Above Photo: Dorece Sam (Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe) stands with her back to the camera, holding an Eagle Staff, looking out at Thacker Pass on July 19, 2023. Text at the top of the screen reads “THACKER PASS – MINING THE SACRED.”
Indigenous Nations Fight Lithium Gold Rush At Thacker Pass.
In ‘Thacker Pass – Mining the Sacred,’ award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French multimedia journalist Brandi Morin and documentary filmmaker Geordie Day report on the Indigenous resisters putting their bodies and freedom on the line to stop the Thacker Pass lithium mining project.
In Nevada’s remote Thacker Pass, a fight for our future is playing out between local Indigenous tribes and powerful state and corporate entities hellbent on mining the lithium beneath their land. Vancouver-based Lithium Americas is developing a massive lithium mine at Thacker Pass, but for more than two years several local tribes and environmental organizations have tried to block or delay the mine in the courts and through direct action. The Thacker Pass Project is backed by the Biden administration, and companies like General Motors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the project, looking to capitalize on the transition to a “green energy economy,” for which lithium is essential. While it is a vital component in the manufacturing of electric vehicles and batteries, though, there’s nothing “green” about mining lithium. Ending our addiction to fossil fuels is urgently necessary, but the struggle of the local tribes around Thacker Pass reveals the dark side of a “green revolution” that prioritizes profits and consumption over everything (and everyone) else.
In this feature documentary, Thacker Pass – Mining the Sacred, award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French multimedia journalist Brandi Morin and documentary filmmaker Geordie Day report on the Indigenous resisters putting their bodies and freedom on the line to stop the Thacker Pass Project.
Brandi Morin: Rugged, serene, a vast stretch of parched desert in so-called Northern Nevada captivates the senses. The low desert valleys are wide and expansive. I’ve been trying to get down here for over a year, because this beautiful landscape is about to be gutted. One valley here contains white gold, lithium, and lots of it, the new commodity the world is racing to grab to try to save itself from the ravages of climate change. Vancouver-based Lithium Americas is developing a massive lithium mine, which will operate for the next 41 years. It sits inside an extinct supervolcano basin named the McDermott Caldera, formed over 16 million years ago. The company is backed by the Biden administration and touts General Motors as its biggest investor, 650 million to be exact. But for more than two years, several local tribes and environmental organizations have tried to block or delay the mine in the courts and through direct action.
In June, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the US government did not violate federal environmental laws when it approved the mine. Soon after that ruling, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department raided and dismantled an indigenous resistance camp named Ox Sam, forbidding land defenders and water defenders from accessing the construction area. When I showed up, construction workers immediately called security.
How’s it going?
Speaker 2: Good. How are you?
Brandi Morin: Good. I’m Brandi.
Speaker 2: You’re Brandi?
Brandi Morin: Brandi, yes.
Speaker 2: All right, nice to meet you.
Brandi Morin: Journalists. How are you?
Speaker 2: Good. From where?
Brandi Morin: We’re actually from Canada. We’re on assignment with Ricochet Media, IndigiNews, and the Real News. So, we’re doing a story about Thacker Pass and indigenous opposition to it. So, we wanted to come and check out.
Speaker 2: It’s all good. Just so you know, this whole dozer path, all the way to the creek up over the hill, that is private property. But yeah-
Brandi Morin: Oh. So, right here?
Speaker 2: I see you’re not on it, so no, you’re fine. This is a BLM road, so…
Brandi Morin: Right. So, are you here all the time, security? Do they have this because of the blockaders and stuff? Do they have security to make sure that people aren’t coming to obstruct? Or is that-
Speaker 2: I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Brandi Morin: I mean, are they employing security here full-time?
Speaker 2: That’s something you could ask [inaudible 00:02:48], Nevada.
Brandi Morin: Oh, okay.
Speaker 2: I can give you their phone number.
Brandi Morin: Okay. That same security guard followed us down the highway. We want to go to Thacker Pass.
Speaker 2: Oh, that’s it.
Brandi Morin: Yeah. And is that more Lithium America’s construction site as well up there?
Speaker 2: Yeah.
Brandi Morin: Okay. I might just drive up to the gate. Okay. Thanks.
Speaker 2: Thank you.
Brandi Morin: He was totally following us, although he’s trying to act nice to tell us where the road is, but he’s following us.
A lot is at stake here for the company, its investors, and a myriad of government and business interests, looking to capitalize on the transition to a “green energy economy” for which lithium is essential. It is costing over $2.2 billion just to build the Thacker Pass mine. But don’t let the prospect of green energy fool you, this mine will stretch to nearly 6,000 acres and dig an open pit to a depth of 400 feet. The project requires tailings piles and processing facilities, including a sulfur plant. The sulfur is itself a waste byproduct from oil refineries, and it will be trucked in by the tons and burned every day at the mine site. The project will also use more than 1.7 billion gallons of water per year in the driest state in America.
