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Shoshone Use Film, Courts to Fight Gold Mine on Sacred Land

by Lisa J. WolfEnvironmental News Service
December 6th, 2007

The 32nd Annual American Indian Film Festival presented Western Shoshone grandmother Carrie Dann with the Eagle Spirit award for best overall contribution in American Indian cinema at an awards ceremony November 27. "Our Land, Our Life," the film that shows the Western Shoshones’ determined struggle to maintain their way of life, won the festival's Best Documentary award.

"Our Land, Our Life," a 74 minute documentary directed by George and Beth Gage, details Carrie and Mary Dann's 30 year struggle to protect their traditional ways and ancestral lands from mining degradation in a battle that went to the U.S. Supreme Court and beyond to the United Nations with no relief as yet from the U.S. government.

Having won these film awards, Dann and her allies, speaking on behalf of the Earth, their Mother, are preparing once again to enter the U.S. Appeals Court and U.S. District Court.

Carrie Dann prays for the Earth (Photo by Erin Hetherington courtesy Oxfam)

The Western Shoshone grandmother and other Western Shoshone, who call themselves the Newe people, are trying to stop the federal Bureau of Land Management, BLM, from permitting the world's largest gold-mining company, the Barrick Gold Corporation based in Toronto, from mining on or any nearer to Mt. Tenabo. The mountain is sacred to the Western Shoshone and fundamental to Newe Creation stories and worship.

In the film, Dann, of Crescent Valley, Nevada relates, "As far as the Western Shoshones being here in this valley, they've always been here from forever, I guess. Our stories don't tell us coming here from anyplace. It tells us that as the Creator went by He planted His children. We've heard that from the time we were little, 'It's Western Shoshone land. It's your Earth Mother: She provides for you.'"

The history of the official Western Shoshone relations with the United States began in 1863 when the U.S. government and the Western Shoshone Nation signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which recognized Western Shoshone land title. But in the following years the U.S. government began to treat these lands as belonging to the United States and not to the Western Shoshone.

In 1974, the United States sued Carrie Dann and her sister Mary Dann for trespass, basing their suit on a 1962 stipulation of the Federal Indian Claims Commission that the Western Shoshone had lost their land to the United States by gradual encroachment of U.S. settlers and were entitled to $26 million for the 24 million acres of their original territory.

Dann's father homesteaded Crescent Valley ranch land but grazing rights for horses and cattle on surrounding land are now administered by the BLM, which considers the Danns to owe $5 million in grazing fees on what is disputed as traditional Western Shoshone range.

When Mary and Carrie Dann made it to the U.S. Supreme Court and wanted to discuss how title had never been legally transferred from the Shoshone to the United States, the court ruled the Secretary of the Interior had accepted the monetary award on their behalf. The court ruled that the Western Shoshone have been paid and had no right to come before the court and argue for title.

As Chris Sewall of the Western Shoshone Defense Project said in "Our Land, Our Life," "You have the government taking money out of one pocket and putting it another and saying, 'Justice has been done and the Shoshone people have spoken.'"

The documentary shows the BLM with a cavalcade of armed agents confiscating over 500 head of the Danns' horses and over 200 head of cattle in roundups that began in 1992.

Footage is also shown of horses and foals removed by the BLM during a 2003 roundup dead of starvation, decomposing.

Julie Fishel of the Western Shoshone Defense Project questions whether the real impetus for the U.S. government's raids on the Danns is because the area from which the animals were removed "sits atop one of the largest gold finds in the history of the United States."

Pine nuts are a traditional food for the Western Shoshone people. (Photo courtesy Western Shoshone Defense Project)

Fishel argues that grazing degradation cannot compare with mining degradation. During gold extraction, tons of earth are dug, and leached with toxic cyanide to separate gold from rock.

In addition, 20,000 to 70,000 gallons per minute of underground water would be removed from this arid region for the gold extraction process "every day for one mine alone, every day 365 days a year," Fishel said.

On December 27, 2002, the Inter-American Commission issued a final report, finding the United States in violation of the rights of Western Shoshone petitioners to equality before the law, due process, and property under the American Declaration of the Rights and Duties of Man. The finding had no effect on the U.S. government.

