Editor’s Note: Language is one of the most significant elements of any culture. If a language goes extinct, the culture will go extinct within a few generations. Languages are not just a way of communicating, they represent a worldview. Relation to the natural world is a clear example. In the English language, natural elements are referred by a neutral gender pronoun, “it.” It is not a coincidence that the same pronoun is used to refer to inanimate or nonliving beings. On the other hand, many cultures (both indigenous and nonindigenous) refer to natural elements with a gendered pronoun, similar to the ones used to refer to a person. For anyone who is a part of the culture, the language that they learn shapes how they view natural elements. An English speaking child is more likely to view nature as inanimate, compared to a child whose language ascribes personhood to nature. In the following essay, Mankh explores the origin of the language and its relation to our worldview.
Upside Down Ox Houses and Indigenous Place-Based Languages
“And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.” ~ Genesis 1:26
What if Indigenous languages hold some of the keys to rectifying climate chaos, habitat destruction and the overall insatiable global commerce structure aka “dominion over…,” while English and other alphabetized languages are part of the problem, in fact they have been encouraging an upside down approach for approximately 4000 years?
Nowadays you can hear people comment how the world seems inverted, topsy-turvy, upside down. What if the roots of that go back to the alphabet. I have good reason to think that is at least part of the conundrum because the letter A is based on the picture of an Ox head, but upside down; at one point sideways, too, but eventually upside down.
Livestock are domesticated animals and one aspect of that domestication is that Ox are often castrated male cattle. “Oxen are thought to have first been harnessed and put to work around 4000 BC.” Estimates are that the alphabet began to take shape around 2000 BC, but of course the lettering system was based on previous experiences and lifestyles put into picture forms which then became the AlphaBet (Greek, Alpha Beta), otherwise known as Ox House, or more accurately, Upside Down Ox House.
“House” is from “B” representing an enclosed structure. The ancient Egyptian “reed-house” B gives a sense of organic architecture and Hebrew includes the nuances “container” or “vessel” – “the created world is meant to house within it the spiritual.” Yet the prevalent association with B is House. On your way to work, perhaps you drive by a temple Beth-El or “House of God.” The “B” from “House” is not upside down (though the Etruscans had it facing the opposite way) and has various spellings/pronunciations, including: Bayit, Beith, Bet, Beth, Beh, or Vet. Picture of Hebrew “Beith” ―
The AlphaBet is based on phonetic abstractions which have shaped the minds and thinking patterns of people worldwide. “An alphabet, being the most abstract form of writing, enhances left-brain values the most.” And more than that, “The alphabet-people’s god became indisputably male and he would become disconnected from things of the earth. He was abstract, nowhere, and yet everywhere at once.”
While doing research for this article, the only possibility I found as to when and why the Ox shape became inverted was when the alphabet was being adapted from Phoenician to Greek and perhaps “the adapter didn’t seem to be certain of the orientation of the letters, because several were rotated or inverted,” also, changes with regard to “sound, name, letter shape and order.” Regardless of why it happened, this essay is putting forth that what the inversion represents rings true because the civilizations that followed have proved it so: The inverted Ox represents domestication and the ensuing dominion over “every creeping thing” ― which, by the way, reads as the precursor to the US Empire’s “full spectrum dominance.”
As a side note, mathematics got the Ox angle correct, but interpretations are up for grabs. “The ∀ symbol may look like the familiar capital ‘A’ written upside down, but in mathematics (specifically in predicate calculus), the ∀ is a logic symbol or universal quantifier. You can use it in place of ‘for all.’”
Speaking of universal quantifiers, along with the monetization of language (the first cuneiform wedges recorded transactions) was the religiosity, which when both of those (commerce and religion) merged with the mechanical, made for a world change comparable to the computer/Internet about 500 years later. The confluence of Gutenberg’s press, beginning circa 1450s, and Columbus’ commericalized colonization crusade, beginning 1492, cannot be overlooked. Along with Columbus on the boat came The Book aka Bible and the eventual franchising of religious concepts which have converted much of the world with the Word of God and the barrel of a gun, both foreign concepts to the Original Inhabitants of Turtle Island and Indigenous Peoples elsewhere.
And the book became a product to sell. The letters traveled, while Indigenous place-based languages stayed (you can guess it), where they’re at.
If you consider the upside down Ox as domesticated and the House as the modern emblem of success (think billionaires with more than one, or the goal of the average American to comfortably maintain one), then it becomes clearer how AlphaBet has and continues to shape people’s priorities as well as societal behavior patterns. Ownership of domesticated land and property is the key ingredient of predatory, colonized, commercial wealth. And domesticated cattle became the, ahem, cash cow of the fast-food industry.
Gutenberg’s press fostered a mechanical way of thinking and behaving, an assembly line of movable type promoting a book consciousness, the production format of which Henry Ford and then McDonald’s would ‘master’ ― the essence of the modern American lifestyle, faster and cheaper, a perfect storm of on-the-go religious colonialism mixed with corporate and state backing, or what I call “drive-thru theofascism.” The more recent propulsion of technology, gadgets, and AI (Artificial Intelligence) has exacerbated all that.
Now, flip all that upside down for the Indigenous perspective. Or for trying to navigate both the natural world and the mechanical world, be aware that excessive mechanical-ness dulls spontaneity, the ability to think for one’s self, and embrace the fact (yes, the fact) that plants and all manner of beings have spirit.
Some years ago on TV I saw a documentary, of which the title now escapes me, and it cited one of the roots of modern English as Frisian, a West Germanic language. What stood out to me was the following which I made note of – the language reflected the following characteristics: warlike; adventurous; greedy; religiosity/Christendom. If that’s not the essence of colonialism and empire, what is?
So the language of adventure that sought its jollies through warring, greed and enforced religion is at least some of the reason for our current troubles. In the film was mentioned a rather poetic phrase, “bone-house”… for “body,” yet many a con man has been known to have a smooth tongue.
Another linguistic reference to cattle and war is found in the Sanskrit, gáviṣṭi (गविष्टि) translated as “desire for more cows, desire for battle.” The only way one can desire for more cows is if they are domesticated. You can desire wild Ox, but to own them or go to war so as to control more of those four-leggeds indicates they are no longer wild.
Did faster language predict fast-food?
“The eye that can read is immediately caught by advertising and propaganda.” ~ Joost A. M. Meerloo, M.D., The Rape of the Mind (1956)
Perhaps the seeds of fast-talkers and fast-food were baked into the language. Several examples of how languages became faster, turning into a kind of shorthand, give a clue as to how people may have been conditioned to talk faster, and eventually fast-food on-the-go, a reflection of industrialized assembly line speed with humans as active parts of the machine.“The invention of papyrus as a writing material gave the Egyptians a quicker way to record information than carving into stone.” & “Hieratics eventually gave way to demotic, an even faster way for Egyptians to write.”
From thirty years of sporadically studying and doing brush calligraphy of ancient Chinese pictographs, I have learned that the pictograph for Sun was originally a circle with a wavy line in the center (Large Seal – Ta Chuan, 1122-256 BC), which then morphed into a a circle with a dot in the center (Small Seal – Hsia Chuan, 221-207 BC). But then with Clerical Style – Li Shu, 207 BC-588 AD, a small rectangle with a horizontal line. I suspect this, too, made for speedier communications, though the following alludes to other factors at work:
The Clerical Style “evolved from the late Warring States period” and “The Warring States period was an era in ancient Chinese history characterized by warfare, as well as bureaucratic and military reforms and consolidation.”
