Dust blows south of Thacker Pass along Nevada State Route 293.
When the country's first indigenous Interior Secretary Deb Haaland took office, she vowed to confront a legacy of mistreatment of the U.S. government toward Native Americans and to include their voices in public land decisions.
The Protect Thacker Pass campaign and the tribal group People of the Red Mountain are calling on Secretary Haaland to intervene in plans for a lithium mine at Thacker Pass in Humboldt County, Nevada, 35 miles south of the Oregon border. Natural resources depended on by Native Americans have long been threatened by fossil fuel development. Now, their communities are expected to bear the brunt once again in the mining spree for renewable energies — especially lithium mining, which has already brought great human rights abuses in places such as Chile and Argentina. Many tribes in Nevada are uniting against the new wave of energy extraction calling for the Joe Biden administration to make good on its promises to protect their cultural rights.
“I know one of your main missions is ‘Preserving our historic sites and lands for future generations,’’’ Daranda Hinkey, a young member of the People of the Red Mountain, wrote in a letter on Sept. 7 of last year, “and I know you have said you, ‘remain committed to centering voices and history, and stories of those who have been unrepresented and underrepresented.’ Our people have been overlooked and taken advantage of for too long. We need your help to turn this around.”
Thacker Pass, or Peehee Mu’huh in Paiute (Rotten Moon), is sacred to the Paiute-Shoshone people. Tribal elders recall how their ancestors hid in the mountains from U.S. soldiers. "Rotten" is for the blood spilled in those conflicts, and "moon" is for the shape of the pass. In 1865, at least 31 Natives were massacred by the U.S. Cavalry in a battle that led to forcible removal and placement onto reservations across Nevada, Oregon, California, Idaho, Utah and Arizona.
On Sept. 12, tribes from across Nevada gathered at Thacker Pass for a commemoration of the massacre and to rally support to protect the land where their ancestors are said to be buried. Less than two weeks earlier, federal Judge Miranda Du had denied a preliminary injunction brought by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe and People of the Red Mountain to stop planned archaeological excavation at the site.
Then, on Oct. 1, the tribes' lead attorney, Will Falk, and his co-counsel filed a Motion for Reconsideration in a federal district court which presented Judge Du with arguments that the 1865 massacre means there are human remains present in Thacker Pass. This would mean the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is obligated to honor the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, triggering emergency consultation with tribes.
“We have presented BLM Winnemucca with an abundance of significant new evidence showing that the September 12, 1865, Thacker Pass Massacre happened within the proposed mine area,” Falk said. “BLM Winnemucca has ignored this new evidence and will likely destroy the remains of massacred Paiute people with the archaeological digs. So, not only did the federal government perpetrate this atrocity — now, it plans to destroy the physical evidence that it even happened.”
In the BLM’s own public records are archival field notes prepared by a U.S. deputy land surveyor writing in 1868 details of the massacre, the Motion for Reconsideration alleges.
Further evidence provided to BLM by the tribes’ legal counsel includes: An 1865 newspaper clip “Indian Fight in Indian Valley” in the Owyhee Avalanche describes “the extent of the battlefield so great” where “each officer and man went for scalps” and that “several tons of berries, grass seeds, and other foods were completely destroyed.” Other literary references detail eyewitness accounts found in autobiographies and state historical records, according to the motion.
“This counts as American History and the Paiute people are important, not just the artifacts on and in the ground," said Michon R. Eben, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony tribe member and cultural resource manager. "BLM and the archeological firm have failed to acknowledge the massacre and failed to properly engage with tribes.”
Eben said she believes that Thacker Pass should be protected under the National Register of Historic Places. Eligibility for this protection means any excavation must be done with the utmost care, following more stringent protocols than what’s required of standard “data recovery” archeological work, as the potential dig at Thacker Pass is currently categorized.
“It is very likely that the mechanical trenching operations, hand-dug holes, and the surface scraping actions specified in [the projects Historic Properties Treatment Plan] will disturb the Thacker Pass Massacre site and result in the excavation of the remains of the Paiutes shot to death in the Thacker Pass project area,” reads a recent letter from the tribal members to the BLM Winnemucca office. They sent at least three letters to Winnemucca BLM citing massacre evidence and have received no acknowledgment, according to their council.
"The Final EIS [environmental impact statement] prepared by the BLM does not even mention that Peehee mu'huh is named for the massacre that took place there and explicitly denies the existence of any significant traditional or sacred sites within the project area,” said Lucy Gill of the Archaeological Research Facility at UC Berkeley, who has experience in partnerships with Indigenous communities. “I am skeptical that a Historic Properties Treatment Plan created on the basis of such an inaccurate EIS — which proposes no mitigation measures whatsoever in terms of Native American religious concerns — will adhere to best practices for archaeological work on a massacre site, which requires minimally invasive methods and, most importantly, meaningful and ongoing consultation and collaboration."
A BLM spokesperson declined to answer questions, referring to the Final Environmental Impact Statement for information regarding cultural sites.
“Even if the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act is honored, that only gives us the right to oversee the reburial of our dead, not leave them be,” Eben explained. “The idea of reburying our ancestors goes against our culture, and that’s a spiritually distressing task for Paiute and Shoshone People. Imagine if U.S. citizens were asked to remove a European historical cemetery? They’d be in an uproar.”
In case you missed it, you can read part one of this story here.
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Image credit: Famartin/Wikimedia Commons
Cayte Bosler is an environmental journalist, a conservationist, and a graduate student at Columbia University where she trains to tackle complex and pressing environmental challenges.