The massive copper mine that could test the limits of religious freedom

Earlier this month, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals declined to stop the construction of a copper mine in Arizona on land sacred to the San Carlos Apache Tribe as well as other Indigenous nations. Chí’chil Biłdagoteel, also known as Oak Flat, sits atop the third largest copper deposit on the planet and is essential to green energy projects. The operation, which will be run by Resolution Copper, a subsidiary of mining companies Rio Tinto and BHP, will leave a crater nearly 1,000 feet deep and 2 miles wide.

“Oak Flat is like Mount Sinai to us — our most sacred site where we connect with our Creator, our faith, our families and our land,” said Wendsler Noise of Apache Stronghold, a nonprofit fighting to protect the area. “We vow to appeal to the Supreme Court.” 

Over the years, Oak Flat has developed a storied history. In 2014, Oak Flat was a part of a military spending bill that would allow the government to “swap” the area with other land in Arizona. In 2016, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places in an attempt to protect it, and in 2021 the Apache Stronghold sued the government, arguing that the land was reserved for the Western Apaches in an 1852 treaty. Then, in 2023, Apache Stronghold made the case that the land transfer would keep them from exercising their religion. The court disagreed. 

The issue before the court illustrates a battle between religion, Indigenous rights, and potential solutions to the climate crisis. For tribal nations like the San Carlos Apache who practice what are known as “land-based religions” — ceremonial practices that are inextricably tied to areas Indigenous peoples have relationships with — preserving those lands with religious significance is paramount to the survival, and transmission, of both culture and values to the next generation. 

But for developers, the proposed mine would support a few thousand jobs for the surrounding community, inject $61 billion into the local economy, and provide a critical supply of copper for everything from electric vehicles to energy storage systems. By 2031, the world will need almost 37 million metric tons of copper to continue the process of green-energy electrification. Resolution Copper said that Oak Flat could provide a quarter of U.S. copper production. 

At the heart of Apache Stronghold’s legal case is something called “substantial burden” — there must be proof that the government has interfered with an individual’s right to practice their religious beliefs. Substantial burden protects U.S. citizens from government interference, unless the government has a really good reason. That means Apache Stronghold’s claim needs to be justified with a high level of scrutiny. 

If the case goes to the Supreme Court, and Apache Stronghold wins, the federal government would need to show a compelling reason to destroy Oak Flat. 

“If the Supreme Court finds that land transfer of Oak Flat is a substantial burden on Apache religious practice, then the court sends the case back down to the lower court,” said Beth Margaret Wright, who is from the Pueblo of Laguna and is an attorney with the Native American Rights Fund. “Then that would be on the government to prove that the land transfer is narrowly tailored toward a compelling government interest.”

Wright said that’s a pretty high bar for the government to meet, and it’s complicated by the court’s history with land-based religions.

According to the court’s recent decision, Oak Flat is similar to an older case out of California: Lyng v. The Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association. In the 1980s, the United States Forest Service was sued by the Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association over the proposed construction of a road. The Yurok, Karuk, and Tolowa tribes argued the road would irreparably damage an area where tribal members conducted religious ceremonies. 

Ultimately, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the federal government could do what it wanted with its land and said that the government couldn’t be held responsible for the religious needs of its citizens — a kind of “slippery slope” that recognized that a favorable ruling for the tribes would provide a veto button for other Indigenous nations on public projects in the future. In its ruling, the Supreme Court acknowledged that there were deeply held religious beliefs tied to the land, but the road was built anyway. 

Joe Davis, an attorney with Becket Law, the firm defending Apache Stronghold, said the narrow focus on Lyng is what is at issue with Oak Flat: He says it’s the wrong framing.

Five years after the Lyng decision, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or RFRA, was passed. Because RFRA was written to expand religious protections, the Apache Stronghold seeks the expanded protections under RFRA to be applied to Oak Flat. 

“This is a case, at its heart, about the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which uses different language and is broader than the First Amendment,” said Davis.

And that argument has some history with the courts. In 2012, Becket also defended Hobby Lobby at the Supreme Court and won using the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In that case, the court decided that under RFRA, the family that owns Hobby Lobby could opt out of providing birth control to employees under federal insurance laws due to religious beliefs. Essentially, the court found that the federal government was imposing a substantial burden because the use of birth control violated the owners’ religious freedoms. 

“Hobby Lobby shows that RFRA is very powerful,” said Davis. “This case is an opportunity for the Supreme Court to make good on the promise of RFRA.” 

The Ninth Circuit decided that in Oak Flat, substantial burden wasn’t met, citing the Lyng case. But the Lyng case doesn’t define substantial burden, RFRA does, and Davis argues that the court made a leap applying substantial burden when the concept wasn’t used in the Lyng case. Basically, the court didn’t use the broad protections offered by RFRA and instead applied a ruling from a pre-RFRA world.

If the case gets picked up by the U.S. Supreme Court, and Apache Stronghold wins, this would help clarify substantial burden. But with that clarity, there may come many more legal battles testing the limits of the First Amendment for Indigenous peoples. 

“It might help us in the sense that now a substantial burden is more encompassing of land-based religions,” said Beth Margaret Wright with the Native American Rights Fund. “But it doesn’t necessarily mean that our land-based religions and practices are forever protected.” 

A spokesperson with the U.S. Forest Service, the agency named in the lawsuit, declined to comment citing ongoing litigation.

This story was originally published by Grist with the headline The massive copper mine that could test the limits of religious freedom on Mar 19, 2024.

50 years later, Lakota girl still missing

Amelia Schafer
ICT + Rapid City Journal

PINE RIDGE, S.D. — The walls of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Victim Services building are lined with missing person posters. Dozens of faces and names of men and women, all from the Pine Ridge Reservation, who have gotten little to no justice.

Fifty years ago in February 1974, Delema Sits Poor and her friend left their school at the Seventh Day Advent Church in the number four community (also called Wakpamni), about eight miles from the Pine Ridge community. The two set out to walk along an unpaved backroad towards Manderson, South Dakota. Despite below-zero temperatures, the two 12-year-old girls were determined to reach their destination.

High winds and heavy snow set in during their walk. At some point, Sits Poor’s friend began to develop frostbite so she opted to walk to the nearby Red Cloud Indian School, but Sits Poor kept walking, wearing only a white down-filled jacket with brown bell-bottom pants and sneakers. The Oglala/Mniconju Lakota girl was never seen again.

Delema Sits Poor disappeared after school at the Seventh Day Adventist Church in the number four community on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1974. Sits Poor was heading to a friend’s house after school. (Photo by Amelia Schafer, ICT/Rapid City Journal)

The next morning, once the snowstorm cleared, her family traveled to Pine Ridge to find a phone and call for help. Her father filed a police report, and her cousin called the National Guard.

In the days following Sits Poor’s disappearance, ground and air searches were conducted around the Calico community where Sits Poor may have walked – a rugged remote area with miles of winding buttes, steep valleys and thick brush. Late last year a three-year-old boy was found alive after disappearing in the same area.

Family members said they felt that after the seventh day of searching the push to find Sits Poor ended.

“They just stopped looking, back in those days I got the impression that they weren’t very helpful,” Sits Poor’s cousin Genevieve Chase In Sight-Ribitish said. “We never got any responses from her missing person’s report we filed, no one came to ask us about her, we haven’t gotten any updates.”

On the 50 anniversary of her disappearance, the Sits Poor family continues to search for answers.

Bo Sits Poor and sister Tawny Eagle Louse pose next to an age-progressed photo of their missing aunt, Delema Lou Sits Poor. Sits Poor was last seen in 1974 heading to a friends house after school. (Photo by Amelia Schafer, ICT/Rapid City Journal)

“I tried looking for her many times, people would call and say they’d seen her in Rosebud or in Denver, and somebody told me they saw her around Pine Ridge with a man. I searched everywhere, we’d go everywhere,” said Sits Poor’s older sister Rose Thunder Club.

After seven years, Sits Poor was declared dead. The family suspects that foul play may be involved in her disappearance.

“We hang in there hoping that one day she would walk in the door or we’d see her around somewhere,” Chase In Sight-Ribitish said.

At only 12 years old, Sits Poor was just beginning to find herself. She was getting into rock music, her brother Frank Sits Poor said. She’d just gotten a new Lynyrd Skynyrd cassette tape.

“She was just 12, just a kid, just getting started,” Thunder Club said.

Raised by her grandmother, a fluent Lakota speaker, Sits Poor spoke Lakota and was engaged with her culture.

“Delema was a really beautiful person, she was caring and loving and kind, she never hurt anybody,” Chase In Sight-Ribitish said.

Sits Poor’s disappearance is among dozens of unsolved cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women in South Dakota.

Of the cases currently listed in the South Dakota Missing Persons’ Clearing House, 54 percent are Indigenous despite Indigenous people making up only 9 percent of South Dakota’s population.

The count listed in the Clearing House is also an undercount. Sits Poor is not listed and never has been, as well as a few other older cold cases from Pine Ridge. This is because they were never filed and added to the system, according to the South Dakota Attorney General’s Office.

Related: Public safety commissioner seeks change in Alaska’s MMIP response

Dozens of Indigenous women went missing and were murdered on the Pine Ridge Reservation in the 1970s. There’s no official number of how many women disappeared or were killed during this time. Sits Poor’s own mother, Phyllis White Dress was murdered in 1976, two years after her daughter’s disappearance.

One of the oldest cases, Beatrice Tallman-Curry, was brought to justice because her case piqued the interest of a law enforcement officer several years after her disappearance.

Delema Sits Poor’s missing person photo (left) beside the Oglala Sioux Tribe Victim Service’s age progression of her at 61 years old. Sits Poor was last seen in 1974. (Photo by Amelia Schafer, ICT/Rapid City Journal)

“There’s no one set or list of names, they’re all scattered everywhere,” said Susan Shangreux-Hudspeth, Oglala Lakota and director of Oglala Sioux Tribe Victim Services. “There’s just no justice. No one has been arrested. It takes someone dedicated to bringing this to justice.”

As time moved, young family members like Eagle Louse and her brother Bo Sits Poor never got to meet their aunt. While they never met her, they grew up with her by hearing stories about her. How helpful she’d been to her family, how much she loved her grandmother, how silly she could be.

“These are traumatic events for these families, all of these (cold cases) they have a story, she was somebody,” said Amanda Takes War Bonnett, Oglala Lakota and public education specialist for the Native Women’s Society of the Great Plains.

Sits Poor’s father, mother, grandma and several of her siblings died without answers.

“My grandpa went to the grave looking for her, my mom did too,” said Tawny Eagle Louse, Sits Poor’s niece. “It would just be nice to get some closure.”

Many aspects of Sits Poor’s disappearance are unknown. Some documents list her as last seen on February 4, 1974, while others list February 20. Additionally, it’s unclear if Sits Poor made it to her friend’s house and disappeared leaving, or if she never made it to her destination.

“It’s like finding a needle in a haystack,” Chase In Sight-Ribitish said. “There’s so many brick walls and things we don’t know.”

