Thacker Pass and the Ugly Tradition of Extraction Without Indigenous Permission

By Tokata Iron Eyes

Date: 08/09/2023

Peehee mu'huh (or Thacker Pass, as it’s known in English), a sensitive wilderness area located in what is now called Humboldt County, Nevada, sits on the ancestral homelands of the Paiute and Shoshone peoples. Right now, these lands are threatened by a lithium mining project being developed by a company called Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of Lithium Americas Corp. Thacker Pass is significant for several reasons.

Once operational, the Thacker Pass mine would become one of the largest lithium operations on Turtle Island, potentially providing up to 25 percent of worldwide demand for a mineral expected to power the global transition to cleaner energy. But the mine’s approval was fast-tracked over the protest of nearby Indigenous communities. It also impinges on ceremonial grounds, the site of two historic massacres, and the home of several protected species. As I’ll detail below, it also continues a long history of mining unwanted by frontline Native communities, for example in the He Sapa — the Black Hills sacred to the Lakota people.

Before reading on, there are a few ways you can help! You can 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 the crimes being committed at Thacker Pass against Native tribes. You can also take action to stop uranium and gold mining in the Black Hills of South Dakota by telling Secretary Haaland to suspend all mining claims in the Black Hills until treaty rights to ancestral homelands are respected and restored.

We must listen to elders like Dean Barlese.

As my colleague, Lakota elder Phyllis Young, recently wrote in an email to our organization’s supporters, we now stand at a crossroads.

“As we replace fossil fuels with renewable energy, we have a big question to answer: will we show respect for Indigenous nations by honoring their authority to determine what happens to their sacred lands, or will we permit the same tactics the fossil fuel industry has employed for generations to sully our transition to lithium-based green technology?”

— Lakota Law Standing Rock Organizer Phyllis Young

As we continue to create and imagine solutions to the ongoing climate crisis, we must ensure that extractive industry isn’t allowed to continue harming Indigenous and frontline communities in that process. Native territories have always been seen by colonists and capitalists as expendable virgin lands, there for the taking and exploiting. But recognize that the remaining undisrupted, undisturbed ecosystems which make up 80 percent of the globe’s biodiversity are cared for and protected by Indigenous peoples.

The Thacker Pass mining project, located within an area known for its rich lithium deposits, aims to extract this valuable metal used in rechargeable batteries for electric vehicles, smartphones, laptops, and renewable energy storage systems. The project plans to use an open-pit mining method to extract lithium-bearing clay resources, using unholy amounts of water.

Since its inception, the project has faced opposition from environmental and Indigenous groups. These concerns relate mainly to water usage, potential impact on local ecosystems, and the preservation of cultural sites. At the very heart of the Thacker Pass issue is the safety and protection of this place as a sacred site, a resting place of Paiute and Shoshone ancestors who were massacred.

In the time since I visited Peehee mu’huh a few months back with my father, Lakota Law co-director and lead counsel Chase Iron Eyes, police have made several arrests related to activism resisting the mine. The Ox Sam Camp, named after one of the few to survive the 1865 massacre, is an Indigenous-led prayer camp, which serves as the base camp for the resistance. Paiute and Shoshone elders have asked for supporters from far and wide to come take part in an ongoing ceremony of protection for those waters and lands.

Our Native voices just haven’t been heard, and that’s a big problem. The project has undergone several stages of permitting and regulatory processes before it can begin full-scale mining operations. These processes are essential to addressing environmental and societal impacts and complying with local regulations. However, according to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the Paiute and Shoshone people are entitled to Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) before their homelands are potentially desecrated. This right has been neither acknowledged nor respected by Lithium America nor the U.S. government.

Let’s explore what that means. Free, Prior, and Informed Consent (FPIC) is a specific right granted to Indigenous peoples recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, aligning with our universal right to self-determination. FPIC allows Indigenous peoples to provide, withhold, or withdraw consent, at any point, regarding projects impacting our territories, and it provides us the opportunity to engage in negotiations that shape the design, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of projects.

Of course, the U.N. has good reason to make its declaration. The story of Indigenous opposition to extraction isn’t new, and the Lakota people are no strangers to extractive industry looking to exploit our homelands. From the protests against the Dakota Access pipeline (DAPL) at Standing Rock to mining in the Black Hills, these violent practices have a storied history. The Black Hills, located primarily in South Dakota and extending into Wyoming, have long been a significant source of various minerals, particularly gold, silver, and other precious metals. The Black Hills Gold Rush of the late 19th century was a major event that attracted prospectors and settlers from all over the country.


My dad at Thacker Pass and Sentinel Rock with, from upper left clockwise: Jimmy, Josephine, Alvida, and Dorece.

In 1874, General George Armstrong Custer led an expedition consisting of 1,000 soldiers of the seventh cavalry, 110 wagons, 70 Indian scouts, four reporters, and two gold miners to the Black Hills. This led to the discovery of gold — particularly at present-day Custer and Deadwood, in the heart of Lakota territory. This last fact mattered little to Custer or any other non-Natives. The influx of settlers trespassing in search of gold quickly led to the Great Sioux war of 1876 — and eventually, happily, to Custer's death at The Battle of Greasy Grass (or Little Bighorn, as it’s known in settler parlance).

One of the most famous and productive gold mines in the Black Hills was the Homestake Mine, located near the town of Lead. It was one of the deepest and largest gold mines in North America, and it operated for over a century, from 1876 to 2002. The Homestake Mine produced over 40 million ounces of gold during its lifetime. While gold was the primary focus of early mining in the Black Hills, other minerals were also extracted from the region over time, including silver, copper, lead, zinc, tin, mica, and various gemstones.

As the most accessible and easily extracted deposits were depleted, many mines in the Black Hills faced declining production and eventually closed. But mining operations continue to this day, particularly in areas where modern exploration techniques have revealed new reserves or where mining methods have become more efficient. Mining in the Black Hills has had significant environmental impacts, including deforestation, soil erosion, and water pollution, resulting in conflicts with Native peoples who consider the Black Hills to be a sacred site. At Lakota Law, we work in solidarity with groups like the Black Hills Clean Water Alliance to stop this pattern of destruction.

The Lakota believe the Black Hills to be our place of origin on this earthly plane. Lakota cosmology points to an actual physical place in the He Sapa called Wind Cave, where we emerged. Today, this sacred site has been commodified and turned into a tourist attraction, limiting our access for ceremonial use.

Mining history has become an essential part of the Black Hills tourism industry. Many old mining towns have been preserved and transformed into additional tourist attractions, offering visitors a glimpse into the region's "rich mining past.” Places like Deadwood and Lead have become popular destinations for tourists interested in the Wild West era and mining history.

But mining is not a thing of the past. Present day efforts often focus on other valuable minerals in the Black Hills region, such as uranium and rare earth elements essential for various modern technologies — lithium included. It’s all connected, and it’s hardly an overstatement to say that anywhere you look, extractive industry encroaches on Indigenous homelands. That must change going forward. If we’re to shift the trajectory of the climate crisis and create a better future for the coming generations, we must listen to the age-old wisdom of Indigenous peoples who understand how to live in balance with the Unci Maka, our Grandmother Earth.

Thank you for reading, and please take action to stop mining at Thacker Pass and in the Black Hills.

Return to Blog