Eve of Destruction: Bureau of Land Management Sacrifices Native Site to Mining Group

Stephanie Woodard September 30, 2015

An aerial view of the Hollister Underground Mine Project in the Tosawihi Quarries in Elko County, Nevada. Recently acquired by Waterton Global Mining Company/Carlin Resources, the site has long been regarded as sacred by Native people.

This isn’t the new” world for the West­ern Shoshone. And their West was nev­er wild.” It is a place of deep cul­tur­al con­nec­tions to a home­land that at one time extend­ed across por­tions of Ida­ho, Neva­da, Utah and Cal­i­for­nia. For more than 10,000 years, they have met in what is today called the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries, a stretch of Elko Coun­ty, Neva­da, to gath­er a type of white flint and to prac­tice their sacred rituals.

That stone is very sacred to us,” says Joe Hol­ley, chair­man of the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band of the Te-Moak West­ern Shoshone, one of sev­er­al fed­er­al­ly rec­og­nized, relat­ed tribes. We use it every day and have done so for mil­len­nia, for tools, cer­e­monies and heal­ing. The stone, the water, the entire place is sacred.” The word Tosaw­i­hi means White Knives, an ances­tral Shoshone trib­al name that ties the land and its fea­tures to their cul­ture and iden­ti­ty. The Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries has been deemed eli­gi­ble for the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places and part of it was declared an Archae­o­log­i­cal Dis­trict in 2010.

How­ev­er, gold lies under the flint, also called chert, and a multi­na­tion­al min­ing group wants it.

In 2013, Neva­da-based Water­ton Glob­al Min­ing Com­pa­ny, owned by a firm reg­is­tered in the Cay­man Islands, bought a bank­rupt gold-min­ing oper­a­tion that had been explor­ing for and extract­ing gold in the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries. In March 2014, an offi­cial at a relat­ed Cana­di­an pri­vate-equi­ty firm, Water­ton Glob­al Resource Man­age­ment, told Reuters it had been snap­ping up strug­gling U.S. min­ing con­cerns hurt by the sev­er­al-year down­turn in gold prices. Reuters quot­ed the firm’s chief invest­ment offi­cer as say­ing, This year I think [acqui­si­tions] will pick up dramatically.”

By 2014, min­ing oper­a­tions had resumed on the Shoshon­e’s ances­tral lands, and Water­ton Glob­al Min­ing Com­pa­ny had changed its name to Car­lin Resources. The new work began in pre­vi­ous­ly dis­turbed ground and moved out from there. A drilling pad was built in a once-pris­tine area,” says Hol­ley, and sev­er­al rock shel­ters were demol­ished when they pushed through a road.” On a recent trip to the area, he saw that sev­er­al ancient stone hunt­ing blinds, from which con­cealed hunters observed their prey, were gone. Trib­al mem­bers report that work­ers have video­taped them when they visit.

The band has also expressed con­cern to fed­er­al author­i­ties that the min­ing com­pa­ny does not have the required ground­wa­ter mon­i­tor­ing well in place. This is crit­i­cal,” says Hol­ley. At the cen­ter of all our cer­e­monies is water. It is the lifeblood of the universe.”

Min­ing was already engulf­ing the sacred land­scape, says the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band’s attor­ney Rol­lie Wil­son, who works in the Wash­ing­ton, D.C. office of the Oma­ha law firm Fred­er­icks Pee­bles & Mor­gan. Now mat­ters are get­ting worse. With impor­tant sites dam­aged or destroyed, trib­al mem­bers are being pushed into an ever-small­er area.” Wil­son has filed an emer­gency appeal with the Inte­ri­or Board of Land Appeals (IBLA), an Inte­ri­or Depart­ment admin­is­tra­tive court. It asks the court to sus­pend min­ing until a plan can be devised that safe­guards the site.

In 1992 (on the 500th anniver­sary of Colum­bus’ first vis­it), pro­tec­tion of Native Amer­i­can cul­tur­al resources was added to the Nation­al His­toric Preser­va­tion Act. Since then, fed­er­al agen­cies have been required to con­sult with tribes when min­ing, con­struct­ing dams, road build­ing and oth­er projects on fed­er­al land that could affect their tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al prop­er­ties (TCPs). These may include loca­tions where cul­tur­al­ly impor­tant prac­tices occur, or occurred in the past, as well as structures.

This process is a part of the fed­er­al government’s trust rela­tion­ship with the tribes, which requires the Unit­ed States to pro­tect Native treaty rights, land and oth­er assets. In prac­tice, tribes and their rep­re­sen­ta­tives reg­u­lar­ly report that they aren’t noti­fied ear­ly enough in the process to make a dif­fer­ence and when they do speak up fed­er­al offi­cials don’t pay attention.

Hol­ley says work­ing with the Inte­ri­or Depart­men­t’s Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) can be like talk­ing to a wall.” As the Neva­da State His­toric Preser­va­tion Office puts it: The BLM can oper­ate uni­lat­er­al­ly.”

