Courtesy attorney Rollie Wilson, Fredericks Peebles & Morgan
Joseph Holley, tribal council member of the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, views collapsed plastic fencing surrounding a mining vent in the Tosawihi Quarries, a Shoshone sacred site in Nevada. The white stone visible is the type used by Holley's ancestors for more than 10,000 years. “The fencing has turned into trash,” said Band attorney Rollie Wilson, who called this evidence of the mining company’s disrespect for the hallowed surroundings.

Lost Bones, Damage and Harassment at Ancient Sacred Site

Stephanie Woodard

“Horrifying” is how Lydia Johnson described the ordeal her Shoshone community has faced in recent weeks. Johnson chairs the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, which has taken the lead in protecting the Tosawihi Quarries, a tribal sacred site in north-central Nevada, from destruction by gold mining.

The Shoshone have used the Quarries for more than 10,000 years, going there to collect their sacred white flint, fashion it into weapons and use it in ceremonies. They hunted there, gathered medicine plants, buried their dead and more. Tosawihi means “White Knives,” an ancestral tribal name that acknowledges the importance of the place and its revered white stone to the Shoshones, said tribal council member and former Band chair Joseph Holley.

Gold lies in veins beneath the Quarries, though, and safeguarding the place from mining-related damage and pollution has been a multi-generational struggle, Holley said.

The most recent trouble erupted on December 12, 2015, when three bone fragments were unearthed. The mining company’s contract archaeologist examined them and wrote in his notes, “there was not enough present for me to give a species identification.” If they turned out to be human and Native, laws protecting Native burials would have kicked in, leading to further evaluation, tribal involvement, reburial—and inconvenience for the mining company.

Most of the Tosawihi Quarries are on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and subject to the federal Native American Graves and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA. However, this discovery happened to be on privately owned land, so is subject to Nevada law and the authority of the State Historic Preservation Office (SHPO). Since the discovery, SHPO has deferred to BLM, which has waved off the Band’s concerns.

On December 23, BLM district manager Jill Silvey claimed that the archaeologist had, in fact, found that “the bone did not appear to be human.” As recently as January 7, BLM spokesperson Gregory Deimel repeated that claim. In addition, Deimel wrote in an email, a local sheriff looked at a photo of the fragments and “agreed” they were “non-human.” The contract archaeologist, Perry Lown, with Western Cultural Resource Management, would not comment, citing potential client-confidentiality issues.

Meanwhile, the Band has been told at various times that the bone fragments were “processed correctly,” “lost in the snow” and “hidden under a bush,” according to Band attorney Rollie Wilson, of Fredericks, Peeble & Morgan.

“Our people and ancestors deserve better, and the law requires better,” Johnson wrote to the Nevada SHPO and the National Park Service’s office overseeing compliance with NAGPRA. The fragments may, in the end, turn out not to be Native, but the Shoshones’ longtime high degree of activity in the area means they should be presumed so until proven otherwise, according to Johnson.

On January 8, BLM and SHPO finally agreed to “recover” the fragments and have an expert evaluate them, Wilson said.

Starting in 2014, the Tosawihi Quarries have echoed once more with the sounds of gold mining. At the urging of an international consortium with offices in Toronto, Nevada and the Cayman Islands, BLM approved a permit to re-open a defunct mine there. Though BLM and consortium documents show that the mining group wanted a quick approval in time to dress up its quarterly report to investors, the BLM has claimed that the permitting process was “robust” and “not hurried.”

Since then, drilling, road-building, and other activities have damaged sacred-stone gathering places, ancient hunting blinds and other traditional cultural properties deemed eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, said Holley.

The BLM has designated the Quarries an Archaeological District, according to Wilson. However, the Band feels “cultural landscape” is more accurate. This phrase better represents the density of the resources and the range of pursuits that took place there—and still do—said Jewel Vance, one of several site monitors designated by the Band to observe the mining company at work.

“People engaged in many activities in the Quarries,” said Vance. “When you walk around, you see tools, arrowheads, scrapers, pestles and flakes [chips left by weapons making] everywhere. They lived there.”

Numerous tribes used the Quarries, which was revered as hallowed ground. “Different styles of objects can be found, including from my people,” said Vance, who is Lakota and married to Holley. “It’s a beautiful place for praying and ceremonies.”

Leading up to the scandal over the bone fragments, mining-related problems had multiplied. The Environmental Protection Agency objected to the lack of required water-monitoring wells, which would warn of pollution to creeks and sacred springs from the highly toxic gold-mining process. When elders visited to pray and assess the condition of traditional cultural properties, miners from Carlin Resources, the Nevada arm of the international consortium, stood nearby, rolling their eyes and snickering, said both Holley and Vance.

In October 2015, Vance filed a job-harassment complaint with Carlin, reporting that one of its employees had made doing her work impossible. He would hang around outside bathrooms, use his vehicle to block her from driving down a road and more, she said. Because the Quarries are isolated and lack consistent cellphone coverage, she was concerned for her safety. Vance said Carlin told her the situation was a “personality conflict.” The company did not respond to a request for a comment, and an effort to reach the employee was unsuccessful.

The Battle Mountain Band has pursued several avenues to protect the Quarries. In September, the Interior Board of Land Appeals, an Interior Department administrative court, turned down the Band’s request for an order to stop mining temporarily while the various parties worked on improving protection for traditional cultural properties.

The Band then appealed to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation (ACHP). It is a party to the agreement governing mining in the Quarries and oversees the federal government’s handling of historic properties, including tribal cultural resources. The agency’s opinion isn’t law but “carries a great deal of weight,” said Reid Nelson, director of ACHP’s Office of Federal Agency Programs. ACHP recently supported the successful cancellation of controversial oil and gas drilling leases in the Badger-Two Medicine wilderness, sacred to the Blackfeet.

RELATED: Collective Sigh of Relief as Interior Cancels Badger-Two Medicine Drilling Lease

In late December, ACHP weighed in cautiously on the Tosawihi Quarries dispute, saying BLM’s agreement with the mining company “may lack certain specificity.” ACHP advised the BLM to meet with the Band and the mining company to clarify it; the group offered to send a team to Nevada to facilitate discussions.

Wilson was dubious. “The agreement doesn’t need to be clarified, it needs to be implemented,” he said. “The document, signed by ACHP, requires ongoing evaluation of specific areas as mining exploration is considered. BLM is not doing that. It is relying on old and generalized surveys of the entire area, which makes no sense. The document and the law require current evaluations for project-specific proposals.”

BLM spokesperson Jeff Kraus has disagreed, calling consultation with the Band “ongoing.” Kraus added, “the BLM will protect sacred sites and…prevent unnecessary or undue degradation of the lands.”

The Battle Mountain Band’s fight has resonated with other tribes that call the Tosawihi Quarries sacred. “Our fight for the Quarries has spanned decades,” said Alice Tybo, council member of the South Fork Band Council of the Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone. “It is my hope that our voice will finally be heard.”

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