Top 10 Indian-Country Photos of 2016, by Joseph Zummo

Here are some of photographer Joseph Zummo’s favorite images, among thousands he took for stories we reported in Indian country over this past year. 

The photo above and the first three photos below come from a December trip to traditional Standing Rock Sioux territory in North Dakota, where tribal members and others have rallied against the Dakota Access Pipeline’s planned route across the Missouri River. Calling themselves water protectors, they say this would endanger the tribe’s water supply and has already destroyed burial grounds and sacred sites. Since spring, the group has faced increasingly violent responses from law enforcement and the pipeline company’s private security contractors; the demonstrators have been beaten with batons, maced, tear-gassed and shot with concussion grenades and rubber bullets. Hundreds have been arrested, and more than 100 have been hospitalized.
Above, on the day the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers withdrew permission for the pipeline to proceed, children played with bright green flying saucers. Below, one water protector displayed a sign proclaiming the camp’s nonviolent ethic, and another on horseback overlooked the crowd. Keeper of the White Buffalo Calf Pipe Arvol Looking Horse, who was born on the neighboring Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, explained the movement’s aim—to protect water and its practical and spiritual properties for future generations.
JOSEPH ZUMMO
JOSEPH ZUMMO
JOSEPH ZUMMO

In Nevada, Joseph shot this photograph of Joseph Holley, former chairman and now councilman of the Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone, and his grandsons. The three are seen here by an ancient rock shelter in a sacred landscape that Western Shoshones have used for prayer and healing for many thousands of years. Holley and other tribal members are struggling to protect the cultural landscape in which this shelter sits from destruction by gold mining. The photograph appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network, as did the one below, of Johnny Bob, a spiritual leader from the Yomba Shoshone Tribe. Bob was part of a group of tribal members who traveled to Nevada’s highland forests in early September to pick pine nuts, a traditional staple that is roasted and used in soups and stews.
JOSEPH ZUMMO
JOSEPH ZUMMO

Joseph photographed these images on the Puyallup reservation in Washington state. In the first one, Lisa Earl mourns for her daughter, Jackie Salyers, who was shot by police in January of this year. The image appeared in In These Times magazine. Below it, tribal members express their connection to each other and the water as they practice for an upcoming canoe journey. 
JOSEPH ZUMMO
JOSEPH ZUMMO

In the New Mexico portion of the Navajo reservation, Joseph photographed a story for In These Times magazine on ways Native people fight exploitation by government and corporations. Here we see Navajo tribal member Anselm Morgan with a decades-old pipeline marker, showing the pathway of an oil line that crosses his family’s land in return for the pittance that the Bureau of Indian Affairs allows the company to pay. The dozen houses making up the family homestead are seen below it. 
JOSEPH ZUMMO
JOSEPH ZUMMO

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

A Deadly Month—Police Killings of Native Americans

A version of this article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in October 2016. 

As many as eight fatal police shootings of Native Americans occurred during October of 2016. This figure was first reported by Marlee Kanosh, Paiute Tribe of Utah. Her Facebook page, Native Lives Taken By Police, is the news source of record for information on police violence as it affects indigenous people. With careful, respectful research and comprehensive coverage, Kanosh chronicles a terrible toll: Natives killed outright by police or dying in custody. 

In October, Kanosh said, “I’m overwhelmed.” The workload, which she does as a volunteer, is always heavy, but was suddenly and unexpectedly worse. “I have so many deaths to look into now. My notebooks are full. I have piles of paper everywhere.”

The number of Natives who died in October is much higher the monthly average found in a 2016 study by Claremont Graduate University scholars Roger Chin, Jean Schroedel and Lily Rowen. Among other information, they uncovered 29 deaths in a recent 15-month period, for about two a month. Kanosh couldn’t point to a reason for the October spike, but noted that poorly funded health care and untreated or under-treated mental illness and addiction continue to place Native people in jeopardy.