Following the death of Mary Dann on Earth Day, April 22, 2005, the Western Shoshone took the cause to the United Nations headquarters in Geneva. In March 2006 they received a ruling from the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, a treaty body set up by the United Nations and ratified by the United States in 1993.

The Early Warning and Urgent Action Decision issued by CERD urged the United States to immediately freeze, desist and stop any further actions against the Western Shoshone people, including legislative efforts to privatize their land. CERD ordered the United States to stop immediately and initiate dialogue with the Western Shoshone. This has not happened.

In addition, Canada's Standing Committee on Foreign Affairs and International Trade, a committee of the Canadian House of Commons, condemned Canada's mining corporations acting abroad, including Barrick Gold, in a report dated June 26, 2005.

The Standing Committee recommended that Canada "reign in its corporate behavior abroad" and establish "clear legal norms in Canada to ensure that Canadian companies and residents are held accountable when there is evidence of environmental and/or human rights violations associated with the activities of Canadian mining companies."

James Anaya of the University of Arizona School of Law sees the Western Shoshone case as "very important for the indigenous movement world-wide" and said in the film, "They've won the moral battle."

"The United States has its legal maneuvering it can make within its own domestic system," he said, "but when it comes to judging those actions against fundamental human rights, the Danns and the Western Shoshone are the ones who are right."

In March, Dann and the Western Shoshone Defense Project requested that representatives of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Populations, the UN High Commission for Human Rights and other UN agencies attend as observers during a proposed global expert seminar to examine these issues next July.

The global expert seminar will be held on Newe Sogobe (Western Shoshone Territory) at the 14th Indigenous Environmental Network Protecting Mother Earth conference July 17-20, 2008, hosted by the Western Shoshone Defense Project.

They are asking that the commissioner make a site visit to Newe Sogobe prior to the July 2008 conference.

Mt. Tenabo, the sacred mountain (Photo courtesy Western Shoshone Defense Project)

Besides petitioning international bodies and U.S. courts, the Western Shoshone, with the support of Oxfam America, took formal statements to Barrick Gold shareholders in May of 2007. They brought over 18,000 signatures of people who oppose mining on Mount Tenabo and in Horse Canyon, important spiritual areas in northern Nevada and the sites of Newe creation stories.

Protection of these sites is fueling legal action.

Of the creation stories and Mt. Tenabo, Western Shoshone Larson Bill told ENS, "They're not told except certain times of the year and also it's not really told to everybody. It's passed down and people that really listen to it believe it. It's a creation story. That's where we got the name for each season and also our instructions of how we're supposed to live here in the world."

The Western Shoshone are planning their next gathering in the area where Bill says, "There's roads into the area where they did the exploration" and "pretty soon it's going to say 'no trespassing.'"

Bill said, "If you were sitting in church and there was all this construction, you wouldn't like that. You wouldn't like people digging up the lawn of the church. You're trying to talk to the Creator and you've got all these distractions."

The current legal appeal was filed July 20 by attorney Roger Flynn, representing the Te-Moak Band of the Western Shoshone, the Western Shoshone Defense Project and Great Basin Mine Watch in their lawsuit against the Department of the Interior and Barrick Gold Corporation.

The appeal relates to a case originally brought by the Western Shoshone allies on May 9, 2005, which involves the BLM's approval of exploration by Barrick's Cortez mining operation of 30,000 acres around Mt. Tenabo and Horse Canyon.

Flynn explained to ENS, "Cortez would only disturb 250 acres but they never told us where."

Flynn said the BLM is "supposed to be consulting with Natives" and "not just say it's going to go out there somewhere and Cortez will tell us where later" in an area with "nationally-recognized cultural historic sites."

The U.S. District Court judge in Reno "ruled that he was not going to upset BLM's view of the law so we appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals." A ruling is expected sometime in 2008.

The existing Barrick Cortez gold mine 15 miles from Mt. Tenabo. (Photo courtesy Western Shoshone Defense Project)

The Cortez gold mine is located 60 miles southwest of Elko, Nevada in Lander County. Barrick is the owner of a 60 percent joint venture interest and is the operator; the remaining 40 percent interest is held by Kennecott Explorations (Australia) Ltd.

