Native Americans converge at proposed Thacker Pass lithium mine site

Four audio interviews

Members of Native American tribes from across the region converged on the proposed lithium mine site at Thacker Pass, Nevada on Saturday April 10, 2021 - photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

During the final hours of the Trump presidency, on January 15 of this year, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management approved the Final Environmental Impact Statement for the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada. 

On that day, Max Wilbert and Will Falk set up camp at the site, vowed to prevent the mine from occurring, and encouraged others to join them. At roughly 6,000 feet elevation, in mid-January, weather conditions on the exposed stretch of high desert mountaintop that would be an open pit lithium mine are potentially inhospitable. The likelihood Wilbert and Falk would find company seemed remote. But on Saturday, Native Americans from across the region made the trek to the isolated spot to share a meal and show mutual support for stopping the mine.

“It has, it has grown. It has grown a lot,” said Max Wilbert on Saturday. “And that feels really gratifying in some ways because it’s pretty easy to feel a little crazy when you’re on the side of a mountain freezing your butt off in January with one of your friends and it doesn’t seem like the world is listening to what you’re saying. There are definitely some, some bleak moments in there. 

“So it feels good to just have all these people here today. I don’t know, there must be 50 people around at the moment or 60 and more coming. And it feels good to to know that these concerns that we brought up, a lot of people share them, a lot of people really feel that this project is greenwashing. It’s not good for the planet. It’s gonna destroy this really important traditional land for a lot of Paiute and Shoshone people who are most of the folks who are here today,” Wilbert said.

Simona, Cain, and Mason are members of the Burns, Oregon Paiute Tribe – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

The encampment is where the open pit mine is planned, high above the valley. The air was clear on Saturday, sky cloudless. The temperature peaked around 60F. Mercurial wind gusted to 40 mph. Dust swirled. Tarps flapped.

People chatted. Children played in the sage brush that stretched across the vast valley floor. The snow-capped Granite Peak, Santa Rosa Peak, and Paradise Peak shimmered some 30 miles to the east.

Under a tent, pans of fried chicken, salads, slow cookers, cupcakes, and cookies were arrayed on two tables. Inelda Sam is a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe and helped set up the buffet. I asked why she was there.

“I’m here for the mine not to be put on here, on this Thacker Pass. We have burial grounds here, sacred burial grounds. Our ancestors been here. We got our food here, our sacred, our traditional food. We got that, which we’re gonna have some today, our pudding,” Sam said.

Hear an audio interview with Inelda Sam.

A prayer was said over the food. 

A couple members of the northern Nevada chapter of the Brown Berets were present in fatigues, military rank insignia, and of course, brown berets. Inelda Sam said she and other tribal members have concerns about the mine, but especially its potential impact on water.

“The water is the most important because that’s what we pray to. When we have our ceremonial, we pray to that. And that’s very important to us. Yeah, and our reservation is not very far from here. You know, we are afraid of the air quality, and we got a lot of sickness on the reservation. 

“We had one (a mercury mine) near us, right above our reservation, the Cordero Mine, and we got a lot of people that are sick, are sick already. And we don’t want that. We don’t want that.

“Our dad worked there (at the Cordero mercury mine). My sister’s husband worked there. Three of my sisters in-law husbands worked there. They all got cancer, and one is still surviving. He’s in elderly nursing home here in Winnemucca.”

Inelda Sam is a member of the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone Tribe – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Dean Barlese is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Barlese described that a war of extermination was waged against the native people who lived in the area during the late 19th Century. For him, the land is sacred.

“The land is, to us, it’s still sacred. But no matter what the government says, they say they own the land, but we’re still caretakers of the land, which goes way more than owning the land,” Barlese said. “Creator hasn’t told us we are no longer caretakers of this land. So until that happens, I guess we will be regular Americans, but we’re still Paiute, so we will still care for the land because Creator God hasn’t told us we’re no longer caretakers of this land. That’s how I look at it.”

Hear an audio interview with Dean Barlese.