The fatalities occurred around the country—in Washington state, where a young mother was shot dead in front of her young children during a welfare check on the Muckleshoot reservation, apparently because she was threatening suicide; in Oklahoma, where a homeless man met his death at the hands of police; and in Nevada, where an Oglala veteran was shot after a sudden spate of robberies that were reportedly more of a mental-health crisis than a crime spree. Two more Natives appear to have been killed in Oklahoma, while Nebraska, Texas and North Carolina saw at least one fatality each.

“The need for police officers to have specialized training in helping individuals with mental illness is very important, perhaps more than ever,” said Chin, a political scientist who studies real-world applications of criminal-justice policy and data analysis.

Kanosh criticized police claims that citizens should simply follow orders to survive these encounters. “We have a saying here in Utah, ‘Comply or Die—It’s Not the Law!’” Kanosh said. “What about our rights? We didn’t put up our hands fast enough? Someone instinctively pulled up his pants when cops ordered him to crawl forward on his knees? How can we possibly know exactly what’s expected of us in these horrible situations? And because we don’t, we die?”

Chin agreed. “Sometimes it’s difficult to comprehend orders given by officers in a fast-moving situation,” he said. “And a person in the midst of a mental health crisis may not be able to comply quickly—or at all.”

Police need to better communicate what exactly compliance entails, according to Chin. That’s because officers in different jurisdictions may expect the public to behave in unique ways, he explained. “For example, while most academies train officers to have a driver remain inside the vehicle during a traffic stop, I discovered on a trip to Louisiana that sometimes officers want individuals to exit the vehicle in order to see better what they are doing. The public needs to know these and other expectations.”

Improving training and communications is good for police as well as the public, Chin said. “Using lethal force can be a life-changing, career-ending experience. For most officers, it’s a decision that’s not taken lightly and has enormous emotional consequences.”

Numerous advocates and social-media page administrators have done a heroic job of publicizing the various social-justice issues that drive the cry, “Native Lives Matter.” Kanosh has been closely involved in these issues; she was among the water protectors at Standing Rock when they were attacked with dogs.

However, Kanosh’s Facebook page maintains a tight focus on a crisis that exploded in her life when her brother, Corey, shown right, was shot and left to die in the Utah desert in 2012. “At that time, people whose relatives had been killed reached out to me,” she recalled. “The huge community of those affected by police violence embraced me and my family. Now, I reach out to embrace others and let them know I have been where they are. Whenever a new person or family comes in, we all gather around them.”

The initial information for a post on Kanosh’s page comes from a huge, ever-growing circle of contacts from coast to coast, including community members, advocates and groups. “People message me constantly. Groups share lists with me. I know relatives of those who died. I know their neighbors. If someone thinks someone who’s been killed just might be Native, they send me the information, so I can look into it.”

She follows up, contacts the victim’s friends and family and requests permission to post photographs and related information. “I don’t want people to be forgotten. I want to keep their stories alive. So, I also redo the older stories from time to time,” Kanosh said. “Today, I remembered someone I should post about again. I felt so sad.”

Kanosh survives on prayer and meditation. She would not accept credit or praise for her daily toil on behalf of the dead and their loved ones. She called herself, “Just one girl who lost her brother.”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Marlee Kanosh.

Great 2016 Election News: Native Voters Gain Rights

A version of this article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in October 2016. 

