'It's sacred ground': Native Americans hit out at 'offensive' land plans at the heart of the US electric car revolution

By John Mercury May 6, 2024

It could be a scene from centuries ago. In the Nevada desert, Native Americans are protesting over a mining project they say desecrates sacred land. 

They are riding to Sentinel Mountain, which their ancestors once used as a lookout in times gone by. Here, they say, more than 30 of their people were massacred by US cavalry in 1865.

Today, the land is at the heart of America’s electric car revolution and Joe Biden’s clean energy policy

Native American tribal members say the mine neglects their interests and offends their history.

The route of the “Prayer Horse Ride”, a journey on horseback through mining-affected communities in Northern Nevada, is designed to publicise their objections.

James Matthews Native Americans protest feature
James Matthews Native Americans protest feature

“Being the original inhabitants of the land means we have cultural ties and roots to these landscapes,” says Gary McKinney, a member of the Duck Valley Shoshone Paiute tribe.

“To me, it’s sacred ground,” says Myron Smart. His grandmother survived the massacre of 1865 as a baby. Industrialising this place, he says, offends her memory and reflects the story of Native Americans through time.

“We’re people too. We have red blood just like everybody in the United States.”

James Matthews Native Americans protest feature
Myron Smart says the land is sacred ground

James Matthews Native Americans protest feature
Myron Smart’s grandmother, who survived the 1865 massacre

However, a US judge has rejected their complaints and the project is going ahead.

The open mine, which is on public land, will source lithium to power up to a million electric vehicles a year and will create 1,800 jobs in its construction phase.

President Biden aims to make the United States a world leader in electric vehicle technology and reduce reliance for lithium supply on countries like China.

The Thacker Pass project has supporters as well as opponents.

James Matthews Native Americans protest feature
James Matthews Native Americans protest feature

Lithium Americas, the company behind the project, insists the mine is not located on a massacre site. This was supported by a judge in 2021 who ruled the evidence presented by tribes “does not definitely establish that a massacre occurred” within the proposed project area.

Tim Crowley, the company’s VP of Government and External Affairs, said in a statement to Sky News: “Lithium Americas is committed to doing this project right, which is why we have a community benefits agreement in place with the local Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe that ensures benefits from Thacker Pass accrue to them.

“Concerns about cultural and environmental resources were thoroughly addressed in the BLM’s (Bureau of Land Management) approved Environmental Impact Statement, which withstood comprehensive reviews by the Federal District and Circuit Courts.”

However, members of different Nevada-based Native American tribes continue to oppose the mining project. They say their evidence of the 1865 massacre, and a separate inter-tribal conflict, is rooted in the oral history passed on from their ancestors, through generations – not collated with a court case in mind, but compelling nonetheless.

“Back in our ancestors’ days, they didn’t write any documentation down, they didn’t send letters, they didn’t write in journals,” says Gary. “So there was no way that the United States government could know our story.

“These stories have been passed down generation to generation, so we have direct lineage from survivors of these massacres, which is how these stories remain in our families.”

James Matthews Native Americans protest feature
James Matthews Native Americans protest feature

The courts have also rejected complaints by tribal members and conservationists on the environmental impact and planning consultation.

The project throws a focus onto the issues surrounding the pursuit of clean energy.

“First off, we have to acknowledge that we need electric vehicles,” says Amanda Hurowitz of Mighty Earth, a global environmental non-governmental organisation.

They are more efficient than petrol and diesel cars, she says, and they are needed for the US to hit its climate targets.

But they also need more mined minerals – like lithium – and getting those materials out of the ground has an impact.

“All mining operations need to get consent from the local people,” she adds, “and the more consent, the better.”


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