BC: Oh my God.
It’s like the end game for us, as humans, not even me as that indigenous person. And that treaty says two thirds. It acknowledges that two thirds of Nevada is Shoshone land which, of course, it’s not anymore. They’ve used it for nuclear testing and they always want to do toxic waste storage and open pit mining now. It’s the wrong thing to do to the animals, to the plants, to the earth. And again, we just keep tearing up the planet where we live as a whole, whether it be other types of mining or logging and oil extraction, fracking, it’s all shortsighted.
Brandi Morin: She’s speaking to the rush to get off fossil fuels and transition to so-called greener alternatives. While ending our addiction to fossil fuels is, of course, urgently necessary, the voices of the local tribes here are getting lost in the politics of what green energy actually means. While it’s an essential component used in electric vehicles and batteries, there’s nothing green about mining lithium. Mining is mining, no matter what the resource being extracted is. It’s always going to be devastating to the environment.
BC: This helps get us through a lot of winters. So, its common name is Indian rice crafts. So, see these little seed?
Brandi Morin: Yeah.
BC: They’re really, really highly nutritious. So, that was my whole thing with Thacker Pass is like you go out there and you don’t see anything. Well, that’s because you don’t know how to look, you don’t have the right eye.
Brandi Morin: BC says the mine will desecrate the spiritual connection she has with her traditional territories. And she’s spoken out to protect it at the mine site. Now, Lithium Americas is suing her and six other land and water protectors in civil court over allegations of civil conspiracy, trespassing, and tortious interference. The suit seeks to ban them from accessing the mining area and make them financially compensate the company.
So, I just wanted to ask you about the charges that you’re facing. What are they? And when did you find out?
BC: Oh man. I don’t even remember. Is it civil something? Trespassing? It’s something about disobedience. I don’t know. I didn’t read the papers. I just threw them in a drawer. And to think that it’s just going to be a big open pit mine is just hard. And that’s our ancestral homeland. That’s our bones and our blood deep, deep in that soil. And they all see that’s really there just on the other side of the spirit crew. But you can feel the [inaudible 00:07:52] with you. And to be looking at the same stars and seeing the same moon and knowing that my kids’ kids will never see those stars from that same place, honestly, I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop. There’s 500 lithium mines coming. I just wanted my descent on record as an indigenous mother.
Brandi Morin: It was gut-wrenching to hear her say that, yet inspiring. Despite the insurmountable odds, she’s still willing to put it all on the line to try and save her sacred territory.
BC: I don’t care if people don’t like me, or the corporations, or I look like I’m just doing nonsense. I just do what I think is right. That’s all I can do.
Brandi Morin: There’s another more chilling reason the mine area is sacred. The native tribes call Thacker Pass by its Paiute name, Pee-hee-mm-huh, meaning Rotten Moon. The name stems from a massacre that happened there, before European contact, in a crescent shaped area of the valley. Elders have passed down the tale of the bloody killings of Paiute men, women, and children by an enemy tribe over generations. They say attackers gutted the dead and threw their insides onto the sagebrush. When the bodies were discovered by Paiute men who had been away hunting, the stench of the rotting flesh was so strong, they named the spot Rotten Moon. The violence only got worse, of course, when the colonizers arrived.
Dean: It was a really rugged time. The military came through and just killed. To save bullets, a lot of times, they would take the old people and bash in the back of their head. And I know that because our oral history says this is how the military caught our people, treated our people. They fought hard against the military. They didn’t want to lose their land. And the government, military, wanted to get rid of the Paiute people, so they massacred them wherever they found them. It was a five-year war, snake war they called it.
Brandi Morin: He is also facing charges from Lithium Americas.
Dean: There you go. Go ahead. And you probably understand that better than I could. They’re restraining us from prayer, keeping us from praying up there. We’re still in the Indian wars. I made that statement before too. Our Indian wars continue, not only here, but everywhere. I sang songs, but I’m standing here because our ancestors are here. We got to defend them. We got to protect them. And then, these little whirlwinds would come down the road, or go up the road towards the security camp where you were standing. And we knew our ancestors were there then, because they showed themselves.
And we were laughing, the big old whirlwind made the security guards scatter. Our people must be upset about this, because we still have that belief that our spirit are the whirlwinds that come around. They come check on us. I’d give my life, like my grandpa did, like the old people did, to protect this place.
