When It Comes to Mining on Sacred Lands, Some Tribal Members Say Their Voices Have Been Overlooked

The planned Thacker Pass lithium mining project in northern Nevada is hoping to provide the lithium needed to fuel the green energy transition. While the company has done its own outreach, regional tribes say they weren’t properly consulted by the government.

Noah Glick & Alejandra Rubio, Sierra Nevada Ally October 11, 2023

This reporting is part of a collaboration with the Institute for Nonprofit NewsRural News Network, and the Energy News Network, Flatwater Free Press, Mississippi Free Press, New Mexico In Depth, Religion News Service and Sierra Nevada Ally. Support from the Walton Family Foundation made the project possible.

Bethany Sam feels a spiritual connection to the high desert of northern Nevada.

A member of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe and the Kutzadik’a Paiute people, Sam works for the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, whose reservation sits just north of Reno, Nevada.

It’s about 200 miles from what could be the country’s largest natural deposit of lithium, a critical mineral suddenly in high demand for use in electric vehicle batteries and electronics. 

The distance doesn’t mean Reno-Sparks won’t be affected by the decades-long process of extracting the material from the ground and putting it into the domestic supply chain. A Canadian firm, Lithium Americas, has received federal approval to begin mining at the site, and several indigenous and environmental groups are worried about the potential impacts.

While the tribal government nearest to the project has a community benefits agreement with the company, residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and other nearby reservations are dissatisfied with the level of community outreach by federal officials.

Sam said regional tribes, who are all connected to the land, were not consulted, and the U.S. Bureau of Land Management instead opted to communicate with just a few tribes.

“BLM thought that they only had to consult with who they wanted to, not realizing how we’re all related. They should have reached out to more tribes with this consultation, knowing that it was going to be the largest [lithium mine] in the country. They should have really made sure all the Great Basin tribes knew,” she said.

Mining History

The discovery of gold and silver in 1859 drew people from around the country to Nevada, creating the town of Virginia City almost overnight. (Courtesy, Bureau of Land Management)

Since its inception, the state of Nevada has been a hotbed for mining. The state was granted statehood during the Civil War, and contributed greatly to the Union through its gold and silver reserves. The Comstock Lode, a major silver ore, sparked mass settlement into the area as people sought to make their fortunes. One such man was a young writer named Samuel Clemens, who upon failing at the mines, took up a job at the local newspaper. It’s here he was first published using his pen name, Mark Twain.

Today, Nevada is the world’s fifth largest producer of gold, digging up significantly more of the valuable material than “The Golden State” of California next door. But, there is another extractive industry taking root in the remote high desert of northern Nevada: lithium.

A 6,000-acre lithium mine and processing plant is under construction in remote northern Nevada, but the project has been stalled by a series of legal challenges from environmentalists, a local rancher and regional tribes. The tribes have said the Bureau of Land Management did not conduct proper consultation with them about this project, which was approved during the pandemic when many tribal governments were closed and dealing with the immediate needs of tribal members.

When it comes to any large-scale projects on federally managed public lands, the BLM is required to consult on a government-to-government basis with affected tribal governments. In the case of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project in northern Nevada, tribes across the Great Basin say that didn’t happen – and that’s causing concern and division among tribal members.

The BLM says in December 2019, it sent certified letters to four regional tribes: the McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, the Pyramid Lake Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony tribes. The agency says “no comments or concerns have been raised during formal government to government consultation for the Project by the tribes.”

From the BLM’s Record of Decision in Jan. 2021

With no objections raised, the BLM approved Lithium Americas’ plans in January 2021 — at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Janet Davis, the chairwoman for the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe, told Grist in 2021, “One letter and some emails to the THPO [Tribal Historic Preservation Officer] during the pandemic when she was furloughed does not constitute ‘meaningful consultation.”

Winnemucca Indian Colony chair Judy Rojos told the Nevada Current she didn’t receive a letter until April 2021, after the project had already been approved. And the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe sued the BLM in February 2023, claiming that they weren’t properly consulted on the mine either. Both of those attempts were ultimately rejected by a federal district court judge.

The Bureau of Land Management declined an interview for this story.

The project has caused division among residents of the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation, which sits a few dozen miles from the mine site. The Tribal Council has been in favor of the project for the economic boom it would bring to the region, while some elders and others have said it would ruin sacred land and water.

That led some members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe to form a group, People of Red Mountain, which has been fighting to raise awareness of the project.

“Nobody really knew anything. It was just all this small talk going around about a lithium mine,” said organizer Chanda Callao.

