Panamint Valley
The view across the Panamint Valley in California

The new plunder of Native lands

THOUGH YOU wouldn’t know it from the mainstream media, the U.S. economy continues to suffer the aftershocks of the Great Recession of 2008. California is a special case in point, where the unemployment rate hovers at 10 percent.

To resolve this crisis, money-grubbing corporations and the politicians that serve them are working together to restructure the economy and restore stronger growth by turning to resource extraction. This form of growth and development is already having a drastic impact on the environment, people’s health–and also the sovereignty and rights of Native American tribes and nations.

The consequences for working people are stark. In California, child poverty is on the rise at 23 percent, rental prices have skyrocketed, migration to the Golden State has slowed, and in a sure sign of an unfolding social crisis, some adults are deciding that having children is no longer an affordable option. The reports of a rise in suicide rates among adults shows how far the social crisis can deepen if people don’t have access to economic stability and good jobs.

In the fall of last year, Native tribes declared a state of emergency. Reports revealed Native American teens and young adults are killing themselves at more than triple the rate of other young Americans. Coming after decades of racism, continued land theft and inequality, Native Americans, as a segment at the bottom of the ladder, are being hit the hardest.

The 1 Percent, on the other hand, has managed to hoard unprecedented amounts of cash–almost $2 trillion in 2011, according to the federal Bureau of Economic Analysis. The super-rich are looking for ways to invest their money, and they can count on the U.S. government to help them with its policies.

This explains why President Obama could flip to the other direction from his pre-election speeches and take up the “Drill, baby, drill!” mantra of the right wing. The 1 Percent in this country aims to finish first in the rat race to pump out what remains of the world’s oil reserves.

Not without resistance, though. The push to complete the Keystone XL pipeline regardless of environmental damage has sparked a movement made up of environmental activists and indigenous tribes and nations, including the inspiring Idle No More movement in Canada, which rose up against Bill C-45.

C-45 aims to expand tar sands mining as well as the pipeline carrying tar sands oil from Alberta, Canada, to the Pacific coast. The end goal is selling this oil to overseas markets. C-45 is part of a long line of legislation attacking the rights of indigenous people in North America.

As an editorial at the online points out:

With domestic and foreign investors seeking resource wealth from the lands of Canada, First Nation sovereignty presents a massive hurdle for Canada to exploit such resources. This is precisely why the motivation exists to dismantle First Nation legal connection to treaties, sovereignty, and protected reserve lands, as it opens up lands and resources to investors.

The struggle of First Nations organizing in the Idle No More movement has parallel connections with tribes and nations in the U.S. In late March, the Oglala Sioux Tribe renewed its vow to stop XL Pipeline “from crossing the Mni Wiconi Water Line, any part of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation and any and all 1851 and 1868 treaty lands,” it stated in a resolution.

The resolution affirmed: “The Great Sioux Nation hereby directs President Barack Obama and the United States Congress to honor the promises of the United States made through the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties by prohibiting the proposed Keystone XL Pipeline and any future projects from entering and destroying our land without our consent.”

On the day of the vote, Oglala Sioux tribal member Debra White Plume made a call for members to engage in direct-action united with other environmental activists to stop the pipeline.

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THE MOVEMENT against the Keystone XL pipeline has been at the forefront of resistance against the absurdity of putting profits above the sustainability of the environment and our ability to live in good health and drink clean water. But we have to understand that oil isn’t the only natural resource that corporations aim to extract and exploit until there isn’t a drop or an ounce left.

New permits for mining have been enacted all over the country, including in Wisconsin, where corporations hope to mine sand to support the fracking extraction process used to obtain natural gas and oil.

Last month, Gov. Scott Walker signed a law that directly violates treaties with Native American tribes and environmental protections, which surrounds the largest freshwater lake in the world.

As reported at the LGBT news site Let’s Get Real:

While we were busy watching unconstitutional abortion laws and the run up to [the U.S. Supreme Court] taking on Prop 8 and DOMA, the state of Wisconsin quietly declared war on the Bad River Chippewa. In violation of provisions in the 1837 and 1842 treaties with the Lake Superior Chippewa that ceded vast tracts of territory to what is now Wisconsin, the state enacted a new iron mining law that effectively guts the environmental protections on the ceded territories. According to those treaties, the Chippewa retained the rights to hunt, fish and gather in the ceded territories in perpetuity.

This caused Gordon Thayer, chairman of the Lac Courte Oreilles of the Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, in a state tribal address,

to call on Wisconsin lawmakers to not “cash in our natural resources for corporate profit.”

Thayer also said state officials were spreading inflammatory and downright racist “political propaganda” to support opening the mine by stating the tribe was most concerned with spear fishing. Apparently, one Republican leader was so offended by Thayer’s accusation of discriminatory language against the Chippewa that he walked out during the address.