Darice: When we come to find out that our family was massacred there, we were there because we want to protect the land.
Brandi Morin: Darice is a direct descendants of Ox Sam, one of the only survivors of the 1865 massacre at Sentinel Rock near the mines waterline.
Darice: Well, for somebody that’s connected to the earth, to mother earth, they can feel things like me, myself. I can feel things out there. I was up in prayer at Sentinel Rock. I heard an old man sing and then an old old man. And I laid there and I tried to listen and listen to see if I can identify the song for hearing any words in there that I could understand.
Brandi Morin: She too is facing charges for protecting her homelands.
Darice: At first, I think I got scared because I’ve never been to court like this before. But then, I just kept on praying, kept on smudging. And now, I just believe that they’re just a waste of paper, waste of aim, waste of paper. So I am like, I’m going to let creative take care of it, build a fire outside of my home. And I threw all the paperworks, the TPO and the lawsuit, everything, I burned it in there, in the fire.
I think they’re doing it to try to crush us out because I know, in the TPO, they ask that we not post about them or anything on social media. They’re just trying to silence us so we don’t have to say anything or either go out there. And by doing that, they’re violating the religious freedom act by not allowing us to go up there.
Brandi Morin: Her children and grandchildren know about their mother’s work protected Pee-hee-mm-huh.
Darice: Like I always tell my kids, the best way I can describe to them and my grandchildren. I said, “All the things that people are doing with mining and stuff like that, it makes Mother Earth heavy. And she’s hurting and she’s tired.” And I was telling them that, every time, she goes, “Take a deep breath.”
I told them that’s when the earth shakes. The earth moves. And she’s crying and she’s just tired of all this mining.
Brandi Morin: Her own tribe, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, signed a community benefits agreement with Lithium Americas in 2022. It’s the closest reservation to the mine site. It’s also the poorest in the region. Lithium Americas says the support for the project’s stems from the tribe’s desire to gain economic benefits.
Darice: It’s hit with a slap lawsuit. And that’s the commitment that I made to protect this place. It’s in my heart, to protect that place. It means a lot to me.
Brandi Morin: I attempted to reach the Fort McDermott Paiute Shoshone leadership for comment on several occasions, but they didn’t call me back. Darice says her community wasn’t fully consulted.
Darice: They didn’t notify the people. They didn’t tell anybody what was going on. And so now, we have our current chairman. His name is Arlo Crutcher. He’s totally for this mind. He is just ignoring everybody and everything.
Brandi Morin: Lithium America’s declined an on the record interview, but provided background information stating the Fort McDermott tribe rejects the claim that there were massacres at Peehee Mu’huh. Get that. The company is trying to tell the natives what their own history is, but other Fort McDermott elders know the stories of the massacres. They
Speaker 8: They came over to Santa Rosas. And then, they ended up out here where Thacker pass is, and over there by, I think they call that the Centennial Peak. They happened to camp out there. And then, when the soldiers came finally over the mountain, and then they could see… Late in the evening, they massacred the whole village there. They massacred like women and children.
Brandi Morin: Even though the company denies the massacre happened at Peehee Mu’huh, the Bureau of Land Management holds records of it in its archives.
Michon: Why wasn’t its massacre mentioned in the historic properties treatment plan? Why wasn’t these massacres mentioned in the record of decision? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the environmental impact statement? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the cultural resources inventory? We had to bring it up. And I read out there… The surveyor? That was in Bureau of Land Management’s own documents. They didn’t even have that in any of their documents. So, when they say, “Oh. Well, we’ve proven in court.” Well, it’s junk science that didn’t do their complete analysis and left out this…
It’s a coverup. It’s been a coverup, and they’re closing their eyes to it. Lithium Nevada’s corporation attorney has implied that the tribes are lying about the sacredness of Peehee Mu’huh, calling these sacred sites that allegedly sacred areas of Thacker Pass. This is not allegedly. This is not lying. I mean, come on.
How we’re treated less than, our dead is treated less than. That’s why nobody caress that there’s unmarked burial grounds because it doesn’t say historic cemetery.
Brandi Morin: The Reno Sparks Indian colony along with Burns Paiute tribe were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land management over lack of consultation on the mine project. After a judge ruled largely in favor of lithium America’s in February, the tribe filed a new lawsuit along with Burns Paiute and the Summit Lake Paiute tribe.
Michon: You cannot dig 400 feet deep. You cannot destroy wetlands. You cannot destroy ecosystems. You can’t destroy a natural habitat of the sage grouse. You cannot do destruction and take gallons and gallons of water in the driest region and tell us that that’s good for electric vehicles, electric vehicles you still have to plug into the grid. That’s still part of fossil fuels.
