Daranda Hinkey on Protecting Ancestral Homeland at Thacker Pass
On January 15th, 2021 the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) issued permits to Lithium Americas Corporation for an open-pit lithium mine that would destroy over 17,000 acres of Paiute-Shoshone ancestral homeland at Thacker Pass, Nevada. This mine would pollute groundwater with uranium, arsenic, and heavy metals; deplete already overdrawn aquifers; threaten endangered species including golden eagles; and pose additional threats to indigenous women by bringing man camps into the area. This decision by the BLM was made after an inadequate review process and without the free, prior, informed consent of local tribes.
On the same day that the BLM issued the record of decision, Protect Thacker Pass (PTP) began continuous occupation of the site. I met Paiute-Shoshone tribal member Daranda Hinkey when I visited the PTP camp for two weeks in early April. Later, on May 11, I spoke with her about her people’s opposition to the lithium mine at Thacker Pass. A transcript of that interview follows.
Daranda Hinkey is a Fort McDermitt Paiute Shoshone tribal member. She graduated with a Bachelor’s of Science at Southern Oregon University in 2020 and is currently a part of the atsa koodakuh wyh Nuwu or People of Red Mountain group.
Paul Feather: Thanks for taking time for this interview. I think I saw you in some recent photos from up at camp. Have you just been up there?
Daranda Hinkey: Yeah, I went up this past weekend, and it was mother’s day so I just had some things going on at the reservation, and then…decided to go up to Thacker Pass, so it was a good weekend.
PF: Nice. Well, I want to ask you about the change.org petition that you and some of your folks put out, and it seems like a really compelling story, and it got me inspired to share it, and I really appreciate you telling that story, because I think it’s really beautiful the relationship that you and your people have with Thacker Pass… It’s such a beautiful place. I’m hoping you can tell me a little more about your people’s relationship with that place, and how it feels to be protecting it right now.
DH: Yeah, absolutely. I’ll just start off with the name of Thacker Pass. What we call it in Paiute is Peehee mu’huh, and all around our area—all around the Quinn river valley—we have names for each mountain, and I think that is just really important—our relationship to the land. Peehee mu’huh in Paiute means ‘rotten moon’; and of course you’ve heard the story: a band of Paiute people were massacred at this site while our men—our hunters—were away in Paradise Valley which is about 30 miles away. When they came back, there were all the elders, the children, all of the ladies; they were all murdered, and their remains—their [rotting] intestines—were scattered across the sagebrush. I think this was an act of war almost. It was very brutal. So that is why we call it Peehee mu’huh, because the shape of Thacker Pass looks like a moon if you’re looking from the Santa Rosa mountainsides, and so we see that in Thacker Pass, and that’s the start of the name.
That’s the story, but then also what it feels like to just be here? It feels good. I feel like if I hadn’t—if this lithium mine hadn’t come up, I don’t think I would have been at Thacker Pass for a really long time. I think that’s really special—even though the ‘big bad mine’ wants to come in—I was able to reconnect to this place, and a lot of people are being able to reconnect to this place. I’m hearing stories of more modern day things—of people going to fish down in the creek right next to Thacker Pass, and recently in one of our ceremonies they caught a rainbow trout and a Lahontan cutthroat trout, and so that’s really special… I know of two young men offhand who hunted their first deer in or near Thacker Pass, so in a more modern day sense we see this connection to land and those teachings, and I think that’s really special.
That’s important for us to be on these places and learn from the stories… That’s kind of what we call a culture nowadays (laughs slightly) and maybe we wouldn’t necessarily have called it that way back in the day, but that’s what we think of it now. So being able to gather certain things here and hear those stories; it just brings in our identity of who we are as a people, and I think that’s special.
PF: This group that has written this petition is called the People of Red Mountain… Can you tell me more about who is coming together to present this petition to…the Department of the Interior? When did these people hear about the mine, and when did you personally hear about the mine?
DH: People of Red Mountain is a group of tribal descendants from Fort McDermitt who want to collectively stand up against this lithium mine as well as other mines around our reservation, and defend our mother earth in more of a community voice… This is a combination of elders, middle-aged people, younger people; it’s a pretty well-rounded group. I think there are nine or ten of us on this committee, and it’s just for more of a community voice.
