WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
PHOTOGRAPHS BY SPENSER HEAPS
A proposed lithium mine touches on the troubles of the clean energy revolution as tribal opponents raise concerns. The Frontline explores why their voices are needed at the table.
Some activists quoted in this piece were later found to be connected to an anti-trans environmental group Deep Green Resistance. Atmos has since published an updated story with information on this here as trans rights and queer rights are inherent to our mission.
Across the U.S., the land is soaked in bloody stories. They are stories largely erased from the American memory—stories kept alive by the word of survivors and their descendants. These are stories that those in power—be it a multinational mining company or whoever sits in the White House—would prefer stay brushed under the rug.
That’s finally changing. The first people of this land are rising up to demand accountability and change. In Nevada, the narrative is shifting in real time as the Bureau of Land Management moves forward with an open-pit lithium mine proposed by Canadian-based Lithium Americas on the ancestral lands of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes. Open-pit mines are considered one of the most dangerous industrial sectors in the world. The proposed project area isn’t only where their ancestors lived and walked—it’s also where their Indigenous ancestors were massacred. Now, they’re on a mission to stop the mine, which also threatens to pollute the area. What makes this issue all the more complicated is that lithium is needed to electrify and decarbonize our infrastructure—from vehicles to clean energy storage.
Welcome to The Frontline, where history matters. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. The conflict unfolding in Thacker Pass, Nevada, where the mining company is proposing its mine, touches on a number of issues: transportation, energy, Indigenous sovereignty, and the legacies of genocide and colonialism. Ultimately, it’s a story of power.
On Sept. 12, 1865, the unthinkable happened. Under the guise of night, American soldiers crept into a camp in the sagebrush of Nevada where Indigenous families were asleep. Over three hours, troops killed at least 31 people, including women and children. The historic scene is described in a Sept. 30, 1865, article published in The Owyhee Avalanche. Jim Sackett was one of the murderers.
“In a second, sleepy-eyed squaws and bucks and little children were darting about, dazed with the sudden onslaught, but they were shot down before they came to their waking senses,” Sackett told William D. Haywood, a founder of the Industrial Workers of the World, who captured these details in his autobiography.
Meanwhile, survivor Ox Sam told Haywood in his broken English with tears in his eyes: “Long time hide. My father, my mother, my sisters, my brothers, I no see no more. Long time ago. Not much talk about now.”
This massacre happened more than 156 years ago, but its impacts live on today. One soldier, Charley Thacker, chose to take two boys from the camp. They grew up to become Jimmy and Charley Thacker—and their descendants are speaking out. In a legal motion filed in July, a number of Indigenous people (including those descendants) argued that Lithium Americas and the Bureau of Land Management failed to adequately consult them before moving forward on a 5,700-acre lithium mine that would sit where their ancestors’ remains lie.
“My family were the Sams,” said Gary McKinney, a member of the People of Red Mountain, the group of Indigenous people suing the federal government and the private company. He’s from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes of Duck Valley Indian Reservation. “I’m here to preserve that family legacy.”
This legal battle underscores why frontline voices must be at the decision-making table—especially when developers sell a proposed project as a solution to the climate crisis. Electric vehicle batteries, as well as laptops and phones, require the mineral. However, the rush to cut greenhouse gas emissions by killing the gas-powered vehicle has resulted in an explosion of financial interest in lithium. Wall Street investors have poured nearly $3.4 billion into lithium mining, according to Bloomberg. From California to Spain, governments are moving to phase out dirty cars. The transportation sector is responsible for 15% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions. In the U.S.—the world’s greatest polluter—it’s closer to 30%.
The interest in lithium makes sense. We must reduce carbon pollution from transportation, especially when you consider the local air quality impacts cars, trucks, and highways have. However, members of the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe Tribes of Nevada are concerned that this push to electrify vehicles is coming at the expense of their health and culture. They see the mine as a form of corporate greenwashing, claiming something is beneficial to the environment all while ignoring the harms it causes to the planet and people.
“It’s messed up that the mine is being fostered as a savior to fossil fuels when somebody that would be living a thousand miles from Thacker Pass would not know that just to get that lithium, they had to destroy culture, destroy the land, destroy everything that ever was back there in Thacker Pass,” McKinney said. “That’s the great lie. It’s not the green energy people think it is.”
“This is the new colonialism.”
