by Caelen McQuilkin
Published in the Opinion section of The Mammoth Times on August 19, 2021
Drive slightly east and then five hours north out of Lee Vining, and you’ll find yourself in Thacker Pass, a wide-open landscape of sagebrush and sloping hills, achingly beautiful in that special high desert way. Drive slightly east and then five hours north out of Lee Vining, follow the 80 most of the way, turn left once you reach the small town of Orovada, Nevada, and you might fall in love with a place you had never previously heard of.
That’s what happened to me this summer when I saw the first social media posts and advocacy surrounding Peehee mu’huh, or Thacker Pass, and the movement to protect it from the proposed development of a 5,000 acre open-pit lithium mine atop what one of the advocacy groups fighting to protect the area, Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, or People of Red Mountain, knows as “a spiritually powerful place blessed by the presence of our ancestors, other spirits, and golden eagles – who we consider to be directly connected to the Creator,” according to their statement of opposition. This is due to the history of the place: a long time ago, Indigenous people in the area–the ancestors of many of the advocates fighting to protect the place today–were massacred at Thacker Pass. “To build a lithium mine over this massacre site in Peehee mu’huh would be like building a lithium mine over Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery,” the statement reads. “We would never desecrate these places and we ask that our sacred sites be afforded the same respect.”
Though the movement to protect Thacker Pass is centered around land over 300 miles away from the Eastern Sierra, it provides a model for what environmentalism in the 21st century must look like if we are to address the root causes of environmental destruction. This type of environmentalism centers around anti-racist and anti-capitalist struggles, therefore addressing several root causes of environmental destruction in the modern day: the force of colonization, and the disproportionate power held by large corporations and by the rich. The movement begs us to interrogate ourselves with larger moral questions that Daranda Hinkey, a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribe and founder of People of Red Mountain, brought up: “What do we truly care about most?” she asked, referencing the outsized attention that purchasable items supposed to save us from the climate crisis receive, and the “greenwashing” that makes them palatable. “Do we care about the land? Do we care about the animals? Do we care about the water? Do we care about the air?”
Protecting Thacker Pass will help usher in a new era of environmentalism aimed towards racial and class justice, and therefore could in turn protect the Eastern Sierra from the similar environmental threats and racial inequities our region faces.
Historically, our region and the Thacker Pass region were linked through the movement of people. In the modern day, many Indigenous people still act on and appreciate this connection, and movements like Thacker Pass cast light upon its continued relevance. “A long time ago, we used to roam this way all the way down to Pyramid Lake, out to Lee Vining and California. There used to be roads here, a long time ago,” said Ron Guerrero, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute tribe and supporter of the movement to protect Thacker Pass. “We weren’t separated by reservations. You know they put us on reservations, but we used to migrate with the animals. All through these lines, all the way to California, this is where we travelled through. At one time, we were all one. Bishop Paiutes, Pyramid Lake Paiutes, Fort McDermitt Paiutes, we were all one.”
The human history of this landscape shows that people have recognized the inherent connections between the land that makes up the high desert of the American West. Many still do recognize this inherent connection, and are acting on it. Myron Dewey, a filmmaker, journalist, and supporter of the movement, explained: “I’m a descendant of Yosemite. I’m currently enrolled in the Walker River Paiute tribe on my dad’s side, and I’m also Tomoke-Shoshone on my dad’s side, and from my mom’s side, I’m from the Bishop Paiute tribe,” he said. “Those Sierra mountains are our homelands. What I would like people to know, is to do the land acknowledgement on the land that you’re on, and know that the Indigenous people, even though they don’t all live in their traditional homelands, they’re still trying to protect them.”
Indeed, environmental threats like that at Thacker Pass are already present in our region. As far as lithium mining goes, a project to begin exploratory drilling for lithium in Panamint Valley was approved in 2019, according to Friends of the Inyo, and while the corporation has most recently decided to prioritize other mining projects, they may be back in the future. In addition, a recent gold mining proposal at Conglomerate Mesa, a large section of high desert landscape located at the doorstep of Death Valley National Park, and on the homelands of the Timbisha-Shoshone and Paiute-Shoshone tribal nations, poses a threat to sacred Indigenous land and critical wildlife habitat. According to Brian Hatchell, Desert Policy Associate at Friends of the Inyo, the Canadian company K2 Gold and their subsidiary Mojave Precious Metals are currently planning to begin the construction of miles of new roads and over a hundred exploratory drill holes at Conglomerate Mesa. This construction will come in anticipation of the actual mine, which will include cyanide heap-leach mine. “Numerous leaders in local tribes have opposed the gold exploration and mining by K2 Gold,” said Hatchell. “Conglomerate Mesa is a kingdom of solitude abundant in flora and fauna wonders that captures the pure essence of desert backcountry exploration. This area is simply too special for gold exploration and the open-pit cyanide heap leach gold mine that would follow.”