Has not much changed since then? As with the above mentioned flavors of cuneiform baked transactions and Frisian war adventures, there appear similarities with the evolution of the Chinese ‘script.’ As to the most current form of “consolidation” along with warfare and bureaucracy, “The largest shareholder of 88% of the companies on S&P 500 is either State Street, Vanguard or BlackRock. And you can see their influence in defense contracts.“
While it’s tricky to pin down, a general progression of peoples and places that contributed to making the current AlphaBet is as follows: Egyptian, Ugaritic/Semitic > Sinai > Palestine and Phoenician > Greek > Etruscans > Latin/Roman and Slavic. The Latin/Roman dominates to this day, as English is made of some 60% Latin-based words. A significant layer of that is the influence of the Roman empire that lingers under the radar in our AlphaBetic consciousness. But more than that, it lingers in the US legal system and echoes the Old Testament, which, as mentioned above, was “the first book written in an alphabet.”
As explained by Peter d’Errico, who has “been involved with Indigenous peoples’ legal issues for more than fifty years”: “The sovereignty claim of ‘Christian discovery’ underpins the entire edifice of US laws regarding Indigenous land rights. It is a US claim of ‘title’ and ‘dominion’ over Indigenous lands. ‘Christian discovery’ necessarily underlies ‘LandBack’ campaigns because the doctrine is embedded in US property law. See Johnson v. McIntosh (1823).”
The language effects the legal system which effects the way in which we relate – or don’t – with the Earth.
Much of humanity doesn’t relate with Earth because of the concept of property and having been domesticated. The word “domestic” has roots mentioning “house, lord, property,” from “domo-” which is also the root of “dominate.”
“Depends on what you look at obviously / But even more it depends on the way that you see” ~ Bruce Cockburn, from “Child of the Wind”
AlphaBet was also a precursor (no pun intended) for the current screen-fixated world, as the AlphaBet is a veneer of the actual environment/land, because the letters are phonetic representations, the pictures of each which you have to study to learn. But how many people who talk, talk, talk actually know the basis for what they are saying? How many people literally connect the language with the land and activities in their immediate environment? Indigenous Peoples do:
“These Indigenous languages that are more at risk than ever — that will be almost extinct at the end of the century — are the most powerful languages, they speak of quantum physics and how to communicate with Mother Earth, and you can’t find them in libraries or on your computers, you have to live them.”
~ Tiokasin Ghosthorse (Cheyenne River Lakota), from keynote talk at the COP 24 Climate Summit, Katowice, Poland, December 2018
Instead of looking at an Ox, the AlphaBet trained people to see an A, as nowadays the screens train people to more so see images of the natural world rather than caring for the actual landscape! And while one could argue that various incidents of deforestation happened in time before AlphaBet, it’s helpful to remember that AlphaBet is a condensed product of those already existing cultures.
Breaking the yoke of the Upside Down Ox House
While reading the excellent book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science (2022) by Jessica Hernandez, PhD, the phrase “place-based” stood out to me. So I considered a flavor of that: The Inuit/Iñupiat identify many types of snow, and probably ice; according to a Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiian) friend, there are numerous types of Hawaiian rain or ua; the title of the book If You’ve Forgotten the Names of Clouds, You’ve Lost Your Way by Russell Means and Bayard Johnson tells me that the Lakota identify numerous types of clouds; a key aspect of Japanese haiku is kigo or season-word, a poetic-scientific format for identifying a specific time or moment of a season. The Haiku Handbook by William J. Higginson and Penny Harter identifies sixteen for cherry blossoms, including: “hana no hagoshi – [moon] through [cherry-] blossom petals” and “rakka – fallen [cherry] blossoms.”
I am not qualified to speak for Indigenous Peoples about their languages, but the gist I glean is that when a People have been in a place long enough to study and deeply experience that place in detail, the language, as well as the songs, reflect that – holding keys for the maintenance and sustainability of the place; the land speaks to the People and the People speak back to the land. This rootedness is the opposite (does that count as upside down?) of the AlphaBet that traveled in boats and made its way around the globe, and has been and continues to be an instrumental part of colonization and commercialization.
When a People have place-based knowledge and longstanding experience, those People are voted most unlikely to behave with “dominion over,” rather deep relationship with all the beings there and traveling through there, and whether those relationships are based on survival or love or both, they are still deep relationships. In my little suburban patio/backyard there’s a so-called weed that spreads and takes over; most people remove the plant. One spring into summer I let it grow and then one day I noticed a sparrow nibbling on and thoroughly enjoying something about the tiny clusters of miniscule pink flowers. I learned that those plants are called Pennsylvania Smartweed, yet I’d bet there’s a Native/Indigenous name because, for one, “The Menominee used [and probably still do] this plant to treat hemorrhage, and to aid in post-partum healing.”
Outside the Upside Down Ox House grows a weed to eradicate; for the place-based Native Peoples there thrives a plant-medicine. And therein is at least one of the keys to rectifying an inverted worldview too-often seen through an AlphaBetic mind-frame.
More upside down examples:
“The buffalo is first domesticated somewhere in the near-tropical regions of Asia.” The Plains Indians buffalo was wild and revered. But then:
“In 1800 there were around 60 million buffalo in North America; however, that would drastically change over the next century, changing the lives of the Plains Indians. This is partly due to individual hunters looking to make a profit on the buffalo hides, the government starving the population of the Plains Indians by killing off their primary food source, and the coming of the railroads. The buffalo, like the Indian, was in the pathway of civilization.”
Another upside down:
Man has evolved and progressed from a cave man to his/her/etc. current advanced and ever-advancing status. But then again:
“Because we humans arrived last in this world, we are the ‘younger brothers’ of the other creatures and therefore have to learn everything from them.” ~ Vine Deloria, Jr. (Standing Rock Lakota)
AlphaBetic technology and spirituality
Now that this essay has properly dissed the AlphaBet, a few comments about its usefulness. What a technological marvel! From twenty-six letters come a daily stream of news and articles along with the seemingly relentless publishing of books, (however, a modern form of deforestation but are e-books any better? Think e-waste dump sites). As a writer and avid reader I can’t help but appreciate the letters and books yet I’ve also come to realize their limitations.
Another aspect needing mention is a kind of eye of the needle of consciousness, as for example in Hebrew, the letters can have sacred sounds and can serve as gateways to other than physical dimensions; the Hebraic Aleph connects the above with the below, as the letter shows. In this case the original Ox horns were somehow rearranged.
Because the core of my path is mystical Kaballah in which the Ox is one of four sacred tetramorphs – in Hebrew the Chioth ha Qodesh (“holy living creatures”) – along with the Eagle, Lion, and Human Being, I had to reconcile this with the aforementioned domesticated Ox. My educated guess, based on how things have played out for some 4000 to 6000 years, is that: In a purer form, the Ox represents patience and productive hard work, and is a provider of many things (akin to how the buffalo has provided for the Plains Indians). However, the Ox’s domestication, castration, and AlphaBetic inversion has morphed into such modern horrors as mega-corporate, agri-business, mono-culture, so-called farming, and concentration camp treatment of animals for consumption.
In an impatient world where lazy entrepreneurs and slave-drivers seek maximum profit from the cheapest labor, I’m sticking with my inner, wild, not castrated, Ox. This Ox, however, is not restricted to being an Ox because the form of hard-worker can be a Buffalo, Horse, Dog, Goat, and so forth.
Although I’m stuck with AlphaBetic English as my main form of verbal expression, I strive to go beyond that barrier, getting glimpses of another perspective as seen through Indigenous and other languages. Because direct experiences often go beyond words, I pay more attention to music, laughter, love, physical exercise, ecstatic states of being, quiet contemplations, to name a few.
