural concerns, making the chance to win an appeal difficult.
“Stopping the Thacker Pass mine will require more than just legal tactics,” Falk said.
“The fact that our judge denied our injunction potentially means that we are going to have to go down a path of nonviolent direct action,” said Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe.
In the Nuwa language Thacker Pass is referred to as “Peehee mu’huh” which translates to “rotten moon” in honor of the colony’s ancestors who they say were massacred in an area of Thacker Pass shaped like a moon.
To several tribes in the area, including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the land holds religious and cultural significance. Tribal leaders have argued that industrial development on their ancestral land is “like disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery.”
“We may not have these grave sites and these headstones for our people, but it is a grave site,” Hinkey said, pointing to the recent discovery of mass graves at a Native American school in Canada as an example.
Hinkey also serves as the secretary of a group of Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribal descendants opposing the mine who call themselves the People of Red Mountain.
“These legal systems are not built for us,” Hinkey said. “That’s something we need to change. I don’t know how, I don’t know where, but it does.”
The roots of this problem are centuries deep, argue tribal members. The General Mining Law of 1872 allows individuals and corporations to excavate public land and stake claims on mineral discoveries they make. Prior to that the Supreme Court ruled that Native people did not have the right to sell their land based on the “Discovery Doctrine,” which says colonists could simply claim land inhabited by Native peoples.
U.S. District Judge Miranda Du, who is presiding over the lawsuit, said the National Historic Properties Act gives tribes the right of consultation when a project will affect areas of religious or cultural significance to the tribe, but does not give tribes rights over the land.
Hinkey said U.S. courts fail to understand that the tribes’ culture and religion is directly tied to the land.
“The environmental impacts from the Thacker Pass lithium mine are cultural impacts,” Hinkey said. “Everything from our traditions to our religion to our oral history is tied to the land.”
Even with huge legal challenges ahead, tribal members in Nevada have not given up on protecting their cultural and religious practices from the mine, a project of the Canadian firm Lithium Americas.
“Lithium Nevada is working hard to ensure impacts to historic artifacts are mitigated,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs and community relations for Lithium Nevada in June.
“The project will also benefit the U.S. and broader global economies by contributing to renewable energy development and carbon reduction through our planned production of high-purity lithium chemicals,” Crowley added.
Tribal members and their allies are preparing to ramp up direct action to stop the lithium mine, Hinkey said during a roundtable session this week timed to correspond with the start of the MINExpo International 2021 convention in Las Vegas, which featured remarks from Gov. Steve Sisolak, a booster of lithium production in Nevada.
John Hadder, executive director of the Great Basin Resource Watch which is also part of the lawsuit against the mine, said there is push to sell lithium mining to the public and politicians in Southern Nevada.
“That’s part of the pressure mining is putting on our representatives,” said Hadder. “The way they’re pitching it is ‘we’re all going to get rich’ including your communities.”
Tribal members and allies, however, say native communities like the People of Red Mountain should not be sacrificed for investment in lithium mining for electric vehicle batteries.
“Our numbers are slim but we need to make it work for us by continuing our education … of the negative impacts of an open-pit lithium mine on the environment and on a cultural side so we could protect the integrity of our people and our culture,” said Gary McKinney, a member of the Duck Valley Shoshone-Paiute Tribe.
Jovan Jackson, a mental health advocate, said there is common ground among Native and Black communities that can lead to a larger movement against the mine.
“I know taking your land is your freedom. When someone takes your freedom, that is the biggest injustice. In the Black community we see that with the jails. Us being in jail takes away our freedom and it is traumatizing,” said Jackson, who was formerly incarcerated.
Without the support of Nevada elected officials, Hinkey said they will need more support from the public to gain “national and global political attention,” like the resistance to the Keystone Pipeline or more recently Line 3, an oil pipeline expansion that would run through tribal lands in Minnesota.
Opponents of the mine plan to adopt some of the tactics used to protest the Keystone Pipeline including occupying the mining site, and have already set up a campsite near the planned mine. Hinkey and other tribal members are currently preparing the campsite for the winter.
“If the mining companies got off easily they would use this as an example and do it everywhere else,” Hadder said.
“We think we have a good case,” he added.
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