This story was co-produced by The Real News, Ricochet Media, and IndigiNews.

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In Nevada’s remote Thacker Pass, a fight for our future is playing out between local Indigenous tribes and powerful state and corporate entities hellbent on mining the lithium beneath their land. Vancouver-based Lithium Americas is developing a massive lithium mine at Thacker Pass, but for more than two years several local tribes and environmental organizations have tried to block or delay the mine in the courts and through direct action. The Thacker Pass Project is backed by the Biden administration, and companies like General Motors have invested hundreds of millions of dollars in the project, looking to capitalize on the transition to a “green energy economy,” for which lithium is essential. While it is a vital component in the manufacturing of electric vehicles and batteries, though, there’s nothing “green” about mining lithium. Ending our addiction to fossil fuels is urgently necessary, but the struggle of the local tribes around Thacker Pass reveals the dark side of a “green revolution” that prioritizes profits and consumption over everything (and everyone) else.

In this feature documentary, Thacker Pass – Mining the Sacred, award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French multimedia journalist Brandi Morin and documentary filmmaker Geordie Day report on the Indigenous resisters putting their bodies and freedom on the line to stop the Thacker Pass Project. 

Thacker Pass – Mining the Sacred was co-produced by Ricochet Media, IndigiNews, and The Real News Network.

Pre-Production: Brandi Morin, Geordie Day, Ethan Cox, Andrea Houston, Cara McKenna, Eden Fineday, Maximillian Alvarez, Kayla Rivara

Studio Production: Geordie Day

Post-Production: Brandi Morin, Geordie Day, Ethan Cox, Andrea Houston, Cara McKenna, Eden Fineday, Maximillian Alvarez, Kayla Rivara


Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Rugged. Serene. A vast stretch of parched desert in SoCal Northern Nevada captivates the senses. The low desert valleys are wide and expansive. I’ve been trying to get down here for over a year because this beautiful landscape is about to be gutted. One valley here contains “white gold” lithium and lots of it, the new commodity the world is racing to grab to try to save itself from the ravages of climate change. Vancouver-based Lithium Americas is developing a massive lithium mine which will operate for the next 41 years. It sits inside an extinct supervolcano basin named the McDermott Caldera, formed over 16 million years ago. The company is backed by the Biden administration and touts General Motors as its biggest investor, $650 million to be exact. But for more than two years, several local tribes and environmental organizations have tried to block or delay the mine in the courts and through direct action.

In June, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the US government did not violate federal environmental laws when it approved the mine. Soon after that ruling, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Department raided and dismantled an Indigenous resistance camp named Ox Sam, forbidding land defenders and water defenders from accessing the construction area. When I showed up, construction workers immediately called security [end of voiceover].

How’s it going?

Security Guard:  Good. How are you?

Brandi Morin:  Good. I’m Brandi.

Security Guard:  You’re Brandi?

Brandi Morin:  Brandi, yes.

Security Guard:  All right, nice to meet you.

Brandi Morin:  We’re journalists. How are you?

Security Guard:  Good. From where?

Brandi Morin:  We’re actually from Canada. We’re on assignment with Ricochet Media, IndigiNews, and The Real News. So, we’re doing a story about Thacker Pass and Indigenous opposition to it. So, we wanted to come and check it out.

Security Guard:  It’s all good. Just so you know, this whole dozer path, all the way to the creek up over the hill, that is private property. But yeah –

Brandi Morin:  Oh. So, right here?

Security Guard:  – I see you’re not on it, so no, you’re fine. This is a BLM road.

Brandi Morin:  Right. So, are you here all the time, security? Do they have this because of the blockaders and stuff? Do they have security to make sure that people aren’t coming to obstruct? Or is that –

Security Guard:  I’m not sure what you’re asking.

Brandi Morin:  – Are they employing security here full-time?

Security Guard:  That’s something you could ask Lithium Americas.

Brandi Morin:  Oh, okay.

Security Guard:  I can give you their phone number.

