FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE – FEBRUARY 17, 2022
(RENO, NV) — Three Native American tribes have filed a new lawsuit against the Federal Government over Lithium Nevada Corporation’s planned Thacker Pass lithium mine, the latest move in what has become a two-year struggle over mining, greenwashing, and sacred land in northern Nevada.
The lawsuit, filed by the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe in Federal District Court on Thursday evening, includes three major allegations.
First, the tribes claim that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) withheld crucial information from the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office and lied about the extent of tribal consultation in order to secure legally-required concurrence about historic properties in Thacker Pass.
Second, the tribes allege that Lithium Nevada, with BLM’s complicity, lied about terminating a set of older permits for mining-related activities in Thacker Pass. Further, the tribes say that the BLM has, without notifying tribes or the public, expanded the scope of previous permit authorizations dozens of times, allowing Lithium Nevada to conduct preliminary mine construction activities that are harming traditional cultural properties in Thacker Pass.
Third, the lawsuit argues that the BLM lied about consulting with Tribes before issuing their Record of Decision, and that the agency has continually refused to acknowledge both oral and written histories presented by the Tribes about the sacredness and cultural significance of Thacker Pass.
In total, the lawsuit asserts that the BLM has violated the Federal Land Policy Management Act, the National Historic Preservation Act, and the National Environmental Policy Act, and is also guilty of Breach of Contract.
This lawsuit comes just one week after Judge Miranda Du ruled largely in favor of Lithium Nevada and the BLM in a prior consolidated case involving claims brought in 2021 by environmental groups, a local rancher, and two Native American tribes (the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and the Burns Paiute Tribe).
However, that case only considered events and information prior to January 15, 2021, when the BLM issued the Record of Decision (ROD) — the main Federal permit — for the Thacker Pass lithium mine project. Tribal claims were curtailed by this limitation, which blocked key evidence from being heard — evidence that is integral to the new case.
All three litigating tribes hold Thacker Pass, known as “Peehee Mu’huh” in the Paiute language, as a sacred and culturally important site which has been used for gathering edible and medicinal plants, hunting and fishing, conducting ceremonies, camping, and everyday lifeways of Paiute and Shoshone peoples. Many oral histories, passed down for generations among regional Native American communities, tell of the significance of this area.
Thacker Pass is also the site where two massacres of Paiute people took place – one which occurred prior to colonization as part of an inter-tribal raid, and a second which took place on September 12, 1865, when Federal troops massacred between 31 and 50 Paiute men, women, and children in a surprise attack at dawn.
Much of this history has been assembled for the first time in a comprehensive ethnological report commissioned by the Reno Sparks Indian Colony and Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, which is titled “Thacker Pass/Peehee mu’huh: A Living Monument to Numu History and Culture.” The tribes submitted that report to the Department of the Interior on February 3rd as part of an application to list both the 1865 massacre site and the whole of Thacker Pass, which tribes are calling the “Thacker Pass Traditional Cultural District,” under the National Register of Historic Places. (Numu is what the Northern Paiute call themselves.)
Arlan Melendez , Chairman of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony:
“When the decision was made public on the previous lawsuit last week, we said we would continue to advocate for our sacred site PeeHee Mu’Huh. A place where prior to colonization, all our Paiute and Shoshone ancestors lived for countless generations. It’s also the very same place where our people were massacred (never laid to rest properly) by the U.S. Calvary. It’s a place where all Paiute and Shoshone people continue to pray, gather medicines & food, honor our non-human relatives, honor our water, honor our way of life, honor our ancestors.
Our contention is with the largest lithium mine in country and the expansion of the 40 plus other lithium claims proposed for the State of Nevada. They should have notified all Tribes sooner. The Thacker Pass permitting process was not done correctly. BLM contends they have discretion to decide who to notify or consult with. They only contacted 3 out of the 22 tribes who had significant ties to Thacker Pass.
One of the Biden Administration’s first actions when he took office was to prioritize ‘regular, meaningful, and robust consultation’ with Tribes. Meaningful consultation did not happen with Thacker Pass, and we need the Federal Government to make that right. Our history, our culture, our people, and our sacred sites must be protected.”