In my book Moving Through The Empty Gate Forest, which addresses topics related to this essay, I encourage people to:
“Go through the eye of the needle, go through the empty spaces in the A and B, move beyond the framework the gatepost outlines of the letters, every day move through the mumbo-jumbo, the trickster spells entangling the mind and emotions, the propaganda and lies, move through someone else’s word of God, move through someone else’s letter of the law, move through someone else’s hierarchy of A to F to Z unravel the bandages of your mummified consciousness…”
Because it is clear to me that Indigenous languages are essential for the well-being of the Nations and Peoples that know and speak them, and essential for the well-being of the Earth and us all, I close this essay with a quote, albeit in English, by Robin Wall Kimmerer (Citizen Potawatomi Nation), from her well-known book Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants ―
“To be native to a place we must learn to speak its language.”
Mankh (Walter E. Harris III) writes, small press publishes, and is the author of 17 books. He travels a holistic mystic Kaballah-rooted pathway staying in touch with Turtle Island and the cycles of the Seasons. His website: www.allbook-books.com
Editor’s note: The FPIC (Free, prior and informed consent) and UNDRIP (UN Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous Peoples) are international standards, that some companies have adopted into their policies. The FPIC is an international human rights principle that protect peoples’ rights to self-determination. UNDRIP delineates and defines the individual and collective rights of indigenous peoples. Both of these are important principles that improve the sovereignty of indigenous peoples. However, neither of these are legally binding, which has disastrous outcomes.
Companies and countries alike are bypassing these principles in favor of profitable ventures, most recent of which are clean energy projects.
Right now, companies that advance the “clean” energy transition are threatening the land and the livelihoods of indigenous peoples and peasants. Demand for minerals like copper and lithium is skyrocketing, as every economic sector is being transitioned towards the fourth industrial revolution. But indigenous peoples need to have their right to a say in decisions affecting to their land. Ecosystems and people living with the land are being victimized to serve an economy that is desperately trying to save itself from collapsing.
When Francisco Calí Tzay, the United Nations special rapporteur on the rights of Indigenous peoples, spoke at the 22nd United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, or UNPFII, last week, he listed clean energy projects as some of the most concerning threats to their rights.
“I constantly receive information that Indigenous Peoples fear a new wave of green investments without recognition of their land tenure, management, and knowledge,” said Calí Tzay.
His statements — and those made by other delegates — at what is the world’s largest gathering of Indigenous peoples, made clear that without the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous people, these “green” projects have the capacity to seriously impede on Indigenous rights.
Free, prior and informed consent — known as FPIC — has always been an important topic at the UNPFII, but this year it’s taken on a renewed urgency.
Mining projects and carbon offsets put pressure on indigenous groups
“The strong push is because more and more of climate action and targets for sustainable development are impacting us,” said Joan Carling, executive director of Indigenous Peoples Rights International, an Indigenous nonprofit that works to protect Indigenous peoples’ rights worldwide.
Indigenous peoples around the world are experiencing the compounding pressures of clean energy mining projects, carbon offsets, new protected areas and large infrastructure projects on their lands as part of economic recovery efforts in the wake of Covid-19, according to The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs 2023 report.
Green colonialism threatens ecosystems
As states around the world trend towards transitioning to “clean” energy to meet their national and international climate goals, the demand for minerals like lithium, copper, and nickel needed for batteries that power the energy revolution are projected to skyrocket. The demand could swell fourfold by 2040, and by conservative estimates could pull in $1.7 trillion in mining investments.
Although Indigenous delegates say they support “clean” energy projects, one of the issues is their land rights: more than half of the projects extracting these minerals currently are on or near lands where Indigenous peoples or peasants live, according to an analysis published in Nature.
This can lead to their eviction from territories, loss of livelihoods, or the deforestation and degradation of surrounding ecosystems.
“And yet […] we are not part of the discussion,” said Carling. “That’s why I call it green colonialism — the [energy] transition without the respect of Indigenous rights is another form of colonialism.”
Companies and governments don’t abide by communities
Because of this, delegates are calling on countries and companies to create binding policy and guidelines that require FPIC for all projects that affect Indigenous peoples and their lands, as well as financial, territorial and material remedies for when companies and countries fail to do so.
However, there is some push back. The free prior, informed consent process can lead to a wide variety of outcomes including the right for communities to decline a highly profitable project, which can often be difficult for countries, companies and investors to abide by, explains Mary Beth Gallagher, the director of engagement of investment at Domini Impact Investments, who spoke at a side event on shareholder advocacy.
Indigenous Sámi delegates from Norway drew attention to their need for legally enforceable FPIC protection as they continue to protest the Fosen Vind Project, an onshore wind energy complex on Sámi territory, that the country’s Supreme Court ruled violated their rights.
“We have come to learn the hard way that sustainability doesn’t end colonialism,” said a Sámi delegate during the main panel on Tuesday.
Across the globe indigenous peoples face eviction
In the United States, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony, the People of Red Mountain and members of the Fort McDermitt Tribe filed lawsuits against the federal Bureau of Land Management for approving the permits for an open-pit lithium mine without proper consultation with the tribes. In the Colombian Amazon, the Inga Indigenous community presented a successful appeal for lack of prior consultation from a Canadian company that plans to mine copper, molybdenum and other metals in their highly biodiverse territory.
While delegates put a lot of emphasis on the lack of FPIC, they put equal emphasis on FPIC as a crucial part of the long-term sustainability of energy projects.
“FPIC is more than just a checklist for companies looking to develop projects on Indigenous lands,” said Carling. “It is a framework for partnership, including options for equitable benefit sharing agreements or memorandum of understanding, collaboration or conservation.”
The focus at this year’s conference has emphasized the growing role of FPIC in the private sector. Investors and developers are increasingly considering the inclusion of FPIC into their human rights due diligence standards. Select countries such as Canada have implemented UNDRIP in full, although First Nation groups have pointed out irregularities in how it is being implemented. The European Union is proposing including specific mandatory rights to FPIC in its corporate sustainability due diligence regulation. Side events at the UNPFII focused on topics like transmitting FPIC Priorities to the private sector and using shareholder advocacy to increase awareness of FPIC.
Gallagher of Domini Impact Investments said companies have a responsibility to respect human rights, which includes FPIC: “If they have a human rights commitment or they have a commitment in their policies not to do land grabs, we have to hold them to account for that.”
Indigenous leadership at the center of negotiations
In 2021, the world’s largest asset manager, BlackRock, published an expectation that companies “obtain (and maintain) the free, prior, and informed consent of Indigenous peoples for business decisions that affect their rights.” Large banks like Credit Agricole have included FPIC in their corporate social responsibility policy. But in most cases, even when companies have a FPIC policy it doesn’t conform to the standard outlined in UNDRIP and is not legally binding.
“It doesn’t do the work it’s supposed to do to protect self-determination,” said Kate Finn, director at First Peoples Worldwide. “It becomes a check-the-box procedure that’s solely consultations and stakeholder consultation instead of protection of rights and self-determination.”
“If communities aren’t giving their consent, a company has to respect that,” said Gallagher, who added “There’s obviously points of tension where investors have different agendas and priorities but ultimately, it’s about centering Indigenous leadership and working through that.”
Not properly abiding by FPIC can be costly to companies in countries that operate where it is a legal instrument. It comes with risks of losing their social operation to license, and financial damages. According to a study by First Peoples Worldwide, Energy Transfer and the banks that financed the now-completed Dakota Access Pipeline, lost billions due to construction delays, account closures, and contract losses after they failed to obtain consent from the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe in the United States.
