“An Astonishing Amount of Lead”

(when legal writing makes me weep)

by Will Falk

In the early morning hours of September 12, 1865, 18 white soldiers of Company E, 1st Nevada Cavalry, under the command of Captain Robert C. Payne and Lieutenant Littlefield, surprised a Paiute camp in Thacker Pass and killed at least 31 men, women, and children. No one knows for sure how many Paiutes were killed because the soldiers didn’t bother to search through the sage brush to find the Paiutes the soldiers had just shot to death. But, contemporary estimates range as high as 70 men, women, and children.

Local newspapers celebrated the massacre. The Humboldt Register wrote that the soldiers “nobly acquitted themselves, and earned the praise of all who appreciate valorous deeds performed in a good cause.” The Humboldt Register concluded: “This expedition was admirably planned, and conducted to perfect success. The officers and men have earned the gratitude of their countrymen.” The Owyhee Avalanche wrote specifically of Lieutenant Littlefield’s conduct during the massacre stating that “he exhibited those important soldierly qualities – true bravery and commendable discretion: Good soldiers who live on sagebrush and fight Indians, should not be slandered.”

Local newspapers also reflected the bloodthirsty contempt for Native Americans that accompanied the violence with which the land that Paiute and Shoshone peoples governed for thousands of years was stolen from them in less than a decade. The Owyhee Avalanche called the murdered Paiutes “permanently friendly Indians.” The Humboldt Register, while explaining why the soldiers probably killed more people than they could confirm, explained: “It is proverbial, too, that these wild Indians can walk off with an astonishing amount of lead.”

The Paiutes murdered in the September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre are counted as casualties in what historians call the Snake War. Historian Gregory Michno writes: “The Snake War is little known to most people, other than some folks living in the Pacific Northwest, the occasional Indian Wars student, or Western History buff. Surprisingly, the fighting caused more casualties than any of the other Indian Wars in the trans-Mississippi West.”

Many Americans, especially those Americans who have most benefited, and continue to benefit, from exploiting the resources found in lands Native Americans were violently displaced from, would prefer, consciously or unconsciously, to forget these atrocities. But, for Native Americans who descend from whom the newspapers called “permanently friendly Indians,” who survived when their family members who walked off “with an astonishing amount of lead” to die in the sagebrush didn’t, these atrocities are still very real. For many of those killed by American settlers and soldiers, we cannot be sure where exactly those final resting places are because those settlers and soldiers abhorred the “savages” so much, detested “the scattering devils” so fiercely that they never bothered to locate those they shot or bludgeoned.

Partially because Native Americans cannot always be sure precisely where their “exterminated” ancestors fell, American law gives them no power to preserve the final resting places of their murdered, massacred, and mutilated kin when mining corporations want to destroy those graves. No, under American law, extracting minerals and the profit that extraction brings is more important than the cultures and communities that were destroyed to give American law supremacy.

In the United States, Native Americans have no legal power to say no to corporate projects that will destroy massacre sites, sacred sites, and places of cultural and historical significance on public land. They do, however, have a right to be heard by the government agencies complicit in this destruction. But, this is, of course, a right that is only vindicated if government employees who work for the very government that massacred Native Americans in so many places across this continent acknowledge the massacre sites, sacred sites, or places of cultural and historical significance on public land that Native Americans want to be heard about.

Because American law prioritizes profit and property over virtually everything else, the Thacker Pass litigation truly boils down to some simple questions: Will the Bureau of Land Management be compelled to place a temporary pause on the desecration of land sacred to Native Americans across the Great Basin? Will the Bureau of Land Management be ordered to delay, just for a little while, the destruction of a place where Native Americans were brutally massacred, so that Native Americans can simply explain what the place means to them? Or will a corporation’s right to mine the land stolen from these Native Americans be treated as so precious that postponement of mining operations cannot be allowed?

Art by the always brilliant Trav London.