Brandi Morin:  Okay.

[Voiceover] That same security guard followed us down the highway [end of voiceover].

We want to go to Thacker Pass.

Security Guard:  Oh, that’s it.

Brandi Morin:  Yeah. And is that more Lithium Americas construction site as well up there?

Security Guard:  Yeah.

Brandi Morin:  Okay. I might just drive up to the gate. Okay. Thanks.

Security Guard:  Thank you.

Brandi Morin:  He was totally following us, although he’s trying to act nice to tell us where the road is, but he’s following us.

[Voiceover] A lot is at stake here for the company, its investors, and a myriad of government and business interests looking to capitalize on the transition to a “green energy economy” for which lithium is essential. It is costing over $2.2 billion to build the Thacker Pass mine. But don’t let the prospect of green energy fool you, this mine will stretch to nearly 6,000 acres and dig an open pit to a depth of 400 feet. The project requires tailings piles and processing facilities, including a sulfur plant. The sulfur is, itself, a waste byproduct from oil refineries and it will be trucked in by the tons and burned every day at the mine site. The project will also use more than 1.7 billion gallons of water per year in the driest state in America.

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  Oh hey.

It’s like the end game for us as humans, not even me as an Indigenous person. And that treaty acknowledges that two-thirds of Nevada is Shoshone land which, of course, it’s not anymore. They’ve used it for nuclear testing and they always want to do toxic waste storage and open-pit mining now. It’s the wrong thing to do to the animals, to the plants, to the Earth. We keep tearing up the planet where we live as a whole, whether it be other types of mining or logging and oil extraction, fracking; It’s all shortsighted.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] She’s speaking about the rush to get off fossil fuels and transition to so-called “greener alternatives.” While ending our addiction to fossil fuels is, of course, urgently necessary, the voices of the local tribes here are getting lost in the politics of what green energy actually means. While it’s an essential component used in electric vehicles and batteries, there’s nothing green about mining lithium. Mining is mining, no matter what the resource being extracted is. It’s always going to be devastating to the environment.

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  This helps get us through a lot of winters. Its common name is Indian rice grass. See these little seeds?

Brandi Morin:  Yeah.

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  They’re really, really, highly nutritious. That was my whole thing with Thacker Pass: It’s like you go out there and you don’t see anything. Well, that’s because you don’t know how to look, you don’t have the right eye.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] BC says the mine will desecrate the spiritual connection she has with her traditional territories. And she’s spoken out to protect it at the mine site. Now, Lithium Americas is suing her and six other land and water protectors, in civil court over allegations of civil conspiracy, trespassing, and tortious interference. The suit seeks to ban them from accessing the mining area and make them financially compensate the company [end of voiceover].

 I wanted to ask you about the charges that you’re facing. What are they? And when did you find out?

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  Oh, man. I don’t even remember. Is it civil something? Trespassing? It’s something about disobedience. I don’t know. I didn’t read the papers. I threw them in a drawer. And to think that it’s going to be a big open-pit mine is hard. And that’s our ancestral homeland. That’s our bones and our blood; deep, deep in that soil. I can almost see what’s really there on the other side of the spiritual curtain when I’m there. But you can feel them out there with you. And to be looking at the same stars and seeing the same moon and knowing that my kids’ kids will never see those stars from that same place, honestly, I don’t think we’re going to be able to stop them. There are 500 lithium mines coming. I wanted my descent on record as an Indigenous mother.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] It was gut-wrenching to hear her say that, yet inspiring. Despite the insurmountable odds, she’s still willing to put it all on the line to try and save her sacred territory.

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  I don’t care if people don’t like me, or the corporations… Or I look like I’m [sniffles] doing nonsense. I do what I think is right. That’s all I can do.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] There’s another more chilling reason the mine area is sacred. The native tribes call Thacker Pass by its Paiute name: Peehee Mu’huh, meaning “rotten moon.” The name stems from a massacre that happened there, before European contact, in a crescent-shaped area of the valley. Elders have passed down the tale of the bloody killings of Paiute men, women, and children, by an enemy tribe over generations. They say attackers gutted the dead and threw their insides onto the sagebrush. When the bodies were discovered by Paiute men who had been away hunting, the stench of the rotting flesh was so strong, that they named the spot Rotten Moon. The violence only got worse, of course, when the colonizers arrived.

