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Nevada tribe claims ‘desecration’ as digging begins at site of planned lithium mine

An image of a wide vista of sagebrush
Nevada Division of Environmental Protection
The proposed area for the Thacker Pass lithium mine in northern Nevada.

The planned Thacker Pass lithium mine in remote northern Nevada has drawn protests and a lawsuit from local tribes. One of the tribes, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, has increased its efforts to stop the project.

As archaeologists begin excavation work at a site in northern Nevada that could become the largest open-pit lithium mine in the world, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony is demanding that the archaeologists, hired by miner Lithium Nevada, halt the dig.

“These sanctioned excavations are inappropriate and they’re unethical,” said Michon Eben, the tribe’s historic preservation officer.

The tribe says the site is sacred ground, where their Paiute ancestors were massacred by U.S. cavalry in 1865. They call it “Peehee Mu’huh,” or rotten moon, though it’s more commonly known as Thacker Pass. Last week, the tribe sent a letter to the archaeology firm, Far Western Anthropological Research Group, urging the company to “refuse to participate in the desecration of Thacker Pass for corporate greed.”

A federal judge ruled last fall that historical accounts of the massacre provided by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Oregon-based Burns Paiute Tribe were “too speculative” to warrant blocking the dig. The tribes say that’s because the federal government failed to consult all area tribes who attach religious and cultural significance to Thacker Pass as it rushed to approve the mine before the end of Donald Trump’s presidency in early 2021.

Mine developer Lithium Nevada says it’s working with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes to ensure artifacts are protected and preserved. The company noted that last month it hosted, at the tribes’ request, a training for about 30 tribal members interested in monitoring the archaeological excavations. But the mine itself has the Fort McDermitt community – and other stakeholders – deeply divided.

“We’ve always been committed to doing this the right way and respecting our neighbors,” the company said in an emailed statement.

The mine would tap into the largest-known lithium deposit in the U.S., offering a domestic supply of a key ingredient in electric car batteries.

The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony said in its letter that it doesn’t want archeologists to take any artifacts for any reason. “Taking these artifacts and disturbing the burial sites would constitute yet another shameful chapter in a long history of settlers trying to destroy or commit genocide on Native history and culture,” the letter said.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, the O'Connor Center for the Rocky Mountain West in Montana, KUNC in Colorado, KUNM in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Kaleb is an award-winning journalist and KUNR’s Mountain West News Bureau reporter. His reporting covers issues related to the environment, wildlife and water in Nevada and the region.
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