Digging into a massacre: Indigenous people say a lithium mine project in the West will desecrate a sacred site

The open range in Nevada near a proposed mining project. Photograph by Chang Ye

By Susana Bledsoe

As a mining company waits for an archeological report regarding a site where Native Americans were massacred in 1865, tribal leaders worry about the long-term effects of the proposed lithium mine.

Work at the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project is scheduled to begin this fall after archeologists surveyed the area for traces of occupation by indigenous people, and evidence of the massacre. Contemporary accounts describe Nevada cavalry volunteers murdering 31 Paiute men, women and children as they slept in shelters, including all the wounded people who had survived the initial onslaught. Two infants narrowly escaped execution when one of the militiamen took pity on them and took them away, according to the accounts.

Maxine Redstar, chairman of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, said her community is awaiting the report from Far Western Anthropological Research Group, the mining company’s consultant, about the initial archaeological survey it finished this summer.

“We are cooperating with the BLM and will continue to do so, because having a seat at the table is the most important thing for our people moving forward,” Redstar said. “Of course we are concerned about what will be left for our children and those who come after us. We are worried about the balance of how to maintain our culture and traditions, and continuing to progress forward while making sure there is still something there in the future.”

This brief is expected to include specific findings about the cultural sites and artifacts discovered by the archaeology firm. Such surveys are required by law for all federal projects, as is consultation with tribes, to ensure that there are “no significant impacts” upon cultural artifacts on federal land.

The archeological survey is required before Lithium Nevada (a subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp.) can proceed with the mine, a $1.6 billion project located about 53 miles northeast of Winnemucca. A 2018 study valued the Thacker Pass operation at $2.59 billion after taxes. Lithium is the main component for rechargeable batteries found in high-tech devices from electric cars to cell phones. It’s touted as a green-energy solution to fossil fuels, but critics say extracting the element comes at too high of a cost for rural communities, endangered species and water resources.

By law, the Bureau of Land Management is mandated to disclose any archeological findings on sites related to the native communities of Nevada, but it isn’t required follow tribal members’ recommendations about how to treat the cultural sites or artifacts.

The Fort-McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe worked with Far Western Anthropology to do the survey. According to an agreement with the BLM, the firm was required to hire at least 30 members of the Fort McDermitt tribe to assist with the surveys and, at the same time, learn how to do archaeological work.

Proponents of that agreement suggested that doing archaeological work has the potential to educate young tribal professionals about the history of their people. That foundational knowledge would help those involved to be better advocates for their people in the future. More immediately, the program provided fair wages and training for young natives in Nevada interested in archaeology, tribal members said.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony filed an appeal, asking the company to halt archeological work at the mine site. Far Western responded: “We have always put our love of gaining and sharing knowledge above money, academic credibility, or other concerns. … We acknowledge that we are studying the families and ancestors of living communities, and that the voices of these communities should be heard during this process. We continue to collaborate with Fort McDermitt, helping members of the community engage with the area’s archeological record so their voice can grow.”

While the Fort McDermitt tribe is cooperating with the BLM and Far Western, some tribal leaders say they don’t necessarily support of the project. Consultation with the tribe was limited; the official outreach from the mining company came during a transition in leadership—when new tribal officers were installed in December 2020, at the same time as the federal environmental impact statement was being finalized.

Redstar, the tribal chairwoman, described the mine as a “behemoth” that seems “unstoppable.”

Current federal regulations have minimal requirements for consultation with tribal agencies; the main legal requirement is the sending of a certified letter. The regulations require agencies to act in good faith, but critics note that Nevada mining projects often are rushed through the approval process with limited input from surrounding tribes and communities.

In November 2000, the EPA released a Guide on Consultation and Collaboration With Indian Tribal Governments aimed at improving consultation between the extraction industry and tribal agencies. The guidelines, however, are not legally binding.

The Reno-Sparks Indian colony, cited as having been consulted in the environmental impact statement documents, has been embroiled in a battle of definitions with the courts in an attempt to halt the project. Its arguments center on the meaning of “a significant cultural site” and how “consultation” is defined.

Evidence of the Thacker Pass massacre was found during the initial survey for the Ruby Pipeline in 2011. The remains of the “Indian Camp” noted in the written accounts were found on the Quinn River Valley floor, “several miles southeast of Thacker Pass on what is now private land.”

Artifacts were found during the most recent anthropological survey of native camps, but no human remains have been discovered. Archeologists have concluded that, due to the desiccating climate of Nevada’s deserts, human remains are rarely preserved after 150 years. The discovery of remains would automatically trigger provisions of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, meaning work at the site would cease, albeit temporarily, while the required consultation took place.

While it’s common to find arrowheads and the obsidian flakes related to their manufacture, the discovery of more ephemeral artifacts, and of prayer sites and grave sites, are rare.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony suggests that the entire valley should be declared a historic site, just like some Civil War battlefields. In addition, the tribe alleged that the BLM has failed to consult all the Nevada tribes that attach religious and cultural significance to Thacker Pass. (The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine project is on land inhabited by the Northern Paiute or their ancestors for as long as 15,000 years. The tribes that consider Thacker Pass sacred also include the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of the Duck Valley Reservation, the Lovelock Paiute Tribe, the Fallon Paiute Shoshone Tribe and the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe.) Those claims have so far been dismissed by judges over the past two years.

In March, the Winnemucca Indian Colony attempted to join the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony’s suit, but the request was rejected by the judge on the grounds that it would cost the mining company millions in delays. In August, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony filed another preliminary injunction while it awaits a ruling on the main case that will decide whether the BLM wrongly granted Lithium Americas’ permit for the mine.

The mining project was approved in January 2021 by the BLM in the last days of Donald Trump’s presidency. Since then, hundreds of people have protested against the project, and some have camped near the proposed mine site.

Nevada’s lithium deposits were formed by a specific type of volcanic activity that is found in only a few areas of the globe. Critics say the notoriously loose environmental regulations in the U.S., coupled with the need to transport the mineral across long distances, will result in a huge large carbon footprint.

Nevada has two of the three main lithium deposits in the nation, including the McDermitt volcanic caldera, and another with a mine already in operation just south of Tonopah. The third is located in North Carolina.

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