More than 3,200 acres returned to Western Shoshone as Klondex Mines Ltd. transferred the deed for five parcels, including their sacred Rock Creek lands northeast of Battle Mountain, to the tribes Aug. 17.
“We are delighted — we are all delighted — that we’re receiving the land that really is Shoshone land, and we’re grateful,” said Naomi Mason, a Western Shoshone elder from the Duck Valley Indian Reservation, at a donation celebration in Battle Mountain on Aug. 18. “The elders persisted, and so here we are.”
This landmark donation from a mining company to Nevada’s indigenous people reflects the modern mining industry’s emphasis on being good neighbors, said Nevada Mining Association President Dana Bennett.
“In particular, Northern Nevada mining companies are collaborating with local Native Americans in a number of programs and projects,” she said, “and the Klondex-Western Shoshone land transfer is a marvelous demonstration of this industry’s commitment to community engagement.”
The long process, however, was fraught with challenges.
“It is quite emotional for me because it took so long. It took such a long time for us to get here, and the things that we overcame to get here are pretty powerful,” said Paul Huet, president and CEO of Klondex. “So it was definitely meant to happen when I think about all the events that have occurred.”
The transaction took almost a decade, with the idea springing from when Huet was the general manager of Great Basin Gold Ltd. at the Hollister Gold Mine, about 40 miles from the Rock Creek lands. There, on site tours in 2008, Western Shoshone elders expressed how the site is sacred to the indigenous people. Huet also visited the mouth of the canyon to view Eagle Rock, a focal point in the cultural landscape.
“The first and second time I went there, I couldn’t believe such an area existed in the middle of Nevada,” Huet said. “It’s a beautiful spot.”
Historically, Rock Creek and the surrounding landscape was instrumental in boys’ transition to manhood on what one today might call “vision quests,” was a place of healing and more. Ancestors used the white chert found there to make arrowheads, giving rise to the name Tosawihi Quarry. “Tosawihi, pronounced “doe-sah-wee-hee,” means “white knife.” The Western Shoshone still use the land today and say it is spiritual.
Ted Thomas, attending the event from Owyhee, compared the land to a church. Other tribal members from Battle Mountain discussed what it is like to visit Rock Creek.
“There’s things you feel out there that you don’t feel anywhere else, if you’re open to it,” said Clifton Oppenhein. “I get chills walking out there. Goosebumps.”
“There’s powers out there,” Rhonda Hicks said.
“Strong powers, too,” added Sally C. Knight.
Perhaps conversations like this and visiting the site made it clear to Huet that the Rock Creek lands had deep meaning to the Western Shoshone.
“What we did back then, very importantly, was we listened,” Huet said, “and we still listen to the elders.”
Huet sought out who owned the Rock Creek lands with the intention of buying them to donate back to the Western Shoshone. Fundraising for the asking price of more than $800,000 in 2009 through negotiations with Great Basin Gold directors in South Africa and Canada led to a tentative agreement to purchase the land from a real estate holding group. Before the deal could be completed, however, Huet went to work for another company, and Great Basin Gold went bankrupt.
“As a result, the Rock Creek lands fell victim of this bankruptcy,” Huet said.
A tumultuous 10 or so years followed. The land changed ownership. The Hollister mine operated at times without respect for the indigenous people. Lawsuits were filed.
“The experience I’ve had with previous owners has been very, very bad,” said Tanya Reynolds, the South Fork representative on the Tosawihi Quarry working group in an Aug. 14 phone interview. “We were after a collaborative partnership [with previous owners], but instead, they saw us as a roadblock and refused to work with us.”
Change came after Huet became the president and CEO of Canada-based Klondex in 2012. Four years later, the company purchased Hollister and Rock Creek lands from another Canadian mining company, Waterton Global Resources, which had laid off most of the mine’s employees and reduced it to care-and-maintenance status earlier in 2016. In addition to wanting to mine Hollister, Huet intended to finish what he started for the Western Shoshone almost a decade earlier.