A protect Thacker Pass flag waves on April 10, 2021 while Native Americans from across the region meet to share a meal and show opposition to the proposed lithium mine – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Paul Feather is a small-scale farmer from Georgia who sees the mine at Thacker Pass as important enough to drive 2,000 miles to help prevent.

Paul Feather at the proposed lithium mine at Thacker Pass, Nevada on April 10, 2021 – proto: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Hear an audio interview with Max Wilbert and Paul Feather.

“I think that we’re being pushed a narrative right now about renewable energy, about progress and about the future of how we’re going to handle things like climate change,” said Feather. “And I think that the environmental movement has really kind of gotten lost in this sort of obsession with carbon. This is basically mountaintop removal. There are human rights violations associated this project. There are endangered species that are threatened by this project. When did the environmentalists start promoting projects that are like basically mountaintop removal and human rights violations and threatening environment and endangered species? 

“I think that that narrative, that we basically just need to continue doing what we’ve been doing destroying the earth so that billionaires can make a ton of money at the expense of ecosystems, fragile ecosystems and marginalized people. You know, and like, literally, we just need something else to buy, electric cars? I don’t buy it, and I think a lot of people don’t buy it. And I think that narrative, it’s really a turning point, right here.”

Bhie-Cie Ledesma is Te-Moak, Shoshone and Washoe and lives on the Hungry Valley Indian Reservation near Reno, Nevada. She said that hope is difficult to find, but that even if the mine is constructed, she is well-pleased to have visited the site with her children, before it became an industrial zone.

Bhie-Cie Ledesma and her daughter Doza at the site of a proposed lithium mine on April 10, 2021 – photo: Brian Bahouth/the Ally

Hear an audio interview with Bhie-Cie Ledesma.

“It’s hard to be hopeful, and honestly, one of my friends, he works in the environmental field. He’s native so he could speak a little more frankly to me. He said, ‘Oh no, they’re late. They’re wasting their time, all those people going out to Thacker Pass because it’s already been approved. You know, they just show up late to everything.’

“And I don’t know why he had that attitude blended in, but I just thought, you know what, even if it is too late, at least they’ll know, once again that we tried and we care. And who knows, maybe with this administration, there will be some little bit of fairness. We always have to keep hope. The last administration, we were just trying to survive, but maybe Joe Biden’s people, maybe they’ll look at it and maybe if enough of us come and lean in, something can be done. And then sadly, if not, if this whole area is nothing but acid ponds, my kids will have seen the stars from here.”


Music Credits for the interview with Inelda Sam as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance. 

Song: Radiant Dawn’s Whisper
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music Ltd.
Year: 2015
Duration: 2:14

Song: Goldstone
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music Ltd.
Year: 2015
Duration: 2:31

Music Credits for the interview with Dean Barlese as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance. 

Song: Pan Galactic
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music Ltd.
Year: 2015
Duration: 1:51

Song: The Stargazer’s Journey
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music Ltd.
Year: 2015
Duration: 2:20

Song: Open Me Slowly
Artist: Rena Jones
Album: Driftwood
Label: Cartesian Binary Recordings
Year: 2006
Duration: 1:10

Music Credits for the interview with Max Wilbert and Paul Feather as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance. 

Song: Yamantaka
Artist: Mickey Hart, Henry Wolff, and Nancy Hennings
Album: Yamantaka
Label: Celestial Harmonies
Year: 2011
Duration: 2:29

Song: Field of Souls
Artist: Mickey Hart, Henry Wolff, and Nancy Hennings
Album: Yamantaka
Label: Celestial Harmonies
Year: 2011
Duration: 3:10

Song: Solar Winds
Artist: Mickey Hart, Henry Wolff, and Nancy Hennings
Album: Yamantaka
Label: Celestial Harmonies
Year: 2011
Duration: 2:57 

Music Credits for the interview with Bhie-Cie Ledesma as reported to the Public Radio Exchange, in order of appearance. 

Song: Radiant Dawn’s Whisper
Artist: John Serrie
Album: The Stargazer’s Journey
Label: New World Music Ltd.
Year: 2015
Duration: 1:28


Brian Bahouth is editor of the Sierra Nevada Ally and a career public media journalist. Support his work in the Ally.