April 22, 2024

Whole Community News

From Kalapuya lands in the Willamette watershed

Thacker Pass camp raided after protesters block open-pit lithium mine

6 min read
The scene at Thacker Pass this week looked like Standing Rock, Line 3, or Oak Flat as water protectors put their bodies in the way of the destruction.

from Paiute and Shoshone elders at Ox Sam Indigenous Women’s Camp

Law enforcement officials raided the Ox Sam Indigenous Women’s Camp on June 7, destroying two ceremonial tipi lodges, mishandling and confiscating ceremonial instruments and objects, singling out one water protector for arrest, and extinguishing a sacred fire lit at the start of the Paiute/Shoshone grandma-led prayer action on May 11.

The Indigenous-led prayer camp at Peehee Mu’huh (Thacker Pass) in Northern Nevada, also known as Newe Momokonee Nokotun (Indigenous Women’s Camp), is the base camp for the resistance against the largest open-pit lithium mine in North America.

Ox Sam Camp is named after one of the only survivors of the 1865 Thacker Pass Massacre, a man who was the direct ancestor of several of the folks gathered in prayerful resistance.

The arrest took place at breakfast on Wednesday. Almost immediately after law enforcement arrived, a young Diné female water protector was singled out by Lithium Nevada security and arrested. Unlike two non-natives who were allowed to “move” in order to avoid arrest, she was not given the option to leave the camp. Asked to identify herself, the Diné woman said, “I am Ox Sam.” She was quickly handcuffed and subsequently loaded into a Humboldt County Sheriff’s SUV for transport to Winnemucca for processing.

While on the highway, again without warning or explanation, she was transferred into a windowless, pitch-black holding box in the back of a pickup truck. “I was really scared for my life,” the woman said. “I didn’t know where I was or where I was going. I know that MMIW (Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women) is a real thing, and I didn’t want to be the next one.” She was transported to Humboldt County Jail, where she was charged with criminal trespass and resisting arrest, then released on bail.

Just hours before the raid, Ox Sam water protectors could be seen for the second time this week bravely standing in the way of large excavation equipment and shutting down construction at the base of Sentinel Rock.

To many Paiute and Shoshone, Sentinel Rock is a “center of the universe,” integral to many Nevada Tribes’ way of life and ceremony, as well as a site for traditional medicines, tools, and food supply for thousands of years.

Thacker Pass is also the site of two massacres of Paiute and Shoshone people. The first was an intertribal conflict that gave the area its Paiute name: Peehee Mu’huh, or rotten moon. The second was a surprise attack by the U.S. Cavalry on Sept. 12, 1865, during which the U.S. Army slaughtered dozens. The remains of the massacred ancestors have remained unidentified and unburied since 1865, and are now being bulldozed and crushed by Lithium Nevada for the mineral known as “the new white gold.”

Since May 11, despite numerous requests by Lithium Nevada workers, the Humboldt County Sheriff Department has been reticent and even unwilling to arrest members of the prayer camp, even after issuing three warnings for blocking Pole Creek Road access to Lithium Nevada workers and sub-contractors, while allowing the public to pass through.

“We absolutely respect your guys’ right to peacefully protest,” explained Humboldt County Sheriff Sean Wilkin on May 12. “We have zero issues with [the tipi] whatsoever… We respect your right to be out here.”

Until the week of June 7, the tipis, the sacred fire, and the prayers of Ox Sam Camp continued unchallenged over a total of 27 days of ceremony and resistance.

But this week, the scene at Thacker Pass looked like Standing Rock, Line 3, or Oak Flat. As Lithium Nevada’s workers and heavy equipment tried to bulldoze and trench their way through the ceremonial grounds surrounding the tipi at Sentinel Rock, the water protectors put their bodies in the way of the destruction, forcing work stoppage on two occasions.

