By Kelsey Turner
On November 29, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC) and the Northern Paiute Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu (Red Mountain People) group filed a First Amended Complaint against the Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM). The complaint, part of a lawsuit filed against BLM in February 2021, alleges the bureau violated five federal statutes when it issued permits to Lithium Nevada Company for a lithium mine in northern Nevada’s Thacker Pass. . Lithium Nevada, part of Canadian company Lithium Americas, intends to start mining there next year.
For CIHR and the people of Red Mountain, Thacker Pass is sacred ground, home to traditional foods, medicines and ceremonies. But for the extractive industry, it is the largest known source of lithium in the United States, an element used in rechargeable batteries for electric cars.
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“We want to protect this place for the integrity of our people, the spirits and the things that many people care about with our Indigenous traditions and culture,” said Daranda Hinkey, People’s Secretary of Red Mountain. “We want to protect it not just for us right now, but for people after us.”
The RSIC has members, staff and residents with direct cultural ties to Thacker Pass, RSIC President Arlan Melendez and Cultural Resources Program Director Michon Eben said in a statement emailed to Native News Online.
Melendez and Eben said the BLM only notified three of Nevada’s 27 tribes about the mine.
“We were shocked that only three tribes were notified,” their email reads. “If we’re going to have this new lithium rush, it’s going to cause the same kind of genocide that the gold and silver rush had on the indigenous peoples of Nevada.”
Thacker Pass is also the site of two massacres involving native people: the first occurred between the Paiute and Pitt River Indians, and is only documented in oral history. The second was on September 12, 1865, when Federal troops killed at least 31 and possibly as many as 70 Paiute men, women, and children.
Hinkey said building a lithium mine at Thacker Pass would be like digging a graveyard.
“Our people are tied to the land, and so when we bury our people, or when our people are slaughtered like that, it’s different,” she said. “I feel like the rest of society doesn’t really understand that, because Indigenous people are connected in different ways.”
The amended complaint alleges that by licensing the lithium mine, BLM violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Archeological Resources Protection Act, the Administrative Procedure Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act. .
NHPA requires BLM to identify all historic properties in the project area before approving a permit. The office failed to identify at least four historic properties at the Thacker Pass site, although its General Lands Office has records of them, the complaint says. These include the archives of the 1865 massacre.
“Either they didn’t search their own General Land Office records adequately, or they did and they decided to hide what they found,” said Will Falk, a lawyer representing the RSIC and the people of Red Mountain. “Both scenarios are illegal.”
The BLM claimed it had no prior knowledge of the historical and cultural significance of Thacker Pass. But the evidence presented in the lawsuit includes recordings of a 2009 phone conversation in which Fort McDermitt Tribe President Dale Barr told BLM archaeologist Peggy McGuckian about the area’s significance.
During this conversation, McGuckian told Barr about a project that BLM was allowing in Thacker Pass and the Kings River Valley. Barr expressed concern about this, telling McGuckian the oral history of the Paiute Pitt River Massacre. But BLM’s subsequent environmental assessment for the project noted that “Dale Barr said the tribe had no concerns about the project.”
This conversation shows that BLM had prior knowledge of the importance of Thacker Pass, said Max Wilbert, co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass, a movement protesting against the mine.
The NHPA also requires BLM to consult with tribes likely to be affected by the project before issuing a permit. In its efforts to initiate consultation, BLM sent letters to several regional tribes in December 2019. Where tribes did not respond, the complaint says BLM did not follow up.
The BLM Tribal Relations Handbook explicitly says, “Sending a letter to a tribe and receiving no response is not enough effort to initiate tribal consultation.”
“BLM, by its own definition, did not conduct any consultation with native tribes,” Wilbert said. “And they’ve been lying about it ever since they issued the permit.”
Falk said the allegations provide grounds for the judge to put the project on hold while BLM reviews historical information and consults with tribes who hold the site of the massacre sacred.
Hinkey said Red Mountain residents emailed BLM and never received a real response.
“We try to fight as hard as we can from every angle,” she said. “If the Thacker Pass lithium mine were to pass, it’s as if our voices weren’t heard.”
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