First arrests are underway and camp is being raided after land defenders halted an excavator this morning at Thacker Pass.
OROVADA, NV — This morning, a group of Native American water protectors and allies used their bodies to non-violently block construction of the controversial Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, turning back bulldozers and heavy equipment.
Now they are being arrested and camp is being raided.
Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people consider Thacker Pass to be sacred. So when they learned that the area was slated to become the biggest open-pit lithium mine in North America, they filed lawsuits, organized rallies, spoke at regulatory hearings, and organized in the community. But despite all efforts over the last three years, construction of the mine began in March.
That’s what led Native American elders, friends and family, water protectors, and their allies to establish what they call a “prayer camp and ceremonial fire” at Thacker Pass on May 11th, when they setup a tipi at dawn blocking construction of a water pipeline for the mine. A second tipi was erected several days later two miles east, where Lithium Nevada’s construction is defacing Sentinel Rock, one of their most important sacred sites.
Sentinel Rock is integral to many Nevada Tribes’ worldview and ceremony. The area was the site of two massacres of Paiute and Shoshone people. The first was an inter-tribal conflict that gave the area it’s Paiute name: Peehee Mu’huh, or rotten moon. The second was a surprise attack by the US Cavalry on September 12th, 1865, during which the US Army slaughtered dozens. One of the only survivors of the attack was a man named Ox Sam. It is some of Ox Sam’s descendants, the Grandmas, that formed Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokotun (Indigenous Women’s Camp) to protect this sacred land for the unborn, to honor and protect the remains of their ancestors, and to conduct ceremonies. Water protectors have been on-site in prayer for nearly a month.
On Monday, Lithium Nevada Corporation also attempted to breach the space occupied by the water protectors. As workers maneuvered trenching equipment into a valley between the two tipis, water protectors approached the attempted work site and peacefully forced workers and their excavator to back up and leave the area. According to one anonymous land defender, Lithium Nevada’s action was “an attempted show of force to fully do away with our tipi and prayer camp around Sentinel Rock.”
Ranchers, recreationists, and members of the public have been allowed to pass without incident and water protectors maintain friendly relationships with locals. Opposition to the mine is widespread in the area, and despite repeated warnings from the local Sheriff, there have been no arrests. Four people, including Dorece Sam Antonio of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe (an Ox sam descendant) and Max Wilbert of Protect Thacker Pass, have been targeted by court orders barring them from the area. They await a court hearing in Humboldt County Justice Court.
“Lithium Nevada is fencing around the sacred site Sentinel Rock to disrupt our access and yesterday was an escalation to justify removal of our peaceful prayer camps,” said one anonymous water protector at Ox Sam Camp. “Lithium Nevada intends to desecrate and bulldoze the remains of the ancestors here. We are calling out to all water protectors, land defenders, attorneys, human rights experts, and representatives of Tribal Nations to come and stand with us.”
“I’m being threatened with arrest for protecting the graves of my ancestors,” says Dorece Sam Antonio. “My great-great Grandfather Ox Sam was one of the survivors of the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre that took place here. His family was killed right here as they ran away from the U.S. Army. They were never buried. They’re still here. And now these bulldozers are tearing up this place.”
Another spiritual leader on the front lines has been Dean Barlese, a spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Barlese led prayers at the site on April 25th (shutting down construction for a day) and returned on May 11th.
“I’m asking people to come to Peehee Mu’huh,” Barlese said. “We need more prayerful people. I’m here because I have connections to these places. My great-great-great grandfathers fought and shed blood in these lands. We’re defending the sacred. Water is sacred. Without water, there is no life. And one day, you’ll find out you can’t eat money.”
The 1865 Thacker Pass massacre is well documented in historical sources, books, newspapers, and oral histories. Despite the evidence but unsurprisingly, the Federal Government has not protected Thacker Pass or even slowed construction of the mine to allow for consultation to take place with Tribes. In late February, the Federal Government recognized tribal arguments that Thacker Pass is a “Traditional Cultural District” eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But that didn’t stop construction from commencing.
“This is not a protest, it’s a prayer,” said Barlese. “But they’re still scared of me. They’re scared of all of us elders, because they know we’re right and they’re wrong.”