What we mean when we say “massacre”

What we mean when we say “massacre”
(Reflecting on the September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre)

Words can, of course, be dangerous. That’s why we keep some words tightly wrapped and shoved into the darkest, coldest corners of our minds. We stuff the realest meanings of other words into the tightly-packed, contained, superficial space created by their letters. Then, we do our best to forget words are so much more than the sum of their letters.

Other words we simply cannot face. So, when we sense them pushing their way through our consciousness, we turn to whatever mindless entertainment, chemical, or other distraction we can find to fling that word, and what it really means, as far from our conscious mind as we can.

Massacre is a word I was running from.

I ran from it as part of my legal work for Thacker Pass. Don’t get me wrong, I used the word over and over again. I used it to try to convince the judge that digging up a massacre site would harm the descendants of those who were massacred. I used it to show the historical and cultural significance of Thacker Pass. I used it to try to protect Thacker Pass.

But, legal words are abstract. Lawyers don’t ask a judge to stop a corporation from digging up someone’s ancestors, they “move the court for a preliminary injunction.” Lawyers don’t call bullshit, they “object to counsel’s characterization of the facts in the case.” Lawyers don’t say it’s simply wrong for rich people to destroy a beautiful mountain pass for more money, they “contend that the defendants’ failure to observe the procedure specified in the National Historic Preservation Act is grounds for revocation of the Record of Decision.”

Despite practicing law for nine years, I never truly understood why legal language is so abstract. Then, the word “massacre” caught me in the middle of the night. The realest meaning of the word massacre ripped through the eight letters confining it, stripped off the layers of denial I had wrapped her in, and forced me to gaze at her full meaning.

Earlier that day, I was working on legal writing describing evidence of the September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass massacre. The last few paragraphs I wrote were:

“The new evidence of the September 12, 1865 Thacker Pass massacre makes it virtually certain that Paiutes were murdered on the east edge of the project area. Lithium Nevada’s proffered map places the remains of the Indian camp just outside the east boundary of the project area. The Sackett account and the Owyhee Avalanche article describe soldiers attacking the Paiute camp from the east, making it most likely that Paiutes fled west towards the project area. The Owyhee Avalanche article describes soldiers chasing Paiutes “over several miles of ground for three hours.” Ox Sam’s account also suggests that Paiutes fled towards the project area. He said he rode to Disaster Peak which is west and north of Thacker Pass. Riding to Disaster Peak would have most likely taken Ox Sam through the whole project area. If the Paiutes ran away from the soldiers over several miles of ground, towards Disaster Peak, as the evidence indicates, then slain Paiutes were most likely scattered across the project area.

The Owhywee Avalanche article also says that soldiers searched amongst the sage and found thirty-one dead. The writer of the article stated: “More must have been killed and died from their wounds, as a strict search was not made, and the extent of the battlefield so great.” Deputy US Surveyor Palmer, three years after the massacre, wrote that, “There are many Indian skulls and other remains to be found scattered over this portion of the Township.”

If “a strict search was not made” for slain and wounded Paiutes, then it seems unlikely that the soldiers buried those they killed. And, if the soldiers did not bury those they killed, then the bones from the Paiute bodies scattered across the project area were almost certainly scattered even farther across the project area by animal scavengers and natural forces like wind, rain, and snow.”

I mistook the antsy anxiety I felt while writing those last few lines about Paiute bodies being scattered across the project area as simply an indication that I had been working for too long and it was time to take a break. With the slight nausea in my gut and the restlessness in my muscles that always accompanies anxiety for me, I saved the document on my computer, shut my it, and moved on to dinner, my evening walk, and bed.

***

Sometime in the very early morning, thundering hoofbeats stirred me. I felt the chilly September air on my face and tried to pull my rabbit blanket over my head. But, the hoofbeats hadn’t stopped. Men began yelling in a strange language. Then, the criss-crossing willow branches I had used to construct the frame of my house began snapping. My eyes flicked open. As my eyes tried to focus on the moonlight pouring through the broken branches, I heard the crack of cavalry carbines and screams over the sound of cracking wood.

The baby! I thought. I turned to where my wife was cradling her. She sleeps heavy, but how does she sleep through this? My hands came back covered in blood. The wall on her side was completely mangled from gunfire.
The baby was wailing. I cradled her in my arms, doing my best to shield her. More branches snapped and pain exploded in my ribs and spine.

Then, I truly woke. My mind pulled me from the nightmare into present reality. I laid there for a long time wondering what it would be like to go from falling asleep at a camp with my family and friends to waking up to the sounds of them being murdered all around me to my own death in a matter of seconds.