Dean Barlese:  It was a really rugged time. The military came through and killed. To save bullets, a lot of times, they would take the young people and bash in the back of their heads. And I know that because our oral history says this is how the military caught our people and treated our people. They fought hard against the military. They didn’t want to lose their land. And the government, military, wanted to get rid of the Paiute people, so they massacred them wherever they found them. It was a five-year war. Snake War, they called it.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] He is also facing charges from Lithium Americas.

Dean Barlese:  There you go. Go ahead and… You probably understand that better than I could. They’re restraining us from prayer, keeping us from praying up there. We’re still in the Indian wars. I made that statement before too. Our Indian wars continue, not only here, but everywhere. I sang songs but I’m standing here because our ancestors are here. We’ve got to defend them. We’ve got to protect them. And then, these little whirlwinds would come down the road, or go up the road towards the security camp where you were standing. And we knew our ancestors were there then because they showed themselves. And we were laughing. The big, old whirlwind made the security guards scatter. Our people must be upset about this because we still have that belief that our spirits are the whirlwinds that come around; They come to check on us. I’d give my life, like my grandpa did, like the old people did, to protect this place.

Dorece Sam:  When we came to find out that our family was massacred there, we were there because we wanted to protect the land.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Dorece is a direct descendant of Ox Sam: One of the only survivors of the 1865 massacre at Sentinel Rock near the mines’ waterline.

Dorece Sam:  Well, for somebody that’s connected to Mother Earth, they can feel things. Like me, myself; I can feel things out there. I was up in prayer at Sentinel Rock. I heard an old man sing, an old, old man. And I lay there and I tried to listen and listen to see if I could identify the song or hear any words in there that I could understand.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] She too is facing charges for protecting her homelands.

Dorece Sam:  At first, I got scared because I’ve never been to court like this before. But then, I kept on praying, kept on smudging. And now, I believe that they’re a waste of paper. A waste of aim and waste of paper. So I am like, I’m going to let Creator take care of it. I built a fire outside of my home and I threw all the paperwork, the TPO and the lawsuit, everything, I burned it in there, in the fire.

They’re doing it to try to hush us up because I know, in the TPO, they ask that we not post about them or anything on social media. They’re trying to silence us so we don’t say anything or go out there. And by doing that, they’re violating the Religious Freedom Act; by not allowing us to go up there.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Her children and grandchildren know about their mother’s work protecting Peehee Mu’huh.

Dorece Sam:  Like I always tell my kids, the best way I can describe to them – And my grandchildren – I said all the things that people are doing with mining and stuff like that, it makes Mother Earth heavy. And she’s hurting and she’s tired. And I was telling them that every time she goes to take a deep breath, that’s when the Earth shakes. The Earth moves. And she’s crying and she’s tired of all this mining.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Her own tribe, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone, signed a community benefits agreement with Lithium Americas in 2022. It’s the closest reservation to the mine site. It’s also the poorest in the region. Lithium Americas says the support for the project stems from the tribe’s desire to gain economic benefits.

Dorece Sam:  It’s hit with a slap lawsuit. And that’s the commitment that I made to protect this place. It’s in my heart, to protect that place. It means a lot to me.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] I attempted to reach the Fort McDermott Paiute Shoshone leadership for comment on several occasions but they didn’t call me back. Dorece says her community wasn’t fully consulted.

Dorece Sam:  They didn’t notify the people. They didn’t tell anybody what was going on. And so now we have our current chairman, his name is Arlo Crutcher. He’s totally for this mine. He is ignoring everybody and everything.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Lithium Americas declined an on-the-record interview but provided background information stating the Fort McDermott Tribe rejects the claim that there were massacres at Peehee Mu’huh. Get that. The company is trying to tell the natives what their own history is but other Fort McDermott elders know the stories of the massacres.