Calls to the Fort McDermitt Tribal Government were not returned.

While not required, the company itself says it has been working with Fort McDermitt tribal members for years leading up to the start of the project.

“We have a vested interest in making sure that your communities thrive,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government affairs for Lithium Americas.

The company has entered into a community benefits agreement with the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes, pledging to build an 8,000 square feet community center that includes a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and communal greenhouse.

“There is an initial investment that we’re making that’s north of $5 million,” Crowley said.

Crowley said all these legal challenges from tribes have been dismissed in court, and this mine is a good project. The federal government and state of Nevada have given the company all the necessary approvals, so he said it’s time to move forward.

The Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project

These poster boards show the location of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project, as well as how the site will be laid out, with the open pit, processing plant, waste rock and more. (Noah Glick, Sierra Nevada Ally)

Lithium is a metal that is used in lithium-ion batteries, which powers everything from smartphones and laptops to electric vehicles. The U.S. government has deemed it a critical mineral, with the Biden administration investing billions into domestic lithium development.

The Thacker Pass lithium mine project in rural Humboldt County, along the Nevada-Oregon border, will extract lithium from the ore and process that material into lithium-carbonate, the final component used to make batteries. The project will also include an on-site processing plant, which Crowley said helps to secure the domestic supply chain.

“In terms of scale, it’s large. It’s going to be one of the top five producers in the world, certainly the highest producer in domestic areas… it’s a game changer project,” said Crowley.

At the Lithium Americas Technical Center in Reno, Nev. visitors can see what the material looks like along every step of the process, from ore (far left) to final lithium carbonate (far right). (Noah Glick, Sierra Nevada Ally)

Lithium Americas has staked hundreds of mining claims in the area, and estimates that this mine could ultimately provide enough lithium for 1 million electric vehicles a year, for 40 years—and that’s just in the first phase.

The project has garnered attention from both the Trump and Biden administrations, investors and the auto industry, with General Motors recently agreeing to invest $650 million into the company. Crowley said GM will be buying all of the mine’s products for the first ten years, roughly 400,000 tons of lithium-carbonate.

“So we’re not worried about who’s going to take our material, we’re focused on making sure that we produce it in the most sustainable way we possibly can,” Crowley said.

A report from McKinsey & Company estimates the global demand for lithium-ion batteries to increase about 27% annually by 2030, with most of the growth coming from mobility. The Thacker Pass lithium mine project is significant, promising an economic windfall for the people of northern Nevada. But, it’s also causing division among rural communities, including among members of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes.

Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation

Arnold Sam, a tribal elder at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation and direct descendant of one of the lone survivors of an 1865 massacre, says it’s important to speak out against these large-scale projects. (Alejandra Rubio, Sierra Nevada Ally)

Nestled within the vast expanse of the high desert of northern Nevada lies the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. The area, which crosses into Oregon, was first established as a military outpost in 1865 before it was converted into an American Indian reservation school in 1889.

Arnold Sam is a tribal elder who has lived at Fort McDermitt since he was born, and says it has always been hard to find work here. He’s had to travel to nearby cities, including Winnemucca, Battle Mountain, Denio and Carson City, before eventually retiring back at the reservation.

“I’ve been on the road for I don’t know how many years living out there in the white man’s world, working and all of that,” Sam said.

Economic opportunities are hard to come by in this part of rural America. According to the latest Census data, the median household income at the Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation is $16,477, more than $53,000 lower than the U.S. average.

In addition to the community benefits agreement, Lithium Americas says it is also providing opportunities for good-paying, union jobs, starting with construction, then transitioning to mining operations. But Sam said he’d like to see more from the company to help the day-to-day lives of the residents of this remote reservation, who travel roughly 74 miles to Winnemucca, Nev. for basic supplies and services.

“Bring in homes, we need a lot more homes. Bring in a grocery store or something so we [can] just go a little ways over here instead of driving to Winnemucca. Build another clinic, a bigger clinic,” Sam told the Sierra Nevada Ally.

Sam isn’t convinced the mining company is listening to the issues and concerns of tribal members.

“They don’t care. That’s all they’re talking about, is this money, money, money. They’re not thinking about the Indian people around here,” he said.

And he’s not alone.

Bringing in the Tribal Family

Bethany Sam says residents of the Fort McDermitt Reservation asked for help in slowing down or stopping the Thacker Pass lithium mine, because “their tribal council wasn’t listening to them.” (Alejandra Rubio, Sierra Nevada Ally)

Back in Reno, Bethany Sam (no relation to Arnold) said her traditional knowledge has helped her form a spiritual connection to the land.