On October 27, early voting was underway on the Pyramid Lake and Walker River Paiute reservations. “We’re in full swing,” said Vinton Hawley, chairman of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe. “It’s been great. Tribal members are very enthusiastic. We have a voice. We’re involved.” Tribal members had sued in federal court for polling places on their homelands; the voting offices opened on October 22.
Pyramid Lake voters joined a flood of Nevadans casting a ballot during the state’s early-voting period. During the first two days of early voting at Pyramid Lake, turnout had already doubled that of the last presidential election in 2012, according to Hawley.
Meanwhile, at Walker River, in just the first two days of early voting, turnout nearly equaled 2012 totals, according to OJ Semans, the Rosebud Sioux director of Four Directions voting-rights group, which assisted with the lawsuit. Semans called this “empowering the people.” Lawsuit plaintiff Johnny Walker is shown above after voting on his homeland.
As chairman of the Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada, Hawley has urged Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske to direct counties to open polling places for nine more tribes, including some where ballot boxes are 200-plus miles away, round trip.
Even when polls are nearby, counties typically make accessing their offices uncomfortable for Natives, according to testimony in the Paiute tribes’ federal lawsuit. To remove this barrier to equality, Hawley included in his request urban-Indian communities in Washoe and Clark counties.
Citing “insufficient time” to set up more early-voting places, Nevada Secretary of State Barbara Cegavske has announced that she is turning down Inter-Tribal Council of Nevada’s request for more tribal early-voting offices on additional reservations. Cegavske also revealed another concern that figured in her decision, “[T]here is considerable legal uncertainty as to who would be authorized to investigate and prosecute election law violations occurring on sovereign tribal lands.”
“I take offense,” said OJ Semans, of Four Directions. “This is no more than an outdated and racially charged attempt to insinuate that tribal voters are somehow lawless and beyond control. The Nevada Election Task Force is part of a coalition of state and federal authorities that can handle election problems, no matter where they occur.”
The lawsuit plaintiffs have asked the court to award them their legal fees, which would require the state and counties to pay a tab that already tops $100,000. “We warned them,” said Bret Healy, Four Directions consultant. “The offices cost a few thousand dollars each, while fighting against equal rights is very costly.”

Earlier this year, North Dakota Natives challenged the state's limitations on ID that could be used at the ballot box. They were ultimately successful. This article, about their challenge first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in January 2016.

Tribal elder Dorothy Herman voted in North Dakota for more than 40 years. Until 2014, that is, when a new state law meant she couldn’t obtain acceptable identification for that election, no matter how hard she tried. On January 20, 2016, she and six more Native voters who were disenfranchised in 2014 filed a federal lawsuit challenging the state’s recently enacted limitations on the types of documents that can be used to obtain a ballot. The Native American Rights Fund filed the suit on their behalf.
NARF attorneys John Echohawk (l) and Matthew Campbell, with lawsuit

The list of documents the state would accept did include tribal ID, along with driver’s licenses, non-driver IDs and long-term-care certificates. However, the item had to show a residential address, and some tribal cards do not. 

In certain cases, tribes can’t include the information because tribal members’ residences don’t have the kind of street numbers used in off-reservation communities. The election safety net of past years was also gone; voters no longer had such options as signing an affidavit attesting to their identity. 

The Native plaintiffs said the restrictions, passed by the North Dakota legislature in 2013 and tightened further in 2015, disproportionately burdened and even disenfranchised Native American voters who, among other issues, live farther from offices where they can obtain alternative identification and are less likely to have the vehicle needed to get there. For example, Standing Rock residents drive as many as 120 miles round trip to the nearest office issuing drivers’ licenses. Natives are also poorer and more likely to find the fees and transportation costs prohibitive, the complaint alleged. By falling more heavily on Native people, said the lawsuit, these burdens violated the Voting Rights Act and the United States and North Dakota constitutions. 

On August 1, a federal judge agreed and blocked the new law, handing yet another victory to Natives seeking equal rights.

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy of Four Directions (top) and NARF.

Culture Held Captive—Tribe Wants Patrimony Returned

This article was first published on Indian Country Today Media Network in October 2016.

“How dare they keep those materials?” asked elder Kathleen Holley. “They belong to us, and they should not be kept in a building.” A member of the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, Holley had just seen a photograph (shown left) of cartons at the Nevada State Museum, in Carson City.

The photo, snapped in the museum’s Indian Hill Curatorial Center during an unrelated meeting, shows shelves of boxes labeled “Tosawihi” to indicate the sacred site in northern Nevada from which the contents were taken. The photographer is Ted Howard, cultural resources director of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe in northern Nevada/southern Idaho, who received permission to take the photo. He called Tosawihi the spiritual heart of the Western Shoshone homeland, providing white flint, also called chert, used in healing and ceremonies.