Sits Poor’s disappearance broke her father’s heart, Frank Sits Poor said.

Frank Sits Poor is the older brother of Delema Sits Poor who was last seen in February 1974 heading to a friend’s house after school. (Photo by Amelia Schafer, ICT/Rapid City Journal)

“I think it tore my family apart when she disappeared, the love kind of dwindled,” Eagle Louse said.

Around 2018, Thunder Club and Chase In Sight-Ribitish said they were contacted by an investigator for the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s newly founded cold case unit. Despite speaking with the investigator a few times, they never heard back.

With no updates and limited information, the family continues to hope and pray for Sits Poor’s return.

“Every chance we get we go up into the hills and look,” Chase In Sight-Ribitish said. “Anytime the relatives get the chance they’ll go back there and look. Anything suspicious we move it around and look around for her.”

Anyone with information about Sits Poor’s disappearance can contact the Oglala Sioux Tribe Police Department at 605-867-5111 or report to the Beauru of Indian Affairs Missing and Murdered Unit by texting 847411 to BIAMMU or calling 1-833-560-2065. 

This story is co-published by the Rapid City Journal and ICT, a news partnership that covers Indigenous communities in the South Dakota area.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.

A Native voting ecosystem in Nevada

Pauly Denetclaw

The Yamba Shoshone Tribe is located in rural Nevada, mostly dirt roads that make it challenging for some citizens to drop off their mail-in ballots. In 2022, the solution was unusual but it worked for the Yamba Shoshone.

“They’re not just in the middle of Nevada, but I mean it’s complete dirt roads to get there,” said Stacey Montooth, executive director for the Nevada Indian Commission.

Tribal representatives went on horseback to collect completed ballots and drive them an hour to the county seat in Austin, Nevada.

Since 2016, the Native American vote in Nevada has become stronger and stronger. Nonprofit organizations, state and tribal governments have worked together over nearly the last decade to increase the power of the Native vote. The solutions Nevada groups have found to increase civic engagement for rural and urban Native voters is direct engagement, meeting people where they’re at and ultimately, and multiple choices for how to cast a ballot.

There are 20 federally recognized tribal nations that predate the state of Nevada and still live within, what are now, the boundaries of the state. More than 62,000 Native Americans from over 200 different nations live in urban areas.

American Indian, Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian, and Pacific Islanders make up 5.1 percent of the state’s population, according to the U.S. Census. All together the number of Indigenous voters in the state is 158,322.

To put this into context, Nevada’s ninth most populous city, Sparks, has a population of 108,025. The state’s eight most populous area, Paradise, has a population of 191,238. Both are located next to either Las Vegas or Reno.

The journey to increase voter engagement started in 2016 when three Native American veterans and two tribes sued the state of Nevada for violating the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Some citizens of Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe and Walker River Paiute Tribe were forced to drive at most 96 miles round trip to access in-person voter registration and in-person early voting. On election day, Pyramid Lake Paiute citizens had to drive 32 miles round trip according to court documents. All this effort because there were no on-reservation polling locations or in-person voter registration.

“My elderly grandma who lived on the reservation all her life. She was having to drive 90 minutes to vote and as she got older, she had to find someone to help her get to the polling station,” Montooth said.

In comparison, some of the affluent residents of Lake Tahoe, on the Nevada side, could walk to their polling locations. On the east shore of Lake Tahoe, in Glenbrook, Nevada, the median sale price for homes, in 2021, was $2.17 million according to a Reno Gazette Journal article.

The court sided with the plaintiffs and required Washoe County to establish satellite polling locations on Pyramid Lake Paiute and Walker River Paiute lands ahead of the 2016 general election.

Since then, Native leaders and citizens have taken it upon themselves to increase voter engagement in innovative ways.

“The one solution for Indian Country is actually multiple choices because there isn’t one size fits all,” Montooth, Walker River Paiute Tribe, told ICT.

There are a number of things the state of Nevada has done to make voting easier, including same-day voter registration, and expanding the use of the Effective Absentee System for Elections, created to make voting easy for Nevada military personnel deployed overseas. Tribal citizens who live on their sovereign lands are now eligible to use this system and vote from the comfort of their homes.

The state also created an opt-out system instead of an opt-in system to get voting services on sovereign lands. Before they had to apply to request these services. Presently, every county is automatically required to work with tribal nations to establish voting services every election.

Tribal IDs can now be used to register to vote. If they meet the state requirements of a photo, issue, and expiration date.

Other solutions that tribes have implemented especially for elders, is utilizing community health representatives.

“They’re trusted voices. They go into these people’s houses on a regular basis, and so it just works perfectly,” Montooth said. “Folks complete their ballot, then you give it to the (community health representative) and (they) can drop it off in that conveniently located Dropbox as they’re heading back to the clinic.”

The Duckwater Shoshone Tribe has many Shoshone language speakers and they worked with the county and state to provide language interpreters for those casting their ballots.

In 2022, for the first time Nevada Indian Commissioner Tammy Tiger and executive director Montooth were invited to a post-election debrief hosted by the Secretary of State. County clerks and county registers from all 16 counties are invited to attend.

“We were representatives of Native America. We got invited and it was really historic, but on the other hand, it just seems so logical and simple. It’s crazy that it took all this time,” Montooth said.

Tiger represented urban Native voters and Montooth represented rural Native voters.

The wins in Nevada, while expedited over the last eight years, build upon the work of many generations of Native people who fought for their right to vote. One that was granted 100 years ago but that wasn’t really available until the passage of the Voting Rights Act. Up to the 60s, Native voters were being denied their right to vote on lands they’ve managed since before this country was even a thought.

“I don’t have words for it because I think about what a change it’s been in our community in just a couple of generations,” said Taylor Patterson, executive director for Native Voters Alliance Nevada. “I think about my grandparents and the spaces that they never had access to.”

Building civic engagement has led to monumental wins in the sagebrush state for Native people.

There is one Native American elected to the Nevada Assembly, Shea Backus, Cherokee. The state has passed legislation to codify the Indian Child Welfare Act and require local police to take reports of missing Indigenous people regardless of jurisdiction as well as upload that information to the National Crime Information Center and National Missing and Unidentified Persons databases.

“During the redistricting process, it was the first time that tribes really got a seat at that table and that we were able to lobby and ask, ‘Why is Walker River Paiute Tribe in two assembly districts and two state senate districts, and two congressional districts?” said Patterson, Bishop Paiute Tribe. “And also talk to Walker River about why that matters.”

Looking toward the future, there has also been a push to increase Native poll workers. Reno-Sparks Indian Colony has a volunteer election committee that runs the tribal elections. During state and federal elections, this committee goes as a group to train in Washoe County to be poll workers for their nation.

“It just makes such a big difference when you go to vote, to see someone that looks like you,” Montooth said. “Better yet, (someone) you know, it just improves the experience so much.”

Commissioner Tiger, Choctaw Nation and Muscogee Nation descendant, was a poll worker at the Moapa Band of Paiutes voting location during the primary election a couple weeks ago. She drove three hours roundtrip, waking up at 4 a.m., to get the polling location set up by 7 a.m. to welcome voters.

Tiger was borned and raised in the Las Vegas metropolitan area and describes herself as an urban Native.

“I know some urban Natives came from down in southern Nevada to work, I went to work the Moapa polls. Some folks went all the way up to Reno, and this is how we envision this statewide,” Tiger said. “How do we work together to support one another and make sure that all of our people have access to voting?”

One way to increase voter turnout would be to make election day a holiday, Montooth said.

Another resource needed for urban Native voters, especially in the Las Vegas metro, is a nonpartisan voter guide that just lays out the facts for each candidate.

“We’ve got 20 judges on a ballot, and so it’s like, what are these trusted sources that are really going through and doing candidate questionnaires and collecting information so you have a more informed vote?” Tiger asked.

For Patterson, it’s increasing the number of Indigenous people elected to city, county and state office. The state needs 61 elected Native American, Alaska Native or Native Hawaiian people elected to gain representative parity, according to Advance Native Political Leadership. They currently have one, Nevada Assembly member Shea Backus.

“We do not have the Native candidates that are representing us and so it was a really big deal to us to make sure that Shea got elected and we were really putting as much energy as we could behind her,” Patterson said.

Born in 1917, Flora Greene, Pyramid Lake Paiute, wasn’t considered a citizen of the United States. When she was 7 years old, the Indian Citizenship Act was passed that would theoretically allow her to vote at 18. She didn’t cast her first ballot until she was 99 years old.

“There had always been something that had come up,” Montooth said.

In 2016, after litigation made the county provide on-site voting for her nation, Greene cast her first ballot in the general election.

“When you think about 90-year-old people who couldn’t go in the front of restaurants in downtown Fallon, or couldn’t use certain public transportation, and they just… they’re so tenacious that Ms. Flora was able to let all that go. And on the one occasion where we’re all equal, I mean she had a little extra pep in her step because she was doing it on her land,” Montooth said.

That was the only presidential election Greene voted in before she passed away in 2018.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter. 

Tribes face uphill battle to defend sacred land against lithium mining

The coming electric battery revolution in America will require billions upon billions of gallons of water to mine lithium – and many of the new U.S. mines will be located in the drought-prone American West. An investigative report from the Howard Center at Arizona State University. Find more stories from the project here and here

Noel Lyn Smith and Pacey Smith-Garcia
Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

OROVADA, Nev. – Myron Smart remembers stories told by his father and other tribal elders about the connection between Thacker Pass in Nevada, where a new lithium mine is under construction, and a tragic moment for the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone.

In Northern Nevada near the Oregon border, Thacker Pass was traditionally used by Smart’s ancestors to camp, hunt and gather, collect obsidian and medicine, and perform ceremonies. On Sept. 12, 1865, the 1st Nevada Cavalry raided a campsite and slaughtered at least 31 Paiutes.

“The cowboys came to kill everybody – woman, children, all the elders,” Smart said last September to a group gathered at Thacker Pass on the anniversary of the massacre. The deadly encounter was an episode in the Snake Wars, one of many skirmishes with Native Americans in the 19th century West, as white settlers came looking to mine for gold.

Now, Smart said, a new kind of mining threatens to wipe out culturally important sites related to the massacre, harming the tribes yet again. Lithium Nevada Corporation, a subsidiary of Canada-based Lithium Americas, will blast through rock and dirt in the area as the company builds a massive, open-pit lithium mine. The federal Bureau of Land Management issued a Record of Decision to greenlight the mine in January 2021. All court challenges to the decision have failed.

The Biden administration has set an ambitious goal for electric vehicles that has prompted a major push for U.S. supplies of lithium and other critical minerals. The Thacker Pass mine owners have courted support from the Energy Department, which is considering a record-breaking, billion dollar loan to the project, and from General Motors, which has pledged $650 million in capital investment, the largest ever by an automaker in battery raw materials. The mine is projected to supply enough lithium each year to produce batteries for one million GM electric vehicles.

