Lithium extraction at the cost of indigenous religions



This story originally appeared in High Country News and is republished here as part of Covering Climate Now, a global journalistic collaboration aimed at boosting coverage of climate history.

One fall evening four years ago, Ivan Bender, a Hualapai man in his fifties, took a walk with his fluffy brown and white Pomeranian, Sierra Mae, to check out the ranch he runs. Nestled in the Big Sandy River Valley in western Arizona, the ranch protects Ha ‘Kamwe’, hot springs sacred to the Hualapai and known today in English as Cofer Hot Springs. As the shadows lengthened, Bender saw something surprising: men working on a nearby hill.

“I asked them what they were doing,” Bender recalls. “They told me they were drilling.” It turns out that in addition to sacred places such as hot springs, ceremonial sites and ancestral burials, the valley is also home to a huge lithium deposit. Today, the exploratory work of the Australian company Hawkstone Mining threatens these places, and with them the religious practices of the Hualapai and other indigenous nations. But this threat is not new: centuries of land expropriation, combined with Federal Court rulings denying protection of sacred sites, have long devastated Indigenous religious freedom.

The Cholla Canyon Ranch, of which Bender is the custodian, comprises approximately 360 acres midway between Phoenix and Las Vegas, flanked to the west by the lush waterfront corridor of the Big Sandy River. The valley is part of an ancient salt road connecting tribes from north to central Utah with communities in Baja California and along the Pacific coast, documented in the songs and oral traditions of many Indigenous nations .

“There are stories about this land and what it means to the Hualapai tribe,” Bender said. “To me, he holds a really, really sacred valley of life in general.” According to tribal council member Richard Powskey, who heads the Hualapai Natural Resources Department, the Hualapai harvest native plant material along the river corridor for everything from cradle boards to drums.

The mining company (USA Lithium Ltd., since acquired by Hawkstone Mining Ltd.) had not told the Hualapai tribe that they were looking for lithium on the lands nearby the Bureau of Land Management. That evening, Bender was shocked to see the destruction take place. The company eventually razed a network of roads, drilling nearly 50 test wells more than 300 feet deep in the sacred landscape.

This summer, Hawkstone plans to triple its exploratory drilling, nearly encircling Canyon Ranch and the springs it protects. Over the next several years, Hawkstone hopes to dig the soil of an open pit mine and dig underground sludge to transport the ore about 80 km to a plant in Kingman, Ariz., Where it will use sulfuric acid. to extract lithium. Lithium, listed as a critical mineral, is crucial to meeting the Biden administration’s goal of replacing gas-guzzling vehicles with electric ones, and Big Sandy Valley is relatively close to the Tesla plant in Nevada. In total, Hawkstone holds mineral rights to over 5,000 acres of public land in Arizona for this project. Yet the tribes whose sacred sites are threatened have little say in its decisions.

The public lands of Bears Ears at Oak Flat contain countless areas of cultural and religious significance. But when the tribes went to court to protect these sites – and their own religious freedom – they consistently lost. Courts have interpreted narrowly what counts as a religious burden on tribes, largely to preserve the ability of the federal government to use public lands as it sees fit.


The roots of this policy go back centuries. In the historic case of 1823 Johnson v. M’Intosh, the Supreme Court ruled that indigenous peoples could not sell land to private owners in the United States because they did not own it. Instead, the Christian colonizers were the rightful owners, based on the Spanish colonial ‘doctrine of discovery’, a racist and anti-native policy arguing that non-Christian and non-European societies were inferior and European nations Christian women had a right superior to any land.

“Part of what justified the claim to the land was that (the colonizers) would teach Christianity to indigenous peoples,” said Michalyn Steele, an expert on Indian law at Brigham Young University and a member of the Seneca Nation of Indians. “If they rejected Christianity, then they were essentially losing their rights to land and resources.”

By the late 1800s, the United States had banned Indigenous religious practices, forcing tribes to socially and politically assimilate and embrace Christianity through agricultural, lifestyle, and religious practices.

More recently, courts have continued to weaken protections for Indigenous religious freedom on public lands. In Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, which set a precedent in 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that the Forest Service could widen a logging road in the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California, even if doing so would destroy an area essential to the religious beliefs of tribes including the Yurok, Karuk and Tolowa. The Supreme Court ruled that although the location could be completely destroyed, this destruction would not violate the Constitution, as it would not force members of the tribe to violate their religious beliefs or punish them for practicing their religion.

