Just two months ago, while many of us enjoyed a hearty Thanksgiving meal before a cozy fire, Western Shoshone grandmothers, Carrie Dann and Mary McCloud, along with other Western Shoshone supporters, stood in the cold on the flanks of Nevada’s Mt.Tenabo. They were – and still are – protesting the devastation of a mountain at the heart of Western Shoshone spirituality. Mt. Tenabo is home to Western Shoshone creation stories, medicinal foods and plants, and site of spiritual ceremonies. It is as important to the Western Shoshone as the San Francisco Peaks are to the Navajo/Dine. Much as the Navajo/Dine are fighting the use of treated sewage water for snow-making at a ski resort on the flanks of the Peaks, the Western Shoshone battle Barrick Gold for the life of Mt. Tenabo.
Barrick Gold has operated mines on and around Mt. Tenabo since 1969. The company website states
the claim that the Western Shoshone people have been denied access to traditional use areas is false. Cortez Gold Mines respects the cultural and religious significance of traditional use areas. We have committed to the Western Shoshone communities that, with reasonable notice, we will continue to provide safe access through or around the mines to federal lands where the Western Shoshone may wish to conduct traditional ceremonies or engage in spiritual or other cultural activities. The top of Mt. Tenabo and most traditional plant gathering areas are accessed by privately constructed mining and exploration roads, which Cortez Gold Mines regularly makes available to Western Shoshone.
What Barrick Gold doesn’t get is that “making access available” trivializes Native American values. In his book, God is Red, the late Dr. Vine Deloria, Jr. wrote “as long as Indians exist there will be conflict between the tribes and any group that carelessly despoils the land and the life it supports.” He argued that the paradigmatic split between the Native American concept of the sanctity of the web of life and the Christian concept of man’s dominion over Nature is the bedrock of all conflicts between Native and non-Native people. Deloria said the roots of this schism first appeared in the papal bull of 1493:
The status of Native people around the globe was firmly cemented by the intervention of Christianity into the political affairs of exploration and colonization. They were regarded as not having ownership of their lands but merely existing on them at the pleasure of the Christian God who had now given them to the nations of Europe (p. 256).
Deloria also wrote about a 1988 Northern California court decision, the spirit of which is echoed by Barrick’s ignorance. Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protection Association involved upholding the visitation rights of traditional spiritual leaders to sacred sites in the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California. The US Forest Service wanted to build a logging road through the area. Lower federal courts prohibited this under the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The US Forest Service appealed that decision to the Supreme Court. Before the Court could hear the appeal, however, Congress passed the California Wilderness Act, rendering the road proposal moot. The Supreme Court could have left the situation alone but proceeded with its decision, which was not in favor of the tribes. According to Deloria, Justice O’Connor said:
A broad range of government activities – from social welfare programs to foreign aid to conservation rights – will always be considered essential to the spiritual well-being of some citizens, often on the basis of sincerely held religious beliefs. Others will find the very same activity incompatible with their own search for spiritual fulfillment and with the tenets of their religion (p. 269).
Deloria wrote that the decision treated “ceremonies and rituals that had been performed for thousands of years…as if they were popular fads or simply matters of personal preference based upon the erroneous assumptions that religion was only a matter of individual aesthetic choice” (p. 269). The commodification of nature suggests a disregard for its implicit value and, by extension, Native American religious values. At its worst, this paradigm, when applied to land use, implies environmental destruction and subsequently Native American cultural genocide.
Barrick Gold is not doing the Western Shoshone any favors with its patronizing approach of piecemeal access to Mt. Tenabo. In fact, it’s missing the point. Barrick’s recent Collaborative Agreement with the Western Shoshone claims to “build greater mutual understanding” between the corporation and the Western Shoshone but what that really means is that they’re working hard to make the Indians see it Barrick’s way.
This Collaborative Agreement creates an education fund for Western Shoshone children but it leaves out one key component: the traditional connection with the land that is the foundation of Native American life. This week, Western Shoshone communities, the Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Resource Watch are seeking an injunction to stop further destruction of Mt. Tenabo by Barrick Gold Corporation. The Federal Court in Reno has scheduled a hearing for January 20th and 21st. Meanwhile, on the flanks of Mt. Tenabo, Carrie Dann and other Western Shoshone people and their supporters are making sure that the world does not forget their struggle to keep the connection to the earth alive. It is more precious than gold.