If this ever happens to me, I prayed, spare me the waking.

***

The next morning, I opened my laptop back up to begin another day of legal writing. For several hours, I struggled to describe, in legal language, why mechanically digging long trenches through the massacre site would cause my clients “sufficiently specific irreparable harm.” This required me to convince the judge that there are human remains in Thacker Pass. So, I tried to explain, based on the contemporary accounts of the massacre, why the massacre probably extended into the mine project area. I attempted to line up the Bureau of Land Management’s GIS data with a map of the areas they planned to dig up first.

But, I couldn’t find the words. Not after I had been given a glimpse of what the word massacre truly means.

I was stuck. The judge had already ruled that she didn’t think the archaeological digs would harm my clients and that she didn’t think there was sufficient evidence to conclude that there are human remains in Thacker Pass. How could I get her to reconsider? How could I convince the judge to let my client’s ancestors who were brutally massacred in Thacker Pass rest in peace?

A braid of sweetgrass I had absent-mindedly left on a table in the room I was working in caught my attention. Then, I remembered the People of Red Mountain grandmothers telling me to burn sweetgrass when I was feeling anxious or not sure what to do.

So, I did. And, this was the writing that came to me:

“Adult human skeletons are typically composed of 206 bones. Bullets, rifle butts, and knives shatter bones. So, consider an adult Paiute woman waking up in the middle of the night to hear galloping hooves and cracking rifles. Bullets tear through the willow branches she built her wikiup with. Her baby is screaming. She picks him up and flees west away from the soldiers (and into what 160 years later will be the Thacker Pass lithium mine project area.) She sees her brother – the man she would never live to see white people name “Ox Sam” – jump on a horse and gallop towards Disaster Peak.

Through sheer panic and adrenaline, she sprints faster and farther than she ever has before, but she does not sprint fast or far enough. After a few hundred yards, a bullet strikes her baby’s head held against her chest, shattering her baby’s skull before shattering her clavicle and showering the ground with bone shards. So begins only one of dozens of instances of bones being scattered throughout Thacker Pass on September 12, 1865.

The bullet’s impact knocks the dead infant from her arms. Dazed and moaning with pain, she stumbles on for another hundred yards before her moaning attracts the attention of a soldier. She collapses. The soldier approaches her with his revolver and pukes at the sight of her mangled shoulder. Then, he puts his gun to her forehead, pulls the trigger, and the woman’s skull explodes into pieces sprayed across the sage.

A few hours after the shooting stops, the scent of so much spilled blood attracts coyotes. A mother coyote finds the baby’s remains, recognizes that this human baby will be easier for her young to eat than the adult humans, and drags the baby off to her young. Other coyotes pull apart the baby’s mother as they feed. Many of her bones, after being picked clean, are left in Thacker Pass. Over the years, rain and snow create mud in Thacker Pass and gravity drives the bones into the earth until they are no longer observable to a simple surface inspection.”

***

Now, I’m not sure if this writing will make the final draft of the motion I’m still working on. But, I learned why legal language is so abstract. Law is written and controlled by the rich and powerful. In today’s dominant culture, the rich get rich and the powerful get powerful by exploiting the land and colonized peoples. So, today, law protects the exploitation of the land and enables colonization.

The rich and powerful know words can be dangerous. They know that making legal language abstract makes it more difficult for non-lawyers to understand law and therefore makes it more difficult for non-lawyers to understand how the rich get rich and the powerful, powerful. They’d prefer if we never recalled the atrocities they’ve committed – atrocities like massacres. But, if we do recall massacres, they definitely do not want us to consider what a massacre truly is or truly felt like. Because if we do, and we open ourselves to ponder the horrors the rich and powerful have perpetrated, we might find the motivation to stop them.

#ProtectPeeheeMuhuh #ProtectThackerPass

Art by Trav London.

Realities from the frontlines of lithium extraction

On September 21, 2021 Yes to Life, No to Mining Network’s Lithium Working Group presented the their first Communique—On the Frontlines of Lithium Mining—in a press conference covering:

  • Why expanding mining will not solve the climate crisis.
  • How lithium extraction is responsible for trampling the rights of peoples and destroying ecosystems that play a vital role in regulating the global climate, water systems and biodiversity.
  • Principles of a just transformation to a non-exploitative, decolonial clean energy future could look like.

Read ‘On the Frontlines of Lithium Mining’ in full here: yestolifenotomining.org/latest-news/ylnm-lithium-communique/

Protect Thacker Pass attended this meeting, and People of Red Mountain submitted a video to the event which was played at the end, along with a trailer for a new film coming out soon about lithium mining in South America.