This 1869 map from the Bureau of Land Management’s Deputy General Surveyor Abel Abed Palmer shows the remains of an “Indian Camp” between sections 22 and 23. That area is also mentioned in Palmer’s field journals as the site of the Sep. 12, 1865 massacre where the 1st Nevada Cavalry raided and massacred Paiute and Shoshone people. (Source: Bureau of Land Management 1869, University of Nevada Reno)

Indigenous communities are on the frontlines of a push to create new, domestic sources for lithium. The U.S. has only one active lithium mine, at Silver Peak in Nevada. With a wave of new applicants, that will not remain the case for long. An analysis by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University found nine proposed lithium mines are within 10 miles of Native American reservations.

Besides Thacker Pass, lithium mines are also planned near the Black Hills in South Dakota – which the Lakota and nearly a dozen other tribes claim as their ancestral land. Exploration drilling for a mine in Arizona is occurring 700 feet from sacred springs used by the Hualapai people. In a months-long investigation, the Howard Center found lithium mines use vast amounts of water to extract the critical mineral needed for lithium-ion batteries.

The Black Hills of South Dakota.

Rules exist on paper that sound as if tribes have protections. Federal agencies are required to consult with tribal governments before making decisions that impact their communities, including on mining development projects. However, Valerie Grussing, Executive Director of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers, calls tribal consultation a “check-box exercise.”

“Even if they’re able to document their tribal consultation efforts to anyone’s satisfaction,” Grussing said, the federal agency leaders “can still make whatever decision they want.”

Grussing’s claim was confirmed in Congressional testimony by a senior official with the Department of Interior. U.S. Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) asked the official at the May 2022 hearing if it were true that “BLM has few options under current law to deny a proposed mine – even if that mine was on land, say, sacred to Native American tribes.”

“Under the mining law, if there’s a discovery of a valuable mineral, there is a right to mine. So there can’t be a complete shutdown of a mining operation,” replied Steve Feldgus, who has since been promoted to run the Interior Department’s Land and Minerals Management program. There is no exception for land held sacred by Native American tribes.

Michon Eben, cultural resources manager for the Reno Sparks Indian Colony, agreed. Her tribe wasn’t consulted on the Thacker Pass lithium mine, even though its members consider Thacker Pass ancestral land. “The American government can allow mining corporations to destroy our lands out here, and especially our sacred sites, especially from the lands that were stolen.”

Myron Smart talks about the historical significance of Thacker Pass to the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe at an event near Orovada, Nev. on Sep. 9, 2023. The event commemorates the massacre of at least 31 Paiutes by the 1st Nevada Cavalry on Sep. 12, 1865. (Noel Lyn Smith/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Lithium Nevada denied it will harm the massacre site, and BLM said the massacre site is on private land that isn’t under its jurisdiction.

Grussing said the experience of tribal communities at Thacker Pass is merely a continuation of harmful colonial processes.

“It’s retraumatizing that now this particular place of not just importance, but of massacre, is going to be lost.”

The process of greenlighting Thacker Pass

Federal records show that BLM attempted to consult with three tribes – Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Winnemucca Indian Colony – all with reservations in the same county as the Thacker Pass mine. BLM said that these tribes were invited to consult “due to their proximity to the project area.”

None responded the following year, and in January 2021, BLM’s Winnemucca District Office issued its Record of Decision greenlighting Lithium Nevada to mine for lithium at Thacker Pass.

Randi Lone Eagle, chairwoman of Summit Lake, said in an email to the Howard Center that she has no record of receiving BLM’s tribal consultation invitation dated mid-December 2019, when tribal offices start to close for the holidays. A few weeks later, Lone Eagle said she came “under tremendous pressure to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic.”

“If government agencies are serious about fulfilling their trust responsibilities,” Lone Eagle wrote in the email, “they will do more than simply send letters; they will call us directly and visit us to speak face-to-face.”

“Sending a letter to a tribe and receiving no response does not constitute sufficient effort to initiate tribal consultation. And so that’s all they did,” said Eben, the tribal preservation officer for Reno Sparks Indian Colony. The federally recognized tribe in Washoe County has just over 1,100 members of Paiute, Shoshone and Washoe ancestry.

“Just because regional tribes have been isolated and forced on to [sic] reservations relatively far away from Thacker Pass does not mean these regional tribes do not possess cultural connections to the Pass,” said Eben of Reno Sparks.

She contended that BLM should have invited tribal consultation for Thacker Pass with all of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes, before issuing the mine’s permits. That includes Reno Sparks.

“They should have consulted with the Reno Sparks Indian Colony because we have members that descend from Paiute and Shoshone.”

Eben wrote a letter to BLM in June 2021 that identified a dozen tribes that have “powerful historical connections to Thacker Pass,” where “some of our ancestors were massacred.”

“The American government was engaged in a campaign to massacre us,” she said in an interview with the Howard Center. “They were sanctioned to massacre us over here because they saw this land and all the minerals that were here.”

She likened opening a mine here to “disturbing Pearl Harbor or Arlington National Cemetery,” noting U.S. memorials to lost soldiers are venerated by the public and not subject to desecration.

In response, after the mine was approved, BLM acknowledged the massacre took place and invited members of Reno Sparks in July 2022 to consult on “indirect areas of potential effects” near the mine. BLM agreed to review approximately 100 acres of BLM-managed land abutting the mine site that had previously not been surveyed. The National Historic Preservation Act’s tribal consultation guidelines allow for a post-review discovery process to ensure that federal agencies “make reasonable efforts to avoid, minimize or mitigate adverse effects.”

For Grussing, “mitigation means loss.”

“If avoidance is off the table by the time we’re at the table, the process is broken. And that so frequently what we see happening with these consultation processes,” said Grussing.

“There’s no consequences. That’s what it comes down to.”

Problems with tribal consultation

BLM issued its Record of Decision to approve Thacker Pass on January 15, 2021, in the last days of the Trump administration.

Eleven days later, Joe Biden, the newly elected president, issued a memorandum highlighting the importance of federal agencies engaging in meaningful consultation with tribes on projects that impact their communities.

The president issued a follow-up memorandum in November 2022, announcing his desire to develop a uniform process for federal agencies to follow for consultation with tribes. That process would require federal agencies to “strive for consensus with Tribes or a mutually desired outcome. Consultation should generally include both Federal and Tribal officials with decision-making authority regarding the proposed policy that has Tribal implications,” the memorandum said.

Yet Grussing, head of the National Association of Tribal Historic Preservation Officers (NATHPO), said she doesn’t think the administration is going to do anything different.

“They’re going on the record and they’re making an investment in various levels, prioritizing Indigenous knowledge in federal decision making and lots of things like that. But when the rubber meets the road, we’re not seeing it put into practice at places like Thacker Pass.”

Grussing said that one of the challenges is the lack of Indigenous knowledge and experience within federal agencies.

“There’s practically zero requirements or standards and even accountability,” Grussing said. Federal agencies retain full discretion over the content of their decisions and don’t need to meet a prescribed outcome, according to the National Historic Preservation Act.

Lithium Nevada’s open pit lithium mine can be seen under construction in Thacker Pass, Nev. on Oct. 10, 2023. Members of the Paiute and Shoshone tribes believe that the mine is located where their ancestors were massacred by the 1st Nevada Calvary in 1865. It is a sacred site to those tribes. (John Leos/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

NATHPO is a nonprofit membership association that advocates for protecting sites that perpetuate Native identity and culture. Its main advocacy priority is funding for tribal preservation officers, who serve as liaisons with federal agencies on the management of tribal historic properties.

Chairwoman Lone Eagle of the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe does double duty as the tribal preservation officer for her tribe.

“We get dozens of letters, by mail, from government agencies about proposed projects every month,” she said.

Reno Sparks’ tribal preservation officer, Michon Eben, echoed these concerns. “I’m getting projects from up all over and I’m one person. And so for me, I almost have to pick and choose,” she explained. “Tribes need help.”

She said she hopes that tribes can receive more federal funding to better tackle what is sent to them, “so that we are equipped and educated and have resources to help us to respond to all these letters.”

Grussing added that without more resources, tribal preservation officers will be unable to carry out their duties successfully.

Is Thacker Pass on sacred land?

One of the most contentious aspects of the Thacker Pass project has been the location of the 1865 massacre.

The BLM’s Record of Decision greenlighting the lithium mine at Thacker Pass did not mention the 1865 massacre. That omission, the tribes contend in their 2023 lawsuit, violates the National Historic Preservation Act, Federal Land Policy and Management Act, and National Environmental Protection Act.

But the Howard Center found at least two records from the BLM’s own archives that show the site of the massacre – a map and a hand-written field journal, both prepared in 1868 by U.S. Deputy Surveyor General Abel Abed Palmer – which depict that the massacre occurred at the mine’s site.

Palmer’s field notes describe finding the “remains of an extensive Indian camp,” which he explains was the site of the 1865 massacre. He also lists seeing “many Indian skulls and remains.”

He notes within the map and his field journal the camp’s location between two specific sections of land near the Trout Creek, a waterway that also runs through the Thacker Pass lithium project site.

Comparing the 1868 map created by the BLM and the map from Lithium Nevada’s Environmental Impact Statement, the Howard Center found that the massacre site appears to fall within BLM jurisdiction and within the area of potential area of effect.

BLM maintains that the massacre site is in fact on private land outside of their jurisdiction. In an email from the BLM Winnemucca office to the Howard Center in December, Spokesperson Heather O’Hanlon wrote that “the location of this site is on Private ground and not within the project footprint.”

Lithium Nevada also backed up this claim. “Ten times this issue has come up in front of a judicial system and 10 times it’s been dismissed,” said Tim Crowley, vice president of government and community affairs. Crowley said lawsuits and attempts to win an injunction by ranchers, tribes and environmental groups have all failed.

In an interview with the Howard Center, Eben from Reno Sparks disagreed that the massacre site only includes the Paiute camp location documented by Palmer. “That’s where it began,” she said about the massacre, but people were killed for miles outside of the campsite.

“Our people did not come out of their huts and just die right there. They ran – because it lasted for several hours,” she said.

Even with the post-review consultation process underway, Eben feels like saving Thacker Pass is a lost cause.

“No matter how much I participate, how much I consult, how much I put in writing, how much I’m at the table – sometimes it’s just not enough. It’s not enough.”

Last ditch efforts

Reno Sparks, Burns Paiute and Summit Lake Paiute filed a lawsuit in February 2023 in the U.S. District Court of Nevada against local BLM officials and Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland. Among the tribes’ allegations was that the BLM did not make a reasonable and good faith effort to identify historic properties in Thacker Pass or consult the appropriate tribes, as required by the National Historic Preservation Act.

While these efforts were pending, a federal judge said construction on the mine and supporting facilities at Thacker Pass could start in March 2023.

In December, the judge dismissed the lawsuit. In a virtual press conference held by Reno Sparks Indian Colony, former chairman Arlan Melendez said, “We lost the lawsuit because the law favors mining, especially in this state.”