The Bureau of Land Management approved Lithium Americas’ preferred plan on Jan. 15, 2021—the final days of Donald Trump’s presidency. The plan is to build an open-pit mine, processing plant, roads, and storage facilities in the Thacker Pass basin, an area that’s home to bighorn sheep, pygmy rabbits, and golden eagles. The mine has a projected lifespan of 41 years over which it would eventually require 3,224 gallons per minute of groundwater. In order to pull the lithium from the clay, developers need concentrated sulfuric acid, which they’ll be producing on site, too. Sulfuric acid plants are associated with respiratory and cardiovascular disease due to the pollution they release.
Environmentalists have the same concerns they would with any open-pit mine: groundwater depletion, water contamination, toxic spills, habitat destruction, air pollution, and the degradation of the landscape. Lithium extraction is already causing harm to Indigenous communities in Chile, Argentina, and Bolivia where water is becoming increasingly scarce. James Blair, an assistant professor of geography and anthropology at CalPoly Pomona, focuses his research on this area. Here, lithium is mined through evaporation ponds where brine (salty water containing lithium) sits until the water is evaporated. The companies resort to greenwashing here, too, trying to paint this extraction as “natural” and “artisanal,” Blair said. That’s just one parallel between what’s happened in South America and what’s planned for Nevada.
“One of the most consistent concerns is the lack of free, prior, and informed consent for Indigenous peoples,” Blair said. “That’s consistent with the lithium industry.”
U.S. law doesn’t require this, of course. It only requires consultation, a major limitation in what legal protections are available to Indigenous people, said Hannah Perls, a legal fellow at Harvard Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law Program. Consultation isn’t even required for tribes that aren’t federally recognized—not that consultation really benefits them. Companies don’t have to change their minds just because tribes raised red flags. They just have to worry about checking off that they asked tribes for their input.
Back in Nevada, locals are fighting for consultation in court, but consent is what tribal advocates ultimately want. Tribal communities want the ability to say no—to projects they don’t want, as well as to the men who come into their communities to build these projects. The mine’s construction would bring in some 1,000 temporary workers, raising concerns around sexual violence, which has been shown to follow such development on or near tribal lands. In response, opponents have set up two protest camp areas in Thacker Pass to raise awareness and stop the mine.
Max Wilbert, author of Bright Green Lies and a community organizer, set up the first camp back in January 2021. After visiting Thacker Pass a few months earlier, he felt compelled to defend it. Since then, he’s been working in allyship with local Indigenous peoples to ensure their voices are front and center.
“When I visited the land, I had the experience of connection, of love,” Wilbert said. “When you are in love with the land, it’s hard to sacrifice it.”
Wilbert eventually captured the support of his friend Will Falk, who became the attorney representing tribal members in the lawsuit against the project. Falk had visited the area for years, but he became engrossed in the lithium mine after realizing how quickly the federal government was moving to approve it. Other lawsuits sprung up in opposition—from a landowner worried about water to environmental groups defending endangered species. Once Falk met some of the local Indigenous leaders, they teamed up to make a case for their culture and history. So far, it hasn’t been enough to pause the project. Archaeological digs on the site are scheduled later this month.
“The federal government invaded Paiute land, murdered Paiute people, and then said, Now, this land is ours,” Falk said. “This is the new colonialism.”
Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribes, first found out about the project in March 2021. Since then, she’s been spending three days out of the week at the camps. In between, she’s sure to talk to her community about the mine. She hears different concerns, but she always remembers a gentleman who told her he’s worried about what the influx of workers means for his daughters.
“I’ve had a lot of people who tell me they want to protect the culture,” Hinkey said. “Everyone holds onto something.”
Still, the battle is a complicated one. On one hand, this mine would harm precious ecosystems and a people’s culture. On the other hand, we need to phase out gas-powered cars. Hundreds of thousands of people a year die prematurely due to vehicle air pollution. Electric school buses have been a huge campaign for environmental justice leaders across the U.S. Don’t those kids deserve clean air, too? Private companies and world leaders need to figure out a way to minimize harm across the board. A world that solves the climate crisis shouldn’t sacrifice communities along the way.
“You have people who want to address climate change now and as quickly as possible, but often that comes at the expense of the just transition, essentially,” Perls said. “If we exchange one extractive economy for another, that’s not progress. We’ve just avoided one catastrophe while setting up another.”
None of this, however, can change until all of it does. After all, we’re dealing with various crises. It’s not just climate change; it’s mass extinction, too. People aren’t just dealing with modern-day racism; they’re also dealing with the legacy of genocide. So much of the world’s ecological problems stem from capitalism, and we’ll need to rethink our economy if we’re serious about building a better world, Perls said. “It’s a huge lift—but a necessary one.”
Update, 10/18/21 3:45 pm EST: This story has been updated to better describe how lithium mining using evaporation ponds works.