After the Fire: Tribe Repatriates Thousands of Acres of Sacred Sites

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

Joe Holley assesses native-plant population in sacred site.

“It’s done,” said Lydia Johnson, chairwoman of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone, shown below. “The papers are signed, and the land is ours.” It was the late afternoon of August 17, and Johnson had just returned from meeting with attorneys and Klondex Mines, a gold-mining concern. The company had presented the Western Shoshone, a coalition of several tribes, with just over 3,200 acres of ancient sacred sites in the Nevada high desert. The gift stood out as a rare and shining moment in a history that has been, for Western Shoshones, much like that of other Native Americans—massacres, land loss and segregation on economically isolated reservations.

Looking exhausted and elated, Johnson said that day and the next were busy ones for her own tribe, the Battle Mountain Band, which she also chairs. Preparations were underway for an August 18
ceremony and feast to celebrate the land transfer. Some tribal members were cooking, while others were erecting tipis that would shelter visitors from other tribes. An elevated viewing stand and shaded area for onlookers would be constructed outside the community center. Inside, long tables had been set up, soon to be draped with white cloths and brightened with red bandanna decorations.

The day of August 18 dawned cloudless and cool. Medicine man Johnny Bob of the Yomba Shoshone Tribe, shown below, sang a sunrise service as an orange sun rose from behind distant jagged mountain peaks into a pink sky. Tribal members donned brilliantly colored regalia and walked and rode horseback to the plaza fronting the community center. Leaders from Nevada and South Dakota tribes joined Klondex representatives, Congressman Mark Amodei (R.-Nev.) and elder Naomi Mason—an early advocate of the land transfer—in applauding the project.

The sacred sites—prayer circles, shrines, ancient camping grounds and more—form the heart of a cultural landscape encompassing tens of thousands of acres in the rolling hills of northern Nevada. Archaeologists have dated artifacts indicating that the Western Shoshone and other tribes have camped and held ceremonies in the region for at least 14,000 years. Medicine man Reggie Sope, of the Shoshone-Paiute Tribes, seen below on horseback, saw even earlier connections. “We arose there,” he said.

For tribal members, the holy place is filled with personal memories of hunting and gathering, prayers and visions. Councilman and former Battle Mountain chairman Joseph Holley remembered following his grandfather through deep snow as he trapped mountain lions and coyotes. Holley pointed out pools in a winding creek, where medicine men bathed their patients.

Battle Mountain tribal member Marleine Knight recalled collecting creek water to use for medicinal purposes and dreams of buffalo that came to her and others there. “This gift was meant to be,” Knight said. “Now, we can camp, tell stories and take care of the place properly.”

Because tribes own little land in Nevada, the gift is an opportunity to protect an important place from adverse development. According to the Congressional Research Service, the United States government owns nearly 80 percent of Nevada, the largest percentage of any U.S. state. Since passage of the 1872 Mining Act, which makes it cheap and easy to stake out claims but does not require cleanup or royalty payments, the federal government has permitted mining companies to wreak vast destruction while extracting gold, silver, mercury and other minerals. The environmental group Earthworks says that the American taxpayer may end up paying as much as $72 billion to clean up old mines nationwide and additional billions to deal with the remains of today’s operations.

When Klondex Mines purchased a gold-mining operation near the Battle Mountain Band’s reservation, in Battle Mountain, Nevada, chief executive officer Paul Huet, shown below with Lydia Johnson, was determined that his company’s tenure would be different. Earlier in his career, he had worked at the same site as general manager for another firm and had given mine tours as part of his job. Western Shoshone elders who took the tours, including Mason, told Huet about sacred sites that were central to their culture, yet threatened by possible mining expansion and other development. Huet drove out to see what they were talking about and was amazed.
“I had no idea that such a beautiful spot, with a rushing creek and trees, was tucked away in Nevada. I had never seen anything like it in the state,” Huet recalled. “It was obvious it should be in Western Shoshone care.” To buy the tract and make that happen, he had to raise nearly a million dollars. “I’d never done anything like that in my life,” Huet confessed. “I am a third-generation miner who started out in the mines as a janitor three days after my high-school graduation.” He recalled a tribal official exhorting him, “You can do it!”

Huet plucked up his courage and flew to South Africa and then to Canada to lobby the company’s top brass. To his delight, he got the money and bought the land in 2009. However, before the tract could be turned over to the Western Shoshone, the company went bankrupt. The acreage was caught up in legal proceedings, and the gift was in limbo until Huet returned in late 2016, this time as CEO of Klondex.