Melendez also announced that they would not appeal the court’s decision to allow construction of the mine to continue. “By the time you would get through to appeal, they would have already desecrated all of the sacred sites. So there’s no sense trying to do that,” he said.

Reno Sparks attorney Will Falk also spoke at the press event on Zoom.

“We all have to make sacrifices to fight climate change,” said Falk about the national push to quit fossil fuels and transition to green energy at the December 2023 press conference. “What they mean is that Native peoples, again, have to sacrifice their culture, their ancestral homelands, so that someone can make a lot of money extracting lithium.”

Reno Sparks and Summit Lake Paiute tribes also asked Interior Secretary Haaland and the National Register coordinator to determine the eligibility of the 1865 massacre site and Thacker Pass for the National Register of Historic Places.

They submitted their request to BLM’s Humboldt Field Office and Winnemucca District Office, the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation and the Nevada State Historic Preservation Office. In a January 2024 email to the Howard Center, BLM said it is still in consultation with the tribes on these sites and has not yet forwarded a nomination to the National Park Service, where the official list of America’s historic places is kept.

Time for reform?

In September 2023 the Biden administration’s interagency working group on mining reform submitted a report with recommendations to revise the laws around mining on public lands.

The report found that the rules are clearer for consultation with tribes when minerals are developed on their present-day reservation lands. But it also noted that tribes have far fewer rights to land outside their present-day borders to which they may hold historical, cultural and spiritual ties.

The report said that it is of “utmost important [sic]” to make clear the procedures for conducting effective consultation and coordination with tribes. New rules must also be implemented to protect sacred, cultural or historical sites, so that some areas are considered off limits for hard rock mining. “Tribes should have more control over sacred lands,” the report said.

A billboard on U.S. 95 near Orovada, Nev. warns against Lithium Nevada’s Thacker Pass lithium mine on Sep. 9, 2023. The group, People of Red Mountain, oppose construction of the mining operation in Thacker Pass because of environmental concerns and damages to an area sacred to Paiute and Shoshone tribes. (Noel Lyn Smith/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

The report also proposed ways to create that control, such as developing stronger requirements for tribal consultation on mineral exploration and development projects, “including where the proposed action is within a Tribe’s ancestral homeland even if it is not proximate to the Tribe’s current reservation.”

The report also recommended that the federal government establish mandatory procedures and outcomes for tribal consultation, and tribes be given extra time and resources to participate meaningfully.

Tribal consultation should require federal authorities to meet and share information with potentially impacted tribes as early as possible. “Early engagement with and consideration of impacts on Indigenous Peoples is widely accepted to be an industry best practice,” the report explains.

In May, Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) proposed legislation to reform U.S. mining law on public land that seeks to codify Pres. Biden’s recent memorandum on creating uniform standards for tribal consultation. He doubled down at the start of Native American Heritage month in November, proposing two more House bills that would strengthen tribal roles in managing public land and protect Native American cultural sites. As of late January, none of the bills has advanced to committees for further review and discussion.

Community benefits

The mining reform report recommended that mining companies negotiate community benefits agreements with impacted tribes.

One tribe impacted by the Thacker Pass mine did negotiate an agreement with Lithium Nevada.

The Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe signed a Community Benefits Agreement with the company in October 2022. The Fort McDermitt reservation is approximately 26 miles northeast of Thacker Pass, near the state line of Nevada and Oregon.

Crowley said the agreement is the culmination of more than 10 years of dialogue with the tribe. The mining operation will provide employment opportunities for tribal members and people who live on lands that surround the mine, he said.

The agreement provides for job training and construction of an 8,000 square foot community center that will have a daycare, preschool, playground, cultural facility and greenhouse where plants can be grown for use in traditional medicine practices.

“It’s a very isolated area that has very limited opportunity for not just a job, but a job that pays twice the state salary average,” Crowley said.

“It’s an agreement that is the foundation for a really healthy relationship going forward.”

Lithium Nevada declined to provide a copy of the community agreement contract, citing that it is a private document.

In early December, the Biden administration issued a progress report on its work with Tribal Nations. The White House report said that 12 federal agencies are on track to updating their consultation policies. Nine agencies – including the Interior Department – had revised Tribal Consultation policies or developed trainings for federal staff who work with tribes or on policies with Tribal implications.

Grussing of the National Tribal Historic Preservation Officers association is skeptical. In 2007 the U.S. voted against the Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the UN General Assembly, which advanced the free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) standard. The standard upholds Indigenous Peoples’ rights to do more than consult on a project – FPIC ensures that tribes either give or withhold their consent on a project impacting their communities. In 2016 the U.S. ratified the declaration but called its support “aspirational” and “not legally binding.”

According to Grussing, until the U.S. adopts the FPIC standard, tribal consultation is “kind of meaningless. And I don’t see that happening,” Grussing said.

Emma Peterson and Caitlin Thompson contributed to this story. It was produced at the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Fund in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. For more see Contact us at or on X @HowardCenterASU.

Lithium mining’s untold threat to water

Reporters from The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

SILVER PEAK, N.V. – Nyle Pennington, a veteran water scientist who tracks groundwater for local governments, stopped at a monitoring station just one mile from America’s only active commercial lithium mine. For years this well in Central Nevada typically held enough fresh water to reach the height of a three-story building, or about 30 feet. Pennington said it supplied much-needed nourishment for local cattle grazing under the Nevada sun.

On this crisp fall day in October, Pennington dropped a small rock down the well. Pings and clangs rang out as the rock hit bottom. A soft thud echoed back. “Bone dry,” he said. “If that would have had water in it, you would have heard a pronounced, loud splash.”

Pennington, hired by the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority to monitor groundwater levels, has documented a disturbing pattern: underground water sources are dwindling and even disappearing altogether near the Silver Peak lithium mine, which records show has pumped nearly four billion gallons of water from underground every year since 2020. The Silver Peak mine denied it is impacting freshwater aquifers, but Pennington said the evidence he recorded shows otherwise.

Silver Peak, which began mining lithium in the 1960s, won’t remain the only U.S. lithium mine for long. The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University has documented a surge of proposals to open new lithium mines that will, like Silver Peak, need billions of gallons of water to operate at a time when much of America’s West is still emerging from a recent megadrought.

As part of a Biden administration push to “build America’s electric future,” U.S. officials are encouraging the domestic expansion of lithium mines by dangling federal incentives. The effort would decrease U.S. reliance on China, which controls most of the U.S. supply chain for the lithium, a crucial mineral needed to power computers and military night-vision goggles.

The Howard Center launched a comprehensive, national investigation of the impact the proposed new lithium mines may have on U.S. water supplies. Reporters reviewed tens of thousands of pages of state and federal environmental impact statements and mining operation reports filed by companies involved in every proposed lithium project in the U.S. that sought permits or reached the physical exploration phase by the end of December 2023.

Among the investigation’s key findings:

  • There are no federal rules governing how much water any type of mine can consume.
  • America’s only operating commercial lithium mine is responsible for drying up nearby monitoring wells, according to reports from Nevada’s largest water authority.
  • The vast majority of proposed lithium projects responding to calls for increased supplies of domestic lithium are, in fact, owned by foreign companies or their subsidiaries.
  • The majority of proposed lithium projects in the U.S. intend to take water from already stressed sources like the Colorado River or strained groundwater systems.
  • Federal authority to stop mines from extracting minerals, even from public land, is weak. The Department of the Interior, in more than 20 years, has not rejected a mining permit due to the harm a mine could cause.
  • The federal government approved plans for a future lithium mine, even after its operators disclosed it would create 272 million metric tons of ‘tailings’ containing toxic waste.

A marked stake stands four-feet high in Lordsburg, N.M., on Nov. 13, 2023. The first step to establishing a lithium mine on federal land is to hammer a physical stake in the ground where a known lithium deposit exists. (Tori Gantz/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

A water intensive process

Lithium can form naturally in salty underground waters, hard rock or clay. No matter where lithium sits or how it is mined, extracting it uses a lot of water. One mining method involves evaporating mineral-heavy water to get the lithium. Another method gets to the lithium by blasting through hard rock and digging an open pit. Both methods need a combination of fresh water and toxic chemicals to extract lithium.

Despite their intense water needs, plans for lithium mines are popping up in some of America’s most water-stressed areas like the Clayton Valley Basin in western Nevada. Other projects plan to take billions of gallons of fresh water every year from the already overtaxed Colorado River.

In some cases, corporations hoping to get in on the boom are seeking public money to open lithium mines by tapping billion dollar low-interest loans and grants from the recently enacted bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act.

No federal rules for mines and water

The main federal law governing mines, and how they operate, is more than 150 years old. It was enacted a few years after the Civil War. Government auditors for decades have flagged its many flaws that leave water and the environment unprotected.

If all of the 72 proposed lithium mines whose documents the Howard Center examined are built under current rules, “it would be a fundamental transformation of the American West,” said Patrick Donnelly, a conservation biologist for the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, an environmental advocacy group. “People compare it to the Gold Rush, but the Gold Rush was pretty small scale, compared to what all this lithium’s looking like.”

Nevada, America’s driest state, is home to 40 of the 72 proposed lithium mines whose paperwork the Howard Center examined. The vast majority of those in Nevada – 80 percent – would be built on top of water supplies identified by the Nevada Division of Water Resources as already designated for special monitoring because of possible risk to their water levels, according to the Howard Center’s analysis.

But the 72 proposed lithium mines examined are not just in the West. In North Carolina, residents worried that a proposed lithium mine might cause residential wells to run dry. Proposed mine operators in Arkansas, as in Nevada, want to pull mineral-heavy water from the drier parts of the state.

Fissures have opened up in the ground near Albemarle’s lithium mine in Silver Peak, Nev., as seen on Oct. 14, 2023. Fissures and sinkholes can develop when underground water levels drop. (John Leos/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Warning signs from Silver Peak?

At the Silver Peak lithium mine, the only place in the U.S. where scientists can learn about the impact of active lithium mining on water and the surrounding environment, annual reports from the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority have repeatedly warned of problems. The authority is a unit of local government that works across nine counties. Its 2022-23 groundwater monitoring program annual report concluded that decreases in local water levels near Silver Peak were “due exclusively to de-watering throughout Clayton Valley for Lithium Mining purposes.”

The Howard Center reporters repeatedly offered to meet in person with representatives of the Silver Peak operation or its owner Albemarle, based in North Carolina and one of the world’s top producers of lithium. The Howard Center said via email it intended to ask about how “local scientists at the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority have identified groundwater monitoring wells near the Silver Peak mine as having reduced amounts of water (or running dry), and they believe the Silver Peak mine is playing a part in what is happening to the water.” The Howard Center invited a “transparent and open conversation.”

After more than 20 emails, texts and calls from Howard Center reporters over a one-month period offering to fly to the Nevada mine or Albemarle’s corporate headquarters in North Carolina, the company offered a Zoom interview with a “hard stop” at 10 minutes. Silver Peak’s site operations manager, Scott Thibodeaux, was designated to speak to the reporters. But he said he was unable to answer key questions.