Diane Teeman, Director, Culture & Heritage Department, Chairperson, Tribal Council, Burns Paiute Tribe:
“Thacker Pass is known as a spiritually powerful place because of the presence of the remains of tribal Ancestors and their spirits. Our Paiute oral history tells us that we Paiutes have lived in this area since before the Cascade Mountains were formed. Our people follow our unwritten traditional tribal laws and philosophy of life which require we respect all other living things including plants, animals, minerals, and so on. Our traditional ways require we live in reciprocity with all other things and never put ourselves as feeble humans above others. For this reason, our unwritten traditional tribal law requires we do everything in our power to protect it. Only the Tribe and its members can speak to the significance of an area to the Tribe.”
Will Falk, attorney representing the RSIC and SLPT:
“BLM fast-tracked its review of the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project and was moving so fast, it made a number of mistakes including failing to identify the September 12, 1865 massacre site, even though BLM possessed descriptions of this massacre in its own General Land Office records. The Tribes have notified BLM of the cultural, spiritual, and historical significance of Thacker Pass, but BLM continues to refuse to acknowledge this information. BLM’s failure to acknowledge the information the Tribes have provided about the significance of Thacker Pass was not reviewed by the court in the previous lawsuit. BLM has committed a number of violations of federal law since the original lawsuit was filed in 2021. My clients and I look forward to exposing the tricks BLM has played on the Tribes for the Thacker Pass Project.”
Michon Eben, Tribal Historic Preservation Officer at the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony:
“Part of the Federal Government’s responsibility is to determine if a proposed mining project may adversely affect historic properties. Historic properties include Native American massacre sites. The BLM failed in its trust responsibility to tribes and now our ancestor’s final resting place is currently being destroyed at Peehee Mu’huh. Why is it that when our ancestors’ burials are under threat, its business as usual? We are demanding mutual respect for our dead relatives and their final resting place. The BLM and non-native archeologists do not have the expertise to determine whether a property is of religious or cultural importance to a tribe. Native American tribes are the special experts of our culture and Peehee Mu’huh/Thacker Pass is significant to regional tribes and to American History.”
Shelley Harjo, Fort McDermitt Tribal Member:
“Are we willing to sacrifice sacred sites, health and internal balance for short term economic gains while giant corporations create unmeasurable wealth, deplete resources, and leave our future generations to endure the disorder the Thacker Pass mine would leave behind? I will never believe this is the best method for greener living and nor do many other native people in our area. My elders who have been going up to fish and gather medicine in the Thacker Pass have been followed and harassed by Lithium Nevada’s private security, and now say they don’t feel safe on their own ancestral homeland. This is an unacceptable bullying tactic against elderly women by a foreign mining company that has no business here.”
Max Wilbert, Protect Thacker Pass
“Global warming is a serious problem and we cannot continue burning fossil fuels, but destroying mountains for lithium is just as bad as destroying mountains for coal. You can’t blow up a mountain and call it green.”
The Thacker Pass lithium mine project has become emblematic of what critics say is a rushed transition to “green energy” that is replicating many of the problems of the fossil fuel industry, resulting in major environmental damage, and harming communities on the frontlines. Opponents of the Thacker Pass say they aren’t arguing in favor of fossil fuels, but in favor of protecting the Earth. Lithium Nevada claims that its lithium mine will be essential to producing batteries for combating global warming, and the Biden administration has previously indicated some support for Thacker Pass. Opponents of the project have called this “greenwashing,” arguing that the project would harm important wildlife habitat and create significant pollution, including greenhouse gas emissions. They say that electric cars are harmful to the planet and a different approach is needed to address the climate crisis.
General Motors recently entered into an offtake agreement with Lithium Americas, the parent company of Lithium Nevada, to purchase a $650 million stake and to buy the lithium that is produced at Thacker Pass. News reports have stated that the agreement is contingent on the results of the previous lawsuit. It is unclear at this time how the new lawsuit will affect GM’s commitment to Thacker Pass.
About the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony
The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony formed a federally recognized government in 1936 under the Indian Reorganization Act. Located in Reno, Nev., the RSIC consists of over 1300 tribal members from three Great Basin Tribes – the Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe Tribes. The RSIC is a vibrant, diverse organization, which balances traditional teachings and rich culture with contemporary business methods. Our mission is to offer opportunities for tribal members to improve their lives and enhance tribal values by making community programs, services, and projects available, while educating the public about our history, culture and modern lifestyle.