Huet’s plan would face one more trial. A lightning strike in mid-July of this year ignited a wildfire that consumed 220,000 acres surrounding the sacred sites. A highly flammable invasive weed grass, dubbed cheatgrass, drove the ferocity of the blaze. The non-native plant arrived in the region over the course of the 20th century, perhaps as contamination of imported grain or in plant matter used as packing material, said Edwin Smith, of the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR) Cooperative Extension Service. Over the years, cheatgrass disrupted the native-plant ecosystem of the Great Basin, so-called because rainfall and snowmelt stay here rather than running off to the Pacific Ocean or Gulf of Mexico.

Once these hills were the grey-green of sagebrush, with splotches of yellow when rabbitbrush bloomed in early fall, said Smith. The area used to have a long natural fire cycle of 50 to 100 years between burns, which produced a varied mosaic of plant communities at different stages of maturity, he said. This supported wildlife, which in turn sustained an indigenous diet that relied on both hunting and seed and plant gathering. “Now, the land is generally the buff-yellow of cheatgrass, which dries up early in the year and provides perfect kindling for fires,” Smith said.

Other factors may exacerbate the situation, according to Smith. These include hotter, drier weather in the area and more human use of public lands. “Whatever you describe as the primary reasons, it’s simply a fact that there are more wildfires,” he said. With various factions agitating for competing solutions—more grazing, less grazing, re-seeding with native plants, re-seeding with non-native vegetation—Smith was concerned about the Great Basin’s future. “One day, we may see an even greater preponderance of cheatgrass,” he said.

But perhaps not in the area covered by the Klondex gift, Holley said. On a tour of the place on August 17, he noted that portions had been spared the inferno. The flames left untouched land enclosed by prayer circles, raging up to the edge of a grouping of three hilltop rings, jumping over them and recommencing on the other side. The fire leapt sweat lodge frames, which are made of willow and covered with boughs. “The strength of the prayers protected those places,” said Sope.

In some spots, native plants were barely singed, rising laden with seed from the blackened earth. In other areas, cheerful green shoots were already poking through the ash, suggesting springtime more 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.”

Brad Schultz, a UNR extension service educator, said Western Shoshones might be able to peer into the future of the area by brushing away the blackened tops of native Indian ricegrass and other clump-forming grasses to see if there’s any tan stem left. Even one-eighth of an inch of stem would indicate that the plant had survived and will fill in under sagebrush and rabbitbrush, he said. Otherwise, according to Schultz, cheatgrass may roar back within two years.

By laying bare the land, the fire has enabled looters to scour the ground for arrowheads, spear points and other objects. To forestall this, the Battle Mountain Band is organizing patrols to stop them. Shoshone-Paiutes chairman Ted Howard called looting a form of ethnic cleansing. If it continues, Howard said, there will be no evidence that his people existed.

The artifacts are not just pieces of rock, added Holley. They are offerings, purposely placed to be found by someone who would use them to save a life or feed a family. Where they were placed tells his people about the life that surrounded them—“between the stones,” as Holley put it.

At Klondex’s nearby mine, the company avoids impacts to the land by consulting Native advisors. Holley, who has accepted a job as Klondex’s senior community-relations supervisor, is in charge of a team of tribal cultural specialists who work with miners to ensure ancient artifacts remain unharmed. Recently, Sope pointed out that a proposed exploration hole would damage a culturally significant spot.

“Our geologists got out their maps and quickly figured that we could come in at an angle,” said Lucy Hill, Klondex’s director of environmental services and community relations. “Reggie said that would work, and we still got the information we needed.”

The friendly collaboration may surprise anyone who is aware of other corporations’ rejection of Native concerns. In one recent example, the world watched aghast in 2016, as 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 demonstrations against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

Going forward, Klondex will also limit damage to the earth’s surface by using precision hand techniques and working only underground. “We will not do any open-pit mining in the area, and the ore will be milled [processed and the gold extracted] in another location,” said Huet.

Holley sees the relationship with Klondex as a declaration of tribal sovereignty. “We are not na├»ve. 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 new land 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 on the new land 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 chairwoman Johnson. “We welcome visitors, but they have to check in with the Battle Mountain Band first to assure us that they will treat the area with respect.” Other plans include a complex of small cabins near a pond, where elders will teach youngsters Shoshone language and customs in the natural environment where they arose.

“After everything that tried to deter us—churches, the cavalry, alcohol, drugs—we still walk our path,” Holley said.

The land will change lives and make people happy, according to Huet. “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.

C. Stephanie Woodard; photographs c. Joseph Zummo.

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