“I cried when I saw the photograph,” said Colleen Burton, another Battle Mountain elder. “It’s sickening. I have been to meetings with federal agencies for years, and no one said they took those items. Why has no one ever come forward?”

The boxes—342 of them, according to the museum’s curator of anthropology, Gene Hattori—contain as many as 1.5 million items collected by Intermountain Research archaeologists in the late 1980s and early 1990s. They did so under Nevada Bureau of Land Management auspices in order to satisfy an aspect of preservation law while a gold mine was beginning operations in Tosawihi.

Howard called such projects “ethnic cleansing.” He said they contribute to erasing indigenous people’s presence. “They take away the things that tie us to the land, so someday there will be no proof that we were here.”

According to Dr. Robert Elston, of Intermountain Research, the items came from areas that were to be utterly destroyed by gold mining. They encompass mostly flakes (chips produced while working stone) and soil samples. Additional articles are large stemmed spear points; a fluted Clovis-era point that is more than 12,000 years old; “hundreds or thousands” of additional finished and partially finished points and stone tools; elk antler tools; buffalo-scapula digging implements; and animal bones left from food consumption.

L to r, Kiana Vance, Colleen Burton, John Holley, Kathleen Holley, Evan Jim 
Also in the Tosawihi environs, a pipeline project supervised by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission resulted in nearly 700,000 items being taken during 2010 and 2011, according to a report by the company that did the review. These materials include a preponderance of flakes and soil samples, along with 2,000-plus points, 8,000-plus implements, and hundreds of articles such as drills, mortars and pestles, and a massive stone bowl. They were also deposited in the state museum, where they take up 175 cubic feet, according to Hattori.

There’s more. In 2005 in northern Nevada, in the first year of a several-year U.S. Forest Service project, volunteers reportedly unearthed 2,000 points and other Native items—also at the state museum. Innumerable additional studies by the Forest Service, the BLM and other agencies have scooped up unimaginable numbers of indigenous materials in Nevada and elsewhere.

According to Elston, the bulk of collected materials are not taken via academic archaeology, but during agencies’ cultural-resources reviews. These occur prior to a project that will affect or destroy the site, such as mining, pipeline construction or development, and become the property of the federal government.

“That process is not designed to stop projects, but to facilitate them,” Elston noted. He added that Natives who consulted on the Intermountain review advocated for making the materials available for viewing by tribal members, a position he supported.

Cherry-picking the law?
Howard accused the Nevada BLM and other federal agencies of cherry-picking federal law as they conduct the reviews. He noted that Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA)—for which the Tosawihi-area studies were undertaken—relies on archaeological evidence, or the presence of objects, for eligibility for protection via the National Register of Historic Places. This “pushes aside” places not defined by objects, or which have been vandalized or excavated in a way that diminishes them for outsiders—though not necessarily for Native people, he said.

Howard said that federal agencies must also comply with NHPA regulations that protect traditional landscapes subtly shaped by an array of cultural activities; executive orders; and the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, which safeguards items of cultural patrimony as well as burials and grave goods.

Joseph Holley, former Battle Mountain chairman and now councilman, agreed, criticizing the suctioning up of even seemingly minor items. Standing on a hilltop in Tosawihi, he indicated a scatter of flakes. “An ancestor sat here and worked stone,” Holley said. “That tells us a great deal.”

Holley said Tosawihi was a cultural landscape: “Many activities occurred here, all aspects of which are significant.” This idea was fielded as early as 1991, when authors of another BLM study proposed Tosawihi being placed on the National Register as a Traditional Cultural Property. The authors warned that the site needed protection against both mining and archaeology. They then invoked protections of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act for Tosawihi, saying that collecting has an impact on traditional religious beliefs. 

Yet, the struggle to understand the area as a traditional landscape continues. “The Nevada BLM conveniently misplaces anything that is contrary to its goal—support for the mining industry,” said Howard.

