The people of the Western Shoshone Nation have consistently and defiantly battled to protect their territory from corporate and federal intrusion. They now face another giant in the form of Barrick Gold Corp., the world’s largest multinational mining corporation, which is currently in the process of clear-cutting trees at a spiritual gathering site to make way for a massive mine expansion project. Forces such as a disputed land claim, growing antagonism toward aboriginal land ownership, and a crumbling U.S. economy are combining to threaten Western Shoshone sovereignty and their sacred Mount Tenabo.
The ancestral land surrounding Mt. Tenabo is known by the Shoshone as Newe Sogobia. It is an area of 60 million acres once controlled by the Western Shoshone, a place which plays a significant role in their creation stories, the site of ancient burials and contemporary ceremonial rites, and a source for medicinal plants.
The Great Basin swindle began soon after gold exploration spread across the West in the late 19th century. The 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty, also known, now somewhat ironically, as the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, acknowledged Western Shoshone ownership of the land, but gave non-Indian miners access to tribal lands for passage through the territory. Eventually the Indian Claims Commission, established in 1946 to extinguish Indian title to lands outside recognized reservations, took the position that the Shoshones had surrendered millions of acres of ancestral land taken by “gradual encroachment.” That position was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in a controversial 1985 case in which the high court did not weigh actual evidence in support of the Shoshone’s argument. Millions of government dollars remain in trust as the Shoshone people have refused to accept payment for land that had never been relinquished in the first place.
Not coincidentally, these lands comprise the third largest gold-producing area in the world.
The Western Shoshone people maintain this ancestral land base – they live, work and pray there – though the U.S. now classifies nearly 90 percent of Newe Sogobia as “public” lands. Not coincidentally, these lands comprise the third largest gold-producing area in the world. According to one report, only a miniscule amount (.1 percent) of the land is controlled by the Western Shoshone. With President Bush’s last minute relaxation of mining and environmental regulations, the cowboy mentality that has led to the desecration of indigenous lands will continue until public pressure is applied on Congress to combat Interior’s dereliction of duties.
Time is not on the Shoshones’ side, even those hoping for incremental victories. Last week a federal judge delayed ruling on a temporary restraining order to stop work on Barrick Gold’s Cortez mine on Mt. Tenabo. Neither the sacred nature of the site nor environmental impacts held much sway. Apparently, a snide dismissal of the plaintiffs – indigenous people trying to protect what is theirs – was more persuasive. “This is just the latest skirmish in the long battle over land rights in Nevada waged by a small group of Western Shoshone activists,” according to the court filing.
Meanwhile, Western Shoshone Defense Project spokesperson Carrie Dann worries for the future of the site, where around-the-clock construction is altering Mt. Tenabo more every day. “I hate to think it,” Dann said, “but I can’t predict how much longer the ceremonial place will be there. I can’t see it lasting a year.” Western Shoshone men recently visited their praying grounds to erect an arbor and discovered construction vehicles and equipment in the vicinity – within 30 feet – of an existing fire pit and sweat lodge. Further, a temporary pipeline obstructed the roadway leading to the lodge and camping area. The injunction will only buy time. “We’re almost powerless against a mighty gold company like [Barrick],” she said.
Corporations, with the enthusiastic aid of the federal government, act on the presumption that undeveloped land is a wasted business opportunity. Dann calls it a spiritual genocide, perpetrated by non-Indian government and corporate interests that do not respect indigenous ways. Given the vast evidence, one cannot help but agree.