Ultimately, Indigenous people need to be part of decision-making from the beginning of any project, especially “clean” energy projects mining for transition minerals on their territories, said Carling. “For us, land is life, and we have a right to decide over what happens on our land.”
Banner by Carolina Caycedo. Lithium Intensive, 2022. Color pencil on paper. Courtesy of the artist.
Editor’s Note: Roam Free Nation’s cofounders traveled to Gardiner, MT recently to attend the Interagency Bison Management Plan meeting and speak on behalf of the buffalo. The meeting gave an overview of the recent “hunt” that killed over 1,200 wild buffaloes. The meeting was also attended by a few representatives of tribal people who participated in the “hunt”. Many of the represented tribal people there were satisfied at how “smooth” the “hunt” turned out to be for them. Read the Roam Free Nation’s full report on the meeting here.
Yet not everyone believes that the “hunt” was what could be the best for the wild buffaloes. The following piece is an opinion piece by Jaedin Medicine Elk, a co-founder of Roam Free Nation and a member of the Cheyenne tribe.
I expected the recent meeting of those involved with the Interagency Bison Management Plan to be highly emotional given the national and international outrage over the indiscriminate killing of so many Yellowstone buffalo this year. Instead, it was business as usual with no remorse from anyone for killing over 25% of the herd as state and tribal hunt managers talked about how well it went and claimed there were no problems.
If you considered the 1,250 dead bulls, pregnant females, and calves from the buffalo’s perspective, however, the conversation would have gone much differently. But none of the “managers” or tribal representatives did that.
The dominate, colonized culture has made its way onto our Tribal Nations. But we can’t live as tribal people when all we think about is ourselves and our rights and not Mother Earth or the wildlife our ancestors loved and depended on.
Killing hungry, pregnant female buffalo at the Park’s border isn’t what we should be doing. We need to allow these matriarchal family groups – mainly pregnant females and grandmothers – to teach the young ones the migration corridors so more buffalo can establish themselves on the lands that are their birth right.
We have to stop treating these buffalo like they are just meat animals that don’t have a right to roam free on Turtle Island. We’re treating the Buffalo Nation as the Veho (whites) want us to, controlling and destroying these buffalo to appease Montana and the livestock interests – with our help! They want us to forget our ancient relationship and obligations to the Buffalo Nation.
When first joining this issue, I expected powerful native voices who see what is going on to say something. But I came to find out the reality is, people are afraid to say anything as tribal members. We don’t want to fight our own people, but at the same time when it’s our people helping facilitate the destruction of a wild buffalo population, what are we supposed to do? Sit by and let buffalo keep dying because Tribal people have been brain-washed to believe humans are everything and we matter the most? This ‘hunt’ isn’t the right way to reconnect with the Buffalo Nation. They’ve had our back since we made that spiritual connection. Now it’s time we had theirs.
The older I get, the more I understand why our elders tell us to learn our language and culture. When I started being with wild buffalo, things became more clear as to how our ancestors lived their ways of life, copying the Buffalo Nation that kept them going for thousands of years.
Today the Buffalo Nation is like our own Tribal nations…forgotten. Our relationship and connection to them is likewise forgotten — because tribal members are killing pregnant female buffalo and preventing the next generation 0f buffalo from seeing the sun, moon, grass, blue skies, rain, and everything this beautiful Turtle Island has to offer. The Buffalo Nation is looking to tribal nations to help them, not just kill as many as we can because we have treaty rights to do so.
The laws made by men can be unmade by men and now is the time to “un-make” the “management plan” that is decimating wild Buffalo Nation and allow them to once again roam free.
Jaedin Medicine Elk is a co-founder and board president of the Montana-based Roam Free Nation. Jaedin is Northern Cheyenne, a Sundancer and Sacred Pipe Carrier from a traditional Buffalo Culture family.
Editor’s Note: As a continent with abundant “resources”, Africa has been a target of colonial powers, who have plundered her land for centuries. This is not merely ecocide, but a violation of indigenous and human rights as well. Colonizers have destroyed Africa and continue to do so under newer guises, all in the name of, they say, advancing the lives of African people. People whose advanced cultures were destroyed along with their land. While DGR believes in community control over decisions related to energy, we not believe that renewable energy is the key to the ecological problems we are facing.
This article was produced by Earth | Food | Life, a project of the Independent Media Institute. This article is an edited version of a speech the author delivered at Health of Mother Earth Foundation’s 10th Anniversary Conference with the theme ‘Advancing Environmental Justice in Africa’ held in June 2023 in Abuja, Nigeria.
The struggle for environmental justice in Africa is complex and broad. It is the continuation of the fight for the liberation of the continent and for socio-ecological transformation. It is a fact that the environment is our life: The soil, rivers, and air are not inanimate or lifeless entities. We are rooted and anchored in our environment. Our roots are sunk into our environment and that is where our nourishment comes from. We do not see the Earth and her bountiful gifts as items that must be exploited, transformed, consumed, or wasted. The understanding of the Earth as a living entity and not a dead thing warns that rapacious exploitation that disrupts her regenerative powers are acts of cruelty or ecocide.
We bear in mind that colonialism was erected on the right to subjugate, erase, or diminish the right to life and the right to the unfettered cultural expression of the colonized. In particular, the colonized were dehumanized and transformed into zombies working for the benefit of the colonial powers. Ecological pillage was permitted as long as it benefited the colonizers. This ethos has persisted and manifests in diverse forms. Grand theft by the colonial forces was seen as entrepreneurship. Genocide was overlooked as mere conquest. Slavery was seen as commerce. Extractivism was to be pursued relentlessly as any element left unexploited was considered a waste. What could be wasted with no compunction was life. So most things had to die. The civilizers were purveyors of death. Death of individuals. Death of ecosystems.
Thus, today, people still ask: What would we do with the crude oil or fossil gas in our soil if we do not exploit them? In other words, how could we end poverty if we do not destroy our environment and grab all it could be forced to yield? We tolerate deforestation, and unregulated industrial fishing, and run a biosafety regulation system that promotes the introduction of needless genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and by doing so, endanger our biodiversity and compromise our environment and food systems.
Plunder is presented as inescapable and desired under the cloak of foreign investment. Political leaders in despoiled regions offer ease of doing business, tax holidays, sundry lax rules, and other neocolonial governance policies.
The reign of exploitation and consumption without responsibility has driven Africa and indeed the world to the brink. The current civilization of death seeks ready investment in destruction through warfare and extractivism rather than in building resilience and adapting to the environmental changes that result from corporate and imperial misadventures.
We are in a reign in which condescension is the hallmark of multilateralism. The collective action needed to tackle global warming has been reduced to puny “nationally determined contributions” that add up to nothing. Rather than recognizing and paying a clear climate debt, we expend energy negotiating a loss and damage regime to be packaged as a humanitarian gesture. Pray, who negotiates what is offered as charity?
Today, Africa is facing multiple ecological challenges. All of these have resulted from the actions of entities that have seen the continent as a sacrificial zone. While the world has come to the conclusion that there must be an urgent shift from dependence on fossil fuels, we are seeing massive investments for the extraction of petroleum resources on the continent. And we must say that this investment comes with related infrastructure for the export of these resources out of the continent in a crass colonial pattern. A mere 1 percent of the labor force in the extractive sector in Africa are Africans. A mere 5 percent of investment in the sector is in Africa. More than 85 percent of the continent’s fossil gas infrastructure is for export purposes.
The shift to renewable energy brings the same old challenges to Africa. Extraction of critical minerals for renewable energy is done without prior consultation with and consent of our people. The continent’s environment is being degraded just as it has been with the extraction of oil, gas, gold, diamond, nickel, cobalt, and other solid minerals. The array of solar panels and wind turbines could well become markers of crime scenes if precautionary measures are not taken now.