Some offi­cials may have a hard time under­stand­ing a com­plex Native cul­tur­al land­scape like the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries, which has been sub­tly shaped for many cen­turies by a range of activ­i­ties includ­ing cer­e­monies, tool mak­ing, med­i­cine-plant gath­er­ing and hunt­ing. The con­cept of cul­tur­al land­scape’ emerged in the late 1980s, which real­ly isn’t that long ago,” says Paul Loether, Chief of the Nation­al Reg­is­ter of His­toric Places, a Nation­al Park Ser­vice pro­gram. As a result, Loether says, most eval­u­a­tors are bet­ter at assess­ing an his­toric house than a tract of land, no mat­ter what cul­ture, Native or non-Native, shaped it.

Car­lin Resources has less patience for the process than the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band would wish. In Carlin’s legal response to the band’s attempt to tem­porar­i­ly halt drilling, the min­ing com­pa­ny said their IBLA appeal was based on erro­neous and sen­sa­tion­al­is­tic asser­tions” that the entire Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries con­sti­tutes a TCP.” Car­lin, in its brief, told the court that it had com­plied with all oblig­a­tions and that the band’s ongo­ing objec­tions had already caused it to run up sub­stan­tial addi­tion­al costs.

Because the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries are on fed­er­al land admin­is­tered by the BLM, that agency han­dled the area’s TCP eval­u­a­tion. Ear­li­er min­ing had already tak­en a big chunk out of the Shoshone land­scape, but Holley’s band hoped it could work with the BLM to pre­vent fur­ther destruc­tion. We were hop­ing to keep the min­ing out of what’s left of our most impor­tant areas,” Hol­ley says.

To study and pro­tect a land­scape, archae­ol­o­gy is often the dis­ci­pline of choice. At Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries, the BLM focused on items of archae­o­log­i­cal inter­est that might be saved — includ­ing what it termed loci,” with a cer­tain num­ber of arti­facts, such as stone tools, per square meter. The agency marked the items on maps, drew lines around them and told the min­ing com­pa­ny to stay at least 250 feet away.

Archae­ol­o­gy is a great field,” says Loether. But unfor­tu­nate­ly, used that way, the result is like see­ing the Mona Lisa’s smile, but not the rest of the paint­ing. You can’t under­stand its beau­ty and mean­ing with­out con­sid­er­ing the entire thing.”

Main­stream sci­ence looks at sites dif­fer­ent­ly from Indi­an peo­ple, who see the spir­i­tu­al sig­nif­i­cance,” says Ted Howard, cul­tur­al resources direc­tor and mem­ber of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes.

With about 500 enrolled mem­bers and a 683-acre reser­va­tion that has lit­tle eco­nom­ic activ­i­ty,” accord­ing to its web­site, the tiny Bat­tle Moun­tain Band has set itself a gar­gan­tu­an task. I grew up in this fight,” says Hol­ley. My grand­fa­ther, father and uncle all fought min­ing in the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries. I’ve lived my whole life hear­ing them talk about this.”

Chair­man Hol­ley and the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band have tak­en the lead in this strug­gle,” says Howard. How­ev­er, many of the Shoshone peo­ple came from or used that area. Now we are sep­a­rat­ed on dif­fer­ent reser­va­tions, but that is not how we lived before the reser­va­tion era. Our shared oral his­to­ry goes way back. And the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries are the cen­ter of our spir­i­tu­al being.”

The sun ris­es over the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries. (Pho­to cour­tesy of Joe Hol­ley, Chair­man of the Bat­tle Mount­ian Band of the Te-Moak Tribe of West­ern Shoshone)

Smok­ing gun’ at the BLM

Some­times, lack of under­stand­ing isn’t the only prob­lem at a fed­er­al agency. Oth­er inter­ests can weigh heav­i­ly. In spring 2014, the BLM’s analy­sis of the mine project was still under review. It had yet to issue its final approval, or Record of Deci­sion (ROD).

But then the min­ing com­pa­ny need­ed the gold — and fast.

Accord­ing to pub­lic doc­u­ments obtained by Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times, Water­ton con­tact­ed the BLM on Fri­day, March 28, 2014. It want­ed the agency to issue the Record of Deci­sion by the fol­low­ing Mon­day, March 31. A BLM offi­cial, Steph Con­nol­ly, the act­ing-senior spe­cial assis­tant to the direc­tor, noti­fied col­leagues of this request with an email head­ed URGENT.”

Thomas Schmidt, a BLM geol­o­gist in a Neva­da field office, replied, I do not believe we have com­plete­ly sat­is­fied Tribe concerns.”

