In Nevada, Indigenous land protectors face off with a Canadian mining company

Thacker Pass is being built on the largest known lithium deposit in the world — burning carbon and using billions of litres of water in one of the driest regions of the U.S.
Dorece Sam of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation is one of the Indigenous land protectors fighting against the massive Lithium Americas mining project in Nevada. Photo by Brandi Morin

This story is being co-published with Ricochet and the Real News Network.

Amidst the desert expanses of rural northern Nevada lies a land of striking contrasts and breathtaking beauty. 

Washed in tones of golden yellow and burnt ochre, it is rugged, serene and captivating to the senses. In this vast stretch of parched desert, with sagebrush and other hardy shrubs dotting the landscape, there’s a sense of timelessness. 

It isn’t all desert. There are also rugged mountain ranges with jagged peaks, and deep canyons that stretch regally towards endless blue skies. Their slopes are often adorned with evergreen trees, junipers and pines.

Interwoven between the mountains are numerous valleys and basins, with open vistas that seem to stretch on forever. The land is often used for agriculture and ranching, with fields of golden grasses and free-grazing livestock adding a touch of vitality to the otherwise-arid surroundings.

Water is a precious resource in this region, and rivers and lakes play an important role in shaping the landscape. 

The area is also home to wildlife including antelope, mule deer, golden eagles, ferruginous hawks, prairie falcons and numerous other bird species that nest in the cliffs. A rare desert wildflower called Crosby’s Buckwheat thrives in a valley 43 kilometres north of the small farming community of Orovada. That valley, known to locals as Peehee Mu’huh or Thacker Pass, is the site of a controversial lithium mining development owned by a Canadian mining company.

‘It’s the end game for us — as humans’

Lithium Americas Corporation, based in “Vancouver,” is constructing the mine on the largest known lithium deposit in the world. The lithium sits in the basin of an ancient, and extinct, super volcano named the McDermitt Caldera, which was formed more than 16 million years ago.

The mine will stretch to nearly 2,400 hectares and dig an open pit to a depth of 120 metres — approximately the width of eight football fields, and the length of six aircraft carriers (or 37 football fields). The project requires tailings piles and processing facilities, including a sulfur plant. The sulfur (waste from oil refineries) will be trucked in by the ton and burned every day at the mine site over its expected 41 years of operation.

It will also use more than 6.4 billion litres of water per year in the driest state in America.

“It’s the end game for us — as humans,” says BC Zahn-Nahtzu, a Shoshone mother and land protector from the Hungry Valley Indian reservation, about 400 kilometres south of the mine development. 

Her home is painted a bright turquoise, as is a small barn nestled on the back of her property. She keeps various breeds of chickens, and is particularly fond of the space she’s curated for native and potted vegetation on her one-acre plot of land.

BC Zahn-Nahtzu, a Shoshone mother and land protector from the Hungry Valley Indian reservation. Photo by Brandi Morin

She strolls through her yard, a certified wilderness protected area, gently brushing her hand on various plants, shrubs and medicines growing there. She knows each by name, even the most menial looking ones. “That’s not a weed, it’s curlycup gumweed. It’s pure medicine, it helps open up your lungs.”

In another spot, a plant growing out of her front concrete curb is a traditional food her Shoshone ancestors once used for sustenance, Indian rice grass. “These seeds are really high in nutrients… and that’s the thing about Thacker Pass…”

She stops and chokes up with emotion as she describes her deep connection to the territories of her ancestors who once thrived there. And the prospect of it being flattened for extraction. 

“It’s just the wrong thing to do to the animals, to the plants, to the Earth,” Zahn-Nahtzu says. “And again, we just keep tearing up the planet. Whether it be, you know, other types of mining or logging and oil extraction, fracking. It’s not a solution. It’s just a ‘for now’ fix. It’s short sighted.”

She’s speaking to the world’s rush to transition off fossil fuels to “greener” alternatives such as electric vehicles, whose batteries need lithium, as the “for now” fix to the threats of climate change and pollution. 

