Think Out Loud

Tribes and environmentalists continue to push back on a lithium mining operation

By Allison Frost (OPB)
Oct. 7, 2021 10:56 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, Oct. 8

A satellite image from Google Earth shows the location of Thacker Pass in the McDermitt Caldera, which stretches from southeast Oregon into northern Nevada.

A satellite image from Google Earth shows the location of Thacker Pass in the McDermitt Caldera, which stretches from southeast Oregon into northern Nevada.

Google Earth / Screenshot


New evidence has come to light that a massacre of indigenous people occurred on the site of a proposed lithium mine in Nevada near the Oregon border. Tribes and environmentalists have sued to stop the project, but so far a federal court has denied motions to stop it. The suit was first brought by a local rancher who said the mine would hurt cutthroat trout and damage wetlands and water tables. Tribes say they were not given an opportunity for meaningful consultation, as such projects require. We talk with Michon Eben, the cultural resource coordinator with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, one of the plaintiffs in the lawsuit.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. We turn now to the largest proposed lithium mine in the United States, it would be in northern Nevada just below the Oregon border. The Canadian company behind the project says the lithium would be used for things like electric cars. But opponents -- tribal members, environmental activists, ranchers and farmers -- are worried about the local impacts of mining. In particular, Indigenous people from the area say that the mine will desecrate sacred land, the site of a massacre that took place more than 150 years ago. So far, a federal judge has not been swayed by those arguments but the tribe has recently put forward newly found evidence to get her to reconsider. Michon Eben manages the Cultural Resources Program and Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and joins us with more. Michon Eben, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Michon Eben: Thank you. Thank you for having us.

Miller: Thanks for joining us. What do we know about what happened in this area in 1865?

Eben: Well this actually was happening from 1864 to 1868, was the US government sanction of annihilating and exterminating Paiute and Shoshone people here in Nevada for their lands. On Sept. 12, 1865, one of those massacres took place at Peehee mm’huh, which is titled Thacker Pass. Actually there [were] two massacres that had happened there. One we do know that happened probably before the Europeans came because Peehee mm’huh, Thacker Pass, is an important traditional cultural place for Paiute and Shoshone people. So we do know that one happened before the coming of Europeans, by another tribe. And then this one happened Sept. 12, 1865, by the Nevada cavalry.

Miller: What kinds of stories have been passed down about that massacre?

Eben: Yeah, we’ve had several oral histories regarding this massacre. We know that what’s been passed down is that, yes, our people were being hunted down, the Paiute people as well as the Shoshone people. And our people were leaving the areas, our traditional cultural areas -- which we know now as the Humboldt River, which we know now as the Truckee Meadows, which we know now is the Truckee River -- because Europeans coming in, squatting and stealing these lands and then pushing people out of this area. So what we know, that has been passed on from our elders and from our ancestors, is that Paiute and Shoshone people were being pushed away, pushed out into more desolated areas into the mountains. And one of these areas was Peehee mm’huh, Thacker Pass. What we do understand is that this area that we’re talking about is a really good place for collecting traditional foods, hunting areas, getting our traditional medicines as well as performing ceremonies and everyday life. So when people were camping out there, they were out there very peacefully, just collecting their foods and performing ceremonies before the fall. Before the fall is coming in, the winter is starting to come in, we need to start collecting and saving our foods and getting ready for the fall and winter. So this peaceful village just happened to be out there because there’s several little small creeks, there’s also really a lot of Lahontan Cutthroat Trout out that way in the small creeks, so our people were camped there to make sure that they were getting their supplies and getting ready. So what happened after that is, here comes the Nevada cavalry, which was sanctioned by the US government. They actually was coming, I believe after, probably the Civil War. I’m not sure on the exact dates, but Nevada was calling for volunteers to come to be a part of these Nevada cavalries to help round up and probably to massacre tribes to get them off of these lands. So that squatters could come in and take these lands.

Miller: Federal Judge Miranda Du ruled against your injunction to stop the mining project from going forward last month saying that she didn’t see evidence that, “a massacre happened within the project area.” What evidence is there?

Eben: Yes. After that denial by Judge Du, Sept. 3 she denied that, we began to really investigate further. What we found is a couple of things that you’ve probably read. One of them was an account of the massacre that happened two weeks after; on Sept. 12, 1865, the Owyhee Avalanche [newspaper], two weeks after that massacre, reported what happened. Of course it was all against the tribe saying all these “red devils” they were “getting ready to attack” and so forth, and really highlighting the Nevada cavalry. So that’s one account and in that account it talks about where it happened, the places where it took place. Another account was by a labor organizer, Mr. Bill Haywood. He wrote an autobiography and he interviewed one of the cavalry men that was part of the massacre, 20 years after the massacre, as well as [one of the] three Paiute people [who] did survive that massacre. One of them was a Mr. Ox Sam, which he jumped on a horse and rode off and ran away. You get surprised; it’s a surprise attack. You wake up, you realize what’s going on and you start running. People ran into the proposed project area. That’s what our new evidence shows.