Are we against renewable energy? No. They provide the best pathway toward ending the energy deficit on the continent. However, this should be pursued through discrete, autonomous, and socialized ownership schemes.
While the world knows that we must rebuild our biodiversity, what we see is the push towards more deforestation in Africa and for monoculture agriculture, all of which are against our best interest and that of the world. A sore issue, land grabbing has not disappeared with the coming innovations.
As Chinua Achebe writes in his classic 1958 book Things Fall Apart about Eneke the bird, “Since men have learned to shoot without missing, he has learned to fly without perching.” For us, until the despoilers of our environment halt their destructive acts, we will intensify our resistance and never give in to their designs. We believe this conference will not only break the yoke of colonialism but will also puncture the hold of coloniality. Our book, Politics of Turbulent Waters, is one of the tools toward these ends.
Every African nation should:
Commit to issuing an annual State of Environment Report to lay out the situation of things in their territories.
End destructive extraction no matter the appeal of capital.
Demand climate debt for centuries of ecological exploitation and harm.
Require remediation, restoration of all degraded territories, and pay reparations to direct victims or their heirs.
Support and promote food sovereignty including by adopting agroecology.
Adopt and promote African cultural tools and philosophies for the holistic tackling of ecological challenges and for the healing and well-being of our people and communities.
Promote and provide renewable energy in a democratized manner.
Recognize our right to water, treat it as a public good, and halt and reverse its privatization.
Recognize the rights of Mother Earth and codify Ecocide as a crime akin to genocide, war crimes, and other unusual crimes.
Ensure that all Africans enjoy the right to live in a safe and satisfactory environment suitable for their progress as enshrined in the African Charter on Peoples and Human Rights.
Editor’s Note: The following are two press releases by Ox Sam Camp. As communities get more radical against corporations, corporations use their power against them. This is not the first time that this has happened and it will not be the last. As activists, it is necessary for us to understand the risk associated with any action against the system. The earlier we understand this, the better we can strategize.
The article is followed by a short reflection piece by Elisabeth Robson on the need for the environmental movement to put our allegiance with the natural world, as is demonstrated in this fight to protect Thacker Pass.
Ox Sam Camp Raided by Police at Thacker Pass
One Arrested as Prayer Tipis Are Dismantled and Ceremonial Items Confiscated
THACKER PASS, NV — On Wednesday morning, the Humboldt County Sheriff’s department on behalf of Lithium Nevada Corporation, raided the Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokutun (Ox Sam Indigenous Women’s Camp), destroying the two ceremonial tipi lodges, mishandling and confiscating ceremonial instruments and objects, and extinguishing the sacred fire that has been lit since May 11th when the Paiute/Shoshone Grandma-led prayer action began.
One arrest took place on Wednesday at the direction of Lithium Nevada security. During breakfast, law enforcement arrived. Almost immediately without warning, a young Diné female water protector was singled out by Lithium Nevada security and arrested, not given the option to leave the camp. Two non-natives were allowed to “move” in order to avoid arrest. The Diné woman was quickly handcuffed and subsequently loaded into a 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 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 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 11th, 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 12th. “We have zero issues with [the tipi] whatsoever… We respect your right to be out here.”
On March 19th the Sheriff arrived again, serving individual fourteen-day Temporary Protection Orders against several individuals at camp. The protection orders were granted by the Humboldt County Court on behalf of Lithium Nevada based on sworn statements loaded with misrepresentations, false claims, and, according to those targeted, outright false accusations by their employees. Still, Ox Sam Camp continued for another week. The tipis, the sacred fire, and the prayers remained unchallenged for a total of twenty-seven days of ceremony and resistance.
The scene at Thacker Pass this week 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). 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 Sheriff’s 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 have begun to claim that the raid was done 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 Sherriff 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 Sherriffs 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.”
Josephine and others plan to make a statement on live stream outside the Humboldt County Sheriff’s Office in Winnemucca on the afternoon of Friday, June 9th around 1pm.
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 25th which led to Lithium Nevada shutting down construction for a day, and returned on May 11th 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.”
Land Defenders Arrested, Camp Raided After Blocking Excavator
First arrests are underway and camp is being raided after land defenders halted an excavator this morning at Thacker Pass.
OROVADA, NV — This morning, a group of Native American water protectors and allies used their bodies to non-violently block construction of the controversial Thacker Pass lithium mine in Nevada, turning back bulldozers and heavy equipment.
The dramatic scene unfolded this morning as workers attempting to dig trenches near Sentinel Rock were turned back by land defenders who ran and put their bodies between heavy equipment and the land.
Now they are being arrested and camp is being raided.
Northern Paiute and Western Shoshone people consider Thacker Pass to be sacred. So when they learned that the area was slated to become the biggest open-pit lithium mine in North America, they filed lawsuits, organized rallies, spoke at regulatory hearings, and organized in the community. But despite all efforts over the last three years, construction of the mine began in March.
That’s what led Native American elders, friends and family, water protectors, and their allies to establish what they call a “prayer camp and ceremonial fire” at Thacker Pass on May 11th, when they setup a tipi at dawn blocking construction of a water pipeline for the mine. A second tipi was erected several days later two miles east, where Lithium Nevada’s construction is defacing Sentinel Rock, one of their most important sacred sites.
Sentinel Rock is integral to many Nevada Tribes’ worldview and ceremony. The area was the site of two massacres of Paiute and Shoshone people. The first was an inter-tribal conflict that gave the area it’s Paiute name: Peehee Mu’huh, or rotten moon. The second was a surprise attack by the US Cavalry on September 12th, 1865, during which the US Army slaughtered dozens. One of the only survivors of the attack was a man named Ox Sam. It is some of Ox Sam’s descendants, the Grandmas, that formed Ox Sam Newe Momokonee Nokotun (Indigenous Women’s Camp) to protect this sacred land for the unborn, to honor and protect the remains of their ancestors, and to conduct ceremonies. Water protectors have been on-site in prayer for nearly a month.
On Monday, Lithium Nevada Corporation also attempted to breach the space occupied by the water protectors. As workers maneuvered trenching equipment into a valley between the two tipis, water protectors approached the attempted work site and peacefully forced workers and their excavator to back up and leave the area. According to one anonymous land defender, Lithium Nevada’s action was “an attempted show of force to fully do away with our tipi and prayer camp around Sentinel Rock.”
Ranchers, recreationists, and members of the public have been allowed to pass without incident and water protectors maintain friendly relationships with locals. Opposition to the mine is widespread in the area, and despite repeated warnings from the local Sheriff, there have been no arrests. Four people, including Dorece Sam Antonio of the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe (an Ox sam descendant) and Max Wilbert of Protect Thacker Pass, have been targeted by court orders barring them from the area. They await a court hearing in Humboldt County Justice Court.
“Lithium Nevada is fencing around the sacred site Sentinel Rock to disrupt our access and yesterday was an escalation to justify removal of our peaceful prayer camps,” said one anonymous water protector at Ox Sam Camp. “Lithium Nevada intends to desecrate and bulldoze the remains of the ancestors here. We are calling out to all water protectors, land defenders, attorneys, human rights experts, and representatives of Tribal Nations to come and stand with us.”
“I’m being threatened with arrest for protecting the graves of my ancestors,” says Dorece Sam Antonio. “My great-great Grandfather Ox Sam was one of the survivors of the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre that took place here. His family was killed right here as they ran away from the U.S. Army. They were never buried. They’re still here. And now these bulldozers are tearing up this place.”