The Thacker Pass mine was fast-tracked by the Trump administration, just before he left office. And President Biden has since given it his full support. 

A Biden Administration statement titled “Securing a Made in America Supply Chain for Critical Minerals” reads, in part: “Critical minerals provide the building blocks for many modern technologies and are essential to our national security and economic prosperity … The U.S. is increasingly dependent on foreign sources for many of the processed versions of these minerals. Globally, China controls most of the market for processing and refining for cobalt, lithium, rare earths and other critical minerals.”

General Motors is the main investor in the Thacker Pass mine, financing USD $650 million of the cost of the project, which holds enough battery metal to build one million electric vehicles per year. 

However, for more than two years, several local tribes and environmental organizations have tried to block or delay the mine via litigation and protests. In June, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that the U.S. government did not violate federal environmental laws when it approved the mine. 

But, to Zahn-Nahtzu, the mine will desecrate the spiritual connection she has with her traditional territories. And she’s spoken out to protect it during protests at the mine site. Now, Lithium Americas is suing her and six other land and water protectors in civil court, with claims ranging from civil conspiracy to trespassing, and tortious interference. 

The suit seeks to ban all seven from the mining area, and seeks financial compensation for their actions. 

“I don’t even remember (exactly what I’m charged with). Civil something? Trespassing? And something about disobedience? I don’t know. I didn’t really read the papers. I just threw them in a drawer,” shrugs Zahn-Nahtzu while smelling fresh sage she picked from a hill next to her house. 

She says she wanted her dissent against the project to be put on the record, for her children and grandchildren.

“Because it’ll all just be an open pit. And that’s our ancestral homeland. That’s our bones and our blood, deep, deep in the soil. I can almost see what’s really there just on the other side of the spiritual curtain when I’m there. You can feel them (ancestors) out there with you and to be looking at the same stars and seeing the same moon and knowing that my kids’ kids will never see those stars from that same place,” she says. 

“Honestly, I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop them.”

Peehee Mu’huh, or rotten moon

A still from the documentary ‘Mining the Sacred’ by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day, produced by Ricochet, the Real News Network and IndigiNews.

The Native tribes call Thacker Pass by its Paiute name: Peehee Mu’huh, meaning “rotten moon” in English. The name stems from a massacre that happened there before contact in a crescent-shaped area of the valley.

Elders have since passed down the tale of the bloody killings of 31 Paiute men, women and children by an enemy tribe. They say attackers gutted the insides of the dead and threw them onto the sagebrush. When the bodies were discovered by Paiute men who had been away hunting, the stench of the rotting flesh was so strong they named the spot “rotten moon.” 

“It was a really rugged time,” says Paiute Elder Dean Barlese at his home on the Pyramid Lake Reservation, about 45 minutes north of Reno, Nevada. 

The era of colonial massacres began not long after. 

“The soldiers would butcher them (Natives), too. And to save bullets, a lot of times they would … take the young people and bash them in the back of their heads, and so on. And I know this because our oral history says this is how the military treated our people. To save bullets, they would grab the little kids and swing them around and hit the back of their head on the juniper trees.”

Paiute Elder Dean Barlese shows his beaded medallion. Photo by Brandi Morin

The massacre sites up there are endless, he goes on to explain, pushing back long brown hair speckled with grey that he has tied back in a low ponytail. He clutches a large, custom-made circular beaded medallion with lined details of rose, white, black, red and blue that hangs around his neck. 

“They fought hard against the military because they didn’t want to lose their land. The government wanted to get rid of the Paiute people. So, they massacred them wherever they found them. It was a five-year war. Snake war, they called it.”

Barlese is seated in a wheelchair in his air-conditioned living room. His right foot was amputated two years ago due to complications with diabetes, and he travels twice a week to receive dialysis. 

