Growing up on the Duck Valley Reservation, Gary McKinney said he recalled hearing the stories of the brutal murders of his ancestors at Thacker Pass in northern Nevada.
Tribal oral history depicts American soldiers killing dozens of Indigenous people in the late 1800s, including women and children, and leaving behind a graveyard of deep spiritual significance. Generations that followed graced the vast site with ceremonies while continuing to hunt and search for traditional foods and medicines.
But despite their long-standing connection to the land, the Paiute and Shoshone peoples may soon see their traditions and cultural history uprooted: A multinational company plans to launch a new 1,000-acre lithium mine that would destroy the sacred land in order to extract a central element for electric car batteries.
“We are just protecting our elders, their grandparents, the integrity of the things they owned,” said McKinney, 32, a member of the Shoshone-Paiute tribes. âThere was life there, there was death there. “
Indigenous communities across the United States face difficult legal battles when trying to protect sacred spaces outside of their jurisdictions. The religious significance of sites is often misunderstood or treated with blatant disregard. And because there is no comprehensive legal protection for sacred indigenous spaces, tribes have limited options in the courtroom.
Legal efforts to stop the Thacker Pass lithium project, including a lawsuit by local tribes, ranchers and environmental groups, have so far failed. Last month, their attempt to temporarily block an archaeological survey needed to begin construction was denied.
It is not the only sacred site involved in the courts. Last month, the Canadian company Enbridge announced that the upgrade of its Line 3 pipeline in Minnesota was “largely complete” despite strong reluctance from indigenous and environmental groups who detailed the devastating impact of the drilling on sacred grounds. The Gila River Indian community also recently lost its multi-year legal fight to stop construction of the South Mountain Highway, which will cross their sacred site.
These cases, while distinct, contrast sharply with the ideals of a country firmly grounded in religious freedom. For many indigenous peoples, they represent another painful example of the historical and institutionalized inequalities they face.
For months, the tribal communities surrounding Thacker Pass have worked to protect this sacred site from a similar fate.
The project, which was approved by the Trump administration in January, is expected to produce lithium, a crucial component of electric vehicle batteries, and could play an important role as the country shifts away from fossil fuels. Lithium Americas, the company behind the project, has said it expects the mine “to meet most or all of the expected demand for lithium in the United States.”
But some members of the indigenous and environmental communities say the project is not worth the devastating cost it would have on the environment, including the sage grouse and other wildlife, and on sacred land.
In ruling against the tribes, Chief Justice Miranda Du said the National Historic Preservation Act, which includes the protection of indigenous cultural and religious sites, does not give them “the right to prevent any excavation throughout the project area. “.
The people of Red Mountain, a group opposed to the mine, described the project as akin to building above Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery.
“We would never desecrate these places and we ask that our sacred sites be accorded the same respect,” the group said in a statement.
Legal experts say there are many factors that help explain why Indigenous communities so often lose out to big business and their own federal government when trying to protect sacred spaces. Some believe there is a lack of understanding of Aboriginal religious practices; others see an obvious double standard.
Suzan Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute, a national Native American rights organization and former executive director of the National Congress of American Indian, highlighted the long and painful history of religious persecution.
In the late 1800s, she explained, authorities banned Indigenous ceremonies and visiting sacred spaces outside of designated reserves. In recent decades, despite the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, which aimed to protect spiritual rights, indigenous peoples have continued to lose access to these lands.
Harjo said a Supreme Court ruling in 1988 set a pretty destructive tone for the future of sacred space protection. The court approved the construction of a road through a section of a national forest considered sacred. The court said that the protection of citizens’ right to practice their religion by the First Amendment does not preclude such action.
For Aboriginal people whose spiritual practices are closely linked to sites in the natural world, such a decision was extremely important.
“It becomes something that can be used as something to beat up everyone, although that is not necessarily what it is,” she said of the High Court ruling. “It’s just a handy weapon to use against the available target.”
The indigenous movement to protect ancestral lands does not only aim to ensure the sustainability of sacred traditions. It also has an obvious environmental impact.
A coalition of an Indigenous environmental group and a clean energy organization released a report in August that found successful efforts to curb fossil fuel development in the United States and Canada during the last decade were “the carbon equivalent of 12% of annual pollution in the United States and Canada, or 779 million metric tonnes of CO2e”.
But as the Thacker Pass lithium mine project shows, tensions over land use are not unique to fossil fuel mining. Even the transition to more renewable energy sources has its own pitfalls.
Daranda Hinkey, a People of Red Mountain organizer, said the court ruling last month showed a complete lack of understanding of tribal oral histories, cemeteries and Indigenous spiritual practices.
âThese justice systems, these legal systems, everything like that, are not set up for indigenous peoples at all,â she said.
For McKinney, the 32-year-old member of the Shoshone-Paiute tribes, the fight is not over.
After hearing about the mine, he quit his job and helped set up a protest camp at the site in an attempt to save traditional sacred lands. McKinney said he’s been there occasionally since July and will continue to try to protect the space from future development by Lithium Americas.
“We think they are dishonorable people for taking advantage of the elders and disrespecting the land which is so important to a people they have no knowledge of,” he said.