Mule deer crossing Thacker Pass in Northern Nevada along the Oregon-Nevada border. (Photo: Max Wilbert)
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is asking a California-headquartered archaeological firm to stop digging at a site considered sacred to Nevada tribes.
Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc., began excavation work at Thacker Pass this month, an area about 35 miles south of the Oregon-Nevada border.
The dig is part of a planned mine by Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Canada-owned Lithium Americas, that must be completed before construction of the mine can move forward.
Several tribes — including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Winnemucca Indian Colony in Nevada — have gone to court in efforts to halt any excavation and construction at Thacker Pass. However a judge ruled against the tribes.
Thacker Pass is located on federal public land and is the traditional homeland of the Paiute and Shoshone people who were forced to leave the area before being confined to reservations across the state.
Tribes in Nevada refer to the pass as “Peehee mu’huh” which translates to “rotten moon” in honor of their ancestors who were massacred in an area of the Pass shaped like a moon. A separate massacre sanctioned by the U.S. Government took place on the pass in 1865, according to several written accounts.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has likened excavation of their ancestral land to “disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery.”
In December, the Bureau of Land Management’s Humboldt River Field Office granted Far Western Anthropological Research Group all final permits to conduct field work at the site, however, excavation work did not start till April 13.
In response, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony sent a letter to Far Western urging the group “to immediately halt the planned archaeological digs and refuse to participate in the desecration of Thacker Pass for corporate greed.”
“How would you feel if your loved ones were massacred in a sacred, prayerful area with no closure to their deaths for the profit of stolen land, and now your sacred ancestral lands being uprooted without proper federal consultation for the profit of the largest lithium mine in America?” said Chairman Arlan Melendez in a release accompanying the letter
The tribe contends that BLM failed to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with all tribes who attach religious and cultural significance to Thacker Pass, thus violating federal tribal rights.
“The consultation process with tribal nations must be adhered to,” said Melendez.
In the letter to Far Western, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said six tribes and the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada have sent official communications to BLM stating they were not consulted and expressing their opposition to “the desecration of the sacred site.”
“Given the strong indigenous opposition to the proposed excavations and, from an indigenous perspective, to us, what you are about to do at Peehee Mu’huh is essentially looting and grave robbing,” the letter read.
Far Western Anthropological Research Group did not respond to multiple requests for comment on the letter.
Officials for Lithium Nevada have repeatedly assured the public the company would work with tribes to ensure impacts to historic artifacts are mitigated.
“Through the whole process we are committed to working closely with the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe—who will monitor the work and ensure artifacts are protected and preserved,” said representatives for Lithium Nevada.
Last year Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs and community relations for Lithium Nevada, said the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and the Winnemucca Indian Colony would be invited to oversee the excavation.
However, the Winnemucca Indian Colony took legal action against the mine in February, and maintains that BLM did not consult with the Winnemucca Indian Colony prior to approving the Thacker Pass lithium mine or provide the Colony a reasonable opportunity to identify cultural and religious concerns about the development.
“To build the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine on lands held sacred to our members would be like raping the earth and our culture,” said Judy Rojo, chair of the Winnemucca Indian Colony, in a court filing, before asking BLM to let the tribe advise on the dig if it does moves forward.
Members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe are working as tribal monitors at the excavation site. Monitor training for members of the tribe took place in March at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, and 30 tribal members participated.
But the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony argues allowing tribal monitors on the site is not enough to mitigate the impact of excavating “a historic location where a horrifying massacre occurred.”
Several tribes have argued the environmental review for the mine was rushed, after what is normally a multiyear process was completed in less than a year. Tribes say the coronavirus pandemic also prevented their participation during the mandatory public comment period.
Previous survey work done by Far Western Anthropological Research Group as part of the environmental impact study on the lithium project did not include the participation of any federally recognized tribes, said the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony in the letter.
“This culturally insensitive disregard for Native spirituality causes damage to our tribal people’s sense of self-worth and cultural value today,” said Michon Eben, the cultural resource manager for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, in the letter. “Archaeologists study our ancestors and then create theories without regard for our dynamic living culture. This type of archaeological approach, being run for profit, is disrespectful to Native American Peoples and cultures.”
This story was updated to clarify the status of tribal litigation.
Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.