But those medical challenges didn’t stop him from being on the frontlines of the fight to protect Peehee Mu’huh and its sacred sites. In May and June, Barlese parked his wheelchair in the path of pipelines Lithium Americas was laying down to transport water to the mine site.

He painted his face red for protection and built a ceremonial fire that burned cedar and sage. Then he held his sacred pipe, while thinking of his ancestors who died there. Barlese’s great-great grandfather lived at Peehee Mu’huh before being forced to move further south. 

“I’m (here) because our ancestors are there. We’ve got to defend them. We’ve got to protect them.”

Paiute Elder Dean Barlese at his home on the Pyramid Lake Reservation. Photo by Brandi Morin

Barlese said he stayed with other land and water protectors at a resistance camp they built there called Ox Sam, named after one of the only survivors of another massacre that happened near the sacred Sentinel Rock at the eastern end of Peehee Mu’huh. 

“And I sang songs and prayed.” he stops to lean in as a grin forms across his face. “And then these little whirlwinds would come up the road towards the security camp where they were standing. And we knew our ancestors were there — they showed themselves. And we were laughing, but the big ole one came and torpedoed. The security guards scattered. And (I thought) our people must be upset about this. Because we still have that belief that our spirit … the whirlwinds that come around, they are (ancestors) come to check on us.”

He’s also facing charges pursued by Lithium Americas, including civil conspiracy, trespassing and tortious interference. But he says he has no regrets. He burned the court papers in a ceremonial fire in his backyard. 

“Now they’re restraining us from prayer up there. We’re still in the Indian wars, not only here but everywhere. And I’d give my life, like my grandpa did, like the old people did, to protect this place.”

Police raids, lawsuits and intimidation

Dorece Sam of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. A still from the documentary ‘Mining the Sacred’ by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day, produced by Ricochet, the Real News Network and IndigiNews.

In rural Northern Nevada, a number of small towns and communities — each with its own unique character and charm —serve as gateways to the wilderness, offering a sense of respite and connection to the land.

Several hundred kilometres north of Barlese at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, Dorece Sam ponders the 1865 massacre near Sentinel Rock at Peehee Mu’huh. Her great-great grandfather, Ox Sam, was one of the only survivors of the attack when he hopped on a horse to escape.

She knew of the other massacre in the valley, in which the victims were murdered by the enemy tribe and their insides strung out on the sagebrush. But she only learned she is a direct descendant of the Sentinel Rock massacre in recent years. 

“We came to find out that our family was massacred, but we were there (at Peehee Mu’huh) because we want to protect the land,” she says from her home on the reservation.

She also can feel her ancestors there and doesn’t want their burial grounds to be ravaged by the mine development. 

 ”For somebody that’s connected to Mother Earth, you know, that can feel things, like me — I can feel things out there. I was up in prayer at Sentinel Rock, I heard an old man singing there, an old, old man. And I laid there and I tried to listen to see if I can identify the song or hear any words in there that I could understand.” 

For more than a month, Sam stood guard with her eagle staff (a sacred ceremonial pole), and conducted prayers in the path of Lithium America’s water pipeline construction line. 

Then in early June, the local sheriff’s department raided the Ox Sam camp, tore down the teepee and confiscated ceremonial items. 

Just weeks later, Sam learned she was named in the civil lawsuit filed by Lithium Americas, and was served with a Temporary Protection Order (TPO), banning her from visiting the construction area.  

“At first, I think I got scared because I’ve never been to court like this before, but then, you know, I just kept on praying, kept on smudging,” she says. 

“Now, I just believe that they’re just a waste of paper. So, I’m like, let Creator take care of it. I built a fire outside of my home, and I threw all the paperworks,  the TPO, and the lawsuit, everything — I burnt it in the fire.” 

She adds Lithium Americas warned her not to post about the Thacker Pass mine development on her social media accounts while litigation is going on. 

