Sovereignty at Shoshone Mountain

Between 1951 and 1992, the United States bombed its own soil with nuclear weapons — 945 times. All but 17 of those explosions took place on a stretch of basin-and-range desert northwest of Las Vegas called the Nevada Test Site (NTS), an area the size of Rhode Island that has been closed to civilians for 60 years. In the early days of the Cold War, the NTS endured 100 atmospheric nuclear tests that sent mushroom clouds soaring miles over the Great Basin — and have been linked to cancer epidemics as far away as southern Utah. When an international treaty banned atmospheric testing in 1963, the tests continued underground, leaving a moonscape of craters marking blasted cavities underneath.
When Congress placed a moratorium on nuclear testing in 1992, the US Department of Energy (DOE) said it faced a problem: what to do with this swath of bombed-out desert. With encouragement from Nevada Senator Harry Reid (D), state officials came up with a plan to open unused areas to commercial interests.
Now, an alternative energy project is in the works for the mountain wilderness in the western part of the Test Site. DOE is promoting the project — a half-billion-dollar, privately owned and operated wind farm, the second largest in the US — as a turn away from NTS’ polluting past. The joint venture between British-based M&N Wind Power and German-based international energy giant Siemens AG would generate up to 600 megawatts, enough to power 600,000 households. But building the proposed 545 wind turbines would require razing 1,069 acres of mountaintops that Paiute and Shoshone Indian tribes consider some of the most sacred for hundreds of miles around. And according to a treaty dating to 1863, the land never belonged to the US government in the first place.
The proposed wind farm would sit on the 5,000- to 8,000-foot high mesas of Shoshone Mountain, which overlooks a volcanic caldera — a common ground for tribes from southern California to Utah, who have gathered there for ceremonies since time immemorial. “The areas fall within what we believe is part of our traditional holy land,” says Richard Arnold, a Southern Paiute, spokesperson for the Consolidated Group of Tribes and Organizations (CGTO), representing 17 tribes with ties to the NTS land.
CGTO strongly opposes the wind-power project.
According to the archaeological record, Native Americans have made the arduous trek up Shoshone Mountain for at least 12,000 years; even the earliest spearpoints there conceivably belonged to Paiute and Shoshone ancestors, as the tribes claim, says University of Arizona anthropologist Richard Stoffle. The tribes made the arduous trek there for vision quests and ceremonies until the Test Site was closed to the public in 1943. “It’s a sacred cultural landscape, and it’s spectacular,” says Stoffle, who has worked with the tribes there for several years. “It’s here that Indian people have placed 90 to 95% of all [their] rock art for a few hundred miles, the rock peckings and paintings,” Stoffle says. “It’s here that most of the vision quest sites that we can discern in the whole region occur.”
The basaltic caldera floor below Shoshone Mountain is thick with obsidian flakes spewed by volcanic eruptions, and dotted with hundreds of rock cairns, each marking the place where a boy or man came on a vision quest. Off limits for decades, the mountain has remained an isolated wilderness, thick with juniper, piñon pine, and a variety of Native American “medicine plants,” and home to deer, mountain lions, and eagles. To construct the wind farm, workers would have to build a road directly through the vision-questing area in the caldera, and shave down mountain ridges to install the 180-foot tall turbines in rows a quarter-mile apart.
According to the 1863 Ruby Valley Treaty, the mountain and the surrounding region belongs not to the US government, but to the Western Shoshone Indians. For millennia, Shoshone and Paiute bands migrated between high peaks in summer and lowland basins in winter. They drank water from fresh springs, and harvested pine nuts to eat and trade. In the 1863 treaty, Shoshone representatives did permit the US to build roads and bases across the southern and eastern Nevada territory. But they never gave up the title to their holdings — even after Test Site managers blocked access to their traditional hunting, gathering, and ceremonial grounds.
“Our lands were never part of the United States,” says Ian Zabarte, secretary of state for the Western Shoshone National Council, “and we haven’t sold anything to the United States. Title hasn’t changed hands.” The Western Shoshone, one of the few tribes still locked in treaty disputes with the US, consider themselves a separate nation under foreign occupation; for external affairs, they have a secretary of state, Zabarte, and they issue their own passports — which are recognized by countries throughout the world, but not by the US government.
