Reno-Sparks Indian Colony

Members of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony pray, sing, and dance at PeeHee Mu'Huh—known to whites as Thacker Pass—the Nevada site of an 1865 massacre by U.S. invaders and of a proposed lithium mine.

(Photo: Reno-Sparks Indian Colony)

Green Groups, Indigenous Tribes Urge Courts to Block 'Illegally Approved' Lithium Mine

"Global warming is a serious problem and we cannot continue burning fossil fuels, but destroying mountains for lithium is just as bad as destroying mountains for coal," argued one campaigner. "You can't blow up a mountain and call it green."

A coalition of conservation groups on Tuesday joined Native American tribes in launching legal challenges to a proposed lithium mine in northern Nevada that critics say was "illegally approved" and will "irreparably damage" the delicate desert ecosystem and land where Indigenous peoples are seeking federal historical recognition of a genocidal massacre perpetrated by U.S. colonizers.

Members of the Western Watersheds Project filed an emergency motion in federal court Tuesday seeking an injunction against the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in Humboldt County pending action by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to ensure the project—which would tap into the largest known source of lithium in the United States and was approved during the final days of the Trump administration—complies with federal law.

"This mine should not be allowed to destroy public land unless and until the 9th Circuit has determined whether it was legally approved," Western Watersheds Project staff attorney Talasi Brooks said in a statement announcing the filing.

"There's no evidence that Lithium Nevada will be able to establish valid mining claims to lands it plans to bury in waste rock and tailings, but the damage will be done regardless," Brooks added, referring to the subsidiary of Canada-based Lithium Americas that is seeking to build the mine. Lithium is a key component of electric vehicle batteries, cellphones, and laptops.

The emergency motion follows a lawsuit filed last week by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe in response to U.S. District Judge Miranda Du's earlier ruling that largely favored Lithium Americas and rejected opponents' claims that the project would cause "unnecessary and undue degradation" to the environment and wildlife.

"When the decision was made public on the previous lawsuit last week, we said we would continue to advocate for our sacred site PeeHee Mu'Huh. A place where prior to colonization, all our Paiute and Shoshone ancestors lived for countless generations," Arlan Melendez, chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, said in a statement.

"It's a place where all Paiute and Shoshone people continue to pray, gather medicines and food, honor our nonhuman relatives, honor our water, honor our way of life, honor our ancestors," Melendez added.

All three tribes call Thacker Pass PeeHee Mu'Huh, which means "rotten moon"—a name given to honor the dozens and perhaps scores of Northern Paiute men, women, and children who were massacred by Nevada Cavalry on September 12, 1865.

According to an account by one participant:

Daylight was just breaking when we came in sight of the Indian camp. All were asleep. We unslung our carbines, loosened our six-shooters, and started into that camp of savages at a gallop, shooting through their wickiups as we came. In a second, sleepy-eyed squaws and bucks and little children were darting about, dazed with the sudden onslaught, but they were shot before they came to their waking senses...

We dismounted to make a closer examination. In one wickiup we found two little papooses still alive. One soldier said, "Make a cleanup. Nits make lice."

The three tribes assert that all of Thacker Pass should be listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

"While Americans tend to focus on only the proud moments of American history, the shameful history of genocide perpetrated by the American government against Native Americas is nevertheless a broad pattern running throughout American history," Michon Eben, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony's cultural resource manager, wrote in a 2022 letter to the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM).

Eben added that the tribe "considers the destruction of its traditional cultural properties for another mine another act of genocide in the broad pattern running throughout American history."

Indigenous advocates argue that victims of the 1865 massacre were never properly buried, that human remains and artifacts are still being discovered in Thacker Pass, and that federal authorities failed to properly consult tribes on the mine project in violation of the National Historic Preservation Act.

"Part of the federal government's responsibility is to determine if a proposed mining project may adversely affect historic properties. Historic properties include Native American massacre sites," Eben toldNevada Current. "The BLM failed in its trust responsibility to tribes and now our ancestors' final resting place is currently being destroyed at PeeHee Mu'huh."

"The BLM failed in its trust responsibility to tribes and now our ancestors' final resting place is currently being destroyed."

Will Falk, attorney for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass—which set up a protest camp on the site of the proposed mine—accused BLM officials of lying about the massacre site being located outside the project area.

"The Biden administration and [Interior] Secretary Deb Haaland keep paying lip service to tribal rights and respect for Native Americans," Falk told Last Real Indians last year. "Well, now three federally recognized tribes are saying that BLM Winnemucca did not respect tribal rights. It's time that BLM halts this project so the tribes can be heard."

Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs and community relations for Lithium Nevada, argued in a statement that "since we began this project more than a decade ago, we have been committed to doing things right," and that Du's ruling "definitively supported the BLM's consultation process, and we are confident the ruling will be upheld."

While global demand for lithium is surging, extraction of the metal can have devastating consequences, including destruction of lands and ecosystems and water contamination.

"Global warming is a serious problem and we cannot continue burning fossil fuels, but destroying mountains for lithium is just as bad as destroying mountains for coal," contends Max Wilbert of Protect Thacker Pass. "You can't blow up a mountain and call it green."

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