“I think they’re (Lithium Americas) doing it to try to hush us up because I know in the TPO they asked that we not post about them or anything on social media and they’re just trying to silence us. And by doing that they are violating our religious freedom by not allowing us to go up there.”

The soft-spoken mother adjusts her glasses and points to several tribal tattoos on her forearms, a testament to her connection to her culture. American Indian Movement posters adorn her walls, along with a painting of Peehee Mu’huh by her young niece that hangs over the TV in the living room. 

Her children and grandchildren know about their mother’s work protecting Peehee Mu’huh. They also know she’s facing charges for doing so. But she explains the importance of standing up for their rights and the rights of Mother Earth. 

Dorece Sam of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. A still from the documentary ‘Mining the Sacred’ by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day, produced by Ricochet, the Real News Network and IndigiNews.

“I said (to them) all these things that people are doing with mining and stuff like that, it makes Mother Earth heavy and she’s hurting and she’s tired,” Sam explains.“And I was telling them that every time she goes to take a deep breath, that’s when the Earth shakes. The Earth moves. She’s crying and she’s just tired of all this mining.”

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe signed a Community Benefits Agreement with Lithium Americas in 2022. It’s the closest reservation to the mine site, approximately 64 kilometres away, and also the poorest in the region.

Lithium Americas says the support for the project stems from the tribe’s desire to gain economic benefits. Tim Crowley, Vice President of Government Affairs and Community Relations for Lithium Nevada, declined an interview, and instead sent a statement attributed to company CEO Jonathan Evans.  

“We are pleased to have the support of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe as we advance Thacker Pass and look forward to generations of future collaboration,” Evans states, going on to wax poetic over their community benefit agreement with the Fort McDermitt Tribe, their track record of collaboration with communities and the importance of developing a “North American battery supply chain.”

Attempts were made to reach Fort McDermitt leadership for comment on several occasions but we did not receive a response. 

Sam says her community was not fully consulted and that the agreement was hastily signed by leadership during COVID-19 lockdowns. 

“They (leadership) didn’t notify the people. They didn’t tell anybody what was going on. And so now we have our current chairman, his name is Arlo Crutcher. And he’s totally for this mine. He is just ignoring everybody and everything.” 

Crowley, with Lithium Nevada, did provide background information claiming the Fort McDermitt tribe “rejects” that there were battles at Peehee Mu’huh. 

“Tribal Elder Alana Crutcher was interviewed,” Crowley wrote. Alana was born and raised at the nearby Fort McDermitt reservation. She said she had, “never heard of a massacre.” She stated that Peehee Mu’huh “…is not the name of that mountain. That’s not the name of that place.”

Sentinel rock at Peehee Mu’huh, where locals say a massacre took place in 1865. Photo by Brandi Morin

According to Crowley, she told Wood that, “…she had never heard of this land being called rotten moon. She says she thinks the tribe is actually being used as a prop that could stop a project that could help her people.” Alana went on to say, “I’m not going to say that they are liars. But where they got their information, I don’t know. We are totally being misrepresented.”   

Fort McDermitt Elder Myron Smart has heard the stories of the massacres from his relatives, and re-tells them in detail. In 1865, a local rancher called in the U.S. Cavalry stationed in Winnemucca when Paiute and Shoshone begged him for food after not being able to forage over the winter months, Smart says. 

“So, they (the cavalry) came up there and they ran all the Indian people out of there,” he says.

“They came over the Santa Rosas (mountains) and then they ended up here where Thacker Pass is and over there by Sentinel Rock. And when the soldiers finally came over the mountain, it was already late in the evening…maybe about 2 or 3 o’clock in the morning, they just started to shoot everybody. They massacred a whole village there.” 

Michon Eben of Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) Tribal Historic Preservation Office Cultural Resources Program also refutes the claim by the company and the Fort McDermitt tribe that massacres didn’t happen at Peehee Mu’huh. She says the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) left out evidence listed in its own historical documents about the 1865 massacre when approving the mine. 