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PRESS RELEASE: “Blatant Harassment”—Thacker Pass Activists Fined $50K for Providing Bathrooms to Native Elders

Contact Max Wilbert and Will Falk

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE

“Blatant Harassment”—Thacker Pass Activists Fined $50K for Providing Bathrooms to Native Elders

OROVADA, NV — The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is threatening organizers of the Protect Thacker Pass land defense camp with $49,890.13 in fines for alleged violations of public land regulations in what activists say is blatant harassment, an attempt to cover up BLM’s violations of the law, and a violation of Native American religious rights.

Will Falk and Max Wilbert, who launched a protest camp on January 15th against the proposed Lithium Nevada Corporation Thacker Pass lithium mine, are facing allegations of trespass related to the construction of temporary latrines and a plywood windbreak.

Falk, who is an attorney representing the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and a native organization called Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) in a court case against the BLM, says the trespass allegations appear to be retaliation for his involvement in the lawsuit.

“BLM Winnemucca’s response to being accused of failing to adequately consult with Native American Tribes is to fine the attorney bringing those accusations nearly $50,000,” Falk says, noting that the trespass notice was first delivered on August 5th, eight days after U.S. District Court, District of Nevada Chief Judge Miranda Du granted intervention to his clients, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain.

On July 19th, Falk and his co-counsel filed a motion to intervene in a lawsuit against the BLM claiming they violated the National Historic Preservation Act by failing to properly consult with Tribes. 

The fine may also violate the religious rights of Native Americans. All three structures BLM referenced in their August 5th letter were removed in what Falk and Wilbert say was a “demonstration of good faith.” But other latrines remained in place. Falk and Wilbert say that’s because Native American elders, including disabled elders, who are regularly visiting Thacker Pass to participate in ceremonies, made repeated requests for bathroom facilities.

Sunday was the 156-year anniversary of a September 12, 1865 massacre committed by the U.S. Calvary, in which at least 31 Paiutes were killed. More than 100 mostly indigenous people, including an elder in a wheelchair who recently underwent an amputation, gathered at Thacker Pass to pray and mark the event with ceremony.

Falk and Wilbert say that they have explained to BLM officials repeatedly that the latrines are for elders participating in ceremony, and asked for permits. Most recently, on July 24th, BLM Law Enforcement Ranger Blane Parnell informed Wilbert that a permit would be required for temporary outhouses. Wilbert responded both verbally, and in writing, requesting a permit application. Then, again, on August 20, Falk wrote to Kathleen Rehberg, Field Manager for the BLM Humboldt River Field Office, asking for guidance in obtaining a special use permit or to work out some other acceptable arrangement so that people visiting Thacker Pass for ceremony could use the bathroom. All of these requests were completely ignored.

“The Bureau of Land Management is ignoring our permit requests and fining us for maintaining sanitation and protection religious freedom,” Wilbert says. “The same office fast-tracked the permit for Lithium Nevada to destroy thousands of acres of wildlife habitat, and sacred native sites. It’s completely absurd for them to claim they are ‘protecting public lands’ with this action.”

It’s not new for governments and corporations to intimidate activists using legal or administrative mechanisms to prevent civic engagement. One example is what is known as a “SLAPP” suit, or a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” in which a lawsuit is filed to censor, intimidate, and silence critics. While many of these cases are weak, they burden defendants with the cost and energy of mounting a legal defense in an attempt to force them to abandon their criticism or opposition.

Attorney Terry Lodge, who is working with Falk to represent Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and People of Red Mountain, says these threats from the BLM have all the hallmarks of a SLAPP suit.

“BLM isn’t at all subtle,” Lodge says. “They’re burdening a citizen intervention operating on a shoestring budget with the prospects of having to ward off a diversionary attack. This gambit comes just weeks before the most labor-intensive part of this lawsuit begins, where our clients will have to assemble the evidence of BLM’s assault on the public’s right to know about and oppose the Lithium Americas permit.” 

Falk and Wilbert won’t be intimidated by BLM’s abuse of power, according to Lodge.

“If the agency insists on going forward to prosecute Falk and Wilbert for civil damages, they’ll find themselves having to answer in federal court for suspected retaliation. BLM administrators will have to explain, under oath, how this oddly-timed event over a latrine permit isn’t petty payback for public opposition to a 17,933 acre mine.”  

BLM Nevada has a history of prioritizing mining over the public interest, and multiple instances of retaliation against whistleblowers. 

In October 2019, for example, BLM Nevada Environmental Protection Specialist Dan Patterson filed a whistleblower complaint alleging “open pits of toxic wastewater, roads bulldozed through protected wildlife habitat, and secret hunting cabins are all being allowed on public lands in Nevada” in violation of federal law. 