Another spiritual leader on the front lines has been Dean Barlese, a spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. Despite being confined to a wheelchair, Barlese led prayers at the site on April 25th (shutting down construction for a day) and returned on May 11th.
“I’m asking people to come to Peehee Mu’huh,” Barlese said. “We need more prayerful people. I’m here because I have connections to these places. My great-great-great grandfathers fought and shed blood in these lands. We’re defending the sacred. Water is sacred. Without water, there is no life. And one day, you’ll find out you can’t eat money.”
The 1865 Thacker Pass massacre is well documented in historical sources, books, newspapers, and oral histories. Despite the evidence but unsurprisingly, the Federal Government has not protected Thacker Pass or even slowed construction of the mine to allow for consultation to take place with Tribes. In late February, the Federal Government recognized tribal arguments that Thacker Pass is a “Traditional Cultural District” eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. But that didn’t stop construction from commencing.
“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.”
In the past couple of weeks both The Economist and Mother Jones have published covers showing people embracing industrial objects and exhorting “environmentalists” to get on board with the green building boom.
The Economist cover shows a man hugging a massive steel electric grid pylon and says “Hug Pylons Not Trees: The Growth Environmentalism Needs.” The Mother Jones cover shows a woman hugging an excavator, and says “Yes in Our Backyards: It’s time for progressives to fall in love with the green building boom.”
The latter is made even worse by the fact that it is Bill McKibben saying this. We expect relentless pro-industry, pro-growth propaganda from The Economist. But Mother Jones? Bill McKibben? McKibben begins his article in Mother Jones, Getting to Yes, by saying “I’m an environmentalist” and then proceeds to spend multiple pages telling us exactly how he is not an environmentalist but rather a pro-technology industrialist. To solve our “biggest problems” he pleads with us to “say yes” to “solar panels, wind turbines, and factories to make batteries and mines to extract lithium.”
Max Wilbert, co-founder of Protect Thacker Pass, climbed on top of an excavator on April 25, 2023 to protest the Thacker Pass Lithium Mine, currently being constructed in northern Nevada by Lithium Nevada Corporation. He was there with about 25 other people including Northern Paiute Native Americans Dorece Sam and Dean Barlese, who spent the day blocking mine construction and saying prayers to this land considered sacred by their people.
In Max’s book, Bright Green Lies, he describes “environmentalists” like McKibben as “bright greens”. These “environmentalists” understand that environmental problems exist and are serious, but believe that green technology and consumerism will allow us to continue our current lifestyles indefinitely. As Max writes: “The bright greens’ attitude amounts to: ‘It’s less about nature, and more about us.’”
In his Mother Jones article, McKibben illustrates how he’s less about nature, and all about us (meaning humans, our technologies, and our lifestyles). “Emergencies demand urgency,” he writes, and what he urges us is not to stop destroying nature, the source of all life on planet Earth, but rather to destroy more of it, by building more industry and mining more, for “electrons… a crop we badly need.”
McKibben acknowledges that “repeating the mistakes of our history” by building “a lithium mine on sacred territory in Nevada” is “truly unforgivable,” but then immediately dismisses the concerns of regional tribes by saying that “if we can’t make a quick energy transition, then the impact of that will be felt most by the poorest.” Does he not understand that for many traditional cultures and traditional spiritual practitioners, everywhere is sacred? Does he not understand that everywhere not already destroyed by industry is home to someone — sage-grouse, pronghorn, endangered spring snails, swallows, endangered trout, old growth sagebrush, and so many more? Apparently he does not, or perhaps he doesn’t care, because his article is all about promoting industry, nature be damned.
“So there’s one general rule you could derive: If something makes climate change worse, then we shouldn’t do it,” McKibben writes. I agree. Does McKibben think the 150,000 tons of CO2 the Thacker Pass lithium mine will emit per year don’t count? Clearly those emissions will make climate change worse. Does he think that the carbon emissions caused by digging up thousands of acres of ancient soil at Thacker Pass don’t count either? And what about the 700,000 tons per year of molten sulfur trucked into Thacker Pass from oil refineries; where will that molten sulfur come from if it doesn’t come from oil refineries, and do those oil refineries and their CO2 emissions not count? If we use McKibben’s rule, then clearly the Thacker Pass lithium mine should not be built, and yet he urges us to support more lithium mining.
McKibben and those pursuing the “electrify everything” agenda promoted by The Economist and Mother Jones are stuck in blinders about climate change. McKibben exposes these blinders when he writes: “slowing down lithium mining likely means extending the years we keep on mining coal.” He believes that this is our choice: lithium mining and batteries and electric vehicles, or coal and CO2 emissions. To him and the “electrify everything” crowd those are the only two options.
But there is another option: we can resist industrial culture and work to end it. We can block construction equipment rather than embracing it. We can dramatically lower our profligate energy use — no matter how it’s powered. We can protect the land and the natural communities, including human communities, that depend on unspoiled land, unpolluted soil, clean air, and clean water. We can be real environmentalists, deep green environmentalists, who understand that we must live within the limits of the natural world, and work to transform ourselves, our culture, our economy and our politics to put the health and well-being of the natural world first.
We can be more like Max and Dorece and Dean and the other activists who stood their ground to protect the land at Thacker Pass. We can block excavators, not hug them. Our very lives depend on it.
A criminal slips a police officer a handful of bills and walks free. A businessman buys a politician with a briefcase full of cash. We often think of bribery and corruption in these blatant terms, and as something that happens in poor countries, elsewhere.
But corruption often looks different.
In the United States, where I live, corruption is common. It’s also mostly legal.
In fact, dirty money has become part of the political fabric of our nation. It has become normalized, institutionalized, and even regulated. And yet, the effects of this corruption are just as insidious and destructive as blatant payoffs. Corruption is a rot in our political system, and it is spreading.
This article is about American corruption, but the story will be told by looking at one particular Canadian mining company called Lithium Americas, which is working in the United States through a wholly-owned U.S.-based subsidiary, Lithium Nevada Corporation.
For two and a half years, I’ve been fighting Lithium Nevada to stop them from destroying Thacker Pass — a biodiversity hotspot and Native American sacred site known Peehee Mu’huh in the Paiute language that is in northern Nevada, just shy of the Oregon border. Lithium Nevada, as you have probably guessed, wants to turn this place into an open-pit lithium mine.
This is a special place. Thacker Pass is home to dwindling sage-grouse, Pronghorn, mule deer, and golden eagles. It’s a migratory corridor and climate change refuge. It’s the watershed for local communities, and the site of two massacres of Paiute people, including one on September 12, 1865 in which US Army soldiers killed between 30 and 50 men, women, children, and elders in a surprise attack at dawn. It’s been recognized by the Federal Government as a “Traditional Cultural District,” a landscape of outstanding importance to Native American history and cultural identity.
And right now, as you read this, it is being destroyed by a corrupt corporation and a corrupt government. Bulldozers are rolling and centuries-old sagebrush, millennia-old artifacts, and the lives of precious desert creatures are being crushed under metal treads.
How is this possible? How, in a democracy where people have the right to protest, to speak out, to comment, to petition, to file lawsuits, how is it possible to have such a miscarriage of justice? And more broadly, how is it possible that our governmental system is failing to address the ecological catastrophe we are facing: the 6th mass extinction of life on Earth?
Part of the answer is corruption, which we can break down into five categories: lobbying, writing laws, the revolving door, campaign contributions, and community bribery. Let’s look at each in turn, using Lithium Americas and Thacker Pass as an example.
Lobbying: How Corporations Gain Disproportionate Access
Lobbying is based on a simple principle: that government officials should listen to their constituents.