Despite the studies of Tosawihi, said Howard, many sites are still unrecorded and unprotected. “The BLM conveniently overlooked sites,” he charged. “The agency caters to industry, rather than obeying the law.” Holley agreed. On a walk around the landscape, he pointed out unrecorded artifacts and sites, saying, “This tells me a proper Class III [the most detailed] survey has never been done.”

Whose history?
Western Shoshones inspect damage to cultural sites in Tosawihi.
Losing contact with ancestral materials harms his people’s health and wellbeing, said Holley. “How are we going to pray in these places when they’ve been destroyed and their contents taken? How are we going to pass on our culture to our youth? How are they going to attach themselves to our identity?” He and Howard stressed that the artifacts represent a contemporary culture, not a “prehistoric” one.

Tribal youngsters agreed. Fifteen-year-old John Holley, from the Battle Mountain Band, explained, “Our history is not taught in the Battle Mountain public schools. Nothing. Not a word. When we are at Tosawihi, we can visualize and understand. It also changes our perception of what others tell us about our past.”

“They have no respect for what we believe in,” said Kiana Vance, 20. “The years they kept that material means a generation missed them. How can we have a future without a past?”

Another Battle Mountain youth, 17-year-old Evan Jim, criticized the entire cascade of events. “Mining is horrible,” he said. “As soon as you go to Tosawihi, you can feel it.” However, he did not support archaeologists taking items to “save” them. “What’s in boxes in the museum has to be returned to us, so it can be put back.”


Burton sees a large task ahead: “A lot of work and prayer will go into replacing the items where the ancestors intended them to be.”

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs courtesy Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone.

Gathering Pine Nuts—Ancient Staple from Highland Forests

This article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in September 2016.


“Everything depends on the water and the trees,” said spiritual leader Johnny Bob, from the Yomba Shoshone Tribe (shown left), as he prayed for the start of a Western Shoshone pine-nut gathering. In September, members of several bands came together in a steep-walled mountain valley in central Nevada to collect the protein- and nutrient-rich nuts that were once the mainstay of their diet.

Some people took hold of long sticks and began to knock the sticky green cones off the tops of the pinyon trees. Others gathered fallen branches to chop up for the fire in which they would later roast the cones to release the sweet, creamy nuts. These can be eaten out of hand, added to soups and stews or parched and ground for gravy or mush.

“As we collect, we are pruning the trees to ensure there are even more cones next year. We are also cleaning the forest,” explained Joseph Holley, former chairman and now council member of the Battle Mountain Band of Te-Moak Western Shoshone.

The piles of cones grew, with some bouncing off someone’s head on their way down from the treetops. Children laughed, as mothers tried to persuade them to tie up their hair tightly to minimize the gooey mess. “It’s a man bun!” one girl teased her brother.

 “It’s a good time,” said Holley, smiling. “Just what we need, and what the trees need.”

This critical food source, along with game living in the forest, began to disappear during the late 19th century, as newly arrived settlers chopped down trees for fuel over many square miles around towns and mining operations. Starting in the 20th century, these losses were amplified by the Bureau of Land Management and U.S. Forest Service, which together have uprooted more than 3 million acres of pinyon-plus-juniper woodlands.

To destroy the forests, the federal agencies use tractors to drag gargantuan chains through them, ripping up everything in their path. The ruined landscapes look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust. Sometimes, the agencies eliminate woodlands in order to increase rangeland for grazing, an activity that further damages the fragile arid lands where pinyons flourish. Scientists estimate that soil in an erosion-prone “chained” landscape may take 10,000 years to recover.

At other times, the agencies claim that “chaining” curbs fire risk. However, research shows that deforestation increases the fire danger rather than diminishing it. Scientists also note that pinyon-juniper wildfires are extremely infrequent, on the order of several centuries apart. The Foundation for Economic Education compares this federal policy, which continues to the present day, to Brazil’s reckless despoiling of the Amazon in favor of ranching, logging and other interests.