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IN CALIFORNIA, a lucrative focus on revitalizing mining has been dubbed the “New Gold Rush.”

At least that’s what investors thought until last month, when gold dropped dramatically in price to around $1,360 an ounce, down from around $1,700 a few months before. Since then, to the sighs of relief of mining corporations, gold prices rebounded, although not to previous levels.

Even so, gold has not been such a sought-after commodity since the early 1970s, when the U.S. went off the gold standard.

With this revival in the drive for gold, business and financial news sources have been conjuring up the fairy tale and downright revisionist history of the Wild West during the first Gold Rush. As Market Wire boasted:

Gold mining is in California’s DNA. During The Gold Rush (1848-1855), 300,000 people moved to the Golden State. When the boom ended, many of the prospectors stayed and formed the base of a diverse economy, which blossomed for 150 years–but is now failing.

Desperate for jobs and tax revenue, the government of California can look to the mining industry as a cash cow whose operations and labor pool cannot be outsourced. Modern extraction and processing technologies are also making it easier for California gold producers to meet the state’s stringent environmental standards. California has granted 30 of the last 30 mining permits.

Not much is said about how the boom in mining and migration westward during the mid-1800s affected the Native population or the environment. After the U.S. took control of California in 1848 in a war with Mexico, the ideology of “Manifest Destiny” pushed the conquest of North America toward the setting sun, along with violence against an indigenous population with a history dating back 10,000 years or more.

Historians have estimated that prior to the Gold Rush, over 300,000 people lived in California–some researchers now think the number was actually over 700,000. The population represented up to 100 tribes who spoke 300 dialects of 100 distinct languages. California today has the largest Native population of any state.

Yet rarely, as you travel over California roads and pass through cities and small towns, is there a mention of the people who existed prior to the miners, traders–the so-called pioneers–even as people visit deserts and towns named after tribes. And rarely in schools or local museums is there discussion of the Native population residing in California now. Instead, people are taught the history of the Mission system or the legacy of the Gold Rush, which was actually genocidal in character.

The racism that continues today against Native Americans is because of the legacy of the United States. The theft of land and resources of indigenous peoples’ was a central component part of the formation of the U.S. state and its laws.

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THE RIGHTS and sovereignty of Native peoples has once again been in the crosshairs as the high price of gold has pushed efforts to reopen large-scale mining in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, home to what is known as the Mother Lode.

The Briggs Mine, now owned by Atna Resources Ltd. of Golden, Colo., reopened because of the rising price of gold. The mine is located in the Panamint Valley and Mountain Range, which borders and crosses into Death Valley. According to its website, the company is looking to extract 213,000 ounces of gold by 2017.

The Briggs Mine is an open-pit, cyanide leach operation–a severely dangerous and ecologically unsound method of extraction. According to the Environmental Working Group, Death Valley National Park Superintendent James T. Reynolds opposed the reopening of Briggs because:

[c]yanide heap leaching is a method in which companies place the huge quantities of rock and earth on a plastic-lined heap leach pad and then spray or drip cyanide over the pile. As the cyanide trickles through the heap, it binds to the precious metal. The mining company then collects the metal from the cyanide solution in liquid-filled pits at the base of the rock pile. Canyon Resources has a history of pollution in Montana. Its Kendall Mine was permitted in 1989 and has exceeded water quality standards according to the EPA.

But despite the Environmental Protection Agency saying certain mines met regulation standards, it is a known fact among environmental groups that these types of mines often have cyanide spills, which cause surface and groundwater contamination from acid mine drainage.

The Panamint Range mountains are sacred ground for the Timbisha Shoshone, whose ancestry traces back to the Uto-Aztecans. The Timbisha organized against the original opening of the Briggs Mine and still to this day are trying to make sure the mine conforms to regulations.

The Timbisha’s struggle against mining goes back 130 years to the famous Twenty Mule Teams. These teams, made up of 18 mules and two horses, plus a driver, transported borax out of Death Valley to trains in the Mojave Desert almost 200 miles away.

This was the tribe’s first contact with white prospectors and miners, who flooded into the valley that the Timbisha called home. The discovery of borax, a mineral and chemical compound used in almost everything from detergent and cosmetics, to insecticides and fiberglass, ended up being as profitable as finding gold.

The Timbisha’s way of life was completely altered by borax mining. The Pacific Borax Company obtained local water rights, which robbed vital resources and land from the indigenous population.

In 1933, Death Valley, whose name is actually an insult to the Timbisha, became a national monument, further severing the Timbisha’s sovereignty in the area, through the establishment of the national park.