“It’s really Paul wanting to be different and doing something that no other mining company has done,” said John Seaberg, senior vice president of strategic relations in a July 31 phone interview. “We want to finish the work that he started at Great Basin Gold. We want to be an example to the mining community and the mining industry of how the local communities and the native communities and mining companies can really collaborate and form a partnership and coexist, if you will, in a peaceful way.”
Lucy Hill, director of environmental services and community relations with Klondex, said the Western Shoshone continue to visit the mine and offer advice. “They are very engaged at what we do at Hollister,” she said, “and we make sure we are very aware of what their needs are.”
Reynolds said she notices the difference, citing how Klondex invited her to visit with drillers. The drillers said they could avoid disturbing the sacred surfaces by drilling down to the target at an angle. “So far, Klondex has been really open to working us,” Reynolds said. “It has actually been a really good working relationship.”
Crowning that relationship was the mid-August signing over of the deed and celebration, attended by tribal members from all four Western Shoshone bands, Klondex board chairman Ritch Hall and special guests, including U.S. Rep. Mark Amodei and Nevada Assemblyman Ira Hansen.
“There is a lot to be learned here today simply by what Paul has done by giving back parts of the land. It’s a really important day for us,” said event emcee Joe Holley, a Western Shoshone member.
Holley has chaired the Battle Mountain Band Tribal Council and now works for Klondex as a liaison to the Western Shoshone. He previously worked about 18 years for Barrick Gold Corp.
“Everybody, all the elders I’ve spoken with, say it’s a good thing,” Reynolds said. “That’s about as much as you’re going to get from an elder native. It’s a good thing.”
And that’s high praise, she said.
“We’re still here”
Yet the Western Shoshone remember the recent and ancient history, and say they will keep a close watch over operations around their land so it’s intact or in even better shape for the next generation.
“Rock Creek is a part of Tosawihi Quarry. It’s not separate. It’s a part of the larger picture of the area,” said Ted Howard, chairman of the Duck Valley Western Shoshone-Paiute tribe, one of the four band councils represented at the Aug. 18 event. “Our sites are referred to as prehistoric. We don’t have a prehistory. We have one continuous history. And we’re still here.”
Speaking from a podium, Howard thanked Huet but expressed concern over mining operations in the general area, saying he hoped it would one day cease. “Sometimes that is difficult to do because of the hunger for money,” he said. “To [our] people, some things are sacred. There’s no amount of money that could justify the destruction of these places, and that’s the way it is with the Tosawihi Quarry. No matter what you do, there is no money that could replace that.”
Klondex plans to mine underground at the fully permitted Hollister mine, Hill said, to lessen the impact on the sacred surface. The mineral rights to four private parcels out of the five donated have been retired, Hill said; now with that land under Western Shoshone ownership, it is unlikely to ever be mined again. Klondex set up and donated to a conservancy to prevent development on those four parcels. The fifth parcel, which is on private land, still has mineral rights. Limited development could be allowed with Western Shoshone consent on the fifth parcel.
“We are so thankful that it has happened,” Reynolds said. “We are still going to be watching, and we are still going to oppose things if we need to. They do have the understanding that this is a cooperative effort. We are not there to put up stone walls. We are just trying to benefit our people as much as we can. … We cross our fingers, and we keep praying that things work as well as they have been with Klondex.”
In the meantime, the bands celebrated Aug. 18. Members rode into the ceremony on horseback, just as their warriors did in days past, Holley explained, connected to Earth through the animal. Some wore traditional regalia — including feathered and porcupine hair headdresses, and breastplates of bullet shells or bones — and danced with bells on to a drumbeat that Holley said represents the heartbeat of the people. They filled the day with song and prayer.
“It’s a long time coming,” said Raymond Yowell, a Western Shoshone elder from South Fork. “It’s a good thing.”