BLM’s rediscovery of massacre site renews calls for halt of lithium mine project

By: - September 6, 2022 5:00 am

Reno-Sparks Indian Colony tribal members pray, sing and dance at Thacker Pass. (RSIC photo)

According to oral tradition, Thacker Pass — an area nestled between the Double H and Montana Mountains in Northern Nevada — was named Peehee mu’huh, or rotten moon, by the Paiute people for its crescent shape and the 31 men, women, and children who were massacred there by government soldiers in 1865.

Part of that history was recorded within the Bureau of Land Management’s own historical records and, more recently, by land managers in July during a land survey.

Last year, during a meeting with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office, and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, BLM agreed to survey about 100 acres of land that had never been surveyed before – at least not by the BLM.

In the process, the Winnemucca District Office uncovered five sites that may be eligible for federal preservation—one was a massacre site recorded by U.S. Deputy Surveyor Abed Alley Palmer in 1968.

“I found the remains of an extensive Indian Camp,” wrote Palmer in his journal. The same camp where the 1st Nevada Cavalry ambushed, chased down, and massacred a camp of Paiute people.

“There are many Indian skulls and other remains to be found scattered over this portion of the Township. I found some also opposite here on the east side of the River,” Palmer continued.

Thacker Pass is also home to the largest known lithium deposit in the United States — a naturally occurring metal used in the manufacturing of batteries for electric cars.

Several tribes — including the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Winnemucca Indian Colony in Nevada — have gone to court in an effort to pause any excavation and construction at Thacker Pass by Canadian-based Lithium Americas. However a federal judge ruled against the tribes.

The court is still considering the broader question of whether former President Donald Trump’s administration erred when it approved the project five days before leaving office. 

Thacker Pass is spiritually and culturally significant to tribes in Nevada, an intrinsic part of their history and stories, says the tribe. It’s also one of the few remaining places in the Great Basin where tribal citizens can still gather traditional foods such as chokecherries, wild potatoes and onions, and medicines like the toza root.

“The September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre site is important and sacred to us primarily for the atrocity that happened there and the bravery our ancestors demonstrated in defending themselves from this unprovoked attack,” wrote Michon Eben, the cultural resource manager for the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, in a letter to the BLM.

The rediscovery has prompted the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony to call for “all archaeological digging, construction, or any other physical disturbance in Thacker (to) be suspended” until the site is evaluated for a listing under the National Register of Historic Places.

For the BLM, because the massacre site is on private land “outside BLM’s jurisdiction” it’s preservation is out of their hands, said representatives for the agency.

In addition to the massacre site newly discovered by the Winnemucca BLM office, the other four sites uncovered were defined by the BLM “as a small scatter of worked stone tools and the remains of their manufacture.” Those four sites, the BLM said, are not in the direct path of the mine’s construction, meaning the mine could continue as planned.

In a letter to Arlan Melendez, the chair of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the BLM said that while the massacre site was on private land the agency did survey 100 acres of public land bordering the site to check if the massacre site extended onto BLM managed land.

BLM land managers concluded that while the sites may be eligible for National Register of Historic Places, none of the five sites uncovered during their survey were within the boundaries of the lithium project area, according to the agency.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony contends that all of Thacker Pass is eligible for inclusion on the National Register of Historic Places, adding that multiple recorded accounts of the massacre at the time describe how the 1st Nevada Cavalry’s assault extended across large swaths of Thacker Pass.

“Just like preserving the landscape on the Gettysburg Battlefield at places like Little Round Top, Seminary Ridge, and Cemetery Ridge are essential to understanding the way the battle played out, it is important that the entire landscape where the September 12, 1865 massacre occurred be considered,” Eben wrote.

A number of tribes in Nevada 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 also say that BLM failed to engage in meaningful government-to-government consultation with all tribes who attach religious and cultural significance to Thacker Pass as required by federal law. 

Last month, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony sent a consultation letter to BLM demanding that the agency prepare a supplemental environmental review to evaluate the newly discovered sites. 

“While Americans tend to focus on only the proud moments of American history, the shameful history of genocide perpetrated by the American government against Native Americas is nevertheless a broad pattern running throughout American history,” wrote Eben, adding that the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony “considers the destruction of its traditional cultural properties for another mine another act of genocide in the broad pattern running throughout American history.”

Note: The original headline on this story inaccurately stated the results of BLM’s survey findings.

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Jeniffer Solis
Jeniffer Solis

Reporter | Jeniffer was born and raised in Las Vegas, Nevada where she attended the University of Nevada, Las Vegas before graduating in 2017 with a B.A in Journalism and Media Studies. While at UNLV she was a senior staff writer for the student newspaper, the UNLV Scarlet and Gray Free Press, and a news reporter for KUNV 91.5 FM, covering everything from the Route 91 shooting to UNLV housing. She has also contributed to the UNLV News Center and worked as a production engineer for several KUNV broadcasts before joining the Nevada Current. She’s an Aries.

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