Northern Nevada lithium mine draws Native resistance from across the West
Backers of the project say it would provide essential materials to build electric vehicles and address the climate crisis, but a coalition of Native American tribes is fighting against it.
On an icy January morning, a crowd of Native American activists, environmentalists and allies marched to the U.S. District Court in downtown Reno. They were rallying in support of a lawsuit seeking to block the proposed mine at Thacker Pass, near the Nevada-Oregon border.
Plaintiffs want the court to overturn federal approval for the mine – a decision that was fast-tracked by the Bureau of Land Management in the last days of the Trump administration.
Lewey Sam opposes the project because he says past mining in the area has left a toxic legacy.
“I’ve witnessed this,” he said. “We had a mercury mine, and right today, people are dying of cancer.”
Sam is an elder from the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which lies 50 miles east of Thacker Pass. He wants to see the area preserved because Thacker Pass is a sacred site for the Paiute people, whose ancestors have been in the Great Basin for more than 12,000 years. Tribal members still go there to collect food and medicine.
“My elders… that’s where their main camp was,” Sam said. “And twice there have been slaughterings that went on there.”
In the Paiute language, Thacker Pass is called Peehee Mu’huh, or Rotten Moon. That’s because, in 1865, white cavalrymen massacred dozens of men, women and children – then left their bodies to rot.
At the same time, the federal government was forcing Native people onto reservations. According to Gary McKinney, those policies damaged the bonds that had connected tribes for centuries.
“There are other tribes, such as the Shoshones and the Bannocks and Pit River and Modocs,” he said. “And we have ancient relationships with one another.”
McKinney is a spokesperson for People of Red Mountain, an Indigenous-led grassroots movement that formed to protest the mine.
The protest was organized by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony (RSIC), which is suing the federal government alongside the Burns Paiute Tribe in Oregon. RSIC’s population includes members from the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe nations. While they rallied outside, Chief Judge Miranda Du heard oral arguments in the courthouse.
“The BLM narrowly decided who they were going to consult with,” said Rick Eichstaedt, a lawyer for the Burns Paiute Tribe. “There are 22 tribes that are concerned with this area, and they selected three to talk to.”
Opposition to the mine isn’t limited to Paiute people and their neighbors. Wendsler Nosie Sr. came from the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona, and he’s the founder of Apache Stronghold, which is fighting a proposed copper mine.
“I wish we were here for a different reason, you know. But we’re here because Mother Earth can come to an end,” Nosie said.
Like Sam, Nosie said mining in his region has left land and water contaminated – which has led to high cancer rates among Native and non-Native residents alike.
“This is one movement that everybody needs to be involved in,” he said.
Joshua Dini Sr., who’s a member of the Walker River Paiute Tribe, joined the protest in honor of his brother, Myron Dewey, who died in 2021.
Dewey was an activist and documentary filmmaker who protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline. That movement was led by residents of the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation in South Dakota.
“He did this work for 15, 20 years,” Dini said. “I felt I was obligated to step up and continue the fight.”
According to Dini, there’s a long history of inter-tribal cooperation in Indigenous resistance. The movements in Northern Nevada and Arizona are all tied to earlier times of oppression, he said.
“When I had researched our history, we all had that connection,” he said. “Like the Apache Stronghold – he talked about Geronimo. We have a prophet named Wovoka, who was a Ghost Dancer, and Geronimo came to our rez and spoke with him.”
Long-term, Nosie said he wants the U.S. to move away from a capitalistic mindset focused on infinite growth. Instead, he believes people need to learn to live with less and start healing natural systems.
“What the old people say is that one day, this country is going to turn back to the earth, but by the time they do that, if they keep destroying everything, then there’s nothing to be turned back to,” he said.
Judge Du has the option to vacate the BLM’s approval of the mine, require the bureau to redo certain parts of its analysis or keep it intact. No matter what, she estimated it would take her a “couple of months” to reach a decision. In an interview after the hearing, Eichstaedt said he felt optimistic.
“It’s just, how broad is her ruling?” he asked. “Does that totally stop the project? Or does that allow part of the project to move forward?”
Regardless, Eichstaedt expects the case to move up to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals – where it could take years for a final decision to be reached.
For now, though, McKinney said he’s inspired by the solidarity on display.
“The revitalization of the connection with one another with our old relationships, our kin, our kinships, is a beautiful thing,” he said. “Life over lithium.”