“I’m not familiar with the particulars,” Thibodeaux said, referring to concerns raised by the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority for at least the past decade. “Perhaps someone within the organization is. I am not myself.” Thibodeaux said he is responsible for overseeing mining and the processing of lithium at the Silver Peak lithium mine. That means he oversees key parts of the operation that consume large amounts of water.

One day after the Zoom interview, Albemarle spokesperson Allison Eckley issued a statement that said in part and in bold: “Albemarle operations do not impact the freshwater aquifers in the area.”

Yet a February 2023 environmental disclosure filed by Albemarle with the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission includes a section on the operation’s “Requirements” to use what the report labels as “Fresh Water,” in an amount equivalent to 190 million to 222 million gallons per year.

Asked about that in a follow-up email, Eckley acknowledged fresh water is used by the operation and that usage is “not expected to increase significantly” by 2025. Eckley said in a separate email that Albemarle plans to increase pumping of salty, lithium-rich water by more than 50% from 2020 to a new level equivalent to 6.5 billion gallons a year by the end of 2025.

Central Nevada Regional Water Authority Executive Director Jeff Fontaine and University of Nevada, Las Vegas professor of hydrology Dr. David Kreamer said pumping too much salty water from a complex, underground ecosystem can harm freshwater aquifers.

Fontaine said over pumping any basin can cause “permanent” damage underground and “a combination of things that happens that would prevent that aquifer from ever really restoring itself.”

Albemarle’s Eckley said the company is allowed to expand pumping, according to its permits. In an email, she wrote, “It is the responsibility of the State Engineer to administer the groundwater resources in the basin to avoid permanent effects.”

Albemarle did not directly address the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority’s reports or findings of diminishing water levels in the network of independent monitoring wells.

“There are no negative impacts to the quality” of the freshwater aquifer that is uphill from the mine, Eckley said, citing data from one monitoring well Albemarle owns.

Pennington, the hydrologist, said it is not the quality, but rather the quantity of depleted fresh water that is significant.

“We have the data to back it up,” he said, citing decades of recordings showing steady groundwater levels until more recently. Pennington said Albemarle could more accurately monitor its impact on water by seeking out all available monitoring data, including from sources other than the one Albemarle well Eckley cited. Pennington said the Round Mountain Gold Corporation is a company Albemarle could emulate. Its local gold mine is “pretty much saturated with observation wells,” he said. One well he visits sends data in real-time to the state engineer’s office, making the information publicly accessible, he said.

“Albemarle should set up their own observation system that would become transparent” to state, federal and any local entity that wishes to monitor the water supplies in Clayton Valley, he said.

State water data reviewed by the Howard Center shows that increasing pumping of lithium-rich water to 6.5 billion gallons, as Eckley said was planned, would push the Clayton Valley Basin to its limits, or beyond. State data already has shown that mineral-heavy water has been allocated for use beyond what is available. Albemarle’s own disclosure to the SEC shows that if the company follows through and increases pumping to 6.5 billion gallons a year, the basin will be “pumped at or over” the amount that naturally recharges every year.

“Obviously there’s a huge stress on the system,” Nevada State Engineer Adam Sullivan said of all the groundwater consumed by the mine so far. Sullivan has not looked into the Central Nevada Regional Water Authority’s conclusion that the lithium mine is to blame for dwindling groundwater but said “it would be something worth considering if you try to explain the cause.”

“I think the alarm bells have been rung,” said Fontaine. “I think there are a lot of people concerned about what’s happening in Clayton Valley, but I don’t know that there’s agreement on what needs to be done.”

Fontaine, Kreamer and State Engineer Sullivan all said groundwater data needs to be updated.

Sullivan said he has “initiated a major effort,” in coordination with the United States Geological Survey, to update water availability data in Nevada using state-of-the-art science. The project, called the Water Resource Initiative, will include projections taking climate change and other factors into account but is contingent upon funding. Pennington said updating the state’s older water data “is probably what needs to be done in Clayton Valley.”

Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-AZ, has represented communities in Arizona in Congress since 2003. Grijalva supports changes in the regulation of mines and serves on the House Natural Resources Committee. (Photo courtesy of Rep. Raúl Grijalva)

Federal funding goes abroad

The vast majority of proposed lithium projects responding to calls to increase domestic supplies of lithium in the U.S. are, in fact, owned by foreign companies or their subsidiaries.

The nation’s push to create more domestic sources of lithium has attracted many investors and companies, the majority of them from abroad. The Howard Center found that just 17 of the 72 proposals reviewed by reporters are from companies based in the U.S. The rest are headquartered internationally, with the majority in Australia and Canada.

“[They] are doing business through a front group, a subsidiary here in the United States, but essentially not paying royalties, [and are] exporting our resources and jeopardizing our primary resource for life, which is water,” said Rep. Raúl Grijalva, an Arizona Democrat.

In Nevada, there are 28 planned lithium mines within 50 miles of the Silver Peak lithium mine that are owned by companies based outside of the United States, a Howard Center analysis found. Esmeralda County Commissioner De Winsor, a Republican, is trying to have his community’s voice heard amid the lithium rush.

“These mining companies, they come in and they don’t belong to the area,” Winsor said. “They’re from Australia or they’re from Canada or they’re from some other country and they don’t give a damn about the communities or the water sources.”

The U.S. government is considering giving large low-interest loans and grants to boost lithium mine construction. Many foreign companies have applied, the Howard Center found.

Canada-based Lithium Americas, which has never operated a mine in the United States, is asking for a record $1 billion low-interest loan from the Department of Energy to fund construction for lithium extraction from U.S. public lands in Nevada. Lithium Americas has signed agreements with its largest shareholder, General Motors, which it said will allow the carmaker to use its lithium from Nevada and build batteries in the United States.

Yet, Lithium Americas acknowledged nothing would stop General Motors from taking the American-made batteries and shipping them south of the border, where they could create or keep jobs at General Motors’ electric vehicle production facility in Mexico.

“It’s absolutely possible – they could absolutely do that,” said Tim Crowley, an executive with both Lithium Nevada Corp. and its parent company, Lithium Americas.

A senior official at the White House who asked not to be named told the Howard Center that the Biden administration does not think General Motors will do that, saying the automaker also invested billions to expand electric vehicle production facilities in the U.S.

However, GM said in an email to the Howard Center the company does plan to use the lithium it obtains from Lithium Americas outside of the U.S. as part of a “broader strategy we have to establish a North America-based supply chain for raw and processed material for EV batteries and other EV components like permanent magnets and motors.”

The GM spokesperson, James Cain, confirmed that lithium from the Nevada project operated by Lithium Americas will end up in three U.S.-based battery cell plants before going on to “supply GM assembly plants across the United States, Canada and Mexico.”

The United Auto Workers Union criticized General Motors’ $1 billion investment in Mexico in 2021 for electric vehicles, saying the company should keep as many jobs in the U.S. as possible. GM announced in early December that the first new units of the all-electric Chevy Blazer EVs were solely produced at its Ramos Arizpe plant in Mexico.

In early January 2023, the Mexican government announced on Twitter, now known as “X”, that Mexican Secretary of Economy Raquel Buenrostro had met with GM to discuss the company’s plans to convert its Ramos Arizpe facility to produce only EVs by 2024. The social media post cited thousands of Mexican jobs that could benefit from GM’s investment.

A damming federal approval

On Nevada’s northern border with Oregon, Lithium Nevada Corp., a subsidiary of Lithium Americas, is developing the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine Project. The project is an open pit mine. In 2021, the company received approval from the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, part of the Department of the Interior, to open the lithium mine — after disclosing that it will create 272 million metric tons of toxic clay tailings and salt during its expected 40-year lifespan.

The tailings, the mine’s waste product, will be a tan, toxic and muddy slurry of metals and radioactive material, according to the mine’s environmental impact statement filed with the Bureau of Land Management.

A mine’s tailings can exist for centuries and require ongoing treatment and containment to prevent water and soil contamination. Lithium Nevada Corp. plans to use a new method to store the mine’s toxic tailings that compacts them and squeezes out much of the moisture. In theory that would make them more stable and less likely to collapse. The company will not build a dam around the tailings to prevent them from spilling out of their prepared containment area, as is common practice. Instead, the mine will place them on top of a plastic liner.

Environmentalists, such as the non-profit Great Basin Resource Watch, said the moisture content of the planned stack is underestimated. The clay from Thacker Pass is more likely to retain and soak up the moisture it was dug up with, and then become muddier and less stable and at greater risk of collapse, according to hydrologist and tailings expert Steven Emerman. This will be the first time a process like this is used with clay ore, compared to other mines that compress hard rock and ore. Emerman, who studied the mine’s tailings pile plan for the Great Basin Resource Watch, is concerned this will increase risk of collapse and severe damage in Nevada.

A research article published in Engineering Geology, a peer-reviewed international science journal, concluded toxic materials released during a tailings collapse can travel hundreds of miles, contaminating rivers and lakes and poisoning nearby land. The report examined tailings from previous mines that used different containment plans than Thacker Pass will use.

One 2019 tailings dam collapse in Brazil resulted in the release of 10 million cubic meters of mine waste that traveled downstream and killed 270 people. Those mines used different storage methods than are planned for Thacker Pass. The article estimated that the economic impact of a major tailings dam failure could be between $750 million and $56 billion because of likely social and environmental damage.

But Crowley, the government and community relations executive for Lithium Americas and Lithium Nevada Corp., said there is “no risk” of collapse at the tailings stack at Thacker Pass, even if an earthquake or big storm were to strike the area. Crowley said that legal challenges to the plan by environmentalists with the Great Basin Resource Watch have failed at both federal and state levels.

“Their concerns have been dismissed as being invalid,” Crowley said.

Crowley said the company’s plans were approved by the U.S. government. He said the company will comply with a Nevada law requiring it to install a double liner under its tailings to prevent leaks from the mine’s toxic waste.

But skeptics said that may not matter. “One of the rules of mining is that all liners leak,” said David Chambers, president of the Center for Science in Public Participation, a group which monitors the effects of water quality contamination linked to mining. The nonprofit provides training and technical advice to grassroots groups on water pollution and natural resource issues.

En route to check on his lithium claims, geologist Frank Bain poses for a photograph in front of a gate labeled “Closed Area” in Lordsburg, N.M., on Nov. 13, 2023. Bain owns 225 mining claims across 4,500 acres where he has found lithium deposits. (Tori Gantz/Howard Center for Investigative Journalism)

Not prepared for the modern era

For the last 150 years — thanks to a 19th century mining law still governing American mines — minerals such as lithium buried under public land have been up for grabs to the first person or corporation that “claims” them.

Frank Bain, a geologist with 45 years of experience, has staked claim after claim in New Mexico and across the Southwest, selling many of them to larger companies hoping to join America’s lithium rush.

“Lithium is how I feed my family,” Bain said. “I want to go out here to drill one hole, make a discovery, sell my interests out and retire. That’s my whole goal here.”

The Mining Law of 1872 provided Bain, and the companies operating mines on federal lands, the right to mine for lithium, the Howard Center found.