Now that so many trees have been destroyed, some have suggested reviving them as nut groves, as has long been traditional in Europe. In Italy during World War II, many survived on chestnuts and other foods they could glean in the forests and fields. Nowadays though, pine nuts are a luxury food, fetching as much as $60 per pound. To bring the cost down, some supermarkets sell a cheap Chinese mix of edible and non-edible nuts that can cause nausea, intestinal distress and a metallic taste in mouth that lasts weeks or months. How an American pine nut revival would fit into this spectrum of quality and price is unclear.


Restoring diet and health
For indigenous people, substituting modern foods for traditional ones has typically meant increases in degenerative diseases such as cancer, cirrhosis and diabetes. “The change in diet is the reason we have these diseases,” said Battle Mountain Band tribal council member Emerson Winap. He called the destruction of the forests part of a failed attempt to break his people’s spirit.

“We never knew those diseases,” said Reggie Sope, a spiritual leader from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe, in a separate interview. “Today, we have to create new words for them, which can be translated along the lines of ‘something that eats you from the inside out.’ They happen because we were cut off from hunting, gathering and the freedom that accompanies them.”

The federal agencies need to use common sense, instead of allowing industry to contaminate vast amounts of land and water, Sope said. “I’ve looked at mines in several states. I’ve seen the devastation. The rivers around here test positive for mercury and other pollutants. Making this worse for us, we have minimal access to both health care and healthy foods. At Owyhee, Nevada, where we are, diabetics have to travel 200 miles round trip to stock up on the vegetables doctors say they must include in their diet.”

The solution, said Sope, was a return to traditional foods. That means large and small wild game, fish, pine nuts, additional seeds, and roots, including camas and wild potatoes, carrots and onions. About the landscapes where these foods are found, Sope said, “When we are there, we are at peace.”

Sope added: “These are things we hold sacred and have done so since the beginning of time. They told us we had to learn modern ways, and now we have attorneys, judges, health-care workers and more. But we are left with the question: What part of ‘sacred’ do they not understand?”

Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo, c. Joseph Zummo.

Sacred Site Under Siege

 This article first appeared on Indian County Today Media Network in September 2016.


A fire glows outside a sweat lodge, where Western Shoshones are gathered with a healer to pray and sing in the language of their ancestors. Sparks fly up toward the Milky Way streaming overhead in the night sky. In the surrounding expanse of sand and sagebrush, a faint trail is etched into the land. Centuries ago, an ancestral healer moved across these hills, singing and gathering medicinal herbs.

Now known as the Tosawihi Complex, the area encompasses scores of square miles in Nevada’s Great Basin. Western Shoshones call it the spiritual heart of their traditional homeland, which includes most of Nevada and portions of Idaho, Oregon, California and Utah. Tosawihi (pronounced DOS-a-wee) is named for a band whose name translates as White Knives. The group was famed, and feared, for carrying razor-sharp blades made from the white flint found here.

Ongoing usage by Western Shoshones leaves a cultural tracery on the land showing that Tosawihi is a busy place—of prayer, healing and a history that stretches back to the beginning of time. Sometimes called Tosawihi “Quarries,” that name is falling out of favor among tribal members because it fails to express the intricate cultural and spiritual bonds among the landscape and its people.

The place is ancient, but the fight to protect it is contemporary. Decades of mining have left scars. Like 83 percent of Nevada, Tosawihi sits on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an Interior Department agency. The BLM, which issues mining permits, calls Western Shoshone accusations of mining-related destruction the product of a “different worldview.” Tribal members say that if the BLM followed federal law, including historic-preservation and environmental regulations, damage could be avoided.

In June, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay construction for a mining-related power line in Tosawihi (shown left) until a way could be found to save the ancestral healer’s trail, which had been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Band appealed the ruling. Despite the issue still being before the courts, employees of Carlin Resources, part of an international consortium that owned an open-pit gold mine in Tosawihi, fired up their yellow bulldozer. They plowed a rough, nearly 12-mile-long road, along with 50-foot-wide gashes for the bases of the utility poles. They gouged a trench into the side of a nearby hill used for vision quests.

They obliterated much of the healer’s trail, along with the natural pharmacy he cultivated alongside it. Tanya Reynolds, an official of the South Fork Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, called the destruction “beyond words, beyond what is possible to fix.”