In recent decades, bureaucrats claiming to have Indians’ best interests at heart have tried to chip away at Shoshone land rights. In the 1970s, the US government attempted to pay the Western Shoshone $26 million for 24 million acres of their land under the Indian Claims Commission Act. The tribe has refused to take the money. A white Bureau of Indian Affairs agent accepted payment on the tribe’s behalf; it sits in a bank account, where it has grown to $129 million, which the economically depressed tribe still will not touch. Nevertheless, federal agencies now use the forced payment to refute Shoshone land claims. “The BLM position is that, yes, it is federal land, and that’s from the Supreme Court,” says Mike Brown, a spokesperson for the US Bureau of Land Management in Elko, Nevada. In 1985, the Supreme Court ruled in United States v. Dann that the Indian Claims Commission payment, though never accepted, extinguished tribal title to the land.
In the Dann case, which went five times to District Court, four times to the Court of Appeals, and finally to the Supreme Court, the BLM cited Shoshone sisters Mary and Carrie Dann for trespassing and seized their horses, claiming the sisters were grazing them on public land without permits. However, the Danns’ ancestors occupied the valley near Battle Mountain long before white settlers arrived in Nevada. “As far as their memory, or the memory of men, we have lived in this valley, in Crescent Valley,” says Carrie Dann. “We call this whole area our home.”
As Zabarte puts it: “We’re still here, we’ve always been here. You don’t just say, ‘OK, we’re going to pass a law, now China belongs to the United States.’ It doesn’t work that way.”
In 1996 and 1998, the Danns and other Western Shoshone testified before the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, arguing that the US government’s treatment of Western Shoshone constitutes a human rights violation. Besides seizing hundreds of horses belonging to the Danns and others, the BLM and National Park Service have prevented Western Shoshone from engaging in traditional subsistence practices such as hunting and gathering pine nuts, and fined them for disobeying.
Now, Nevada’s senators are sponsoring a bill that would distribute the unaccepted $129 million through individual checks to all living Western Shoshone. “The Western Shoshone are an impoverished people,” living “from pay check to pay check, with little or no money for heating their homes, much less for their children’s education,” Senator Harry Reid told the US Senate. “The final distribution of this fund has lingered for more than 20 years, and the best interests of the tribe will not be served by a further delay.” Yet the biggest opposition to the bill comes from the tribe itself. Pressured by Western Shoshone activists, Reid postponed the bill’s scheduled March hearing before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs — at least until tribe members can formally vote on whether they want the money.
It’s not hard to guess whose best interests might be served by a payment that could be used to silence any remaining collective Shoshone land claims. The homeland, which the Western Shoshone call Newe Segobia, is also home to several private and public projects on their way through the pipeline, including the wind farm, a rocket launch facility, and the proposed nuclear waste dump at Yucca Mountain. Newe Segobia also provides more than half of all gold mined in the US. Transnational corporations reap $2.5 billion in gold every year from Nevadan rock, making Nevada the world’s third largest gold producer. The Shoshone and other tribes receive none of the profits.
Wind project representatives say the wind farm will create 250 construction jobs and 25 to 30 maintenance jobs. It is unclear whether any of these jobs would go to Indians.
“You ask me if wind power is good. I say yeah, it’s great; it’s not nuclear, it’s less of a threat,” Zabarte says. “[But] I can state the fact and opinion of the Western Shoshone government that this is trespassing — and anything a trespasser does is wrong. There’s nothing a trespasser can do in your house, or my house, or on my property, that would make that trespasser being there right.”
In October 2000, the wind power partners had proposed to do a cursory Environmental Assessment, which they claimed would end in a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) on the project. After a few months, when ethnographers, archaeologists, and biologists working on the assessment began to find that the wind farm would destroy key cultural and archaeological sites and kill raptors and other wildlife, MNS Wind (the M&N/Siemens joint venture company) fired the entire team. Many of them have consulted on NTS projects for decades. “After we found the significant stuff, they replaced us. Not only us but the archaeologists and the biologists,” says Stoffle, who was heading the ethnographic study with a team from the University of Arizona. MNS claimed it “wanted ‘faster, cheaper, better,’” Stoffle says, “ but they were getting so many ‘findings’ from the three teams, they simply replaced them.” In July 2001, Indian leaders successfully lobbied the DOE to prepare a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), required by law for any project on federal land under the National Environmental Policy Act. The EIS is being conducted by consultants hand-picked and paid by the wind energy company.
