On a windy September afternoon in northern Nevada, where her family has lived for generations, Daranda Hinkey fought back tears as she read a description of an 1865 massacre that killed at least 31 members of the Paiute tribe. In the passage, her great-great-great grandfather, Ox Sam, one of three survivors, recalled losing his parents and siblings when the 1st Nevada cavalry attacked.
Known as Peehee Mu’huh to some, and Thacker Pass to others, this land is the ancestral home of local Indigenous communities and holds cultural, spiritual and historical significance. It is also the site of one of the largest lithium deposits in the world. Today, a proposed lithium mine is on track to turn the sacred land into raw material for rechargeable batteries –– the lifeblood of the electric vehicle revolution.
“There’s so much lithium in this area,” Hinkey said, “that it makes people foam at the mouth.”
Hinkey is one of dozens of local tribal members and descendants organizing against the planned mining operations at Thacker Pass, citing concerns about its cultural and environmental impact. Called the People of Red Mountain, or Atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu in Paiute, its members have been camping on the site of the proposed mine for months, some going so far as to quit their jobs in order to remain on the grounds. While the number of campers varies from day to day, Hinkey said they plan to stay there until the mine is halted and the land they consider sacred, protected.
“It’s like putting a lithium mine on Arlington cemetery. It’s just not fair,” she said. Thacker Pass also holds modern importance to local Indigenous communities that harvest traditional foods, medicines and supplies in the area for sacred ceremonies. “I still think people think we’re ‘savages’ in some way. We still use the land, we still care for it. They see that as weak, but we see that as strength.”
The unassuming appearance of lithium carbonate –– the end-product of the Thacker Pass project––gives no indication of the world-changing impact it will procure.
“It looks like flour,” said Ryan Ravenelle, Manager of Research and Development at Lithium Nevada, the company behind the Thacker Pass mining project. “There’s nothing really special about this, except that this is the material that is really used as a raw material to make batteries that will go into probably all of our electric vehicles one day.”
The global lithium-ion battery market is expected to grow by a factor of 5 to 10 in the next decade, according to the Department of Energy, its demand driven primarily by the skyrocketing demand for electric vehicles, as well as its use in personal electronics and renewable energy storage.
Despite having one of the largest lithium reserves in the world, the United States is not a major player in the extraction of the mineral. As part of a larger push to secure the lithium-ion battery supply chain, the Biden administration has called for an investment in “safe, equitable and sustainable domestic mining ventures.”
Lithium Nevada, the company proposing the lithium mine, estimates that the project at Thacker Pass will produce roughly 60,000 tonnes of lithium carbonate per year once operational, increasing U.S. production of the material roughly ten-fold.
“It’s a game changer,” says Tim Crowley, the Vice President of Government Affairs and Community Relations at Lithium Nevada. “It’s absolutely essential if we’re going to make America competitive in this world and really minimize the geopolitical challenges that we face in relying on other sources…for such an important material to fight climate change.”
Hinkey, a graduate of Southern Oregon University’s Environmental Science, Policy and Sustainability program, understands the need to move away from fossil fuels. But she questions whether lithium mining is the best path to get there.
“A lot of environmentalists will argue, ‘Yeah, we do need that lithium, we do need that electric car,’” but I don’t think they’ve actually thought about the outcome of all of that,” Hinkey says. “What ancestral homelands, what Indigenous lands are they taking from?”
According to the investor analyst firm MSCI, 79 percent of lithium reserves in the United States are within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
“These are communities that have already been pushed out of their homelands, affected by genocide,” said Payal Sampat, mining director at Earthworks, an environmental advocacy group. “And to have to pay the price for the transition to a low carbon economy — that perhaps those same communities are not even going to benefit from — is completely unacceptable.”
Hinkey and other opponents of the project have also turned to the courts. Over the summer, the People of Red Mountain, Reno-Sparks Indian Colony and Burns Paiute Tribe joined an existing suit brought by environmental groups and a local rancher to stop the mine from going forward. The decision is still pending.
In November, activists faced the latest in a series of legal setbacks, when a federal judge ruled that evidence provided by the indigenous groups “does not definitely establish that a massacre occurred within the project area.”
In response to the Indigenous concerns, Crowley said that the company is “going to great lengths to make sure that the environment is protected and that we’re being responsible. And we’re also going to great lengths to make sure that any historic artifacts are preserved and treated appropriately.”
Mine opponents are acutely aware that they may soon run out of options within the legal system. They are considering adopting the kinds of tactics activists used in the Dakota Access Pipeline Protest at Standing Rock.
“It’s really easy to think that if we just say the right things, if we just argue the right things, if we just have the best lawyers, we’re going to win these things, and this is going to go away,” said Will Falk, a lawyer for the People of Red Mountain and one of the first campers at Thacker Pass. “That’s wishful thinking,” he added. “Eventually we’re going to have to be ready to physically block construction equipment. I think that one of the ways that wakes up people in the United States is when they see people getting dragged away by the police for trying to protect their land, and I think that’s where this is going.”
Briana Flin produces documentaries for Nexus Media News, a nonprofit climate change news service. You can follow her @BrianaFlin. This story was produced in partnership with The Guardian. It was made possible by a grant from the Open Society Foundations.