That massacre site was recorded by U.S. Deputy Surveyor Abed Alley Palmer in 1968.

“I found the remains of an extensive Indian Camp,” wrote Palmer in his journal. The same camp where the 1st Nevada Cavalry ambushed, chased down, and massacred a camp of Paiute people.

“There are many Indian skulls and other remains to be found scattered over this portion of the Township. I found some also opposite here on the east side of the River,” Palmer continued.

The RSIC is well-versed on the impacts of mining. The Tribe’s Hungry Valley land base was threatened by a proposed mining operation of clay for cat litter in the 1990s, however the tribe and other Reno-area groups were successful in stopping the project. 

Eben and RSIC THPO staff developed the “Wounded Souls: Extracting from the Land and Our Spirits,” exhibit which includes historic mining equipment, artifacts produced from the Comstock Lode silver mine, historical documents, oral histories and information about the discriminatory 1872 Mining Law and impacts of mining on Indigenous culture. 

A section of the exhibit is dedicated to the ongoing fight to stop the Thacker Pass lithium mine. 

RSIC along with Burns Paiute Tribe were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management over lack of consultation on the mine project. After a judge ruled largely in favour of Lithium Americas in February, the tribe filed a new lawsuit along with Burns Paiute and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe. 

“Why wasn’t the massacre mentioned in the historic properties treatment plan?” asks a fired-up Eben, from her office at the RSIC.

“Why weren’t these massacres mentioned in the record of decision? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the Environmental Impact Statement? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the cultural resources inventory? We had to bring it up. It was in BLM’s own documents. It’s junk science — they didn’t do their complete analysis and left this out. It’s a cover up. It’s been a cover up and they’re closing their eyes to it.”

She is not impressed by Lithium Americas denial of the massacre sites. 

“Lithium Nevada’s corporate attorney is implying that the tribes are lying about the sacredness of Peehee Mu’huh, calling these sacred sites the ‘allegedly sacred areas of Thacker Pass.’ This is not ‘allegedly.’ This is not lying. Our dead are treated less than — that’s why nobody cares that there’s unmarked burial grounds.”

The skies above rural Northern Nevada are vast and seemingly infinite. With minimal light pollution, the region is known for its clear and star-filled nights, offering breathtaking views of the celestial wonders above. The changing colours of the sky during sunrise and sunset paint a vivid canvas, casting a warm glow over the land and enhancing its natural beauty.

To the Native tribes, the rugged landscape is not just a backdrop, but a living testament to the resilience and beauty of nature, their histories, and traditions. 

And RSIC is not only worried about having their sacred site desecrated, but they’re also upset about potential environmental damage, explains Eben. 

“It’s (the mine) going to be 400 feet deep. You cannot destroy ecosystems, a natural habitat of the sage grouse. You cannot take gallons and gallons of water in the driest region and tell us that that’s good for electric vehicles? You still have to plug into the grid. It’s still a part of fossil fuels.” 

Concerns about man camps and MMIWG+

A still from the documentary ‘Mining the Sacred’ by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day, produced by Ricochet, the Real News Network and IndigiNews.

The prospect of man camps is also a concern for many local Indigenous people, who noted the potential impacts on Indigenous women and girls of the coming Lithium Americas housing units for mine construction workers. 

“What’s really scary is if you’re bringing in a man camp and you’re placing that on public land, and you’re disturbing the land, then you need to be doing a study as to where that man camp is going. That didn’t happen in the impact statement,” Eben says. 

“They’re bringing in 1000 men — you’re not going to hire 1000 men locally. You have to bring them in from other places. Those men are usually young men, they bring in illegal drug activities. And this is where the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples come in.  Just the 30 to 40 miners that are out there now working, we’ve heard they’re coming into the local stores and asking them ‘where’s all the pretty girls?’”

Recently, Michon has had concerns about her own safety. Several weeks ago, she was visiting with Elders who oppose the Thacker Pass mine in the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone reservation. After driving the 3.5-hours to her office in RSIC the next morning, and parking in her spot outside her office, she heard a helicopter nearby. 

