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.

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.

The Lust for Money

Earlier today, Judge Miranda Du rejected requests from the Reno-Sparks Indian Tribe, Burns Paiute Tribe, and Atsa Koodakuh wyh Nuwu/People of Red Mountain to put an emergency halt on planned archeological digging for the Thacker Pass lithium mine.

As I watch Lithium Americas investors online celebrating Judge Miranda Du’s decision to allow the removal of sacred artifacts from Thacker Pass, I feel sick to my stomach.

“Go LAC!!” writes one investor. “Dirt shall move!” writes another. “Argentina online next year. Thacker Pass one less road block. Almost 500 million in bank. Sitting so damn pretty right now.” says a third.

Another writes of how many stocks he owns, punctuating his boast with an emoji showing a human face, eyebrows raised, panting as if in a caricature of lust with dollar signs for eyes and on the extended tongue.
Is this how the world is saved? By lust for money?

Sometime soon, bulldozers and excavators will arrive at Thacker Pass to begin “archeological digging” — a whitewashed term for the legally sanctioned looting of cultural artifacts and sacred sites. And afterwards, unless they are stopped, this whole mountain will be shattered and carted off.

The flesh of Earth, turned into profit.

I am disgusted and angry, but not surprised. This is a pattern of our culture, and history repeats itself.

In the mid-1800’s, colonization spilled over into Nevada territory. Miners, settlers, and soldiers gained footholds along rivers and where springs made life possible. With axes, the pine nut trees were felled, and like the mass-murder of the buffalo on the plains, the indigenous people’s ability to fight was cracked. With bullets, disease, and starvation, Paiute, Goshute, and Shoshone people were pushed out, corralled, and marched to reservations and boarding schools. “Kill the Indian, save the man,” they proclaimed. And now the mountains belonged to the conquerors, and they called it right. They called it manifest destiny.

Today, miners come for the land. They come for the water, 4.6 million gallons of it per day. They come for the sacred sites. The springs. The antelope. The ancestors in the soil. “We have complied with the National Historic Preservation Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, and our duty to consult with tribes,” they say. They claim the mountains belong to them, and while manifest destiny is officially out of favor, economic development is not. Besides, this is a green project, right? It is our destiny.
How is this different?

Three hundred and thirty-nine days ago, a few days before I visited Thacker Pass for the first time, I walked into a forest near the Columbia River. Finding a quiet spot in the dappled shade, I lay on my back on the dirt, and closed my eyes. My mind traveled to Thacker Pass.

First, I imagined the silence of this land, where wind and the hum of insects is often the loudest noise. I imagined ants, jackrabbits, antelope, and yes, human beings crisscrossing Thacker Pass on their ancient paths. From harmony, my vision shifted to the threat now facing the land.

“[G]reed comes,” I wrote in February, “wearing the flesh of human beings and armored in corporate law. Greed eyes the mountain and sees not the pronghorn or the burrowing owl or the ants venturing out from their colony, but only what he can take by breaking it all — by violating stone and wind and water, by transgressing of 16 million years of sacred silence. Greed sees that this mountain is full of lithium — the new white oil. Greed is a good storyteller, and he speaks of jobs and opportunities and investments, of stock options and shareholder returns, and electric cars. He speaks of saving the world.”

Now, for the first time since I have arrived here at Thacker Pass, destruction is imminent. The corporate laws that I wrote of back in February are playing their part. Bureaucracy, that indispensable tool in the arsenal of a democratic empire, has spoken. In court, administrative rules allowed the state to argue that “you had a chance to participate in the process, and you missed it.” And what is morally right, what is good for the land, what is wanted by the local indigenous people, ranchers, and farmers, becomes subordinate to what is written in administrative codes and lawbooks.

I wrote, in February, that “Right now, greed gathers his men and his machines, his drillers and borers and furnaces, his explosives and his chemicals and his politicians and his bankers. And he schemes, and he plans, and he wheels and he deals. He waits for his moment to press the plunger down, to close the circuit, to shatter the mountainside.”

That vision is close to becoming real.

And so we move deeper into the sixth mass extinction event, wallets grow fat as nature grows small.

In her recent artwork, the brilliant political cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, whose work I truly admire, asks this question: what do you do when your heart is breaking?

I pondered that question this morning. In Stephanie’s artwork, the human suffering from heartbreak curls into a ball, and answers the question by saying, “Nail it shut and wrap barbed wire around it.” But the bird beside the poor human has another answer: “Or you could let it open.”

The decision from Judge Du didn’t tell us anything new today. We all know that the courts don’t protect our living planet. We all know that the courts don’t protect indigenous peoples and lands. The courts enforce the law, and the law favors the wealthy over the people and the planet. And so Judge Du writes 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.”

Nothing has changed at Thacker Pass. For months now, the headsman’s axe has been raised. Now, it teeters on the brink of descending. We knew this time would come.

The question for us is this: will we wrap our hearts in barbed wire and nail them shut by ignoring injustice, walking away from reality, and lusting for money?

Or will we let our hearts open, and commit to protecting the land?

Are you willing to give a child cancer for a job?

Lithium Nevada and supporters of the proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine project love to claim that the mine will bring jobs to the area. This may be true. But, even if it is true, the mine will also bring more air, water, and soil pollution. The mine will also lead to escalated crime against women, especially indigenous women.

