Wildfire Sweeps Past Sacred Sites — The Story in Pictures

This story first appeared in September 2017 in Indian Country Media Network.

Northern Nevada high desert after the wildfire.
The pickup truck rocked over boulders and rolled through dips and rises in the rough dirt track, as we approached 3,200+ acres of ancient sacred sites, recently deeded to the Western Shoshone by the gold-mining company Klondex Mines. The northern Nevada landscape that photographer Joseph Zummo and I traversed, with Battle Mountain Band official Joseph Holley at the wheel, was a grim brown-black. A massive wildfire that swept through the high desert the previous month had left little more than charred tree trunks and tufts of grass to interrupt a view that ended in dark, distant mountains.

Joseph Holley; surviving native plants seen at rear.
The sacred sites we were seeking—prayer circles, shrines and more—are at the heart of an even larger cultural landscape encompassing tens of thousands of acres. Archaeologists have dated artifacts indicating that Native people have camped and held ceremonies here for at least 14,000 years. Medicine man Reggie Sope, of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, dismisses that figure. “We arose there,” he said.

We arrived at the sites, got out of the truck and began to look around. In sharp contrast to the burnt lands we had left behind, healthy grey-green sagebrush surrounded a sweat lodge, its dome-shaped willow frame still draped with boughs. We walked along a languid creek bounded by steep hills on our right and a rugged grey cliff to the left. A massive rock naturally shaped in the form of an eagle's head, seen below, rose ahead of us. We climbed a hill to overlook an ancient campsite.

In some portions of the site, the fire had damaged swaths of land. Yet, cheerful green sprouts were already poking through the ash, suggesting springtime more than loss or destruction. In other areas, native plants were barely singed, rising laden with seed from the blackened earth. 
Rabbitbrush had survived, along with its bright yellow fall blossoms. The sense was more of springtime than loss or destruction. Looking around, Holley was optimistic. “Winter snows are coming, and the moisture will mean re-growth. The ash is also a fertilizer. I think this place will soon be transformed.”

Eagle Rock.
As we walked, we saw that the inferno had left untouched land enclosed by stone prayer circles. It had raged up to the edge of an array of three hilltop rings, jumped over them and recommenced on the other side. The next day, when photographer Joseph Zummo showed Sope the photos, the medicine man was entirely unsurprised. “The strength of the prayers protected those places,” he explained. 

Holley reminded us that something similar happened elsewhere in the larger cultural landscape, when wildfire swept over another sweat lodge and surrounding sagebrush—ordinarily highly flammable—without burning them.

Because tribes own little land in Nevada, the Klondex gift is an opportunity to protect an important place from adverse development. Klondex is also working closely with Western Shoshones to ensure that mining does not damage significant items and places. Holley, who has accepted a job as senior community liaison, heads a team of tribal cultural monitors, who communicate continually with the corporation and tribal members.

The friendly collaborative spirit at the mine may surprise anyone who has followed other corporations’ treatment of Native concerns. In one example among many, an oil company’s private security contractors and North Dakota police gassed, beat and shot rubber bullets at the Standing Rock Sioux and their supporters during 2016 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline. 

Klondex Mines CEO Paul Huet.
Because mainstream media covered the Standing Rock demonstrations, many viewers and readers may have thought they were a new and unusual phenomenon. Sadly, violence against indigenous people attempting to protect land and water is all too common, in the United States, Canada and elsewhere.

Holley sees the Western Shoshones' working relationship with Klondex as a declaration of tribal sovereignty. “We are not naïve. We know we can’t halt mining altogether, but we’d rather work cooperatively than have to fight every inch of the way for what should be protected under federal historic-preservation law.”

In another expression of sovereignty, Western Shoshones are discussing not placing the Klondex gift in federal trust, as most tribes do for the exemption from local real-estate taxes. “A lot of us are saying let’s pay the taxes and keep the federal government out of all decision-making there,” Holley said.

Among decisions to be made are protocols for visitors to the sacred sites, said Lydia Johnson, chairwoman of both the Battle Mountain Band and the Te-Moak coalition of Western Shoshone bands: “We welcome visitors, but they have to check in with us first to assure us that they will treat the area with respect.” Other plans include small cabins near a pond, where elders will teach youngsters tribal language and customs in the natural environment where they arose.

The land will change lives and make people happy, according to Klondex CEO Paul Huet, seen above, who worked over the course of 10 years to obtain and transfer the sacred sites and spoke at the handover ceremony on August 18: “The important thing was that we listened.” 

Tribal members predicted that the Klondex gift will turn out to be not just their ancient land but, thanks to the wildfire, the resurgence of their ancient landscape as well. “The fire was a cleansing,” said Sope.

The following day, tribal members and Klondex employees prepared for the handover ceremony, including blessings, tipis built for guests from other tribes, speeches and a dinner. 

Here are highlights.


Thanks to the many tribal members shown here. Some appear in the main story; others include medicine man Johnny Bob, shown in the sunrise ceremony and evening round dance pictured directly above; Evan Jim, wrapping the tipi top, and his father, Gilbert, shown close-up with a pole; Jewel Vance and grandchildren Wanbli and Julius Holley and Taina Pinnecoose, shown in their gorgeous regalia; and Chairwoman Lydia Johnson marking the occasion by giving CEO Paul Huet a commemorative plaque. Thanks to Battle Mountain's Joseph Holley and Angela Van Dorn and Klondex’s Lucy Hill for much help with arrangements and their warm welcome to this occasion.

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

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