Photo by Joseph Zummo
Tosawihi Complex, a contemporary Native cultural landscape with roots in the deep past.

Sacred Site Under Siege—Ravaging the Past

Stephanie Woodard
10/12/16

A fire glows outside a sweat lodge, where Western Shoshones are gathered with a healer to pray and sing in the language of their ancestors. Sparks fly up toward the Milky Way streaming overhead in the night sky. In the surrounding expanse of sand and sagebrush, a faint trail is etched into the land. Centuries ago, an ancestral healer moved across these hills, singing and gathering medicinal herbs.

Now known as the Tosawihi Complex, the area encompasses scores of square miles in northern Nevada. Western Shoshones call it the spiritual heart of their traditional homeland, which includes most of Nevada and portions of Idaho, Oregon, California and Utah. Tosawihi (pronounced DOS-a-wee) is named for a band whose name translates as White Knives. The group was famed, and feared, for carrying razor-sharp blades made from the white flint found here.

Ongoing usage by Western Shoshones leaves a cultural tracery on the land showing that Tosawihi is a busy place—of prayer, healing and a history that stretches back to the beginning of time. Sometimes called Tosawihi “Quarries,” that name is falling out of favor among tribal members because it fails to express the intricate cultural and spiritual bonds among the landscape and its people.

The place is ancient, but the fight to protect it is contemporary. Decades of mining have left scars. Like 83 percent of Nevada, Tosawihi sits on federal land administered by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), an Interior Department agency. The BLM, which issues mining permits, calls Western Shoshone accusations of mining-related destruction the product of a “different worldview.” Tribal members say that if the BLM followed federal law, including historic-preservation and environmental regulations, damage could be avoided.

In June, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals refused to stay construction for a mining-related power line in Tosawihi until a way could be found to save the ancestral healer’s trail, which had been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. The Band appealed the ruling. Despite the issue still being before the courts, employees of Carlin Resources, part of an international consortium that owned an open-pit gold mine in Tosawihi, fired up their yellow bulldozer. They plowed a rough, nearly 12-mile-long road, along with 50-foot-wide gashes for the bases of the utility poles. They gouged a trench into the side of a nearby hill used for vision quests.

They obliterated much of the healer’s trail, along with the natural pharmacy he cultivated alongside it. Tanya Reynolds, an official of the South Fork Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone, called the destruction “beyond words, beyond what is possible to fix.”

“They’re after money and will literally move mountains to get it,” said Murray Sope, from the Shoshone-Paiute Tribe. “But these places are also very valuable to us for teaching our children.”

Demolition of irreplaceable ancient artifacts usually merits outrage, or at least notice. The Islamic State, or ISIS, was widely condemned when it released footage of a yellow bulldozer demolishing the Gates of Ninevah, in the remains of an ancient city in Iraq. Major media outlets reported shock worldwide when ISIS smashed museum exhibits and when the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan, in Afghanistan.

In contrast, portions of Tosawihi have simply vanished in a national, and international, blind spot. “We don’t understand their need to destroy,” said Joe Holley, former chairman and now councilman of the Battle Mountain Band of the Te-Moak Western Shoshone. “We are realistic. We know we can’t stop them entirely, but we want them to partner with us. They need to listen when we flag endangered cultural resources. They need to follow their own laws.”

Federal authorities have permitted destruction of Native sites nationwide. In September, more than 1,200 museum directors and scholars condemned the builders of the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) for destroying Sioux burial grounds in North Dakota with apparent U.S. Army Corps of Engineers authorization. The Obama administration asked the builders, Energy Transfer Partners, to halt work until it could scrutinize tribal-consultation policies, including how they had been applied in the DAPL process.

RELATED: Archaeological Experts Appalled at DAPL Sacred Site Destruction: 1,281 Sign Petition

That did not necessarily signal a policy change, though. A few weeks later, under a permit issued on behalf of President Obama by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, the same company bulldozed ancient Native sites in Texas, turning them into a sea of mud.

In Tosawihi, the BLM-authorized power line stoked fears of more aggressive mining to come, said Reggie Sope, the healer from Shoshone-Paiute Tribe who ran the sweat lodge ceremony.

“Work began yesterday,” confirmed John Seaberg, senior vice president of the gold mine’s new owner, Klondex, which bought the operation on October 4. Depending on the results of exploratory testing, the company may install another ramp (inclined mining tunnel), Seaberg said. He called tribes “key stakeholders” in the process but refused to comment on ongoing lawsuits. They include Carlin’s suit against the Battle Mountain Band, which the Band has asked the courts to dismiss.

RELATED: Gods and Monsters: Bulldozer Rips Into Ancient Sacred Site

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