PF: When did this group of people hear about this particular mine, and thanks for clarifying that there’s also an intention to fight more mines. I remember hearing that there’s a gold mine that people are concerned about nearby, and I know there’s a history of people at Ft McDermitt being poisoned by nearby mines for quite some time.
DH: Right, absolutely. I first heard about this lithium mine back at the end of January. I read an article in High Country News, and it mentions our current tribal chairwoman and one of our councilmen, and it really caught my attention, because obviously that meant that the tribe was talking to them—they were involved, and I was like, “What the heck! I didn’t know about this. That’s very new to me!” I know that lithium mines are not good in general—especially what they’ve done to Argentina, Chile, Bolivia, etcetera.
I was really fortunate to get a lot of family support and a lot of other tribal community members involved, and this all started around the beginning of March… This is when I connected with Max and Will [from the PTP campaign].
It was kind of upsetting knowing that our tribe didn’t comment on the EIS [Environmental Impact Statement]… I don’t think the seriousness of the mine was adequately informed to the people. A lot of people don’t have access to internet on the reservation. I know that seems so silly, but it’s true. The reservation is very rural—not very much income, so internet is not completely accessible. When that EIS comment period was done, it was in the midst of when the tribe was going through the COVID outbreak; the tribal council office was closed. The whole town of McDermitt was closed down. I don’t think there was really great communication between the tribe and those council members and the chairman at that time. I have personally heard from our secretary during that time that she did not see an EIS public comment mail go through to the tribe, and she received all mail and all documents. So that just doesn’t seem right to me: everything was online; there was no access to the internet. Even the tribal office was closed. It just doesn’t seem right, so I think the BLM was truly not honest with their consultation and process on the EIS. I think the EIS was rushed through, and it really wasn’t written well. I read it… I don’t think it’s really up to par. I think it should have taken more years to write.
PF: Yeah, I saw that the industry average for preparing an EIS is three or four years, and this one was done in less than one.
… I’ve been pondering what you were saying earlier about having people back on the land at Thacker Pass, and you were saying that you might not have been back up there for quite some time if this weren’t all happening. As you were talking, I was remembering a quote that I read from Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’m not sure if you’re real familiar with her.
PF: She was saying—and I’m not going to get the quote exactly right—that acting to protect life and the Earth is really transformational, because we’re part of the Earth and that it isn’t so much a matter of healing ourselves or becoming enlightened and then acting to protect the Earth. It’s something that co-arises: when we act to protect the Earth, we are ourselves healed or made whole in that process. As I was hearing about your people reconnecting with themselves and this place, it was bringing up this idea. Does that feel to you like what’s going on..?
DH: Yeah, first I do know of her…I read her book, Braiding Sweetgrass.
PF: She’s such a wonderful writer isn’t she?
DH: Absolutely. It was almost like poetry. I loved it…But what you’re saying exactly resonates with me. I just think it’s very interesting to look at where I was two or three months ago when I first got involved. On the reservation, I don’t think very many people saw me as a young woman yet. I think they saw me as a young girl or even just my dad’s daughter. And then once this has been going on, people have been looking to me for my opinion and waiting for me to talk, and I think that’s really made me grow up as a person, and it’s really shaped me.
Then also as a community and our people and connecting to this land: I think it’s exactly what you’re saying, and all of that does resonate with myself and others. I know that from others. And so yeah, it’s really beautiful, and just to think that if we weren’t here at this time and we were never able to reconnect with this certain place in the Quinn River Valley, then we wouldn’t have known that story; we wouldn’t have known this name. People know it, but it wasn’t asked. That question wasn’t asked of our elders, and so it could have been lost forever. Yeah, everything you said was great.
PF: Isn’t it strange? That memory could have been lost like you said, and the fact of it being threatened is what saves that memory or at least that part of it.
DH: Yeah it’s a blessing in disguise for sure.
PF: As long as we win. And maybe that’s one of the last things I want to ask, and I don’t want to take up too terribly much of your time…What would make this a blessing in disguise? If Thacker Pass is saved, that would certainly be more of a blessing than if Thacker Pass is destroyed. Obviously you’ve been thinking about what it’s going to take to do that, and I wonder what you’ve come to. Have you made any conclusions, or are you not thinking about it that way at all? Where are you on that?