Patterson was fired soon after in what he describes as retaliation. “[BLM Nevada management is not interested in] a multiple-use agenda, which includes conservation, includes wildlife, includes working with tribes, includes working with people concerned about the environment,” he told KNPR.

Lithium Nevada, the U.S. subsidiary of Lithium Americas, originally planned to begin constructing the Thacker Pass mine in early 2021 through a contractor with the North American Coal Corporation, but delays in permitting, determined opposition, and concerns from locals have already put the project a year behind schedule.

What began as a two-person occupation in January has since expanded, with hundreds attending events at Thacker Pass over the past 9 months. Resistance to the proposed mine has also included multiple lawsuits, water rights challenges, and public protests in Reno, Winnemucca, and Carson City. 

Native governments and organizations continue to speak out. Besides the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and People of Red Mountain, the Burns-Paiute Tribe has also intervened in the lawsuit. And on June 24th, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, passed a resolution stating opposition to the Thacker Pass lithium mine and calling on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits.

The Thacker Pass mine was “fast-tracked” under the Trump administration, which means that a public engagement and permitting process that normally takes 3-4 years was completed in less than 12 months.

Supporters of the campaign can donate here: https://givebutter.com/protectthackerpass

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Timeline

  • January 15, 2021 — Due to regulations cuts and “fast-tracked” permitting under the Trump Administration, the Bureau of Land Management releases a Record of Decision approving the Thacker Pass mine less than a year after beginning the Environmental Impact Statement process required under the National Environmental Policy Act. On the same day, the Protect Thacker Pass camp is established.
  • February 11, 2021 — Local rancher Edward Bartell files a lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00080-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court alleging the proposed mine violates the Endangered Species Act by harming Lahontan Cutthroat Trout, and would cause irreparable harm to springs, wet meadows, and water tables.
  • February 26, 2021 — Four environmental organizations (Basin and Range Watch, Great Basin Resource Watch, Wildlands Defense, and Western Watersheds Project) file another lawsuit (Case No. 3:21-cv-00103-MMD-CLB) in U.S. District Court, alleging that BLM violated the National Environmental Policy Act, Federal Land Policy Management Act, and other laws in permitting the Thacker Pass mine.
  • May 20, 2021 — Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu releases public statement of opposition to the Thacker Pass mine & starts a petition which has gathered nearly 3,000 signatures.
  • May 27, 2021 — The four environmental groups who filed suit on Feb. 26th ask Federal Judges for a Preliminary Injunction to block Lithium Nevada’s proposed archeological digging under their “Historic Properties Treatment Plan.”
  • June 12, 2021 — A rally opposing the Thacker Pass mine is held in Reno, Nevada, with several hundred people attending. Speakers include members of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone tribe, Duck Valley 
  • June 24, 2021 — The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the oldest and largest national organization of American Indian and Alaska Native tribal governments, called on the Department of the Interior to rescind the permits for the Thacker Pass project.
  • July 7, 2021 — A rally is held at the Carson City office of Far Western Anthropological Research Group, Inc., the for-profit archeological company hired to excavate the cultural sites at Thacker Pass. Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) deliver a signed letter stating that if Far Western digs up sacred and cultural sites at Thacker Pass, they will be committing actions that are unethical and wrong.
  • July 19, 2021 — The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain) file a motion to intervene in Federal District Court alleging that the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) violated the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) in permitting the planned lithium mine.
  • July 27, 2021 — Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu (People of Red Mountain), represented by attorneys Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, Will Falk, and Terry Lodge, file a second motion asking Federal Judges for a Preliminary Injunction to block Lithium Nevada’s proposed Historic Properties Treatment Plan.
  • August 5, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management delivers notice alleging that Falk and Wilbert are liable for trespass.
  • September 3, 2021 — Judge Miranda Du rejects the injunction request, writing that while she “finds the Tribes’ arguments regarding the spiritual distress that the [looting of native artifacts and sacred sites] will cause persuasive,” she “must nonetheless reluctantly” allow the archeological dig as “the Court must operate within the framework of the applicable laws and regulations.”
  • September 15, 2021 — Bureau of Land Management delivers notice that Falk and Wilbert (neither of whom were on-site) are guilty of trespass.

Tresspass

Breaking News: The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) is fining Max and Will $49,890.13

After we sued the Bureau of Land Management for failing to consult with Native tribes before permitting the destruction of sacred Peehee mu’huh (Thacker Pass), BLM has found Max Wilbert and I in trespass for bathrooms that were constructed in Peehee mu’huh so that Native elders and people with disabilities could use the bathroom while praying and engaging in ceremony.

