Editor’s Note: In order to deter the tribal members and activists from fighting for Thacker Pass, Lithium Nevada has sued them. Unsurprisingly, as a corporation, they have greater funds to sustain their legal action. We appeal for all who can to support in whatever way you can. The details for financial donations are at the end of the post.
Lithium Nevada Corporation has filed a lawsuit against Protect Thacker Pass and seven people for opposing the Thacker Pass lithium mine.
The lawsuit is similar to what is called a “Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation,” or SLAPP suit, aimed at shutting down free speech and protest. The suit aims to ban the prayerful land defenders from the area and force them to pay monetary damages which could total millions of dollars.
“This lawsuit is targeting Native Americans and their allies for a non-violent prayer to protect the 1865 Thacker Pass massacre site,” said Terry Lodge, attorney working with the group. “These people took a moral stand in the form of civil disobedience. They are being unjustly targeted with sweeping charges that have little relationship to the truth, and we will vigorously defend them.”
The lawsuit targets Dean Barlese, respected elder and spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, Dorece Sam from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, Bhie-Cie Zahn-Nahtzu (Te-Moak Shoshone and Washoe), Bethany Sam from the Standing Rock Sioux and Kutzadika’a Paiute Tribes, Founding Director of Community Rights US Paul Cienfuegos, and Max Wilbert and Will Falk of Protect Thacker Pass, which is also named in the suit.
They are charged with Civil Conspiracy, Nuisance, Trespass, Tortious Interference with Contractual Relations, Tortious Interference with Prospective Economic Advantage, and Unjust Enrichment.
As part of the lawsuit, Lithium Nevada has been granted a Temporary Restraining Order which restricts the defendants and “any third party acting in concert” with them from interfering with construction, blocking access roads, or even being in the area. The accused parties are not involved in planning further protest activity at the mine site.
Regardless, these allegations are alarming to the Great Basin Native American communities who believe their religious practices are protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. The lawsuit’s language places fear in the hearts of Native American people who want to pray and visit their ancestors’ gravesites.
The case references instances of non-violent prayer and protest that took place on April 25th, and a prayer camp named after Ox Sam (survivor of the 1865 massacre and ancestor of Dorece Sam and Dean Barlese) which was established at Thacker Pass on May 11th. On June 8th, that camp was raided and dismantled by police. One young indigenous woman was arrested and transported to jail inside a pitch-black box. In the aftermath of the raid, a ceremonial fire was extinguished, sacred objects were put in trash bags, and tipi poles were broken.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act states that it is “the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religion of the American Indian…including…access to sites.”
Dorece Sam, President of the Native American Church of the State of Nevada:
“I take my grandkids to Peehee Mu’huh to teach them to pray for our unburied ancestors whose remains are scattered there, to collect our holy plants, to hunt and fish, and to collect medicinal herbs. The ancestors who were killed at Thacker Pass have never been given the proper prayers for their spirits. Lithium Nevada is desecrating our unceded lands and our ancestors’ resting places.”
Dean Barlese, respected elder and spiritual leader from the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe:
“The Indian wars are continuing in 2023, right here. America and the corporations who control it should have finished off the ethnic genocide, because we’re still here. My great-great-grandfather fought for this land in the Snake War and we will continue to defend the sacred. Lithium Nevada is a greedy corporation telling green lies.”
“Our people couldn’t return to Thacker Pass for fear of being killed in 1865, and now in 2023 we can’t return or we’ll be arrested. Meanwhile, bulldozers are digging our ancestors graves up. This is what Indigenous peoples continue to endure. That’s why I stood in prayer with our elders leading the way.”
“Lithium Nevada is a greedy corporation on the wrong side of history when it comes to environmental racism and desecration of sacred sites. It’s ironic to me that I’m the trespasser because I want to see my ancestral land preserved.”
“Virtually every single accusation against us is a lie, and of course the corporation’s leaders know this. But our actions have scared them, so they are lashing out against classic nonviolent direct-action tactics. And this is yet another prime example of why we need to dismantle the structures of law that grant so many so-called constitutional ‘rights’ to business corporations, like access to the courts.”
Max Wilbert, Protect Thacker Pass:
“Around the world, a land defender is killed every two days. Murdering activists is hard to get away with in the United States, so corporations do this instead. This lawsuit is aimed at destroying the lives of people non-violently defending the land. But we’re not giving up. There are millions of people opposing this mine, and this fight will continue.”
“I’ve been involved in directly petitioning the courts for two years to enforce tribal rights to consultation without success. Now Paiutes and Shoshones are being sued for peacefully defending the final resting places of their massacred ancestors. Lithium Nevada is just another mining corporation bullying Native Americans once again. This pattern has got to stop.”
Lithium Nevada corporation has been locked in legal battles since 2021, when four environmental groups, a local rancher, and several tribes sued the Federal Government to attempt to overturn the permits for the mine. The suits allege failures of consultation, violation of endangered species law and water laws, and dozens of other infractions. The most recent filing in an ongoing Federal Court case brought by three local tribes was filed on Friday, arguing that Lithium Nevada needs to halt construction while it consults with tribes about the Thacker Pass massacre sites. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals in California will hear oral arguments in other cases later this month.
The news comes as Lithium Nevada’s parent corporation, Lithium Americas, has been implicated in four alleged human rights violations and environmental crimes related to their lithium mining operation in Cauchari-Oloroz, Argentina.
The defendants are seeking attorneys to join the legal defense team, and monetary donations to their legal defense fund. You can donate via credit or debit card, PayPal (please include a note that your donation is for Thacker Pass legal defense), or by check.