The process is relatively simple. Prove valuable minerals exist in the ground. Drive a wooden stake into the site that contains those minerals. File some paperwork and pay one-time fees totaling $390 to the Bureau of Land Management. The steps allow any legal corporation with paperwork filed in any state, U.S. citizens, or immigrants who intend to become a citizen to ‘claim’ the potentially lucrative underground minerals on up to 20 acres of land. To keep the claim, they only pay an annual $165 fee.

There is no requirement for the claim holder to pay royalties on any portion of the money earned from selling any minerals taken from under federal land. Instead, they keep both the minerals and the money for themselves, a practice criticized for nearly 50 years by the Government Accountability Office.

“The mining companies don’t need to ask. They just take. That’s what the 1872 law allows,” said Aaron Mintzes, senior policy counsel for Earthworks, a Washington, D.C.-based environmental advocacy organization.

The Department of the Interior said that it cannot deny a mine the right to operate unless environmental damage caused by mining is found to have gone beyond what is deemed necessary for extraction of minerals. Because mining inherently involves disturbing the earth, the legal standard has proven hard to violate and the department rarely stops a mine outright. The Howard Center asked the Department of the Interior to name the last time it denied any kind of mine’s permit to operate due to the damage it could cause. The answer: a project proposed in 1994 and denied in 2001. Even then, that case involved desecration of tribal lands, not environmental harm. The department, which reviews dozens of mining applications every year, said it will typically try to work with mines to help them comply.

The limits on the federal government’s authority to step in and prevent damage from a mine came into full view in 2022 during testimony before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Energy and Mineral Resources.

“Under the mining law, if there is a discovery of a valuable mineral, there is a right to mine. So there can’t be a complete shutdown of the mining operation,” Interior’s Deputy Assistant Secretary for Land and Minerals Steve Feldgus testified.

As a result, companies proposing lithium mines on federal land can openly disclose they will use billions of gallons of water and be virtually guaranteed that the federal government will not stop them. That leaves it up to a patchwork of local ordinances and state laws, Democratic staff members of the House Committee on Natural Resources said, to protect some of the most stressed water sources in the country.

Mining water

The majority of proposed lithium projects in the U.S. intend to take water from already stressed sources like the Colorado River, or groundwater systems designated by state officials as already needing close monitoring, according to a Howard Center analysis.

Three lithium projects in southern California plan to tap the lithium bubbling up from superheated, mineral-heavy waters under the Salton Sea. California Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) has called the area “the Saudi Arabia of lithium.”

Automakers Ford, General Motors and Stellantis invested in two projects proposed for the Salton Sea. In state and local records reviewed by the Howard Center, the applicants who are seeking to open the mines disclosed to regulators their plans to use nearly 3 billion gallons of water a year. That would enable them to obtain enough lithium to power batteries for about 4.9 million electric vehicles annually, the applicants estimated. The companies will not source the water from within California. Instead, they plan to use a source that relies on man-made canals, a temporary pipeline and large trucks to transport the water from one of the most stressed waterways in America: the Colorado River. A third Salton Sea project from BHE Renewables has yet to disclose where it will find fresh water, and it has not disclosed the amount it will need.

The Colorado River provides seven states and parts of Mexico with water, hydropower, recreation and wildlife habitats. Forty million people rely on the river for some, if not all, of their water. The river endured a 21-year “megadrought” from 2000 to 2021 that forced the federal Bureau of Reclamation, which oversees the river, to declare a water shortage for the first time.

California regulators have issued permits for EnergySource Mineral’s Project ATLiS to extract lithium at the Salton Sea. The company, based in Carlsbad, Calif., disclosed it expects to use more than 1 billion gallons of Colorado River water annually. Controlled Thermal Resources, a company that began in Australia but moved its headquarters to California in 2022, plans to consume 2.1 billion gallons of fresh water each year. That is enough to provide water from the strained Colorado River for 22,500 households downstream in Arizona. The company forecasts it will need to use nearly 100 billion gallons of fresh water over the mine’s life.

“When you put it in terms of gallons, it does sound like a lot of water – and it is a lot of water,” Controlled Thermal Resources President Jim Turner told The Howard Center.

In California, agriculture takes more water out of the river annually than the proposed lithium projects will take. But Turner acknowledged mining’s planned draws of water are still large enough to warrant concerted efforts by the company to conserve as much as possible.

“We’re going to try to do the best conservation effort we can on the use of that water,” Turner said.

Controlled Thermal Resources is planning to take the steam produced from its mining process and condense some of it back into fresh water, Turner said. EnergySource Minerals also has “an element of water recycling” throughout their lithium extraction process, according to Chief Development Officer David Deak.

But even in a future drought, water will still be available for his company’s project because of legal agreements California water brokers made, in some cases, nearly 100 years ago, Turner said.

“Every entity that wants to use water off the river executes an agreement. And so typically those agreements have a hierarchy,” he said. “But at the end of the day, if there’s not enough water, typically, what would happen is whoever was last executing the agreement, they may end up having to reduce their water first.”

The people that would be forced to reduce first would be those living downstream in Southwestern states such as Arizona. EnergySource Minerals and Controlled Thermal Resources told California state regulators that, in a future drought, the projects would still have access to the billions of gallons of Colorado River water they need. Both used the same explanation in their separate state environmental impact reviews: “Due to the priority of water rights and other agreements, drought affecting Colorado River water supplies causes shortages for Arizona, Nevada and Mexico, but not California.”

The Howard Center asked Deak, the executive at EnergySource Minerals, how Arizonans should react to those statements.

“It is difficult for me to speak on behalf of Arizona,” Deak said. “To be candid, I don’t really have a straight answer.” Deak stressed that his company’s mine would have “a fraction” of the impact on the river when compared to agriculture users.

50 years of failures, but solutions are lurking

For nearly a half century, federal government auditors have pointed out flaws with the archaic 1872 mining law that governs how mines operate. Members of Congress have repeatedly tried – and failed – to substantially reform the law.

The Government Accountability Office has released at least six reports over the last several decades highlighting such problems as the lack of requirements to protect the environment, and loopholes that allow companies to extract minerals from public lands without paying royalties to American taxpayers. A 1974 GAO report said the 1872 Mining Law needed to be updated. The report recommended transitioning from a system of staking claims to one where public land and its minerals would be leased. Mining companies, in this system, would reimburse taxpayers for using public resources.

That has not materialized. A bill now pending – the Clean Energy Minerals Reform Act – addresses that issue nearly 50 years later.

“We’re operating under an antiquated law of 1872 which gives mining companies and their corporations all the authority and really handcuffs the federal government, and to some extent local governments and state governments, handcuffs them in their ability to be able to mitigate, to change, to prioritize and to say no,” said Grijalva, the Arizona Democrat spearheading the bill in the House of Representatives. “Sometimes you have to say no. There are areas in which that should not happen, not only because of the threat of water, but other environmental issues as well.”

Grijalva’s bill also includes a provision that would require the Department of the Interior to check that any proposed mine would be in an area with enough water to support it.

With only Democrats backing his bill to date, its outcome is uncertain. There are members of Grijalva’s own party who do not support his vision for change. Sen. Catherine Cortez-Masto, a Nevada Democrat, has introduced a bill that, instead, would strengthen the rights of the mining companies to use public lands to support their mining operations even if that land has no valuable minerals.

There is broad, bipartisan agreement that the domestic supply chain for critical minerals needs to be strengthened, but Republicans and Democrats do not agree on how to accomplish this. Republicans have put forward legislation that would streamline the process for permitting mines, while opposing Grijalva’s reforms.

In 2022, the Department of the Interior launched an interagency working group with representatives across the federal government to propose ways to modernize the 1872 law. In September, the group issued more than 60 recommendations that would “update our mining policies and promote the sustainable and responsible domestic production of critical minerals,” said Tommy Beaudreau, Interior’s deputy secretary, in a press release.

The only recommendation about water from the interagency working group suggests that Congress pass a law allowing regulators to deny a permit for a mine “that is likely to require perpetual treatment of water relating to any aspect of mining operations.”

But the working group’s proposals face an uphill battle in Congress. Senator John Barrasso (R-WY), the ranking member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, issued a statement criticizing the recommendations as “reckless.” The reforms, the statement said, “will force us to buy more critical minerals from mines using forced and child labor instead of harnessing our abundant resources here at home.”

Grijalva said the Howard Center’s investigation, shining a spotlight on public disclosures from lithium mines that plan to draw on billions of gallons of water from strained sources, could help attract more bipartisan support for reforms, in light of recent history-making droughts.

“I hope that the Howard Center and the reporting that has been done, I hope it has an impact – a significant impact,” Grijalva said. “This kind of reporting and study and investigation is critical to the discussion by introducing and prioritizing the issue of water as a consequence going forward.”

Leaving it to the locals

With attempts to strengthen federal oversight so far unsuccessful, states and local governments are filling the gaps — with mixed results.

In California, Newsom signed into law the Lithium Extraction Excise Tax, which requires companies to pay the state government a tax on any lithium pulled from underground in California. Most of the tax revenue would go to the local government near the projects. The federal government does not require companies to pay a tax on lithium extracted from public land, although the interagency working group recommended such compensation to U.S. taxpayers.

In March, the Utah legislature passed HB 513, an attempt to protect the shrinking Great Salt Lake from mining. Among other provisions, the measure, signed by the governor, requires mining companies that take water from the lake to put back roughly the same amount of water. While the new law has discouraged one lithium mine that intended to draw large amounts of water from the lake, another project has since said it created new technology that will allow it to meet the law’s requirements.

“We don’t want to end up like Owens Lake or the Caspian Sea,” said State Rep. Casey Snider, the Utah Republican who sponsored the bill. The Caspian Sea is Earth’s largest inland body of water and, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, has seen its water levels drop significantly since the 1990s.

In North Carolina, the Gaston County Board of Commissioners is pushing back against a mining company’s plans to build a lithium mine that county officials and residents said might cause residential water wells to dry up.

“I’m not saying they can’t do it here. But if they’re going to do it in Gaston County, they’re going to do it right,” said Chad Brown, the Republican chairman of the county board of commissioners. “And they’re going to get it right beforehand to where the citizens are not going to be affected by environmental issues. Not water. Not air. Not blasting.”

In Nevada, the Silver Peak lithium mine has proposed pumping more water, and a Howard Center analysis found 28 other planned lithium mines located within 50 miles of Silver Peak. The government in rural Esmeralda County would face expenses far beyond what it can afford if it wants to fight the proposals.

According to Winsor, the Esmeralda County commissioner, the county has a budget of only $30,000 for 2023 to defend itself against companies vying to open new lithium mines, as well as Albemarle, the Silver Peak operator. The multi-billion dollar company’s revenues increased from $3.3 billion in 2020 to nearly $10 billion in 2022.

“The community needs the water,” said Winsor. “They don’t need to take away from our area to be able to produce green energy. We should be able to survive.”