“Even assuming that the actions of the government here will virtually destroy the ability of Indians to practice their religion, the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding the respondents ‘legal claims,” ​​wrote Justice Sandra Day O’ Connor in the majority opinion.

The court decided, in part, to avoid giving tribes broad control over their ancestral lands through the exercise of their religious freedom. “Whatever rights Indians may have over the use of the area… these rights do not deprive the government of its rights to use what is, after all, its land,” the ruling said.

Although Congress has partially protected this sacred region by adding it to the Siskiyou wilderness area, the Lyng decision still resonates throughout India today, creating what Stephanie Barclay, director of the Institute for Religious Freedom at the University of Notre Dame and former lawyer with the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, calls a ” double standard “in the way indigenous sacred sites are treated.

Barclay compared the situation of tribes such as the Hualapai, who depend on the federal government for access to sacred sites, to that of Jewish prisoners who adhere to a kosher regime, or Sikh servicemen whose faith forbids them to cut their hair. In all of these cases, religious freedoms are controlled by the government. But, said Barclay, tribal members do not enjoy the same religious protections.

To me, it holds a really, really sacred valley of life in general.

“If the government is not willing to provide access to different indigenous peoples so that they can practice their religion in these sacred sites, then this will not happen,” she said. But the Supreme Court has interpreted religious protection of indigenous sacred sites on public lands restrictively, to the point of authorizing mass destruction.

In a recent Harvard Law Review article, Steele and Barclay urge the federal government to protect Indigenous religious practices as one of its fiduciary responsibilities, and to exercise caution before allowing the destruction of sacred sites on public lands.

As it stands, state and federal agencies can allow irreversible damage with little input from affected Indigenous communities. Indeed, communication between the BLM and the Hualapai Tribe regarding lithium impacts in the Big Sandy River Valley in Hawkstone has been almost non-existent. Although the BLM invited the Hualapai Tribe to consult with the agency in June 2020 on Hawkstone’s exploration plans, the agency later denied the tribe’s request to be a coordinating agency for the project. He also dismissed the suggestion that a tribal elder would tour the area to brief the agency on cultural resources and history that mining could jeopardize.

BLM said it found only four cultural resource sites in the proposed drill area. Of these, he said he would try to avoid one, which was eligible for protection under the National Historic Preservation Act. Meanwhile, in its publicly available environmental assessment, the agency said the effects on Native American religious concerns or traditional values ​​were “to be determined” and that it was consulting with the Hualapai tribe, among others. As of this writing, BLM staff have neither accepted an interview nor responded to written questions from High Country News.

For its part, in March, Hawkstone said: “All (i) indigenous titles are erased and there are no other known historic or environmentally sensitive areas.” Hawkstone’s report ignores the fact that even when tribes lack legal title to their traditional lands, these spaces still have religious and cultural significance.


When asked to comment, Doug Pitts, a US consultant at Hawkstone Mining, emailed HCN that given the early stage of the project, “we don’t think a discussion of the project is worth it. worth it for the moment “.

Even without a clear legal path, the Hualapai tribe has not given up on protecting its religious practices from lithium exploration. It’s not the only one either: in April, the Inter Tribal Association of Arizona, representing 21 nations, including the Hualapai, passed a resolution opposing lithium mining, calling the BLM’s environmental scan of “grossly insufficient”. Recently, the BLM agreed to extend the comment period until June 10. But Powskey pointed out that during the Standing Rock protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline – which in part concerned the destruction of graves – the response of the authorities was violent, and the tribal nations, for a long time, were the only ones who seemed to care. And in the end, the pipeline was built.

Big Sandy is not the first battle the Hualapai have fought to protect sacred landscapes in this remote corner of Arizona, where wind turbines, gold mines, and other private interests have already destroyed culturally significant places. – and it won’t be the last. “You know there is more to come,” Powskey said.

Meanwhile, the likelihood of further exploration for lithium around the ranch disturbs Warden Bender. The double standard in the way indigenous sacred sites are treated irritates him.

“They come here and desecrate your sacred land,” he said. “Would they like me if I went to Arlington Cemetery and built myself a sweat lodge and made myself sweat on this land?” He asked, comparing the valley to another site considered sacred. “I’d rather they go somewhere else and leave history alone.”


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