At Thacker Pass, the opposition to lithium mining formed in the beginning of 2021, after the corporation Lithium Nevada was able to quickly push through approval for its project, taking advantage of the recent weakening of environmental review process laws under the Trump administration. At its start, the resistance consisted of two people camped at Thacker Pass, but today, it has grown in size and impact.
Two advocacy groups–Protect Thacker Pass and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu, People of Red Mountain–are working in solidarity to resist the mine by spreading awareness and education, taking legal action, building social pressure, and planning to peacefully blockade mine construction. The advocacy groups’ arguments are rooted in their belief that Thacker Pass is valuable and irreplaceable, and the impact of mining it will cause serious and irreversible damage, both to the area and through the precedent it will set for extractive practices in the West as a whole.
One such irreplaceable value of Thacker Pass is the fact that destruction of the landscape, and the wildlife it is home to (including the greater sage grouse, Lahontan cutthroat trout, pronghorn antelope, and golden eagle) will mean destruction of Indigenous culture and traditional knowledge. Hinkey explained what protecting Thacker Pass means to her: “It means I am protecting all the knowledge that all my grandmas and my grandpas, what they carry and what they tell me,” she said. “Everything that I know was not things that I just came up with. It was things that I learned. And so to me, it’s protecting that.”
People of Red Mountain’s statement in opposition to the lithium mine details why preserving cultural knowledge is so important.
“Thacker Pass is essential to the survival of our traditions. Our traditions are tied to the land,” it reads. “When our land is destroyed, our traditions are destroyed.” According to the statement, these traditions specific to Thacker Pass include picking choke cherries from the orchards there, gathering yapa, or wild potatoes, hunting groundhogs and mule deer, and gathering traditional medicines such as ibi, a chalky rock used for ulcers and internal and external bleeding, and toza root, which is considered one of the world’s best anti-viral medicines. Hinkey explained: “In the spring, there are a bunch of First Foods, and wildflowers, and the sagebrush, and a bunch of wildlife… As Native people, we are supposed to be caretakers of the land,” she said. “We’re supposed to be protectors for the people that are vulnerable. And when I say people, I mean the animal people, I mean the plant people. We still see them as that, and so we’re supposed to speak up for the ones that are vulnerable or can’t speak up for themselves.”
These arguments are so weighty they seem hard to effectively ignore, but one way advocates for the mine are promoting their development is through “greenwashing,” or presenting the illusion that they are not only environmentally responsible, but actually helping the environmental cause. Because lithium is necessary for the production of the batteries that run EV cars–technology often regarded as one of the solutions to the climate crisis–some believe that developing lithium mines such as this one will be necessary to slow climate change. “The company wants to blow up a mountain and call it green,” said Max Wilbert, one of the founders of Protect Thacker Pass. “Call it good for the planet to blow up a mountain and poison water and leave behind a wasteland and destroy all this wildlife habitat. That’s not unique here, that’s all over the world, that this sort of thing is happening.”
Many leaders at Thacker Pass mentioned greenwashing and its ties to their philosophy about environmentalism. If we can’t create an environmental movement that is geared towards addressing root causes, rather than symptoms, some said, then companies that can effectively greenwash will simply continue profiting from the same crisis that has already begun to harm the most vulnerable. Thinking about the world in terms of multiple generations to come may help rewire one’s thinking to reject greenwashing and false solutions like this one. Many advocates at Thacker Pass expressed their views through this lens.
“This is our future. It’s not only mine, it’s yours too… I’m old. It’s not for me, it’s for younger generations. It’s for you guys. That’s what my part is–I’m fighting the fight for all of us,” said Ron Guerrero, a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, who came to Thacker Pass for the first time in the spring and has since been back over ten times. Hinkey had similar thoughts. “It’s not just us in this present day having a new lithium car, having solar panels or wind turbines. It’s not us now. I think that we’re starting to realize with climate change, we have to really think to the future,” she said. “With the greenwashing, it’s like we’re destroying the land–adding to the mining, adding to the carbon emissions.”
If we want to preserve our planet for future generations, we need to listen to the voices at Thacker Pass–voices that are calling for a reevaluation of humanity’s entire relationship with the environment through a reckoning with the implications of colonization. A rekindling and centering of the Indigenous knowledge about living with and caring for the land, acting with far future generations and therefore permanent solutions in mind, thinking radically about what it will take to truly address the climate crisis and emerge better for it.
Protecting Thacker Pass means protecting the Eastern Sierra–through the inherent links of our regions, and through the symbolism of the movement that will benefit all places worth protecting. As Dewey put it: “Come and support Peehee mm’huh, Thacker Pass, through whatever donations or physical support you can give. Or just come and witness and experience, and see how the Indigenous people are still trying to protect what little is left of traditional harvesting areas, sacred sites, clean water,” he said. “We have an obligation and an opportunity to make a wrong right, and you can be part of that healing.”
If you are interested in updates about the movement, donating, joining the protest camp, or otherwise becoming involved, visit https://protectthackerpass.org. Find more information about the movement to protect Conglomerate Mesa at http://protectconglomeratemesa.com/.