Anoth­er BLM geol­o­gist, Jan­ice Stadel­man, chimed in, warn­ing against delay. I received a call from Waterton’s legal coun­sel,” she emailed. They are request­ing that the ROD and approval be signed or dat­ed no lat­er than March 31 [2014]. March 31 is the end (last day) of the first quar­ter. … Waterton’s con­cern is with the first quar­ter audit­ing and finan­cial report­ing to there [sic] investors and the ram­i­fi­ca­tions that they will encounter.”

By March 31, the ROD was signed, sealed and deliv­ered. Thanks to the BLM rush­ing it through, the min­ing group had its gold and the win­dow-dress­ing for its quar­ter­ly report. In May, Water­ton issued a press release announc­ing a sig­nif­i­cant per­mit­ting mile­stone” for the mine.

In response to a query from Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times, BLM spokesper­son Jeff Krauss described the per­mit­ting process as robust” and not hur­ried,” with full con­sid­er­a­tion under the law for the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band’s con­cerns. He added the agency would con­tin­ue to work with the band going for­ward. Fur­ther, accord­ing to Krauss, the BLM would require the mine’s oper­a­tor to imple­ment suf­fi­cient mon­i­tor­ing and mit­i­ga­tion strate­gies in order to pre­vent unnec­es­sary or undue degra­da­tion of the lands” and its sacred sites.

Look­ing and listening

Edu­cat­ing offi­cials, leg­is­la­tors and the pub­lic about respon­si­ble pro­tec­tion of our nation’s shared lega­cy is an uphill bat­tle,” says Rebec­ca Knuf­fke, pub­lic lands project man­ag­er for the Nation­al Trust for His­toric Preser­va­tion, a non­prof­it char­tered by Con­gress to safe­guard our shared her­itage places. Build­ing aware­ness for a giv­en site can help pro­tect it, she says, point­ing to the Trust’s Nation­al Trea­sures pro­gram, which describes cam­paigns to save places that are impor­tant to var­ied and some­times mul­ti­ple cultures.

In the case of a Native land­scape, pub­lic aware­ness is han­dled very care­ful­ly, adds Denise Ryan, pub­lic lands pol­i­cy direc­tor at the Trust. Such places may include vision sites, sacred springs, med­i­cine-gath­er­ing areas and oth­er geo­graph­ic fea­tures that tribes con­sid­er pri­vate or secret. Like the Tosaw­i­hi hunt­ing blinds and rock shel­ters, these frag­ile fea­tures can also be destroyed by van­dals or inad­ver­tent­ly tram­pled by hik­ers. In a pro­tec­tion plan, tribes don’t have to give us details. They just tell us what’s sig­nif­i­cant and what they require,” says Ryan.

Hol­ley wants a com­plete review of the Tosaw­i­hi Quar­ries that accounts for sub­tleties that aren’t appar­ent to out­siders. We Shoshone are the only ones who can say where these impor­tant things are,” Hol­ley says. Tosaw­i­hi is not a pre­his­toric’ place, used only by long-ago peo­ple. We Shoshone have used all of it con­tin­u­ous­ly for cul­tur­al and spir­i­tu­al pur­pos­es since time immemorial.”

Mean­while, gold min­ing oper­a­tions continue.

Hol­ley laments, All those years of strug­gle, and we’re still los­ing ground.”

Edi­tor’s note:

Since pub­li­ca­tion of Eve of Destruc­tion, the Bat­tle Moun­tain Band of the Te-Moak West­ern Shoshone has con­tin­ued to try and pro­tect its sacred site from destruc­tion by gold min­ing. In Sep­tem­ber 2015, an Inte­ri­or Depart­ment admin­is­tra­tive court turned down the Band’s request to sus­pend min­ing until a way could be found to safe­guard tra­di­tion­al cul­tur­al prop­er­ties more effectively.

The Band then turned to the influ­en­tial Advi­so­ry Coun­cil on His­toric Preser­va­tion (ACHP), which is named as the final arbiter of dis­putes under the so-called Pro­gram­mat­ic Agree­ment issued by the Bureau of Land Man­age­ment (BLM) to gov­ern min­ing activ­i­ties. In Decem­ber, ACHP issued a cau­tious deci­sion that encour­aged BLM to clar­i­fy” the agreement.

The Pro­gram­mat­ic Agree­ment doesn’t need to be clar­i­fied, it needs to be imple­ment­ed,” said Band attor­ney Rol­lie Wil­son, of Fred­er­icks Pee­bles & Mor­gan. The doc­u­ment, signed by ACHP, requires ongo­ing eval­u­a­tion of spe­cif­ic areas as min­ing explo­ration is con­sid­ered. BLM is not doing that. It is rely­ing on old and gen­er­al­ized sur­veys of the entire area, which makes no sense. The doc­u­ment and the law require cur­rent eval­u­a­tions for project-spe­cif­ic proposals.”

BLM spokesper­son Jeff Krauss has dis­agreed, say­ing that con­sul­ta­tion with the Band is ongoing.

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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