Myron Smart:  They came over to Santa Rosas and then they ended up out here where Thacker Pass is, and over there by, I think they call that the Centennial Peak. They happened to camp out there. When the soldiers finally came over the mountain late in the evening, they massacred the whole village there. They massacred women and children.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Even though the company denies the massacre happened at Peehee Mu’huh, the Bureau of Land Management holds records of it in its archives.

Michon Eben:  Why wasn’t the massacre mentioned in the historic properties treatment plan? Why weren’t these massacres mentioned in the record of the decision? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the Environmental Impact Statement? Why wasn’t it mentioned in the cultural resources inventory? We had to bring it up. The Surveyor? That was in the Bureau of Land Management’s own documents. They didn’t even have that in any of their documents. So, when they say well, we’ve proven in court… It’s junk science. They didn’t do their complete analysis and left this out. It’s a coverup. It’s been a coverup and they’re closing their eyes to it.

Lithium Nevada’s corporation attorney has implied that the tribes are lying about the sacredness of Peehee Mu’huh, calling these sacred sites “allegedly sacred areas of Thacker Pass.” This is not “allegedly.” This is not lying. Come on. How we’re treated less than, our dead are treated less than… That’s why nobody cares that there are unmarked burial grounds because it doesn’t say “historic cemetery.”

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] The Reno-Sparks Indian Colony along with the Burns Paiute Tribe, were plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the Bureau of Land Management, over lack of consultation on the mine project. After a judge ruled largely in favor of Lithium Americas in February, the tribe filed a new lawsuit along with Burns Paiute and the Summit Lake Paiute Tribe.

Michon Eben:  You cannot dig 400 feet deep. You cannot destroy wetlands. You cannot destroy ecosystems. You can’t destroy the natural habitat of the sage grouse. You cannot do the destruction and take gallons and gallons of water in the driest region and tell us that that’s good for electric vehicles. Electric vehicles you still have to plug into the grid; That’s still part of fossil fuels.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] The mine will burn around 11,300 gallons of diesel fuel a day for onsite operations and almost as much for offsite. Carbon emissions from the site would be more than 150,000 tons per year: Roughly 2.3 tons of carbon for every ton of lithium that’s produced. If reclamation is possible, it won’t be realized until, at least, 2162. There’s more. There are concerns over potential impacts on Indigenous women and girls with the arrival of Lithium Americas housing units for construction workers.

Michon Eben:  What’s really scary is part of the Environmental Impact Statement. If you are bringing in any type of man camp, and I’ll explain what a man camp is, but if you’re bringing in a man camp and you’re placing that near public land and you are disturbing the land, then you need to be doing a study for where that man camp is going. That didn’t happen in the Environmental Impact Statement. When you have to hire 1,000 men to build a lithium mine, you’re not going to hire 1,000 men locally; You have to bring in men from other places. Those men are usually young men. They bring in illegal activities and illegal drug activities. This is where the missing and murdered Indigenous people come in. The 30-40 miners that are out of there right now working, are coming into their local stores, asking them, where are all the pretty girls? Because they’re coming without their women.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] Recently, Michon’s own safety was in question.

Michon Eben:  Because I wasn’t thinking. I wasn’t paying attention. So, I opened the door. I noticed a gentleman sitting over here because this is where our shuttle comes, and I heard a helicopter. Well, there are a lot of helicopters here because we have Careflight. The hospital’s right here. I’m used to helicopters. So, I hear a helicopter, I open the door. I open the door and I look and here comes a helicopter coming straight at me, right above the power poles.

Brandi Morin:  What?