In 2001, the EIS consultants flew a small group of tribal elders to remote Shoshone Mountain by helicopter to evaluate the site. The elders protested the wind farm because they felt it would irrevocably damage plants, animals, and sacred sites. According to Gaylene Moose, secretary for the Bishop tribe of Owens Valley Paiutes, who was part of the group, “They wanted us to write an article for their EIS, and we specified we’re against the whole project.” The brief site visit by a tiny group of elders was yet another case of “pull in the Native Americans at the last minute and consult them when it’s too late,” says Moose. “It really gave the appearance of trying to do this to check the boxes, so they could say ‘We’ve consulted with Indian people,’” Arnold says. Wind farm representatives never told the delegation of elders exactly where the wind turbines would be placed, and no Indians have been consulted about Pahute Mesa, an equally important site where the wind farm’s second phase could be constructed. Despite unanimous Native American objections, the wind company still expects a FONSI, says Tim Carlson, who until recently headed the Nevada Test Site Development Corporation, the DOE-funded non-profit which put together the wind farm deal. In his words: “Our experts working on the EIS say that there is no major impact on the project.”
Though the EIS has not yet been drafted, MNS Wind signed a deal in February to sell 85 megawatts of electricity to Nevada Power. The company wants to erect its first turbines by year’s end.
DOE did hold two hearings early in the EIS process to take public comments on the wind farm, “but we don’t know what they do with the comments,” says Calvin Meyers, who represented the Moapa Band of Paiutes at the meetings. “It’s like they go in a big vacuum.”
Wind farm representatives say their final plans would reflect Indian concerns about cultural sites. “We feel like we can avoid disturbing the vast majority of those, and where we may have to disturb something we will follow the established processes for doing that,” says Kevin Thornton, the DOE project manager. However, the Native American elders made it clear that building on Shoshone Mountain at all would desecrate it and rob its power, says Meyers.
Indians and wind project managers seem to understand “power” differently. Shoshone and Paiute people see the universe as permeated and held together by invisible webs of puha, concentrated in natural features such as mountains, caves, and springs. Disturbing these powerful places disturbs the balance of the universe. “There are a lot of places on the Test Site that are sacred, and they hold spiritual medicine power,” Meyers says. “If there’s power there, the more that people go around that area, the more the power is losing itself. It’ll be lost, and there’s no way to get it back.”
The wind farm involves some major players in the US energy game. Siemens, one of the world’s largest electrical companies, is providing technical support. It has kept a low profile while MNS Wind, also called Global Renewable Energy Partners, appears in most of the project’s publicity. In exchange for permission to use public land, MNS Wind would give DOE’s Nevada operations 1.28% of the wind power generated. The 85 MW already sold to Nevada Power would serve customers throughout southern Nevada, according to Nevada Power spokesperson Andrea Smith. The rest of the wind farm’s eventual 600 MW generating capacity remains unspoken for.
Just south across a canyon from Shoshone Mountain is Yucca Mountain, site of the proposed national nuclear waste repository. The Yucca Mountain EIS contains one line mentioning the wind farm as a potential power source. But Nevada DOE representatives declined to speculate on whether the wind farm could power the waste dump, or any attached facilities.
Since the advent of the Cold War, Native Americans in Nevada have been saddled with the toxic risks of America’s nuclear arsenal. In the 1970s, DOE did a study on radiation exposure of civilians living downwind of NTS, but their sample case was a non-Indian living in a house. The Shoshone’s own study found that they suffered 15 times the exposure levels DOE described because of differences in lifestyle — hunting, fishing, gathering, drinking local spring water, spending more time outside, and living in drafty houses. Now the tribes, who depend on springs for drinking water, worry that radiation from NTS’ 828 underground tests may have leaked into groundwater, migrating toward the Timbisha Shoshone tribe in Death Valley, among others.
Native American tribes have been forced to come together to deal with these threats. Seventeen tribes banded together in the early 1990s to form the CGTO, which has advised DOE on several projects and has become a conduit for information among the tribes and between Indians and the US government. “There may have been tribes that historically may have had their disagreements, but to protect the culture and the cultural resources up there, everybody came together,” says Arnold of the CGTO.
Though Indians have been denied access to these sacred sites for half a century, they hold a strong collective memory. Elders from all the tribes knew exactly what they would find at Shoshone Mountain from the songs and stories they continue to pass down. “Our beliefs are still alive and well, and we still hold onto those and still practice it,” says Arnold. “People tend to think of Indian folks as being something in the past. We’re not; we were here in the beginning, and we’re going to continue to be here.”

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