The Timbisha never left the valley, though, nor gave up on their historical rights to the surrounding resources and the mountains they called home. Finally, with the Timbisha Shoshone Homeland Act of 2000, after almost 70 years of organizing, they were finally returned some of their ancestral lands.

Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Barbara Durham of the Timbisha Shoshone Indian Tribe described the process of this bittersweet achievement in an interview:

Our tribe was finally recognized in the 1980s, but we were not given any lands, and we were thought of as trespassers. In the 1990s, there was the California protection act, and we thought we should do something now. This started the ball moving to get Rep. Jerry Lewis to add language to the bill for reservation lands inside and outside of the park, and this began the process. Even today, we are the only tribe to have lands in a national park in the United States.

Before this victory, we were considered trespassers on our own land. We had to shame the park to get to them to the negotiating table. We have over 7,000 aces of land. But it was like coming at the end of everything. All of the good land was gone.

Amid this success for the Timbisha came the plans to reopen the Briggs Mine. The tribe challenged further expansion of the Briggs mining operation and exploration in the Panamint area. The tribe knew the mine could pollute ancestral lands and water sources in the Panamint, creating an irreversible environmental disaster.

The Timbisha was never directly consulted about the opening of the Briggs gold mine in the first place, nor the reopening, as required by laws and regulations of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) of Inyo County.

Durham described the tribe’s opposition to the mining operation:

The water use of the mine was of interest. We tried to fight this, but it didn’t go too far. We keep going to CR Briggs, even today, once a year, but the BLM worked closely with the mine owners, and they still do. Whatever CR Briggs wanted, the BLM did. CR Briggs approached the Timbisha a couple times and wanted to throw money at us. But we don’t want it. Why would we take their money? Some tribes choose to work with mining money. We couldn’t.

The Timbisha Shoshone Native Tribe was part of the movement to appose the Yucca Mountain disposal project that Congress designated in Nevada as a nuclear waste dump in 1987. The Yucca Mountain project never came to fruition because of resistance of Nevada residents, environmental activists and indigenous people.

Even today, Yucca Mountain comes up among politicians and corporations as a viable option for nuclear disposal. The Yucca Mountains are sacred to the Western Shoshone. This means that tribes alongside environmental activists will continue to resist the project of using the mountain for any nuclear disposal.

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WE SHOULDN’T allow this discussion to focus on job creation.

Environmentalists have rightfully pointed out the devastating impacts of mining, drilling and fracking. Supposedly, California has tough regulations, which are the result of the mining industry’s legacy of ecological damage.

Miners during the Gold Rush used mercury to process gold. As a consequence, millions of pounds of poisonous waste found its way into watersheds, streams and rivers. Now, throughout California, some fish are still unsafe to eat.

But the environmental consequences of mining aren’t an issue that happened 150 years ago. When San Juan Ridge miners hit groundwater in the 1990s in California, a member of the Nevada City school board noted how the neighborhood wells started to go dry, and currently, the water is still unsafe to drink.

The mine shut down after only a few years, but now it’s looking to reopen. Tim Callaway, CEO of San Juan Mining Corp. said, “I don’t expect the community to take any significant risks for the benefit of my operation.”

He went on to say that he “hopes the idea of job creation will erase people’s memory of the mine’s environmental pollution. What this project offers is really high-paying jobs. There are very, very few industries or jobs in rural communities.”

Similar to the Keystone pipeline debate, mining companies have tried to sell the idea of job creation as a way to ignore the threat of pollution and environmental damage. This is especially true in the mining country of California, when unemployment is staying so high, especially in rural areas.

Instead of taking the bate, workers and environmental activists should demand well-paying jobs that aren’t part of mining industries that harm workers and communities’ health, alongside destroying vital resources like land and water–and that oftentimes represent a new phase of attacks on indigenous people’s sovereignty.

Native tribes and nations are our natural allies in the fight for a sustainable environmental and a just world. In fact, Native Americans have been at the forefront of this struggle for environmental justice alongside their fight for sovereignty. Today, this struggle has been most visibly represented by Idle No More, but smaller and lesser-known struggles have been happening by tribes and nations in the U.S. for over a hundred years.

If we look around us and get past the government’s policies of trying to erase Native American history and culture, which can have the effect of separating our struggles, we will build a more powerful movement–one that will can produce victories.

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On Sept 19, 2023 ahead of the Climate Ambition Summit in New York City, climate activists gathered for a rally and civil disobedience outside Bank of America Tower in Midtown Manhattan as part of the March to End Fossil Fuels wave of actions resulting in multiple arrests. Activists demand Bank of America to “Defund Climate Chaos and Defend Human Rights” Photo: Erik McGregor (CC BY-NC 2.0 Deed)

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Illustration by Stephanie McMillan. Used with permission