Brandi Morin: The mine will burn around 11,300 gallons of diesel fuel a day for onsite operations and almost as much for offsite. Carbon emissions from the site would be more than 150,000 tons per year, roughly 2.3 tons of carbon for every ton of lithium that’s produced. If reclamation is possible, it won’t be realized until at least 2162. There’s more. There are concerns over potential impacts on indigenous women and girls with the arrival of lithium America’s housing units for construction workers.
Michon: What’s really scary is part of the environmental impact statement. If you are bringing in any type of man camp, and I’ll explain what a man camp is, but if you’re bringing in a man camp and you’re placing that near on public land, and you are disturbing the land, then you need to be doing a study for where that man camp is going. That didn’t happen in the environmental impact statement. So, when you have to hire a thousand men to build a lithium mine, then a thousand… You’re not going to hire a thousand men locally.
You have to bring in men from other places. Those men are usually young men. They bring in illegal activities, illegal drug activities. And then, this is where the missing and murdered indigenous people come in. There’s just the 30, 40 miners that are out of there right now working. They are coming into their stores, their local stores, asking them, “Where’s all the pretty girls?” Because they’re coming without their women.
Brandi Morin: Recently, Michon’s own safety was in question.
Michon: Because I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t paying attention. So, I opened the door. I noticed a gentleman sitting over here, because this is where our shuttle comes. And I hear a helicopter. Well, there’s a lot of helicopters here because we have Careflight. The hospital’s right here. I’m used to helicopters. So, I hear a helicopter, I open the door. I open the door and I look. And here comes a helicopter coming straight at me, just above the power poles.
Brandi Morin: What?
Michon: And then, just above the power poles. And then, it comes over here. And it comes right here, right above the power poles. And I think their door was already open, but what they’re doing is they’re kind of hanging out. So, they’re so close, I could see them. And the door was open and I could see somebody going, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, because I could see the flash of the light.
And then, I realized, “Oh fuck, they’re taking my picture.” I kind of got scared, but that’s what it was. And then, I got mad. And I thought, “Oh, little old me. Who am I? How come people got to take a picture of me? What gives anybody the right?”
And then, you think, “Okay. Well, I do know the President and the Department of Interior, they do want this mine because…” You know.
Brandi Morin: They think it’s the answer.
Michon: They think it’s the answer to combat fossil fuels, even though electric vehicles, you’re still going to plug into the grid, that goes to fossil fuels.
Brandi Morin: Michon says the worldview of lithium production is deceitful.
Michon: It’s not going to save the world. So, you’re seeing movie stars advertising electric vehicle. People are getting brainwashed about electric vehicles. You cannot mine your way out of a climate crisis. You just can’t do that. You can’t destroy the earth to save the earth.
Brandi Morin: So, if you could speak with Secretary Haaland about what’s happening in Peehee Mu’Huh, what would you say to her?
BC: I would tell her, “Wake up. We need you. You’re a Native American. Your mother Earth should mean something to you. Like I said, wake up and we need your help.”
Brandi Morin: What about to the Biden administration?
BC: Us Native Americans been here since time in memorial, means it’s time for us to take our land back. Go dig somewhere else.
Brandi Morin: I asked tribal members for permission to visit the sacred site at Sentinel Rock. Although security told us a few days before we couldn’t cross the road to access it, I did anyway. After all, they’re on unceded land. As I began to get closer to the rock where Paiute and Shoshone tried to run for their lives in 1865, my chest started heaving. The heartache here was overwhelming. I don’t know. I’m just, I’m sorry. I’m just sorry. Everything that they had to go through. You feel the pain that’s here.
As temperatures soar across the west, putting one third of Americans under excessive heat alerts, elders like Dean are not surprised. He says it’s only going to get worse. And extractive industries are accelerating the threat to all who live on Mother Earth.
Dean: … the property we have and… Before this, there was a great flood, then there was a wind, and then the ice and snow that destroyed the world, destroyed the human. The last one, we’re in that time already. And our old people saying this world’s going to burn. It’ll burn up white people. They continue to destroy. And I think we’ve gone beyond where we can come back. They don’t see it. They don’t see their children, their grandchildren, their great-great grand. They don’t look ahead like we do. We look seven generations ahead and leave things the way they are for the future generation, but they don’t see them.
Brandi Morin: The mine is expected to be up and running by 2026. Meanwhile, land and water defenders say they’ll continue to pray it can be stopped. I’m Brandi Morin, reporting for the Real News, Ricochet Media, and IndigiNews in the unceded territories of the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe tribes in so-called Nevada.