Miller: So let’s look forward right now. Judge Du’s ruling, if I understand correctly, means that digging for an archaeological survey, that the mining company has to complete, can now move forward. We got this statement this morning from Lithium Americas Corporation about this archaeological survey. They told us,

“Lithium Nevada is committed to doing this right and has engaged a highly experienced archaeological firm to follow strict standards when handling any artifacts found. We’re thrilled. Members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe will work alongside Far Western Anthropological Research Group to monitor the project and ensure Native American interests are respected.”


What’s your response to that statement?

Eben: Well, I think that of course part of the process on public lands is, you follow federal laws and those laws are the National Environmental Policy Act, the National Historic Preservation Act; you follow the Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act. But what I would like to say is, the commitment at the beginning of this project is the commitment to make sure you first do the survey correctly. Now part of the National Historic Preservation Act is, you have to apply criteria to the cultural resources that are there on site. So what happens is, an archaeological firm comes out and they survey and they start to draft a criterion to what they see out there. Now the massacre of Sept. 12, 1865, is not a part of these cultural resource inventories that happened in 2018 without tribal participation. No tribe has been a part of that survey, are reviewing and responding to that 7000 page cultural resource inventory. There’s something wrong there when there’s 1000 sites out there and the vast majority of them are Native American. So that causes for a pause when tribes are not involved in that. After the drafting of this cultural resource inventory comes a Historic Properties Treatment Plan. That plan describes how they’re going to, what they call, remove the data. Really, it’s just excavations of Native American cultural resource inventories. That Historic Properties Treatment Plan was authored and has been approved without tribal participation or tribal input. Now, what’s lacking in these cultural resources inventories as well as what’s lacking in the Historic Properties Treatment Plan is the Sept. 12, 1865, massacre. Now, that’s a problem when you’re supposed to be out there investigating and researching everything that’s taken place out there, but the massacre is lacking. That’s a problem with us..

Miller: About this question of consulting and what the company should be looking for. The CEO of the company told NPR about a month ago that they have been consulting with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe for three years and that only this past spring, 2 1/2 years into that consultation, so he says, did it come up that some of the land is on a sacred massacre site. I’m curious how you respond to that. Because there’s two things here that he’s saying: one, that “we have been consulting with one particular tribe” and, two, “this was only brought to our attention, the fact that there was a massacre here, just a couple months ago.”

Eben: Well I’d like to say a couple of things about that. There are 27 tribes in the state of Nevada, 27 federally recognized tribes in the state of Nevada. If this is the largest lithium mine in the United States and possibly the world, then there’s something wrong when you’re only consulting with one tribe. I would like to talk a little bit about that. That the NEPA project for the environmental impact statement..

Miller: Just to remind folks, NEPA, National Environmental Protection Act..

Eben: No, policy.

Miller: Oh, National Environmental Policy Act?

Eben: Policy Act.

Miller: Okay.

Eben: Yeah. So NEPA assesses the environment and that’s what BLM [Bureau of Land Management] needed to do. And so Lithium Nevada Corporation, usually all the proposed projects hire all the consultants to conduct the EIS, environmental impact statement. That public process opened January 2020 and pretty much closed September. A project this large usually lasts about four years; this took nine months. What I’m understanding is that three tribes were notified, not full-on government to government consultation, which is required by federal laws and executive orders, that three tribes were probably pretty much the closest to this project. I just would like to say that after the massacres of 1864 to 1868, then came the 1872 mining law. I’ve been hearing this before from our own tribe saying: when all these mining companies are billionaires and their shareholders are making a lot of money, but 27 tribes in the state of Nevada, we’re still all destitute and dirt poor, there’s a problem here. That doesn’t seem like a very good balance there. So, I think that the EIS process, that only took nine months, that usually takes four years, especially during COVID when tribes were in lockdown and no other tribes were being notified about this, there’s a problem with that. Also, the first evidence we found was on BLM’s website itself; you had to look in and go through a lot of documents. This massacre is well documented in [Gregory] Michno’s book, “The Deadliest Snake Wars.” [”The Deadliest Indian War in the West: The Snake Conflict, 1864–68″] It had been documented here before.

Miller: It’s worth pointing out that the BLM decision, I think my timing is right here, was announced on president Trump’s last Friday in office. It was among a series of very quick decisions that were put out right before he left office. We don’t have too much time left, but in the big picture here, I’m curious: if the mining does go forward, if the various challenges ultimately are unsuccessful, what would it look like for the land? I mean, what’s the picture that has been painted for you?

Eben: Well, I don’t want to go there. But 18,000 acres of mining and exploration. That’s a lot of land. It’s very devastating when you come in, and our ancestors [having been] massacred back in 1865, here we are, several, several years later and they’re still trying to massacre our traditions. This is a traditional cultural area. It has traditional cultural practices where people still go to hunt and gather, to gather medicines, to gather foods and also to perform ceremonies. So I don’t understand why, in any of the NEPA documents, in any of the cultural resource inventories or the historic properties treatment plan, why none of that is written in these documents, in these guiding documents that are supposed to be approving the project. So it doesn’t look very good because annihilating Paiute and Shoshone culture is not appropriate. It’s against federal and state laws and it would be another devastation towards Indigenous people of the great state of Nevada.

Miller: Michon Eben, thanks very much for joining us today. I really appreciate your time.

Eben: Thank you for having the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

Miller: Michon Eben is the manager of the Cultural Resources Program and Tribal Historic Preservation Office for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony.

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