Transparency International defines lobbying as “Any activity carried out to influence a government or institution’s policies and decisions in favor of a specific cause or outcome.”
“Even when allowed by law,” they say, “these acts can become distortive [harmful to democracy and justice] if disproportionate levels of influence exist — by companies, associations, organizations and individuals.”
Today’s lobbying is not the simple practice of people talking to their elected officials. Instead, it’s a tightly regulated $3.73 billion industry dominated by political insiders and major corporations, rife with corrupt “revolving doors,” and matched by at least $3-4 billion in “shadow lobbying” that isn’t regulated or disclosed to the public in any way.
The regulation of lobbying is essential to its proper functioning as a method of corruption. As Ben Price, National Organizing Director at the Community Environmental Legal Defense Fund, puts it, “regulation is not so much a way to curb corruption, but more to the point, regulations legalize the corruption by defining the limits to it that will be disallowed.”
“In doing so,” he continues, “the principle effect of regulations is to shield bribery from legal liability by legalizing enough of it to serve the purpose of the corporate legislative influencers.”
Like advertising, corporations use lobbying because it works.
Studies have found that spending more money on lobbying and campaign contributions results in direct reductions in federal taxes, state taxes, and more federal contracts. One analysis looking at only the nation’s 200 most “politically active” corporations found they spent $58 billion on lobbying the federal government and “campaign contributions”[i] between 2007 and 2012, but received $4.4 trillion in federal subsidies, contracts, and other support during the same time period. That’s a 7,580% return on investment.
Another study found even bigger returns: “on average, for every dollar spent on influencing politics, the nation’s most politically active corporations received $760 from the government” — a 76,000% payout.
Corporations are Writing Our Laws
Corporations use lobbyists because their wealth allows them disproportionate access to the government, meaning that they can build relationships with politicians and staffers, influence policy, share ideas, and even draft legislation. They can also bribe judges, as the recent Clarence Thomas corruption scandal shows. But it goes further. As one report in NPR notes, “It’s taken for granted that lobbyists influence legislation. But perhaps less obvious is that they often write the actual bills — even word for word.”
Our laws are being written by corporations.
And this isn’t just a federal problem. A 2019 USA Today investigation found more than 10,000 bills introduced to legislatures in all 50 states over an 8-year period were “almost entirely copied from bills written by special interests.” The report also notes that their investigation detected these bills using automated techniques, and “the real number is probably far higher.”
Our politicians rarely write laws. Instead, corporations and lobbyists write laws; congress sells the laws to the public; then lobbyists pay their congresspeople in campaign contributions, Super PAC funding, and revolving-door job opportunities – topics we will look at next.
The Revolving Door
Another way that corruption has become endemic inside the government of the United States is through what’s known as the “revolving door.”
The revolving door refers to the common practice of corporate employees quitting their jobs and going to work in the government, and vice versa. It’s quite common for government employees and elected officials to quit or end their terms and immediately get jobs in the industries they were supposedly regulating.
This is a sort of “retroactive bribery” where government officials do what corporations want, then get paid off afterwards. And it’s completely legal.
Occasionally there will be stories of lobbyists who stray into outright bribery — Jack Abramoff, notably — but these stories are rare, not because corruption is uncommon, but becauseyou don’t really need to break the law as a corporation: you wrote the laws. And you did it deliberately to make your bribery and influence campaigns legal.
As of 2016, about half of retiring senators and a third of retiring House Representatives register as lobbyists to collect their checks. This is equally common among Democrats and Republicans.
Lithium Nevada Corporation’s Lobbying Activities (the ones we know about)
Harbinger is “a leading federal government and political affairs firm” that was founded by and employs former high-level Republican congressional aides and political operatives. They have been listed as among the top lobbyists in Washington D.C. and made a total of $10.9 million in 2021 from a client list which includes the airline industry, major banks and investment firms, mining companies, biotech, the military-industrial complex, Facebook, electric utilities, General Electric, and the oil and gas industry.
“We leverage our experience as former senior staff to the Congressional Leadership and the Executive Branch to position clients for a seat at the decision-making table,” they write on their website. They continue: “[Harbinger is] founded on the belief that every client deserves partner-level legislative expertise” — a “boutique model” — that they use “for one simple reason: it gets results.”
In the state of Nevada, Lithium Nevada Corporation has hired at least 4 lobbyists since 2017 from two businesses: Argentum Partners, “a full-service strategic communications firm… with a hungry, energetic, and experienced team of lobbyists,” and Ferrato Corporation, “a full service bi-partisan public affairs firm.”
Notably, Lithium Nevada’s Argentum lobbyists included Mike Draper, who “helmed the media relations and public affairs for the planning, permitting, construction and opening of the Ruby Pipeline, the largest natural gas pipeline in North America.” The Ruby Pipeline was fought vehemently by environmentalists and Tribes in 2009 and 2010.
Another technique of legalized corruption is “campaign contributions,” also known as donations to politicians.
Many countries in the world place strict limits on the amount of money that people can donate to political candidates, or even have political campaigns funded by the government, removing the influence of money almost entirely. The United States is not one of those countries.
Elected officials in the United States are desperate for money. The average U.S. senator has to rase $14,000 a day just to stay in office — and that’s once they’re already elected. This is true for both Democrats and Republicans, which is why corporations, both directly and through their lobbyists and employees, tend to play both sides by donating to both political parties.
For example, Jonathan Evans, CEO of Lithium Americas Corporation, donated at least $10,250 to political candidates between 2021 and 2022 including Catherine Cortez Mastow (Democratic Senator from Nevada) and Mark Amodei (Nevada’s Republican Governor). George Ireland, Board President of Lithium Americas, has donated at least $19,800 to candidates since 2011, including $500 to the Trump campaign and $6,600 to John Hickenlooper. Data from OpenSecrets.org shows that 7 other Lithium Americas employees, Board members, and associated parties gave at least another $10,819 to political candidates between 2018 and 2022.
These amounts don’t include the MUCH larger political contributions given by employees and family members of Harbinger Strategies, who gave $392,842 to political candidates in the 2020 election cycle alone.
Many of these people donated up to the legal limit, implying that if the limit were higher, they would give more money — and perhaps that they would seek ways to circumvent contribution limits via so-called “Super PACs” and other dark money techniques.
Keep in mind that less than 1.5% of Americans donate more than $200 to political candidates or parties in any given year. This is the domain of the wealthy.
Lithium Americas money is well-spent.
In what appears to be a quid pro quo for their lobbying and campaign contributions, Lithium Americas Corporation has been granted a total of $8,637,357 in tax abatements from the State of Nevada, including a partial sales tax abatement worth $5 million, a $3.3 million property tax abatement and about $225,000 in payroll tax abatements. That money is unavailable for schools, healthcare, social services, small business assistance, environmental programs, etc.
From the Federal Government, Lithium Americas has received a loan from the Department of Energy’s “Advanced Technology Vehicles Manufacturing Loan Program” (ATVM) which is likely to cover “up to 75% of the Thacker Pass’ total capital costs for construction.”
This loan program offers highly favorable terms that amount to a significant subsidy of as much as $3 billion USD.
Based on a very conservative estimate for Lithium Americas Corporation lobbying and employee campaign contribution of, say, $400,000, they’re looking at a return on investment of 2,100% — and that’s before including the massive financial value of the ATVM loan.
Corruption in politics is often matched with corruption at a local level.
Lithium Americas’ plans to destroy Thacker Pass have created serious community opposition among farmers and ranchers from the rural areas closest to Thacker Pass, among local citizens in the nearby town of Winnemucca, among environmental groups concerned about impacts to wildlife, plants, air, and water, and among Native American tribes concerned about their sacred and culturally important sites, animals, and medicines.
