As Daranda Hinkey surveys the vast expanse of ancient sagebrush that stretches out before her, a deep sense of sadness and unease begins to well up within her. Though the proposed site of America’s largest lithium mine is located in Thacker Pass, all she can see is Peehee Mu’huh – a sacred area that has been passed down through countless generations of her ancestors, who have left their mark and legacy upon it. The thought of this land being disturbed and desecrated by mining operations fills her with a deep sense of loss and despair.
The stories passed on by elders have named the area Peehee Mu’huh. It is a place that holds much more than just memories of those who came before, but also grief and tragedy. A massacre at the hands of another tribe took the lives of many innocent people here centuries ago. Furthermore, nearly 150 years later, this same land was the scene of another devastating massacre, documented in government survey documents, news articles, and eyewitness accounts. Of the victims of this terrible day, only one adult survived – Ox Sam, great-great-great grandfather to Daranda Hinkey.
As a founding member of the organization “Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu” or “People of the Red Mountain,” Hinkey is committed to preventing the Lithium Nevada Corporation from constructing a mine on land that the group believes is a mass grave. The Fort McDermitt Tribe, of which many members and relatives are a part of this organization, have a special connection to the land as many of them are descendants of Ox Sam. In the words of Hinkey, “We’re all descendants of a survivor. We feel like we were meant to be here at this time, fighting for the land.”
Daranda Hinkey and her family are not alone in their desire to protect Thacker Pass. In recent months, Native American tribes from the region, as well as state and national organizations, have voiced their opposition to the lithium mine construction amidst rising concerns over the mine’s potential environmental impact, lack of consultation with tribal leaders, and the area’s historically spiritual importance. Despite attempts by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to contact four tribes about the mine before its approval back in January 2020, none of these tribes had a chance to weigh in on it. Additionally, other tribes who carry an ancestral tie to Thacker Pass were not contacted at all.
The conflict between progress and preservation brings to light the tradeoffs that come with tackling climate change through traditional means. As predicted by the International Energy Agency, a global push towards electric vehicles could skyrocket the demand for lithium up to forty times current production levels by 2040. Lithium Nevada projects that its Thacker Pass mine would contribute around 80,000 tons of lithium carbonate per year – accounting for about one-fifth of worldwide production in 2020. However, those leading the fight against it contend that this does not justify the cost.
Although Fort McDermitt Tribe’s leadership was contacted by the BLM about the lithium mine, Daranda Hinkey only became aware after its approval from reading news reports. With her family in tow, she ventured to Thacker Pass in March and encountered environmental activists Max Wilbert and Will Falk who had been protesting there since January; a sight that moved her to act. The land housing the proposed mine is abundant with cultural significance due to traditional foods like chokecherries and mule deer, motivating many Native Americans from the region to join Hinkey at the campsite where they could gather traditional food and medicine, conduct ceremonies, and protest against it.
Additionally, elders shared stories of their ancestors traveling through the mountainous terrain or hiding from U.S. soldiers before being sent to reservations in the late 19th century – all of which gave weight to their fight against jeopardizing such special land with a lithium mine.
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the People of the Red Mountain joined a federal lawsuit in July that had been filed in February by a rancher and environmental groups. The lawsuit accuses the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of disregarding potential impacts on water resources and wildlife, such as the greater sage grouse, when approving a mine. The tribes also assert that the BLM breached the National Historic Preservation Act by not consulting them.
Judge Du denied the motion for an injunction, meaning Lithium Nevada’s plans to conduct a survey of Thacker Pass can move forward. In her ruling, she outlined that while there could have been more consultation with BLM and other tribes prior to decision-making being finalized – ultimately it was deemed reasonable in its current form.
Furthermore, Du disregarded evidence of a massacre in that area due to lack of human remains. However, tribes are now disputing this with compelling new data. Through stories passed down to Big Bill Haywood from Ox Sam himself and more modern investigation methods like archaeological digs, they’re proving that a massacre did indeed take place partially on the project site back in 1865.
The tribes have filed an appeal against the BLM’s permit for the Thacker Pass lithium mine, and the judge has yet to rule on the legality of the permit. The mine also still needs a state water pollution permit and an “eagle-take permit” from the US Fish and Wildlife Service before construction can begin. The opposition to the mine is considered unusual in Nevada, which is known for its lax regulations and lack of resistance to mining projects.
Lithium Nevada has a history of outreach to local community members, including local tribes, about the Thacker Pass lithium mine, but the company declined to comment on the BLM’s tribal consultation process or its own efforts. The BLM and the Department of the Interior also declined to comment. Opponents of the mine continue to protest, use social media, and hold events to raise awareness. They are particularly hoping to attract the attention of Debra Haaland, the first Native American Secretary of the Interior Department and a proponent of Native rights.