“They’re after money and will literally move mountains to get it,” said Murray Sope, from Duckwater Shoshone Tribe. “But these places are also very valuable to us for teaching our children.”

Demolition of irreplaceable ancient artifacts usually merits outrage, or at least notice. The Islamic State, or ISIS, was widely condemned when it released footage of a yellow bulldozer demolishing the Gates of Ninevah, in the remains of an ancient city in Iraq. Major media outlets reported shock worldwide when ISIS smashed museum exhibits and when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan.

In contrast, portions of Tosawihi have simply vanished in a national, and international, blind spot (see the gold mine in Tosawihi, left). “We don’t understand their need to destroy,” said Joe Holley, former chairman and now councilman of the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone. “We are realistic. We know we can’t stop them entirely, but we want them to partner with us. They need to listen when we flag endangered cultural resources. They need to follow their own laws.”

Federal authorities have permitted destruction of Native sites nationwide. In September, more than 1,200 museum directors and scholars condemned the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) for destroying Sioux burial grounds in North Dakota with apparent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorization. The Obama administration asked the builders, Energy Transfer Partners, to halt work until it could scrutinize tribal-consultation policies, including how they had been applied in the DAPL process.

That did not necessarily signal a policy change, though. A few weeks later, under a permit issued on behalf of President Obama by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the same company bulldozed ancient Native sites in Texas, turning them into a sea of mud.

In Tosawihi, the BLM-authorized power line stoked fears of more aggressive mining to come, said Reggie Sope, the healer from Duckwater Shoshone Tribe who ran the sweat lodge ceremony.

“Work began yesterday,” confirmed John Seaberg, senior vice president of the gold mine’s new owner, Klondex, which bought the operation on October 4. Depending on the results of exploratory testing, the company may install another ramp (inclined mining tunnel), Seaberg said. He called tribes “key stakeholders” in the process but refused to comment on ongoing lawsuits. They include Carlin’s suit against the Battle Mountain Band, which the Band has asked the courts to dismiss.

Sunrise in Tosawihi
The next morning in camp in Tosawihi, we had a hearty breakfast grilled in an oversize cast-iron skillet set over an open fire. Afterward, Holley told us more about the ancestral healer and showed us where he practiced. As the medicine man passed by, picking plants and digging roots, people heard his song. Those who needed treatment followed him to a grassy meadow or to a small pool created by setting rocks in a stream, where he would bathe them.

Near the treatment areas, Holley pointed out small dome-like shelters (shown below) formed by hollowing out arched rock outcroppings. One shelter faced a terrace and had a cavity carved into the back wall. Holley’s little grandsons, Julius Jr. and Wanbli, played around it, as their granddad explained how tribes have used the area. Nowadays, vehicles can bump into Tosawihi via rough mining roads, but in the past, people entered on foot or on horseback via mountain passes. They sought the local white flint, used in healing as well as tool-making.

“Look, just like mine!” Julius Jr. exclaimed. He held up a small partially finished white-flint arrowhead that was shaped like the black obsidian one he’d worked on with his grandfather the day before; he then put it back where one of his ancestors had placed it ages ago—a profound and effortless connection across time.

According to Sope, traditional lifeways were meticulously sustainable. Old winter camps sit by tree-sheltered warm springs and near rock walls that radiate the sun’s heat. “We cultivated the riches of the land by taking a little here and a little there—hunting and gathering roots, seeds and medicinal plants.” Sope gestured toward nearby sagebrush bushes. “A home or sweat lodge could be made with a few hides thrown over them. Nothing was overused, nothing went to waste.”

Though archaeological studies focus on hunting and hunting implements, items found around the Complex are also domestic—grinding stones for the nuts and seeds that dominated the people’s diet, bowls, axes, awls, sharpeners, hide scrapers, ornaments and sewing tools. In a separate interview, Leah Brady, a basketmaker, an educator and—along with the Holleys, the Sopes and their kin—a White Knives Band member, said she’d like to see a thread gauge, with graded holes for measuring the diameter of basket-making material made from willow bark and other plants.

