(Photo courtesy Max Wilbert)
Another Nevada tribe is seeking to join a lawsuit against a planned lithium mine in Humboldt County, they say would cause irreparable harm to sacred native lands.
The Winnemucca Indian Colony is the third Native American tribe seeking to join litigation against a mine proposed by Lithium Americas, along with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Burns Paiute Tribe who joined last year.
The Colony alleges the Bureau of Land Management failed to seek meaningful government-to-government consultation under the National Historic Preservation Act, which gives tribes the right of consultation when a project will affect areas of religious or cultural significance to the tribe, according to filings submitted last week.
Tribes in Nevada consider the Thacker Pass mine site a sacred place and refer to it 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.
“To build the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine on lands held sacred to our members would be like raping the earth and our culture,” said Chair of the Winnemucca Indian Colony, Judy Rojo, in a court declaration.
The Colony referred to evidence of the massacre presented by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Burns Paiute Tribe, which included written records and two eyewitness accounts of federal soldiers massacring at least 31 Paiute men, women, and children at Thacker Pass in 1865.
Despite the evidence, a federal judge declined the tribe’s request to halt planned archeological digs in Thacker Pass, calling the evidence “too speculative” and adding that it “does not definitely establish that a massacre occurred” within the proposed project site.
“We believe there may be archeological sites, religious and traditional sites, and areas of cultural importance to our Colony that may be desecrated or destroyed,” Rojo said in a court filing.
Rojo said BLM did not provide the Colony a reasonable opportunity to identify cultural and religious concerns about the development of a lithium mine on Thacker Pass before approving the project.
In April 2021, Rojo said she received her first letter from the BLM Humboldt River Field Office asking if the Colony placed religious or cultural importance on any archeological sites in the project area. Rojo said she quickly wrote back in opposition to the proposed project, at least until the Colony was properly consulted and had the opportunity to review and assess the project.
However, BLM did not respond to her letter listing the Colony’s various concerns over the project, Rojo said.
The BLM maintains that the agency did consult with tribes prior to approving the Thacker Pass mine, including the Winnemucca Indian Colony.
The Colony argues the environmental review for the mine was rushed, after what is normally a multiyear process was completed in less than a year. Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic shut down the Winnemucca Colony’s tribal office, blunting their ability to access records and engage in their right to consultation.
During the pandemic tribes have faced theft and vandalism, in addition to the pandemic. Many smaller tribes in Nevada have focused their limited resources on responding to the pandemic and fighting for assistance from the federal government.
Members of the Winnemucca Tribe travel to Thacker Pass annually to perform the culturally significant Sundance ceremony, a rigorous sacred prayer dance lasting ten days.
The dance has taken a special meaning to Rojo in the past two decades after her close relative was murdered “as the ceremony carries the promise of healing through a demanding process of purification, sacrifice and prayer,” said Rojo.
“The Sundance is a way of life for our members, a way of reaching through seven generations back and forward for betterment,” she says in filings.
Thacker Pass remains an important part of the Colony’s cultural practices where they hunt deer and gather medical plants, said Rojo, adding that industrial development and mining pollution on the land would harm their way of life.
Should development of the mine move forward, the Colony argues they should be allowed to join the lawsuit and defend their interests, including the ability to ensure cultural and archeological resources are protected.
“If BLM and Lithium Nevada still insist on disrespecting our traditional ways, distressing us emotionally and spiritually, and desecrating land we consider sacred, the Colony will advise BLM on how to perform this desecration in the most sensitive way possible,” Rojo wrote.
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