(Image: Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication)

Reporters in alphabetical order are Alex Appel, Morgan Casey, Francesca D’Annunzio, Tori Gantz, Jordan Gerard, John Leos, Anna Montoya-Gaxiola, Emma Peterson, Joshua Shimkus, Noel Lyn Smith, Pacey Smith-Garcia, Daisy Tanner, Caitlin Thompson, Annika Tourlas and Shelby Rae Wills.

This story was produced by the Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, an initiative of the Scripps Howard Fund in honor of the late news industry executive and pioneer Roy W. Howard. For more see Contact us at or on X @HowardCenterASU.

City closes shelter for Natives amid arctic freeze

ICT is working to shape the future of journalism and stay connected with readers like you. A crucial part of that effort is understanding our audience. Share your perspective in a brief survey for a chance to win prizes.

Amelia Schafer
ICT + Rapid City Journal

RAPID CITY, S.D. – As temperatures dipped below zero Friday, January 12, Rapid City officials decided to close a makeshift warming shelter that was to serve Indigenous homeless people.

Two Native-serving nonprofits – Woyatan Lutheran Church and Wambli Ska Society – had planned to open the military grade warming tent as an additional shelter. But Friday afternoon, city administrators issued a stop work notice to organizers.

“When city staff went to the property to issue an order not to proceed with the use of that tent, it was with the acknowledgment that the permits had not been secured, but that we had a bigger crisis on hand,” said Vicki Fisher, Rapid City community development director. “We have a cold spree that we’ve not experienced in a long time. And we have a lot of vulnerable people that need to be sheltered. So the message was you don’t need to take down a tent. Just please don’t use it. It is so frigid that the action of trying to heat it would put those people in jeopardy of a fire.”

Organizers from Woyatan Lutheran Church in Rapid City, S.D., received notice to close their warming shelter that was meant to serve Native homeless people on Friday, January 12, amid an arctic freeze. (Photo courtesy of Chris White Eagle)

Around 4:30 p.m. Rapid City Police Officer John Olson, escorted by Lt. Tim Doyle, arrived to issue the stop work order. Chris White Eagle, leader of the Lakota Center at Woyatan Lutheran Church, spoke with Olson and Doyle and said he was told the Pennington County Jail could be used as a temporary shelter if the Cornerstone Mission and Care Campus hit max capacity.

“We looked at him like, ‘Are you saying that’s our option, to save your life you need to go to jail,’” White Eagle said.

Earlier on Saturday Rapid City Police Department Community Relations Director Brandyn Medina said that if all other options were exhausted, the Pennington County Jail could be used as a temporary shelter.

“I think they [Olson and Doyle] were speaking on generalities and talking about it on a broad spectrum,” Medina said. “It’s not saying that we would find charges to put somebody in the jail or charge them criminally so they could go into the jail, it’d be in a total noncriminal context. It would be simply using the extent of our resources to make sure that nobody was turned away into the cold.”

Later on Saturday, Medina said the county sheriff’s office clarified that the jail would not be used as a temporary shelter and that the existing resources would suffice.

A Facebook post from the Rapid City Municipal Government Saturday morning stated there is an “abundance of space” at city shelters.

“At no point since this cold snap began has the Care Campus or Mission been full or turned individuals away. Anyone seeking shelter during this frigid cold spell are reminded to seek shelter at either facility,” the post said.

Medina said law enforcement officers are conducting extra patrols to contact and transport individuals struggling with the cold.

Several local Native nonprofits had come together to serve homeless people following the closure of the Hope Center, a shelter that served mainly Native people. Those organizations are working to provide food, water and shelter to those who either cannot go to the Cornerstone Rescue Mission or the Care Campus or don’t feel comfortable going.

“A lot of them don’t like going on to the Campus. A lot of them don’t like going to the Mission,” White Eagle said. “The mayor is making it very clear that those are our resources, and that’s the only thing that they have.”

As a backup, the Lakota Homes Oyate Center has been opened for those in need of a warming shelter or a meal. Various Indigenous community groups will be serving meals at the Oyate Center throughout the day.

“If you call anywhere around the Native community right now, there’s people cooking, there’s people driving, there’s young men walking under the bridges,” said NDN Collective Founder and CEO Nick Tilsen. “We’re getting out of our vehicles. We’re helping the people, we’re getting rides and we’re trying to utilize every service that’s available. An army tent in the middle of winter is totally last resort.”

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter. 

How the recovery of a stolen plant helped one nation re-Indigenize tobacco

By Brian Bull

Mark Petrie knows tobacco. Both the good kind and the bad kind.

As a youngster, he witnessed commercially-processed tobacco with its additives and chemicals hook and ravage people in his family and tribe. Many believed they were practicing “tradition,” while nicotine and tar spurred addiction and ruined their lungs.

But outside the Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians’ plankhouse in the coastal town of Coos Bay, Ore., the former tribal vice chair reverently holds a bulbous and gnarled strain called Nicotiana quadrivalis variety multivalis. Known more simply as Columbian tobacco, Petrie says this is the kind his distant ancestors raised, protected and used – well before the arrival of white settlers.

“When I started working for the tribe, I had the opportunity to work in commercial tobacco prevention,” Petrie said. “I really set my sights on looking for bringing back the traditional tobacco and how it was used.”

That was a tall order, given that Columbian tobacco practically disappeared from the banks of the Columbia River during the 1800s. The culprits were a Scottish botanist, the fur trade and the erosion of Indigenous protocols surrounding the plant.

Mark Petrie holds a handful of tobacco outside the CLUSI plankhouse in Coos Bay, Ore. It’s the same tobacco his ancestors raised, protected and used – well before the arrival of white settlers. Brian Bull / Underscore News

The bartering thief

David Douglas – namesake of the Douglas fir – ventured into what became known as the Pacific Northwest in 1825, scouring the terrain for new and interesting plant life to share with the Royal Horticultural Society. He found tribes growing Columbian tobacco next to their plankhouses. It was carefully cultivated and didn’t grow in the wild forests.

When he asked to take the plant’s seeds back with him, Native people rejected the request.

“And so he came by way of night and took some seeds,” Petrie said.

He was caught in the act. But some fast-talking and exchanging of other materials, including European tobacco, allowed him to get away with the seeds.

“He took them back to Europe,” Petrie said. “So that’s really the story of those plants we lost. We weren’t able to cultivate them and maintain the environment where they were growing, because we were displaced.”

Another Native person familiar with the practices of pre-colonial Indigenous tobacco is Robert Kentta, retired cultural director for the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.

Over generations of careful cultivation, The Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians created the Columbian strain of tobacco. The larger pods don’t open on their own. In order for the seeds to spread, tribal citizens manually open the pods to disperse seeds themselves. Brian Bull / Underscore News

“There were real strong beliefs around if tobacco grew in the wrong place,” Kentta said. “There were strict protocols around where you grew it, how you used it, all of those things. Like if seeds sprouted from a tobacco offering in a cemetery, those things could be used as a poison.”

Throughout the 1800s, the fur trade saw Native Americans and European companies exchanging goods at a rampant pace. Of the many items the Hudson Bay Company brought into the continent that intrigued tribes, processed tobacco was among the most prized.

That appeal still confounds Kentta.

“It’s a little bit of a surprise that our elders picked it up that quick, because they had such protocols around tobacco,” Kentta said. “Trade tobacco did catch on, and it quickly replaced our traditional grown tobacco. People just kind of quit growing it.”

A Native tradition becomes Westernized…and weaponized

Over the following century and a half, the protocols and reverence for traditional tobacco dissipated like smoke. With commercially-processed tobacco supplanting both the Columbian and Indian (Nicotiana quadrivalvis variety quadrivalvis) varieties in the Native community, marketers were quick to target this demographic. One particularly influential brand is Natural American Spirit, which features a thunderbird, peace pipe, and Indian chief on its packaging. A 2021 study by the University of California-Merced showed Alaskan natives switched to the brand instead of quitting the habit, saying it was “healthy and natural.”

Generations later, this targeted marketing – as well as the propagation of the idea that all smoking is “traditional” – has paid off for tobacco manufacturers, though at a tremendous human cost. A long-term study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed higher rates of lung cancer in general for Native people, while the anti-smoking organization The Truth Initiative says nearly 23% of Native people smoke, compared to 13% of non-Natives. And 16% of Native American/Alaska Native high-schoolers smoke cigarettes – a rate nearly three times higher than average.

In 2017, CLUSI biologist John Schaefer found out about a tobacco germplasm collection in Pulaway, Poland that had Columbian tobacco seeds and requested some be sent back to the tribe. The seeds were perhaps the first ones back in the region – if not the entire U.S. – for generations. Brian Bull / Underscore News

“I talk about that,” said Scott Kamala, a certified prevention specialist with the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs.

While currently focused on underage drinking, his previous focus for 12 years was on educating his fellow Natives about the difference between authentic tobacco practices and modern-day smoking, as well as addiction and commercial tobacco products’ negative effects on the community.

“Back in the day I did a smoke-free powwow and it was just to protect people from secondhand smoke,” Kamala said. “A lot of people would stand by the door and smoke cigarettes, and lots of dancers and singers were complaining about that.”

Kamala says there’s also a sequel legend about about what happened after Adam and Eve disobeyed the Creator’s command not to disrespect the Garden of Eden.

“You ate this apple, you know what? You guys are gonna be kicked out of the garden, you’re gonna go down to Earth,” Kamala said. “Then the man (Adam) got scared, ‘Well, how do I know how to communicate with you?’”

That’s when the Creator introduced them to tobacco.

“You’ll roll this tobacco up, we’re gonna use it like a landline, a telephone. It’s going to communicate with me, so you’re going to be serious. It’s going to bring your prayers up to the Creator.”

Kamala wants that message to return.

“You know, Natives, we forgot about that teaching and we use it in a different way,” Kamala said. “That’s where people are suffering from lung cancer, skin cancer. Because we’re not following that teaching.”

From a theft, revival

On a bright afternoon, Nicole Romine walked into a greenhouse at the headquarters of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. She knelt next to a small cluster of the distinctive, large-bulbed tobacco plants that David Douglas stole Native people near the Columbia River almost two hundred years ago.

“So this is the strain that made its way from the Columbia River Gorge all the way over to London, and then all the way to Pulaway, Poland,” she said.

Romine serves as CLUSI’s tribal tobacco prevention program assistant, a role she cherishes as that makes her the steward for the traditional tobacco variants.

“I’m gathering some of this tobacco, it’s just ready now,” Romine explained, gently running a finger alongside the nearly foot-high plant. “I left it a few weeks ago, there’s still some light green on the stem that will mold if we don’t let them dry out completely.”

Next to Romine is a plant with a handwritten name tag, indicating it will be gifted to a tribal member. For the tribe overall, just having this strain of tobacco back is a gift that required years of effort.