“I wasn’t paying attention. I heard a helicopter, but I’m used to them because of the medical centre here … I look and here comes a helicopter coming straight up at me, just above the power poles and it comes right here — the door was open, and I could see someone going click, click, click. I could see the flash of the light. And I realised they were taking pictures of me. I grabbed the phone and caught the last of them heading out.”

“I kinda got scared and then I got mad. And I went in and I burned my medicine and then I thought ‘little old me?’ Who am I? How come people gotta take a picture of me? What gives anybody the right? But then, I do know the president and the Department of the Interior, they do want this mine because they think it’s the answer to combat fossil fuels. They’re trying to stifle my voice? Well, it’s wrong.”

Eben has spoken bluntly at rallies against the mine and stresses the worldview that “greenwashing” lithium is harmful. 

“No, it’s not gonna save the world. You’re seeing movie stars advertising electric vehicles. People are getting brainwashed about electric vehicles,” she says. “They think they’re saving the earth but it’s not, they’re not seeing behind the scenes of what’s really going on with mining for lithium. You can’t mine your way out of a climate crisis. You can’t destroy the earth to save the Earth.”

Back in the Fort McDermitt reservation, Sam draws the curtains in her living room, beating back the sweltering July heat. She contemplates a message to Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland, the first Native cabinet secretary in U.S. history. It would be a plea for help. 

“I would tell her ‘wake up, we need you, you’re Native American. Mother Earth should mean something to you. Wake up! We need your help.’”

She also has a strong message for the Biden Administration. 

“It’s Native Americans that’ve been here since time immemorial. It’s time for us to take our land back. Go dig somewhere else.”

As temperatures soar across the western United States, putting one third of Americans under excessive heat alerts, elders like Barlese are not surprised. It’s only going to get worse, he says, and extractive industries are exacerbating the threat to all who live on Mother Earth. 

“We have prophecies that this world’s gonna end by burning. And everything’s going on already,” he shakes his head while explaining the dire warnings his ancestors gave to him. 

“It’s accelerating fast. It’s a Paiute prophecy…before this there was a great flood, and there was a wind, and then ice and snow that destroyed the world, destroyed the humans. The last one, we’re in that time already. And our old people say, ‘this world’s gonna burn.’”

The Peehee Mu’huh mine site is being touted as the “Silicon Valley of lithium” and multiple other mining companies are lining up to cash in on the rush to produce the so-called white gold.

“Nevada is one of the USA’s most important mining states and is a canary in the coal mine for the U.S. appetite to sanction new critical mineral mines that are key to future industrial growth,” Simon Moores, founder and CEO of the U.K. mining data firm Benchmark Mineral Intelligence Ltd. told Politico’s E&E News. 

“What happens in Nevada and its lithium wealth will resonate through the U.S. for key critical minerals such as graphite, nickel, cobalt, manganese and rare earths,” he added. 

According to Protect Thacker Pass, the mine would burn around 43,000 litres of diesel fuel per day for onsite operations and nearly as much for off-site operations. Carbon emissions from the site would be more than 150,000 ton per year (during Phase 2), roughly 2.3 ton of carbon for every ton of lithium that’s produced. 

If reclamation were completed successfully, restoration of the site to its current condition would not be realized until at least 2162. 

The mainstream is too caught up in greed and consumption now, Barlese says, to save what’s left of the world. 

“Some white people, they continue to destroy. And, I think, we’ve gone beyond where we can come down,” he says. 

“They don’t see their children, their grandchildren, their great-great grandchildren. They don’t look ahead like we do. We look seven generations ahead and leave things the way they are for the future generations. But they don’t see that.”

Watch the feature documentary “Thacker Pass — Mining the Sacred,” created by Brandi Morin and Geordie Day, and co-produced by Ricochet, IndigiNews and the Real News Network.


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