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Nevada tribe says coalitions, not lawsuits, will protect sacred sites as U.S. advances energy agenda

RENO, Nev. (AP) — The room was filled with Native American leaders from across the U.S., all invited to Washington to hear federal officials talk about President Joe Biden’s accomplishments and new policy directives aimed at improving relations and protecting sacred sites.

Arlan Melendez was not one of them.

The longtime president of the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony called his own meeting 2,500 miles away. He wanted to show that his community would find another way to fight the U.S. government’s approval of a bill. massive lithium mine at the site where more than two dozen of their Paiute and Shoshone ancestors were massacred in 1865.

Thwarted by government lawyers at every step of the legal process, Melendez said another arduous appeal would not save the sacred sites from desecration.

“We are not giving up the fight, but we are changing our strategy,” Melendez said.

This change for the Nevada tribe comes as Biden and other top federal officials are doubling down. vow to do a better job to work with Native American leaders on everything from the need to make federal funding more accessible to incorporating tribal voices into land preservation efforts and resource management planning.

The administration also touted more spending on infrastructure and health care throughout Indian Country.

Many tribes benefited, including those who led campaigns to establish new national monuments in Utah and Arizona. In New Mexico, the pueblos managed to convince the Department of the Interior to ban any new oil and gas development on hundreds of square miles of federal land for 20 years to protect culturally significant areas.

But the Reno colony and others like the Tohono O’odham Nation In Arizona, promises of greater cooperation ring hollow when it comes to high-stakes battles over multibillion-dollar “green energy” projects. Some tribal leaders said the consultation resulted only in listening sessions, with federal officials not incorporating tribal input into decision-making.

Rather than pursue its allegations in court that the federal government failed to engage in meaningful consultation regarding the Thacker Pass lithium mine, the Reno-Sparks Indian Colony will focus on organizing a broad coalition to build public support for sacred places.

Tribe members fear other culturally significant areas could find themselves in the path of a modern gold rush that forces companies to seek out lithium and other materials needed to meet the clean energy agenda of Biden.

Melendez was among those who were delighted when Biden nominated Deb Haaland to head the Interior Department. A member of Laguna Pueblo, Haaland is the first Native American to serve as cabinet secretary.

Melendez, a former member of the U.S. Commission on Human Rights who led his colony for 32 years, said he understood the difficulty of navigating the electoral landscape in a western state where the political influence of the mining industry is second only to the power wielded by casinos. .

He was nonetheless disappointed that Haaland declined an invitation to visit the site of the massacre.

“This is the largest lithium project in the United States and they don’t even have time to come here and meet with the tribal nations in the state of Nevada,” he said.

The tribe’s attorney, Will Falk, urged other tribes not to “make us believe that just because the first Native American Secretary of the Interior is in office that she actually cares about protecting sacred sites.” .

Interior Department spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz did not respond directly to the criticism, but said in an email to The Associated Press that there had been “significant communications and partnership with the tribes of Nevada.

The federal government published in early December new direction to care for sacred sites. Although Falk and others are skeptical, they acknowledge that the document addresses concerns that tribes have raised for decades.

Among other things, the guidance says federal agencies should involve tribes as early as possible during project planning to identify potential impacts on sacred sites and determine whether mitigation measures can allay concerns. Agencies should also consult with tribes that value the project area, regardless of where they are located.

It also suggests that Indigenous knowledge should be on an equal footing with other sciences and integrated into federal decision-making. This knowledge may consist of practices, cultural beliefs, and oral and written histories that tribes have developed over many generations.

Justin C. Ahasteen, executive director of the Navajo Nation Office in Washington, D.C., said the new guidelines appear to have incorporated some of the recommendations made by tribal leaders, but could have gone further.

“If this guide increases transparency in the consultation process, we will consider it a victory,” Ahasteen said. “But ultimately what we all want is for the federal government to recognize the need for tribal consent before changing rules that affect tribes.”

The problem, according to Falk, is that none of this is legally binding.

“This type of material functions more as peacemaking propaganda,” he said.

Western Shoshone Defense Project Director Fermina Stevens said the changes were “more lip service for the government to address the ‘Indian problem’ in this new age of mining.” »

Morgan Rodman, executive director of the White House Council on Native American Affairs, disagrees. He said these guidelines are intended to serve as a springboard to improve engagement with tribes and that the administration will be aggressive with training to ensure employees understand what sacred sites are.

“While change certainly does not happen overnight, it is part of a continuum of important policy statements – part of the momentum we have built over the past three years,” he said. stated in an interview.

Rodman made it clear he was not referring to Thacker Pass, but certain guidelines he highlighted have been key points of contention in this case.

U.S. Judge Miranda Du in Reno twice ruled that the tribe failed to prove that the massacre took place on the specific land of the mining project, nor that remote tribes had a legal interest in the fight. The 9th United States Court of Appeals confirmed its earlier decision in July.

The tribe says that the government ignored the evidence that the land they consider sacred is not limited to a specific site where American Calvary first attacked men, women and children as they slept.

They cited newspaper articles, diaries and a government investigator’s report documenting human skulls discovered along a miles-long escape route through the mining site where troops killed and scalped those who tried to flee.

Michon Eben, head of tribal historical preservation, said the entire stretch was an unmarked cemetery.

Melendez said he was happy that Biden promised to improve consultations.

But if federal agencies don’t follow through, he said, “Well, it’s just words that don’t really mean anything to us.” »

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Associated Press writer Susan Montoya Bryan contributed to this report from Albuquerque, New Mexico.

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