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.