Off a lonely highway in northern Nevada, a collection of brightly colored tents, a horse trailer and latrines suddenly comes into view. It’s a stark contrast to the pale, sagebrush covered mountains.
"I've been camped here for about a month and a half now," says Gary McKinney, who's ducked under the shade of his tent, its nylon fabric flapping in the near constant wind.
McKinney, a Shoshone-Paiute tribal member from the Duck Valley Reservation in Nevada, wears black sunglasses and an American Indian Movement ski hat and tank top, exposing his tattooed, muscled arms. He's one of a dozen or so tribal and environmental activists who started camping here early this year, a peaceful occupation, they say, in protest of a planned lithium mine on federal Bureau of Land Management land.
"I'm prepared to stay out here and oppose this mine for as long as it takes," McKinney says, "as long as it takes."
The mine, which was given initial approval by federal land managers earlier this year, is at the site of what's thought to be North America's largest deposit of lithium, a metal used in lithium ion batteries, a key component to electric cars and cell phones.
But to some native people, especially elders, the mine would be built atop sacred land. Thacker Pass, site of the protest camp, is called Peehee Mu'huh in Paiute, which translates to "rotten moon."
"They have people that are buried out there, so therefore that place to us is a very sacred place," says Myron Smart, a Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribal member, the reservation closest to the proposed mine.
Smart says the land is strewn with cultural artifacts, traditional foods and medicinal plants, some of which are a lifeline to elders.
"During the pandemic, when it first started, that's what our people used to get by," Smart says.
Legal battles beginning
Lithium Nevada, a subsidiary of the Canadian firm Lithium Americas began doing environmental and archeological studies in the remote Thacker Pass area, adjacent to the Fort McDermitt Reservation along the Oregon border nearly a decade ago. The company says its operation would increase U.S. lithium production tenfold. Demand is forecast to triple by 2025 as more automakers transition to electric motors.
Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas, says the resource will be mined and processed locally in Nevada - most of the global supply of lithium today is processed in China, he notes, making the US even more vulnerable to supply chain interruptions like recently during the pandemic.
But more broadly, Evans is pitching the mine as playing a vital role in addressing climate change and pollution from fossil fuels-based vehicles - a key driver in rising global temperatures.
"These materials have to come from somewhere as you pivot from what we've been used to for the last 100 years to a new technology," Evans says.
But environmental groups and two area tribes - the Burns Paiute and Reno-Sparks Indian Colony - see things differently, accusing the mine's backers and lithium proponents more broadly of "greenwashing."
"We can't flush out all of the water from out of here and rip up all the grass, and the sage brush and flip it around and call it green energy," says Gary McKinney, the tribal activist.
Last Friday in federal court in Reno, the tribes and environmental groups petitioned for a preliminary injunction to halt all the company's preliminary work at the site of the mine until a broader lawsuit challenging the government's approval makes its way through the courts. A decision on the injunction is expected as early as this week. The larger court battle likely won't begin until the end of the year.
Mine backers dismiss it as 'deep green resistance'
In nearby Winnemucca, Jan Morrison says most of the opponents of the mine are from outside the area and part of what some locals begrudgingly refer to as the "deep green resistance."
"Some of the people at the camp don't have any standing, they're not local, but it's a great opportunity to get some exposure," Morrison says.
Morrison is the chief economic development officer for Humboldt County, Nev. where hard rock mining has a long history. The industry has brought relative prosperity to the region which tends to have a higher median income and better average wages than most rural areas.
"The processing can be done within the state of Nevada, the supply chain is entirely domestic," Morrison says. "I think that's one of the most strategic moves we can make."
The lithium mine promises some 1,500 construction jobs initially, then 300 more permanent ones over its predicted forty year lifespan. The company says it's also prioritizing training and hiring tribal members. CEO Jonathan Evans says for three years they've been consulting with the local Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribe, the closest reservation to the mine, and only this Spring did it come up that some of the land is a sacred massacre site.
"We want to continue to have that consultation and input," Evans says. "If there's new information, great, let's get it out in the open and talk about it and figure out how we can work together to address any concerns."
Activists say you can't have it both ways
The company says it's not concerned that the ongoing legal challenges may delay the mine from moving forward. Officials note that the last three US presidents have identified lithium as a key mineral for national security.
Still, the battle unfolding in Nevada is a major test to the Biden administration which has made climate change and reducing fossil fuels a priority. They need the lithium to transform the nation's transportation system. But earlier this year, President Biden installed the nation's first ever indigenous Interior Secretary, Deb Haaland. She's pledged to mend a legacy of mistrust of the US government in Indian Country and give native voices a seat at the table in public lands decisions.
Some of the mine's opponents in Nevada see more of the same.
"I think it's maybe just to get political gain," says Daranda Hinkey, a Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribal member. "Like, 'oh we are listening to people,' but are you?"
Hinkey helped form People of Red Mountain, one of the groups challenging the mine. She moved back to the reservation during the pandemic and learned more about the traditional significance of the land near the proposed mine after talking with elders. Like on most reservations, stories tend to be passed down by oral tradition and much of the tribes' history is still not taught in schools.
"Maybe the BLM didn't know about the massacre that happened here because the indigenous people don't necessarily trust the BLM," Hinkey says. "It's time to hear those voices."
Is this the next standing rock?
The Department of Interior declined NPR's interview requests. But in court filings, the government says it made a reasonable effort to consult with tribes and that the initial mining exploration won't harm cultural resources.
Lithium Nevada says it will reclaim the land as it goes.
The Fort McDermitt tribe, closest to the mine, hasn't taken a formal stance. Tribal leaders could not be reached for comment though a recent survey showed its 1200 person membership appears split on whether the mine should go forward.
Tribal members are also curious whether the protest up at the camp will escalate like it did at Standing Rock in North Dakota, or possibly turn into another national environmental flashpoint, such as the battle over the Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
In tiny Fort McDermitt, Larina Bell understands concerns about protecting sacred land. But she says other mines here over the years helped the tribe and her family. She and her son are one of about 40 locals who have either started or plan to take part in the mining company's job training program.
"I'm interested in it because I have three kids," Bell says. "My oldest one is 22 and he's willing to work but then the thing is, there's no place to work here."
Right now there are only a few jobs with the tribe, the school or the one grocery store, Bell says, so you have to leave the reservation for opportunity.
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