Lithium Nevada’s ownership and control of Thacker Pass only exists because of the flawed permitting and questionable administrative approvals issued by the Bureau of Land Management. BLM officials have refused to acknowledge that Peehee Mu’huh is a sacred site to regional Tribal Nations and have continued to downplay and question the significance of the double massacre through two years of court battles.

Three tribes — the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, Summit Lake Paiute Tribe, and Burns Paiute Tribe — remain locked in litigation with the Federal Government, challenging the BLM’s permit process from the beginning. The tribes filed their latest response to the BLM’s motion to dismiss on Monday. BLM is part of the Department of the Interior, which is led by Deb Haaland (Laguna Pueblo).

On Wednesday, at least five Humboldt County Sheriff vehicles, several Lithium Nevada worker vehicles, and two security trucks arrived at the original tipi site that contained the ceremonial fire, immediately adjacent to Pole Creek Road. The one Native water protector was arrested without warning, while others were issued with trespass warnings and allowed to leave the area. Once the main camp was secured, law enforcement then moved up to secure and dismantle the tipi site at Sentinel Rock, a mile away.

There is a proper way to take down a tipi and ceremonial camp, and then there is the way Humboldt County Sheriffs proceeded on behalf of Lithium Nevada Corporation. Tipis were knocked down, tipi poles were snapped, and ceremonial objects and instruments were rummaged through, mishandled, and impounded. Empty tents were approached and secured in classic SWAT-raid fashion. One car was towed.

As is often the case when lost profits lead to government assaults on peaceful water protectors, Lithium Nevada Corporation and the Humboldt County Sheriffs say the raid was necessary for the safety of the camp members and for public health.

Josephine Dick (Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone), who is a descendent of Ox Sam and one of the matriarchs of Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokutun, made the following statement in response to the raid:

“As Vice Chair of the Native American Indian Church of the State of Nevada, and as a Paiute-Shoshone Tribal Nation elder and member, I am requesting the immediate access to and release of my ceremonial instruments and objects, including my Eagle Feathers and staff which have held the prayers of my ancestors and now those of Ox Sam camp since the beginning. There was also a ceremonial hand drum and medicines such as cedar and tobacco, which are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

“In addition, my understanding is that Humboldt County Sheriff Department along with Lithium Nevada security desecrated two ceremonial tipi lodges, which include canvasses, poles, and ropes. The Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokutun has been conducting prayers and ceremony in these tipis, also protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. When our ceremonial belongings are brought together around the sacred fire, this is our Church. Our Native American Church is a sacred ceremony. I am demanding the immediate access to our prayer site at Peehee Mu’huh and the return of our confiscated ceremonial objects.

“The desecration that Humboldt County Sheriffs and Lithium Nevada conducted by knocking the tipis down and rummaging through sacred objects is equivalent to destroying a bible, breaking the cross, knocking down a cathedral, disrespecting the sacrament, and denying deacons and pastors access to their places of worship. It is in direct violation of my American Indian Religious Freedom rights. This violation of access to our ceremonial church and the ground on which it sits is a violation of Presidential Executive Order 13007.

“The location of the tipi lodge that was pushed over and destroyed is at the base of Sentinel Rock, a place our Paiute-Shoshone have been praying since time immemorial. After two years of our people explaining that Peehee Mu’huh is sacred, BLM Winnemucca finally acknowledged that Thacker Pass is a traditional cultural district, but they are still allowing it to be destroyed.”

Another spiritual leader on the front lines has been Dean Barlese from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Barlese led prayers at the site on April 25 which led to Lithium Nevada shutting down construction for a day, and returned on May 11 to pray over the new sacred fire as Ox Sam camp was established.

“This is not a protest, it’s a prayer,” said Barlese. “But they’re still scared of me. They’re scared of all of us elders, because they know we’re right and they’re wrong.”

These Paiute and Shoshone elders are asking for supporters from far and wide to come take part in an ongoing ceremony of protection for these waters and this land. Learn more and donate to Ox Sam Camp at https://www.oxsam.org/donate/.

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