The response has been predictable. Anti-mining activist Joan Kuyek’s book Unearthing Justice: How to Protect Your Community From The Mining Industry describes the myths repeated incessantly by Lithium Americas and almost every mining company:
“The mine will create hundreds of jobs and enrich governments.”
The mine can make community members rich and solve all of their social and economic problems.”
“Modern engineering will ensure that the mine doesn’t damage the water, air, or the wildlife.”
When these myths are exposedasfalse, they resort to legalized bribery. At Thacker Pass, that takes the form of Lithium Americas Corporation paying for a new school for the community of Orovada, and signing an agreement with one local Tribal Councilwoman for construction of a cultural center. One tribal member, my friend Shelley Harjo, wrote in response: “A few promised buildings and a cultural center do not supersede the responsibility we have to our ancestors before us nor our obligation to our unborn after.” Another Tribal leader in the region says of the mining companies, “They take advantage of our poverty.”
That poverty gives the mining companies serious leverage. Among community members at Fort McDermitt, rumors of bribery are common.
Lithium Americas’ Involvement in Human Rights Abuses Overseas
Lithium Americas has deep business links and personnel overlaps with Chinese state-owned mining corporation Ganfeng Lithium (the largest lithium company in the world). In fact, Ganfeng and Lithium Americas are co-owners of an Argentinian lithium mining company known as Minera Exar.
The Minera Exar mining project is located in the Andean highlands in the so-called “lithium triangle,” an arid region near the borders of Chile and Bolivia. Over the years that Minera Exar has been active in the region, they — like other lithium mining companies in the area — have come under criticism for serious environmental and human rights abuses.
“Mining companies have for years been extracting billions of dollars of lithium from the Atacama region… But the impoverished Atacamas have seen little of the riches… one lithium company, a joint Canadian-Chilean venture named Minera Exar, struck deals with six aboriginal communities for a new mine here. The operation is expected to generate about $250 million a year in sales while each community will receive an annual payment — ranging from $9,000 to about $60,000 — for extensive surface and water rights.
The exposé continues:
“Yolanda Cruz, one of the leaders of the village in Argentina, said she signed the [community benefits agreement with Minera Exar] but now regrets it. At the time she valued the opportunity to create jobs for her village. But she now worries, ‘we are going to be left with nothing.’ she said. ‘The thing is the companies are lying to us —that’s the reality. And we sometimes just keep our mouths shut,’ she said. ‘We don’t say anything and then we are the affected ones when the time goes by.’”
Meanwhile, Ganfeng Lithium recently announced plans to mine for battery metals in the Xinjiang region of China, where the Chinese Government has detained and imprisoned Uyghyrs and other Muslim groups in forced labor and indoctrination camps.
Waste of Government Funds
We are being told the main goal of lithium mining at Thacker Pass is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This is another lie, a new type of corporate greenwashing which is becoming increasingly common. In fact, many analyses actually find that the emissions reductions from switching to electric vehicles are relatively minor.
Producing a single electric car releases greenhouse gas emissions—about 9 tons on average. This average is rising as the size of electric cars is going up substantially. The more electric cars are produced, the more greenhouse gases are released. And so while EVs reduce emissions compared to gasoline vehicles, bigger EVs don’t reduce them much. Analysis from the Center For Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice says that electrification of cars in the United States will reduce national emissions by only 6 percent.
Further, producing lithium at Thacker Pass would require 700,000 tons per year of oil refining byproducts — sulfur, perhaps largely sourced from the Alberta Tar sands. While Thacker Pass receives billions in subsidies from the government, carbon emissions are continuing to rise.
Environmental activist Paul Hawken, as another example, doesn’t put electric cars in his top 10 climate solutions. In fact, it’s number 24 on his list, with almost ten times less impact than reducing food waste, nearly six times less impact than eliminating the use of refrigerants which are powerful greenhouse gases, and behind solutions like tropical rainforest restoration (about 5 times as effective at reducing emissions as is switching to EVs) and peatland protection (more than twice as effective).
Corruption and waste go hand-in-hand. The data makes it clear that if reducing greenhouse gases is your goal, subsidizing the Thacker Pass lithium mine is not a good use of government funds. It’s wasteful.
If you actually want to allocate government funds to effectively halt global warming, giving money to extractive industries is the exact wrong thing to do.
Instead, start with women’s rights, educating girls, and making contraception and family planning widely available. Start with economic relocalization initiatives. Start with insulating homes properly, which may have the biggest immediate carbon impact per dollar spent. Start with demand-reduction initiatives.
Stop wasting taxpayer money on subsidies to Earth-destroying corporations, and start taking actions that really matter.
The Banality of Evil
Lithium Americas’ corruption reminds me of what political philosopher Hannah Arendt called “The Banality of Evil.” Writing of Otto Adolf Eichmann, a Nazi officer who was one of the major organizers of the Holocaust, Arendt explains that Eichmann felt no guilt; indeed, he never even considered that what he was doing might be wrong: “He did his ‘duty’…; he not only obeyed ‘orders’, he also obeyed the ‘law’.”
As one article states, “[Eichmann] performed evil deeds without evil intentions, a fact connected to his ‘thoughtlessness’, a disengagement from the reality of his evil acts. Eichmann ‘never realised what he was doing’ due to an ‘inability… to think from the standpoint of somebody else’. Lacking this particular cognitive ability, he ‘commit crimes under circumstances that made it well-nigh impossible for him to know or to feel that he [was] doing wrong’.”
Lithium Americas is not killing people en masse, nor are they even among the “worst” mining companies. They may even be acting completely within the boundaries of the law. And yet they are complicit in cultural genocide, in ecological destruction for personal gain, and in what may be an even bigger crime against the future: greenwashing their destruction as positive and thus creating more financial and political incentives for more of this madness.
They believe that what they are doing is right and they are “following the rules.”
The corruption at Thacker Pass is not unique. Lobbying, campaign contributions, greenwashing, and community bribery is common in the United States and across much of the world. I believe there is likely much more corruption that we are not aware of. Perhaps there really are briefcases full of cash being exchanged. We can only speculate. And, this article has not even begun to discuss the government complicity in lawbreaking, corruption, and ethical violations at Thacker Pass — a story that is, in some ways, even more sordid.
All of which is part of why academic analyses of the United States tend to show “economic-elite domination” rather than true electoral democracy or pluralism. The wealthy are running our country (and indeed, the world) Our government is corrupt, corporations are running rampant, and our world is being destroyed.
For many, the situation we find ourselves in is paralyzing. What can do in the face of this?
When I first came out to begin protecting Thacker Pass and setup a protest camp on the planned mine site in the depths of winter 2021, I had no illusions. I knew that the courts weren’t likely to save us. Remember, the laws were written by corporations. I knew that public commenting wasn’t going to work; the regulations are written to favor corporate interests. I knew that the government wasn’t going to help, since the politicians are mostly bought and paid for. I even knew that standard methods of protest would likely be ineffective, given the repression tactics and divide-and-conquer strategies that have been honed over centuries by corporations and colonizers.
As a society, we find ourselves in the midst of the 6th mass extinction event, a global climate catastrophe, and seemingly terminal overshoot. And as an environmental movement, despite our brave and inspired action, it has not been enough.
Whether you agree that this is needed or not, we can all agree that what we are doing isn’t working. I don’t have all the answers. But what I do know is that it’s time to go further.
This article was originally published on Earth Day 2023. Since then, there have been developments in Thacker Pass. Direct action has been able to halt mine construction for the moment. Read more about it here.
Featured image: Resistance in Thacker Pass by Max Wilbert