Full-resolution photographs and video files are available for media use in this shared folder:
News media is granted permission to use the photos and videos in this folder for digital publication of news related to this lawsuit or the opposition to the Thacker Pass lithium mine. Provided attribution is given to creator of each image/video and a hyperlink is included in your image caption or video description to the website of the creator’s organization, either RSIC.org or ProtectThackerPass.org.
Thacker Pass Timeline
- January 15, 2021 — Due to “fast-tracked” permitting under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management releases a Record of Decision approving the Thacker Pass mine less than a year after beginning the Environmental Impact Statement process. On the same day, Max Wilbert and Will Falk established the Protect Thacker Pass camp.
- February 2021 — Local rancher Edward Bartell files a lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court alleging the proposed mine violates the Endangered Species Act by harming Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and would cause irreparable harm to springs, wet meadows, and water tables. Four environmental organizations (Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Project) file another lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00103-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court, alleging that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, and other laws in permitting the Thacker Pass mine.
- June 24, 2021 — The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, calls on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits for the Thacker Pass project.
- Spring and Summer 2021 — Rallies, protests, and prayer runs take place in Orovada, Winnemucca, Reno, Carson City, and at Thacker Pass. More than 100 mine opponents gather at Thacker Pass to commemorate the 156-year anniversary of a September 12, 1865 massacre of at least 31 Northern Paiute men, women, and children committed by the 1st Nevada Cavalry. Thousands of people visit the site.
- July 19, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) file a successful motion to intervene in Federal District Court (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) alleging that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in permitting the planned lithium mine. In August, the Burns Paiute Tribe files a motion to intervene on the side of tribal plaintiffs (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB).
- September 15, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management accuses Will Falk and Max Wilbert of trespass for providing bathrooms to native elders at Thacker Pass, fining them $49,890.13. A few weeks later, eighteen native elders from three regional tribes request a BLM permit for their ceremonial camp. The BLM does not respond.
- November 29, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony files an amended complaint in federal court alleging major previously unknown violations of the law. In January, Judge Miranda Du rejects the amended complaint because she wants to make a final decision on the case within a few months (note that the case has now continued for another calendar year).
- February 11th, 2022 — Winnemucca Indian Colony files a motion to intervene in the lawsuit on the side of plaintiffs, claiming that BLM’s contention that they consulted with the Tribe is completely false. Judge Du rejects this motion shortly afterwards with the same reasoning used above.
- April 4th, 2022 — Reno-Sparks Indian Colony files a Motion for Discovery Sanctions alleging that the BLM has been disobeying court orders and making “reckless, false statements” in a deliberate attempt to abuse the justice system and limit judicial oversight. Judge Du agrees with RSIC, but rejects the motion on a technicality.
- August 2022 — BLM “discovers” five new historic sites at Thacker Pass and for the first time acknowledges the September 12, 1865 massacre took place, but continues to reject tribal expertise.
- September 2022 — Lithium Nevada Corporation begins digging up portions of Thacker Pass for “bulk sampling” despite consultation still being ongoing between the Bureau of Land Management and regional tribes over cultural sites.
- October 2022 — Dozens of mining activists from four continents visit Thacker Pass as part of the Western Mining Action Network biennial conference.
- February 6, 2023 — The original lawsuits against the project conclude; Judge Miranda Du rules largely against the four environmental groups, local rancher, and two Native American tribes who filed the original cases, but orders BLM and Lithium Nevada to review certain aspects of permitting.
- February 16, 2023 — A new lawsuit is filed by three Native American Tribes against the Bureau of Land Management over the Thacker Pass lithium mine.
For More Information:
Reno-Sparks Indian Colony
Bethany Sam; RSIC Media Relations
Attorney for Reno-Sparks Indian Colony & Summit Lake Paiute Tribe
Will Falk, Attorney
Burns Paiute Tribe
Director, Culture & Heritage Department
Chairperson, Tribal Council
Protect Thacker Pass
Max Wilbert, Co-Founder Protect Thacker Pass