BLM is fining Max Wilbert and I $49,890.13. We need to ask whether our government takes better care of corporations or human beings and the natural world. Of course, when Lithium Nevada Corporation is permitted to destroy nearly 6000 acres in Peehee mu’huh, including digging an 1100 acre open pit, 400 feet deep, all while making millions of dollars, but Native people and their supporters can’t build an outhouse in the same exact location without being fined nearly $50,000, we must conclude that our government takes better care of corporations.

Please donate if you can: Max and Will are going to need a lot of legal help to fight this fine. Thank you!!

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Art by Travis London, Deep Green Arts.

The Stars at Thacker Pass

Looking for a god?
the stars in Peehee mu’huh ask
why not us?

We’re always there
whether you see us or not

We’re infinite
the sleepless can tell you

We do not rule by force
but through the charisma
in freely offered splendor

Instead of ten,
we have one simple commandment:
don’t drown us out
with smog and smoke
with false gods and pretenders
with city lights and ceilings

Keep the earth and sky clean,
and the darker things get,
the worse things are,
the harder we will try
to tip your face
gently to the sky
and shower you softly
with shimmering kisses
and silver blessings
no matter your supposed sins

photo by Max Wilbert

Stars

Do good neighbors dig up massacre sites? Questioning the Thacker Pass narrative

On Tuesday, Lithium Americas CEO Alexi Zawadzki published an opinion column in this newspaper stating that “For Lithium Americas and its subsidiary Lithium Nevada, developing the Thacker Pass lithium mine isn’t worth doing if we don’t do it right. This means committing to a process that is transparent, collaborative — and most of all, respectful to our neighbors.”

If Zawadski is telling the truth, he should back up his words with action and cancel the Thacker Pass mine project right away.

The neighbors he refers to — local farmers and ranchers in Orovada and Kings River, as well as Native Americans from the nearby Fort McDermitt Reservation — have almost universally expressed outrage about the Thacker Pass mine.

Lithium Americas faces three lawsuits from a rancher, environmental groups and Tribes. They face protests to their water rights transfers. Their Argentina mine has faced complaints of human rights violations, as reported in The Washington Post. And the protest camp that I helped found attracts hundreds to the site in a groundswell of public opposition.

Yet now, they are poised to bulldoze through sagebrush habitat over new evidence showing a massacre of Paiutes took place in Thacker Pass in 1865. Apparently, despite “extensive cultural inventories,” they missed this. What else have they missed?

Zawadzki claims his company is doing “extensive work to respect and safeguard” the connection of tribes to the region. Charitably, he is confused by what these words mean. Less charitably, he is lying. Desecrating sacred sites, looting artifacts and ignoring a history of massacres to punch through a rushed project is the polar opposite of respect.

Does this sound collaborative? Does it sound like being a good neighbor?

Behind the public relations rhetoric is the truth. This mine will release chemicals, raise radioactive dust and pollute with fumes from up to 200 semi truck trips per day. The environmental impacts include water drawdowns, bulldozing of habitat, severing of migration corridors and possible harm to endangered species. And this project hurts the public, too: It will virtually privatize 28 square miles of public lands for at least 40 years and possibly much more.

All that traffic will hurt the community through more than air pollution too. Locals, including Humboldt County Commissioner Ron Cherri, have stated that “it’s not a matter of if, but a matter of when” someone dies due to the increase in truck traffic. And the indigenous community in particular is concerned about missing and murdered Indigenous women and the rise in drug abuse and crime that tends to follow large industrial projects — part of what Interior Secretary Deb Haaland has called an epidemic of violence against Indigenous peoples.

And when the mine is inevitably used up, what will be left behind? A wasteland for future generations? A cancer cluster? A moonscape with a fraction of its former biodiversity? Perhaps if Zawadzki was a local, and his children and grandchildren would be living in this area, he would make different choices.

For now, the courts have sided with Lithium Americas. But that decision may not last. Further, in a pluralistic society, it is a mistake to rely on governments or courts to always do what is right. In his letter from a Birmingham jail, Martin Luther King, Jr. — who broke the law repeatedly — wrote that “We should never forget that everything Adolf Hitler did in Germany was ‘legal’ and everything the Hungarian freedom fighters did in Hungary was ‘illegal.’”

Zawadzki is not telling the truth. He is doing what corporate crooks are paid to do: lying in order to ram this mine through, despite the harm it will cause, and despite determined, principled community opposition.

Reno Gazette Journal

Photo: a resident of Thacker Pass, by Max Wilbert.