It's a tale as old as colonialism, this time with a twist. Lithium — a necessary element in the making of batteries for electric cars, among other burgeoning technologies — is championed as an eco-friendly mineral. But its extraction is where things get tricky. Seemingly inevitably, when it’s time to mine, that’s happening on Indigenous homelands, and you’ll find tribal water and land defenders on the frontlines. Such is now the case in so-called Nevada, site of a new lithium extraction site at Thacker Pass, known to the Paiute and Shoshone People who call these lands home as Peehee Mu’Huh.
Before I share some regional history and tell you what I witnessed on my recent trip to Nevada, let me bottom-line it for you. Lithium mining at Thacker Pass threatens Native communities and homelands, and my Paiute and Shoshone relatives need your help! Please tell U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland to revoke the permits for the Thacker Pass lithium mine, and ask House Natural Resources Committee Chair Raúl Grijalva to investigate crimes being committed in the region against Native People.
Peehee Mu’Huh, which means “rotten moon” in the Paiute language, is a sacred site, important to the culture, history, and heritage of the Native communities in the region. A traditional hunting and obsidian collection area, it’s also the home of burial grounds. Two documented massacres occurred there — one of them a slaughter in which the majority of the Paiute population was lost to the guns of the Nevada Cavalry — and its name derives from the stench of the bodies left exposed to the elements. The bones of our relatives are now being disturbed by the mine’s developers.
So, how did this happen? Early in 2021, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) approved the Thacker Pass lithium mine, and the Biden administration then completed a court ordered review to greenlight continued construction. The area is home to one of the largest lithium deposits in the so-called United States. The discourse surrounding this project’s encroachment upon the occupied homelands of the Paiute and Shoshone peoples of Nevada is both difficult and important. Once again, Native leaders confront an extractive industry hungry for resources — with some environmental activists caught between their desires to protect pristine wilderness and move away from fossil fuels.
This question should not actually be hard. As we continue the discussion about the climate crisis and a just transition into clean energy, conflicts among competing priorities are bound to happen more often. We must simply make sure that Indigenous rights and boundaries are recognized and avidly protected while we argue over the details of how to improve our situation. According to the United Nations, Indigenous peoples are entitled to free, prior, and informed consent (FPIC). Native nations have the right to extend or deny their consent for any activities that affect their lands, territories, and/or human rights. That doesn’t mean sending an email or two and calling it “consultation.” A robust process to garner FPIC when it comes to huge infrastructure projects like mining at Thacker Pass and the Black Hills or pipelines like Dakota Access — and I could go on — has been intentionally, summarily overlooked in the United States and around the world.
It should be understandable to anyone that the growing resistance at Peehee Mu’Huh arose from immense concern for an Indigenous sacred site. The mining there not only disregards sacred burial grounds, but it also endangers wildlife and biodiversity like the Greater Sage-Grouse — whose population has fallen by 80 percent in recent years. Peehee Mu’Huh is one of its leks, a mating area where the males perform an elaborate dance to attract partners.
A couple weeks ago I had the honor to travel to PeeHee Mu'Huh with my father to participate in a direct action at the Ox Sam Prayer Camp, named for the sole adult survivor of the Nevada Cavalry massacre. I’m happy to report that we successfully halted construction for the day and raised awareness about the situation. However, several people — including Lakota Law videographer Chuck Banner and Dorece Sam, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe and President of the Native American Indian Church, State of Nevada — were hit with Temporary Protective Orders meant to keep them from the site and quell their activism.
“I’m being threatened with arrest for protecting the graves of my ancestors. My great-great Grandfather, Ox Sam, was one of the survivors of the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre that took place here. His family was killed right here as they ran away from the U.S. Army. They were never buried. They’re still here. And now these bulldozers are tearing up this place.”
— Dorece Sam
Photo courtesy of Ox Sam Camp and Last Real Indians.
It’s not OK that — because Lithium Americas wants minerals for phones and cars, or for whatever reason — Dorece Sam faces the real possibility of being banned from her family’s own ancestral homelands. It’s not OK that our winged relatives may lose critical habitat. And it’s definitely not OK for the gravesites of ancestors to be disturbed.
Thacker Pass is now a sort of monument to those Paiute and Shoshone relatives who fought and died to protect their people and ways of being and knowing. This place serves as a reminder that those who survived the massacres of the past made it possible for us to be here today. The land is astonishingly beautiful. It was a true gift from the Creator that we were able to gather together and witness the native grouse and sagebrush, which we were gathered there to protect. To hear the birds and feel the presence of resistance work across the ages was a powerful experience.
My heart remains full, while it also hurts. A sadness arises at the acknowledgment of the damage already done at Peehee Mu’huh. Our decision-making systems in the U.S. are unjust — and that’s why, again and again, we resist. Time after time, the work done by industry and government to meaningfully consult and receive permission from Native nations is minimal, if present at all. The bottom line is that Native nations deserve a seat at the deciding table; our consent matters and must be respected. There will be no just transition to a clean energy economy while the rights of Indigenous Peoples continue to be compromised by extractive industry.
I hope you’ll join me and ask U.S. Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland — where are you, Auntie Deb? — to revoke the mine’s permit. Thank you for reading. There will be more to come as we plan to continue assisting our relatives in getting the word out about the movement to protect Thacker Pass.