Nicole Romine examines a small cluster of the distinctive, large-bulbed tobacco plants in the greenhouse at the headquarters of the Confederated Tribes of the Coos, Lower Umpqua, and Siuslaw Indians. She says these are the same plants that David Douglas stole from Native people near the Columbia River almost two hundred years ago. Brian Bull / Underscore News

A CLUSI biologist, John Schaefer, managed to procure seeds for Indian tobacco from Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello plantation in Virginia back in 2006. But the real prize, Colombian tobacco, remained elusive. Inquiries were made at various seed banks and universities, but the chances of actually recovering seeds seemed meager.

Then in 2017, Schaefer heard from his contacts that there was a tobacco germplasm collection in Pulaway, Poland. That same year, a padded envelope arrived containing the long-awaited Columbian tobacco seeds.

They were perhaps the first ones back in the region – if not the entire U.S. – for generations.

“So these have been harvested and strung up,” Romine said, shaking a dried seed pod with a faint smile. “These will actually keep until we want to use them.”

Romine explained that when the tribe cultivated this strain, it resulted in larger pods that don’t open on their own. “So we have to go in and open the pods, for the seeds to spread. We’d go in and whack them, and disperse them ourselves.”

Giving back

In the six years since the Columbian tobacco seeds were sent from Poland, the tribe has actively grown and dried many plants. In May, CLUSI representatives gifted several to the other eight federally-recognized tribes within Oregon’s boundaries, and a few Native American organizations at the Sacred Tobacco and Traditional Medicine Gathering near Bend.

“At that event, we just really highlighted medicines, and talked about how those medicines bring healing into our communities,” said Petrie, who was among those presenting tobacco. “And sacred tobacco was one of those medicines.”

Altogether, there were 150 people at the event. Petrie recalls many were deeply appreciative to receive the tobacco.

“Having the ability to practice ceremony in ways that their ancestors have been practicing for so long, and with the plants that are special to our people,” Petrie said. “That was really wholesome to see and really brought good medicine to me.”

Organizers are planning another Sacred Tobacco and Traditional Medicine Gathering next summer in Grand Ronde. Petrie and Romine are dedicated to helping Native people reconnect with their special relationship with tobacco, and use it with the reverence and care they feel it deserves.

Authenticity returns to tribal ceremonies

Baldich, or Gregory Point, is a ceremonial spot for the Confederated Tribes of Coos, Lower Umpqua and Siuslaw Indians. Elders say tribal members hid there during roundups and forced marches to reservations. Today, it’s where the annual salmon ceremony takes place. Now, the tribe will use the Indigenous tobacco of their ancestors during the ceremony. Brian Bull / Underscore News

Before my departure, the pair took me to a place on the Oregon Coast commonly known as Gregory Point. To area tribes, it’s called Baldich, and its history has seen Natives hiding from U.S. soldiers during the roundups and forced marches to reservations areas, as well as ceremonies.

“It’s a very sacred place for our people,” Romine said. She carried a jar of sacred Columbian tobacco, and gave a small blessing for this story amidst the crashing waves, keening gulls and cormorants.

Petrie explained that a salmon ceremony takes place here annually, where the remnants of a salmon feast are put back into the ocean. And part of that ceremony involves the offering of tobacco.

Now, the ceremony will include the pure, Indigenous tobacco of their ancestors, not a commercial brand filled with additives.

“We have been without the sacred tobacco for so long,” Petrie said, looking out beyond the craggy shoreline. “It brings a lot of happiness to our elders, myself and our families. We have that back with us.”

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support. Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.

New and upgraded health care facilities for Native Americans open in Arizona

Three new and upgraded health facilities recently opened in Arizona to provide Native Americans with better access to health care, and more are in the works.

Where the 2024 presidential candidates stand on Indigenous issues

Pauly Denetclaw

WASHINGTON — Marianne Williamson, a 2020 presidential hopeful, promised before an auditorium of Indigenous leaders, elders and voters that under her administration the White House would formally apologize and atone for the horrific treatment of Native Americans by the federal government, alluding to genocidal policies enacted by the United States.

In 2019, Williamson was one of 11 presidential candidates who attended the historic Frank LaMere Native American Presidential Forum in Sioux City.

Williamson is one of three Democratic candidates running for president of the United States in 2024. She’s also in the race against incumbent President Joe Biden and Cenk Uygur, co-founder and host of The Young Turks, a progressive news program.

“Biden’s done some good things in Indian Country, but not everybody’s happy with everything,” said Mike Stopp, a Republican political consultant. “Even Deb Haaland, who I like, even though we disagree on a lot of policies, has irritated a lot of people in Indian Country. Just because you are Native doesn’t mean you’re going to do what everybody wants all the time. We’re very diverse.”

The 2024 presidential election also has two Independent candidates, political activist Cornel West, and Robert F. Kennedy Jr., son of the late Robert F. Kennedy and an environmental attorney.

There are 9 Republican candidates:

  1. Former president Donald J. Trump
  2. Former South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley
  3. Biotech investor and newcomer Vivek Ramaswamy
  4. Former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson
  5. Megachurch pastor and businessman Ryan Binkley
  6. Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis
  7. Former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie
  8. North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum
  9. South Carolina Sen. Tim Scott

Most of the presidential candidates mention nothing publicly about what their policies are for tribal nations, leaving voters to speculate what it could be from past legislations, social media posts, comments and speeches. ICT has created a database of presidential candidates that includes information specific to tribal nations. The database gives users a brief overview of each candidate and their engagement with tribal nations.

The presidential race is stacked this election but the two frontrunners are, obviously, Biden and Trump.

“I see Trump/Biden 2.0 in 2024, and I don’t think that makes anybody happy, but I think that’s where we are. I think what we’re going to see is a lot of Democrats turn out because they’re anti-Trump and they’re not super excited about Biden either, but he’s the president and the candidate,” Stopp said. “You’re going to see a lot of Republicans, quite a few of them were very pro-Trump, but a lot of ’em are really anti-Biden that are coming out. They would like to see someone more practical than Donald Trump.”

Current polling shows Biden leading with more than 60 percent. Williamson at around 5 percent and before Kennedy changed parties he hovered around 15 percent in the Democratic primary.

“I do believe that President Joe Biden is going to go down in history as one of the most supportive advocates for tribal sovereignty that we’ve seen in a U.S. president,” Angelique EagleWoman, a scholar of Indigenous law and policy. “I say that because of his ability to see the grassroots support for appointing the first Native person as the US Secretary of the Interior. So by appointing Secretary of Interior, Deb Haaland, who’s Laguna Pueblo, into that role, he set a standard that we haven’t seen at that level for a U.S. president.”

Trump is dominating the packed Republican primary. He stays around 60 percent in the polls with DeSantis, Haley and Ramaswamay trailing behind.

“Now, when it comes to Indian policy, Donald Trump actually had some decent advisors when he did it,” Stopp said. “I was one of them. There were a few others that I worked with in making sure that federal Indian policy didn’t take a step back.”

Another was Tyler Fish, Cherokee, who was a White House senior policy advisor and tribal liaison during the Trump administration. Texas federal judge Ada Brown, Choctaw, was nominated by Trump. She became the first Black woman to serve as a federal judge. On her father’s side she is a descendant of the Muscogee Creek Freedmen.

Trump signed the CARES Act that allocated $8 billion in funding for tribal governments and an additional $2 billion for the Indian Health Service. Many nations used this funding to provide direct support for their citizens during the COVID-19 pandemic.

DeSantis started off as a strong contender against Trump but his polling has since lagged. He stays around 15 percent.

“I don’t see any standout on the Republican side that has a knowledge basis or the ability to embrace tribal nations, our issues and our sovereignty,” EagleWoman said.

DeSantis supported the Seminole Tribe of Florida on the road to having a monopoly on sports betting in the state. The Seminole Tribe donated millions to DeSantis’ gubernatorial campaigns. Unfortunately, the tribal gaming compact has been caught up in legal challenges and will likely head to the Supreme Court for review.

“We see in Governor Ron DeSantis in Florida, the absolute elimination of Native Americans in history or understanding the role of Euro-Americans in causing harm,” EagleWoman said. “A great nation should be able to understand its mistakes and its faults to do better.”

Trump stopped hosting the White House Tribal Nations Summit, rarely did meaningful consultation with tribal leaders, released budget requests that cut funding for IHS and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and supported energy projects that were incredibly unpopular in tribal nations.

“We have the former U.S. President Donald Trump who before entering politics opposed tribal casinos and tribal gaming and tribal business development,” EagleWoman said. “During his administration, he tried to rescind a reservation for the Wampanoag. He put on hold the ability of Alaska Native villages, as tribal governments, to take land into trust. He mocked tribal historical figures. He refused to engage in consultation. So, there’s just not many pluses I can find for that former administration.”

Recently, former Vice President Mike Pence was the first high-profile candidate to drop out of the race, saying it was clear that it wasn’t his time. Others that have dropped out are Miami mayor Francis Suarez, former Cranston, R.I. mayor Steve Laffey, and former Texas congressman Will Hurd.

A Republican candidate with lots of experience with tribal nations is North Dakota Gov. Doug Bergum. The state has five federally-recognized tribes, these include the Mandan, Hidatsa, & Arikara Nation (Three Affiliated Tribes), Spirit Lake Nation, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians, and Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate Nation.

“Doug actually has had very good relations with tribes,” Stopp said. “Actually, a good friend of mine who used to be the staff director for the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs actually is advising on his campaign because he worked for him as governor and in the Indian Affairs office.”

In May, with the support of Bergum, North Dakota codified the federal Indian Child Welfare Act into state law as the Supreme Court wrangled with the constitutionality of the act. He displayed tribal flags at the state Capitol; doubled Native American scholarships to $1 million; signed legislation that would bring IT and cybersecurity to tribal schools and colleges; and went into oil tax revenue-sharing compacts with the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation.

“I do think he is probably the most pro-tribal, pro-Indian candidate in the Republican mix right now,” Stopp said. “Unfortunately, I don’t see him getting very far. I actually find him to be a very practical person, and in today’s environment, practicality loses to sensationalism.”

Biden administration

The difference between the top two contenders is stark when it comes to tribal nations. The Biden administration has poured unprecedented amounts of funding into tribal governments, appointed more Native Americans to key roles than any other administration, continues to do meaningful consultation, hosted the first-ever Native American Heritage Month reception at the White House, and nominated an Indigenous woman to be a federal judge.

Biden also selected the first Native American person to ever be part of the president’s cabinet, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland and the first Native American U.S. Treasurer, Chief Lynn Malerba, Mohegan.

Last year, Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris both made speeches at the White House Tribal Nations Summit. Around half of the cabinet members were walking around during the summit talking with tribal leaders.

Any candidate would have a difficult time matching Biden’s commitment to tribal nations.

Our stories are worth telling. Our stories are worth sharing. Our stories are worth your support.

Contribute $5 or $10 today to help ICT carry out its critical mission. Sign up for ICT’s free newsletter.

‘Scoping’ results show new Colorado River rules will face a range of demands

A new federal government report shows Colorado River states are aiming to agree on a plan to cut back on water, but remain divided about how to share the shrinking supply among tens of millions across the Southwest.