“People just look at Mother Earth as the nature that you go recreate in, that you can go hike or go see really pretty waterfalls or things like that. But when it’s just open desert and nothing, they look at it as nothing,” Sam said.

After hearing from Fort McDermitt residents, many of whom said their tribal government wasn’t listening to their concerns, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony began drawing up maps, outlining the cultural significance of the region. Michon Eben manages the colony’s cultural resource program and serves as its tribal historic preservation officer.

“We stated that this is our cultural area that we would like to be consulted on. However, if there was a big project, then we needed to be consulted,” Eben said.

Michon Eben pulls up maps on her computer, where she has compiled areas of cultural significance to indigenous peoples of the Great Basin. (Alejandra Rubio, Sierra Nevada Ally)

She said BLM Winnemucca received letters from the RSIC and several tribes in 2021, showing their opposition to this specific project. Much of the resistance is because in the BLM’s documentation approving the mine, there was no mention of an 1865 massacre of Washoe, Shoshone and Paiute people that occurred near the proposed site.

“The environmental impact statement, the record of decision, the Memorandum of Agreement, the Cultural Resources Inventory, the Historic Property Treatment Plan, a lot of the permitting documents that BLM provided to Lithium [Americas] does not talk about the September 12, 1865 massacre, and that’s a historic event that should have been evaluated according to the National Historic Preservation Act.”

A painting depicts the 1865 massacre of indigenous people by Nevada cavalry men, as part of a display at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony. (Alejandra Rubio, Sierra Nevada Ally)

Eben argued the massacre site, and the region, is culturally significant, meaning it’s eligible for some protection as part of the Register of National Historic Places, managed by the National Parks Service. Because of this, she said federal agencies should have conducted interviews with regional tribes to better understand the cultural and historical significance. She helped put together a determination that was sent to BLM Winnemucca making her case.

“And a few weeks later, BLM Winnemucca wrote back and said, ‘Yes, they agree with the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, that our determination is eligible, we recommend it eligible to the register of National Historic Places,” Eben said.

But, Eben said the BLM never sent that to the National Parks Service [NPS]—and that could mean the difference between protection and destruction. Property listings under the National Register of Historic Places generally offer no protections, unless “the property is involved in a project that receives Federal assistance, usually funding or licensing/permitting,” per the NPS.

The entirety of the Thacker Pass lithium mine project is on federal public lands.

The Bureau of Land Management Winnemucca declined to comment for this story, due to pending litigation. But, Lithium Americas has acknowledged that a massacre did occur, just not close enough to the mine.

“It’s been analyzed and studied extensively that regrettably there was a massacre in the Quinn River Basin, which is several miles from our project,” Tim Crowley with Lithium Americas said.

To Eben, that argument rings hollow. She said there are many members, residents and employees of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony who have ties to the Thacker Pass area, and the entire mine project lies within the cultural district they are working to get recognized.

“It doesn’t matter about being the closest, what matters is that we’re all related,” she said.


Speaking out: Rural communities of color changing the narrative

The nearly 14 million people of color who live in rural America face unique challenges that run the gamut — from navigating racism in real estate, environmental regulation and the justice system to gaining access to healthcare and broadband. This six-part series from the Rural News Network, made possible with support from the Walton Family Foundation, exploring the issues these communities are facing and what some are doing to change their fates.

Noah Glick

Noah Glick is an award-winning journalist, audio and podcast producer, and writer, whose work has been heard nationally on NPR, Marketplace, Here & Now, and more. He is a multiple regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner for his reporting on climate, energy, and housing. Noah serves as Executive Editor of Sierra Nevada Ally. His goal is to create content that helps readers become more informed about the world around them and to inspire everyone to think more critically and see the world with a little more kindness and understanding. When not mixing audio or writing podcasts, Noah can mostly be found at home with his family or out on a lake with a kayak.

Alejandra Rubio

Alejandra is a visual artist who works with photography and mix-media. She uses her art to share the voices, experiences, and inflections of different cultures and subcultures, giving viewers a respectful glimpse into their unique worldviews, concerns, and aspirations. Alejandra is a member of the Yavapai-Apache Nation. She grew up in Camp Verde, a rural river valley in northern Arizona, where she learned the value of the interdependent relationships between land, culture, and community. Her work includes photographs covering brothels, hotel living, drugs, protests, biker gangs, and Native American ceremonies. Her work provides an analytical, compassionate, and uniquely Native American lens from which to view, engage, learn and share the full range of human emotion and experience.

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