We drove to a cliff that overlooked an expanse—a small portion of the entire Complex—that the BLM has dubbed an Archaeological District for its concentration of flakes and points. Not relevant, said Holley, who believes the entire area should be understood as a Traditional Cultural Landscape. The term signifies a place subtly shaped by not only hunting, but also gathering, food preparation, medicine-plant cultivation, ceremonies and more. Though preservationists fully recognize the concept, it can be harder for some to comprehend than, for example, an historic house.

Some Tosawihi sites are impossible for outsiders to apprehend—places where songs and visions were acquired, or where children were conceived or birthed. “Those places are sacred, too,” said Reynolds.

Later, Holley commented on the Native concept of the sacred. “For us, if something is sacred, nothing and no one can change that,” he said. In contrast, for non-Natives, sacredness can be gained by consecration—when a religious authority makes an item or place sacred—and lost via its opposite, deconsecration. Christian churches and Jewish synagogues have been stripped of sacred status so they could be demolished or repurposed as homes, theaters and nightclubs, while graveyards have been deconsecrated and the bones moved. Holley found that shocking.

A time before time
Archaeologists have found evidence dating the beginning of the Tosawihi occupation to something like 14,000 years ago, or nearly 11,000 years before the founding of Rome. Reggie Sope sees far earlier connections.

“Interesting you should ask,” said Sope (shown right), responding to a question about when his people got the horse. Their first mount was not the Spanish mustang that other tribes acquired, but rather Eohippus, a multi-toed horse that lived 55 to 35 million years ago, he said. “First they were little, and we hunted and ate them. As they evolved into animals the size of a dog, we used them to pull travois [joined poles forming a sled].”

Later, they were big enough to ride. “And we were lords of the Plains,” said Sope, miming the gesture of drawing a bow.

Before that, according to Brady, when time began, her people arrived in the area in a lidded basket. A chief in what is now California had given it to Coyote as part of an enticement to get the troublemaker to leave. The vessel came with orders not to open the top. Feeling the basket move and hearing singing inside, Coyote eventually couldn’t resist taking a peek. The ancestors of today’s Western Shoshones ran out and populated what came to be their homeland.

“This place survived all that time, but not the 1872 mining law,” Holley said.

Congress passed the General Mining Law of 1872 to lure settlers west. The act offered mining patents for a few dollars per acre, with no royalties due (unlike other extractive industries) and no cleanup required. According to the BLM, the law “declared all valuable mineral deposits in land belonging to the United States to be free and open to exploration and purchase.” The policy is still in force, pouring billions of dollars’ worth of public resources into private hands.

With no environmental controls, miners walked away when claims were worked out, abandoning hundreds of thousands of mines. The BLM reports that unwary tourists have died after falling into mine shafts or breathing toxic gases; meanwhile, explosives left behind hinder rescuers. Modern mines also offer hazards. Grates over pits associated with the Tosawihi gold mine have gaps a child or small animal could fall through.

The devastation is immense and ongoing, said Reggie Sope. The Environmental Protection Agency’s 2011 Toxics Release Inventory shows that mining accounted for 98 percent of the 529 million pounds of toxins released in Nevada that year, according to Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada (PLAN).

Long after the digging stops, cyanide, arsenic and other mining-related poisons wash into rivers and evaporate into the atmosphere, with taxpayers picking up the tab. Earthworks, a mining-focused environmental group, estimates that the public will pay as much as $72 billion to clean up old mines. Cleaning up today’s operations will cost additional billions.


Meanwhile, Western Shoshones strive to protect the Tosawihi Complex. Joe’s mother, Kathleen Holley, is 83. She has been coming here all her life. “It’s worse than ever,” she said, looking out over the rolling hills. “I see disrespect everywhere. So many of the animals are gone. What will be left for the children?”


Text c. Stephanie Woodard; photographs by Joseph Zummo, c. Joseph Zummo.