Even if the Western Shoshone win the Tenabo/Horse Canyon exploration case, the lawsuit will not stop the newly proposed Cortez Hills Tenabo Project. This development includes a new open pit, underground mining, three new waste rock facilities, a new heap leach pad and related roads and facilities, requiring new surface disturbances of 6,792 acres and the permanent loss of 817 acres of pinon trees, which produce pine nuts, a traditional Western Shoshone food source.

The BLM's Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the mining proposal is open for public comment through December 21, 2007.

"BLM has signaled its intention to approve the project," said Flynn.

If the BLM approves the final environmental impact statement by the end of spring 2008 as Flynn expects, the Shoshone would have to bring a new court case to block the mine's construction. "We have to wait until they formally approve the project," said Flynn.

The Cortez Hills Tenabo Project is expected to extract eight million ounces of gold worth $6.4 billion at today's prices. The current Cortez mining in the valley is about 15 miles from Mt. Tenabo but the new mine would blast directly into the mountain.

Flynn said, "The Tenabo case is going to boil down to whether the BLM can approve mining by the company at the expense of protecting religious freedom on public lands." Flynn sees the issue as "a test case of religious freedom versus yet another gold mine."

Gerald Smith, field manager for the Battle Mountain BLM Field Office, told ENS that "after the final record of decision, we're continuing to conduct consultation with" the Western Shoshone.

"We're asking them for their comments. We've been working with them," said Smith. "We have a working group that we put together with the Elko Band."

Smith acknowledged that should there be an open pit and potential underground mining "there are going to be definite impacts, visual impacts" and "loss of pinon juniper in traditional areas should excavation of the pit get approved."

"If they start excavation and recover cultural artifacts" a programmatic agreement between BLM, the mining company, the State Historic Preservation Office and the Te-Moak Tribe will, Smith believes, adequately address mitigation of Native American artifacts and burial sites.

Flynn says BLM mitigation "looks good on paper but doesn't really happen."

"Protection isn't just writing a report on it and moving on," he said.

"It's not just the bones or artifacts" since "it's what many have called their church," Flynn said. "You wouldn't do mitigation for the Sistine Chapel. You wouldn't take a picture, blow it up and then say you've mitigated the damage."

Drilling rig on the road through Crescent Valley (Photo courtesy Western Shoshone Defense Project)

Lou Schack, Barrick Gold's manager of communications and community affairs, told ENS, "As far as the current litigation, we've prevailed several times in regards to these charges and we expect to again."

Carrie Dann told ENS, "There are definitely burial sites within that area" and artifacts.

"That area has been used by the Western Shoshone people for fasting and all kinds of things," she said. "There's medicinal plants up there. Things people still use today. The area used to be hunting area for the men-folk and I absolutely think what they're doing is spiritual genocide against the Western Shoshone people" in "a spiritual area of great significance."

"Destroying that is destroying the way we believe. If you destroy land as indigenous people, that is destroying life," Dann said. "I don't mean just life now, but the life for the future" and "for a company to do this just surely for money, I think is wrong."

"Senators and also the Congress people from the state of Nevada" aren't looking at the destruction but "at net proceeds" which "as indigenous persons we can't look at" since "our duty is to protect the rights of the future generations to come," she said.

"They're not protecting the water, the land, out there with a hand-out saying 'put some money in here' either for political campaigns or whatever it is. I see money over the rights of indigenous people," Dann said.

"Barrick is the biggest gold company in the world," she said. "These gold mines have these so-called politicians in their pocket. Maybe people can eat gold later on in life."

In "Our Land, Our Life," Dann said, "They're pumping this virgin water so we as human beings can enjoy wearing gold. Ladies and gentleman, you are killing the Earth. The Earth is dying because of the way people act" and as U.S. consumers "desperately" pursue gold, "we as indigenous people are yelling, 'Stop that, you're killing our Mother!' Who's going to hear us? 'Stop that. You're killing the Mother of all life, for God's sake!"

"Can't you wake up and hear what we're saying to you? Treat the Earth with tender loving care because it is our only mother.'"

OxFam America has posted a short version of "Our Land, Our Life" on YouTube at: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ffYNzUDR-6k.

Comments on the Draft Environmental Impact Statement can be sent to Stephen Drummond, BLM, Battle Mt. Field Office, 50 Bastian Road, Battle Mountain, NV 89820.

 

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