Michon Eben:  Just above the power poles. And then it comes over here and it comes right here; Right above the power poles. Their door was already open but what they were doing is they’re hanging out. They’re so close, I could see them. The door was open and I could see somebody going, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, click, because I could see the flash of the light. And then, I realized, oh fuck, they’re taking my picture. I got scared, but that’s what it was. And then I got mad and I thought oh, little old me. Who am I? How come people got to take a picture of me? What gives anybody the right? And then, you think, okay. Well, I do know the President and the Department of Interior, they do want this mine because… You know.

Brandi Morin:  They think it’s the answer.

Michon Eben:  They think it’s the answer to combat fossil fuels. Even though, electric vehicles you’re still going to plug into the grid; That goes to fossil fuels.

Brandi Morin:  Michon says the worldview of lithium production is deceitful.

Michon Eben:  It’s not going to save the world. So, you’re seeing movie stars advertising electric vehicles. People are getting brainwashed about electric vehicles. You cannot mine your way out of a climate crisis. You can’t do that. You can’t destroy the Earth to save the Earth.

Brandi Morin:  If you could speak with Secretary Haaland about what’s happening in Peehee Mu’Huh, what would you say to her?

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  I would tell her, to wake up. We need you. You’re a Native American. Your Mother Earth should mean something to you. Like I said, wake up and we need your help.

Brandi Morin:  What about the Biden administration?

BC Zahn-Nahtzu:  Us Native Americans have been here since time immemorial. It means it’s time for us to take our land back. Go dig somewhere else.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] I asked tribal members for permission to visit the sacred site at Sentinel Rock. Although security told us a few days before we couldn’t cross the road to access it, I did anyway. After all, they’re on unseated land. As I began to get closer to the rock where Paiute and Shoshone tried to run for their lives in 1865, my chest started heaving. The heartache here was overwhelming [end of voiceover].

I don’t know. I’m sorry. I’m sorry. Everything that they had to go through. You feel the pain that’s here.

[Voiceover] As temperatures soar across the West, putting one-third of Americans under excessive heat alerts, elders, like Dean, are not surprised. He says it’s only going to get worse. And extractive industries are accelerating the threat to all who live on Mother Earth.

Dean Barlese:  The property we have… Before this, there was a great flood. Then there was a wind, and then the ice and snow that destroyed the world destroyed the humans. The last one, we’re in that time already. And our old people say this world’s going to burn; It’ll burn up. White people, they continue to destroy. And we’ve gone beyond where we can come back. They don’t see it; They don’t see their children, their grandchildren, their great-great-grand… They don’t look ahead like we do. We look seven generations ahead and leave things the way they are for future generations. But they don’t see that.

Brandi Morin:  [Voiceover] The mine is expected to be up and running by 2026. Meanwhile, land and water defenders say they’ll continue to pray it can be stopped.

I’m Brandi Morin, reporting for The Real News, Ricochet Media, and IndigiNews in the unseated territories of the Paiute, Shoshone, and Washoe Tribes in SoCal Nevada.

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Brandi Morin is an award-winning Cree/Iroquois/French journalist from Treaty 6 territory in Alberta. For the last 10 years Brandi has specialized in sharing Indigenous stories, some of which helped spark change and reconciliation in Canada’s political, cultural and social landscapes. Her most notable work has appeared in publications and on networks including National Geographic, Al Jazeera English, the Guardian, CANADALAND, VICE, ELLE Canada, the Toronto Star, the New York Times, Huffpost, Indian Country Today Media Network, the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network National News, and CBC Indigenous.

Brandi won a Human Rights Reporting award from the Canadian Association of Journalists in April of 2019 for her work with the CBC’s Beyond 94 project tracking the progress of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.

Her debut memoir, Our Voice of Fire, is forthcoming with House of Anansi in 2022.

Geordie Day is a documentary filmmaker, and television producer/director. He is the founder and president of the production company, NightSchool Films. His films have played on television, demand services, and in theatres at festivals and screenings around the world. Geordie has produced, written and directed on factual programming for Cooking Channel, Animal Planet, Nat Geo, CBC, CTV, E!, MTV, CMT and other networks.