Newcomb: Predators threaten Western Shoshone sacred mountain

Buried deep in the dominant society's system of ideas is the metaphor ''colonization is eating.'' The metaphor evokes the background image of a large predatory body that is ''consuming'' and ''digesting'' that which is being ''eaten,'' or colonized and destroyed.

For the Western Shoshone Nation, the Cortez Mine is the result of large ''predatory bodies'' (mining corporations) colonizing Western Shoshone lands (in what is now called Nevada). The Cortez Mine project is named after the Spanish conquistador Hernan Cortes and, as a result of a proposed new mine in the area of Mount Tenabo, a place of great cultural and spiritual significance to the Western Shoshone is now under direct threat.

Barrick Gold is a majority stakeholder in the Cortez Mine and the world's largest gold mining corporation. The Western Shoshone Defense Project explains: ''The latest expansion proposed by Barrick Gold and Kennecott [Australian-based] ... targets an area which is the home of local Shoshone creation stories and extreme spiritual and cultural significance, Mount Tenabo.'' The mining industry has discovered an immense deposit of gold in the area. It is estimated that this deposit may yield some $6.4 billion in gold.

A body that eats and digests must also expel wastes, and a mining corporate-body such as Cortez Mine is no exception. Not only does the process of mining consume thousands of gallons of pristine aquifer water per minute in a high desert climate, but it also involves a poisonous process of cyanide leach mining in order to extract gold from tons of rock and earth excavated from Western Shoshone lands. If constructed as planned, this mine would bury an entire canyon under a mountain of waste rock, leaving a massive hold where pinion pines now grow. Pinion nuts are a traditional food of the Western Shoshones.

The Western Shoshone Defense Project has issued an action alert protesting the pending destruction of Mount Tenabo by Barrick Gold (a Canadian corporation based in Toronto) and Kennecott. The alert states in part: ''We need to take a stand against U.S. and corporate destruction of indigenous lands and spiritual areas NOW. Using laws which continue to stem from the 'doctrine of discovery' - where indigenous peoples were claimed to be 'savages,' 'pagans,' and 'childlike' in nature, the United States continues to claim vast areas of native lands as 'federal' and 'public' lands - denying Indigenous Nations, like the Western Shoshone, the right to make decisions about the types of activities allowed in their traditional territories.''

The Bureau of Land Management recently released a draft Environmental Impact Statement that states in part: ''Although not quantifiable, the project area and the region surrounding the project area have been home to local Indian groups for centuries, and the resources in the area, the value placed on those resources, and the potential effects to those resources are intertwined with the culture of local Indian tribes more so than that of any other population in close proximity to the project area.''

Dec. 21 is the deadline for public comments and the Western Shoshone Defense Project is encouraging people to contact the BLM to protest the proposed destruction of Mount Tenabo. Although the project is being referred to as an ''expansion,'' it is in reality an entirely new gold mine in an area not yet directly impacted by mining.

The new mine would blast a hole in the flank of Mount Tenabo ''approximately 8,900 feet in length, 6,400 feet in width, and a maximum depth of 2,200 feet.'' It would also devastate some 10 square miles of land, including heap leach and waste rock facilities covering much of the western flank of Tenabo. The massive open pit would sit for an eternity underneath Tenabo's spectacular White Cliffs.

The region of Western Shoshone lands under discussion are in a high desert area, with very little rainfall per annum. The proposed mine would pump ''groundwater from around the pit with an average dewatering rate of approximately 1.8 billion gallons per year for ten years to keep it dry for mining.'' (That's 18 billion gallons of water.) This would create ''a drop in the water table of 1,600 feet surrounding the pit, decreasing to 10 feet at 3 - 4 mile radius of the pit.'' Local springs and streams, sources of life for all the land's inhabitants, have been an integral part of the Western Shoshone way of life for thousands of years. The new mine threatens to forever dry up these precious waters.

A treaty between the Western Shoshones and the United States, known as the Treaty of Ruby Valley, has unfortunately not helped the Western Shoshones stop the mining occurring on their lands. The U.S. Supreme Court has said on several occasions that treaties are to be interpreted as the Indians would have understood the terms of a given treaty when signed.

Article 4 of the Ruby Valley Treaty permits limited non-Indian access to prospecting for mine ore deposits within Western Shoshone territory. In the mid-1800s, when the treaty was made, mining was understood as involving the extraction of ore deposits on a fairly small human scale. At that time, ''mining'' typically involved the excavation of underground shafts or tunnels, a technique that left the majority of a mountain intact. It stands to reason that when the Ruby Valley Treaty was signed, the Western Shoshones would have understood Article 4 of the treaty as referring to such underground small-scale mining. Interestingly, Mount Tenabo bears the scars of such small-scale mining from the 19th century.

Today, however, the United States unilaterally interprets the Ruby Valley Treaty so as to allow reckless and ecologically damaging industrial open-pit or strip-mining processes on a massive scale that would have been inconceivable to anyone, including the Western Shoshones, in the mid-19th century. The current plan to mine and thereby desecrate and destroy Mount Tenabo is yet one more example of the colonizing United States interpreting the Ruby Valley Treaty in a manner that favors predatory mining corporations to the detriment of the Western Shoshone Nation.

Steven Newcomb (Shawnee/Lenape) is an indigenous law research coordinator at Kumeyaay Community College and the Sycuan Education Department, co-founder and co-director of the Indigenous Law Institute, and a columnist for Indian Country Today.