The Final Environmental Impact Statement prepared by the Bureau of Land Management notes that soil and water will be contaminated with sulfates, arsenic, antimony, and uranium, for example. Long term exposure to antimony can result in chronic bronchitis and chronic emphysema. And, this is in an area where wild fire smoke is already wrecking local air quality. Long term exposure to arsenic can lead to skin lesions and skin cancer. Long term exposure to uranium can lead to kidney damage and liver and bone cancer. And, this is in an area where Fort McDermitt tribal members have already been killed by cancer from working at the McDermitt and Cordero Mercury mines.

This kind of pollution affects children, the elderly, and the sick at much higher levels than it affects others. So, the question is: Are you willing to give kids cancer, are you willing to kill the elderly and the sick for a job?

Another thing to consider, here, is the amount of crime, violence, and drug use that accompany new mines. The connection between higher rates of domestic and sexual violence – especially against indigenous women – and the presence of man camps is well-established. So, another question is: Are you willing to be raped for a job? Are you willing to see your daughter, sister, or cousin raped for a job? Are you willing to risk a child in your community sex-trafficked for a job?

One more thing to consider is whether people will actually seek employment at the mine or whether people are even capable of seeking employment at the mine. The mine will require drug tests. I’m sure that includes marijuana. Meanwhile, Fort McDermitt tribal members have pointed out that there are already plenty of jobs in the area, but no one wants to work them. There is a marijuana farm at Fort McDermitt, for example, and one of the reasons the Tribe allowed that farm to come to the reservation was the promise of jobs for tribal members. But, that farm has already had to establish a camp for workers outside of the reservation because not enough tribal members have sought employment at the farm.

The truth is, folks, destructive industries like mining ALWAYS use the jobs arguments to justify destroying the land and polluting vulnerable communities. But, it is precisely because the land is destroyed and communities are polluted that people need jobs. As more land is destroyed, and it becomes more and more difficult for people to support themselves on the land, the easier it is for mines to make people dependent on them. And, at the end of the day, we know many ancestors of Fort McDermitt tribal members were massacred by the federal government – the very same federal government permitting the Thacker Pass mine. These people were massacred BECAUSE THEY STOOD IN THE WAY OF DESTRUCTIVE INDUSTRIES LIKE MINING.

Don’t expose children to cancer for a job. Don’t kill grandmothers for a job. Don’t risk the rape of someone you know for a job. Protect Thacker Pass.

#ProtectPeeheeMuhuh #ProtectThackerPass #NoMoreStolenSisters #MMIW

Art by Sara-Marie Stiksrud.

Peehee Mu’huh speaks

By Daranda Hinkey

For This Is Reno, August 31, 2021

I look over Peehee Mu’huh, a vast land of sagebrush that has been taken care of by the Paiute and Shoshone since time immemorial. The heat is settling in at Peehee Mu’huh Camp, while we continue to build an opposition to protect this land.

Peehee Mu’huh, also known as Thacker Pass, is a culturally significant place for my people, yet it is being threatened by Lithium Nevada, a.k.a. Lithium Americas, because they want to extract the lithium from the ground and sell it. The country believes they need to transition to “green energy,” to save the planet and cut down carbon emissions. They do not realize that in return for electric car batteries, aggressive lithium mining will harm the planet more in the process.

Lithium is a trick. In reality, pushing for lithium is another way for a handful of the rich to sustain their high-maintenance lifestyles.

This lithium mine will be the first of its kind. It will burn sulfuric acid 24 hours a day to leach the lithium from the clay. It will then move through more processing plants that require 4.6 million gallons of water per day. With sulfuric acid burning every day, even the best air filters in the world cannot control the dangerous particles. The mine will affect at least a 150-mile radius.

This mine will strip the area of 1.7 billion gallons of water per year. What plants, medicines, animals, land, and water will be left for the Indigenous peoples of the area when their homelands are stripped due to a catastrophic drought heightened by the mine?

Peehee Mu’huh is a massacre site of a band of our people, making it a sacred burial ground. This place also holds medicines, first foods, stories, teachings, and animal habitats.

Lithium Nevada plans to turn this sacred place into a hazardous dust bowl, impacting multiple generations to come. These burial grounds, animal habitat and medicines should not be dug up for the sake of electric cars and batteries. The Paiute and Shoshone cannot eat lithium; they cannot drink or hunt or weave lithium. Lithium Nevada comes to our Tribe to offer temporary items and monetary objects, but they cannot replace the spirits that have been laid to rest at Peehee Mu’huh, and they have not much to offer for our culture and our values.

Peehee Mu’huh does not want to be sold. She does not want to be stripped from its sagebrush and contaminated with chemicals. She does not want her animals to flee. She does not want the ancestors’ bones to be unearthed.

My people before me and the people far after me have spoken; they say to keep the lithium in the ground. They wish for our people to not forget our Indigenous ways in a world that continues to attempt to dismantle our identities. My ancestors wish for our modern warriors to protect our Sacred.

Daranda Hinkey is a Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribal member. She is a part of the People of Red Mountain who oppose the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine in order to keep their cultural resources and Sacred sites protected.

Published in This is Reno, August 31, 2021. Photo by Bob Conrad for This is Reno