DH: I would just say that I’m as human as everybody else. Some days are really easy, and I have a lot of confidence in the world, and we’re going to change it, and the mine will not go through… Then other days are really hard to think about, and your mind starts thinking about all the people you have to go through, and all the billionaires that you’re taking money from, and stopping the government, and stopping the economy from transitioning to ‘green’ energy, and so it’s hard. So I’m trying to just embrace all those things each day that they come, but I do know it takes a lot of work, and we’re just in the start of this fight.
It’s going to be a process for this communal or societal change—to stop thinking about ‘green’ energy and to transition away from this greenwashing. They’re selling these products with greenwashing. Lithium powered cars are greenwashing. It’s going to take a long time; that’s how everything is. I think everyone is just very uncomfortable, but that’s how we change—is to feel uncomfortable, and that’s ok to feel like that. It’s going to take a lot of change for our people and I’m talking as America, because we consume too much, and we buy too much, and to change how this mine is going to go through and how lithium is mined in the future—there’s going to be really dramatic change.
It’s hard to think about because you want to think about all the pros and cons, and it’s really hard when you live in this American dream society where you can take what you want and get what you want with just the snap of a finger.
Hopefully I answered your question in a way—that’s just where my mind is going…
PF: I think that’s great. I think that’s a really good answer. It’s a pretty broad answer about what it’s going to take—definitely a major and intense transformation for everybody. So then, I know there’s this change.org petition, and I saw a GoFundMe for the People of Red Mountain, so those are two small easy things that people can think of in terms of supporting your efforts to protect Thacker Pass. Is there something more that we should kn0w about that people can do to support your efforts?
DH: I think writing a personal letter. On top of signing our petition, your own personal letter to the Department of the Interior and then also Nevada’s governor Steve Sisolak, and etcetera. It’s important because the more people we get on top of this, the more people that want to write letters and get people’s attention is really important, because we want those people to come out and see Thacker Pass and see the people and hear those community voices. Also everything you mentioned is really important—being able to support from wherever you are.
Also, we do need support on the ground. I’m really nervous that the lawsuits won’t go the way we want, and the permitting won’t go the way we want. I think it’s really important to have people dedicated to direct action and to commit to the camp and commit to being out there. I know that’s hard, because a lot of people have their lives, and jobs, and whatever else.
I just want the message to be said to stand with our indigenous—to stand with us in solidarity—with our tribes in protecting ancestral homelands, because not only are we seeing this at Thacker Pass. We are seeing it all over. I think today I just saw about a gold mine in Arizona that’s popping up, and the swamp cedars in Nevada, and the Oak Flats in Arizona. It’s just a continuous fight for all of our indigenous tribes…
PF: OK, Thank you. I don’t think I have anything more that I need to add to this. I really appreciate your thoughts and time. Are there any other thoughts, or words, or information that you would like to leave me with?
DH: …Actually, I’ll just say this just for the fun of it, just so you can hear it. My uncle recently told me that we were given this land from our creator, and we have lived here since time immemorial. We’ve lived here forever. We even have stories of our people living here when that McDermitt Caldera was still active. So we’ve been living in this reciprocal relationship with the land, and we have this belief that if we take care of her that it’ll take care of us. So our native people—we’re not going to be leaving this land. We were given this land, and so it’s hard to think about if this mine does go through, because other people who might not have tribal affiliations with their land or any kind of connection—they’re able to leave if it gets too polluted, or it’s too dry, or something like that. But our people—this is our home, and it’s going to be our great grandchildren’s home. I just want to bring that to light that our people are never leaving. I think that’s all.
I really appreciate you taking the time to write this and to communicate and interview me, and I’m glad you were able to make it up to Thacker.
PF: Yeah, I was happy to be there, and I hope to be able to get back. Likewise, I really appreciate your time, and I appreciate everything you’re doing. I think it’s really meaningful and valuable and powerful, so keep it up.
1. [An independent investigation by an Argentine NGO found that Minera Exar (partially owned by Lithium Americas Corporation) failed to guarantee free, prior, and informed consent of indigenous people affected by their lithium mines in South America. The Washington Post has also reported on human rights abuses associated with these mines.] ↑