Dispatches from Thacker Pass – The Wildflowers vs. The Bulldozers


Two hundred years ago, the place where I sit writing these words was the site of a massacre.

According to Harley Jackson, an elder from the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe, the story goes like this.

A group of Northern Paiute / Western Shoshone / Bannock people, or Nuwu, as they call themselves in the Paiute language, were traveling and hunting through the center of their traditional territory, and camped in the broad saddle now known as Thacker Pass, which Harley calls “our main pathway.”

Drawn by the herds of antelope, deer, and elk, the strongest hunters traveled east, over the Santa Rosa Mountains and into Paradise Valley.  

Most of the group remained behind. I can imagine them camped here, perhaps gathering roots and bulbs, trapping rabbits and tanning deer hides, fishing for trout in the creeks, harvesting wild bamboo for arrow shafts and willow for cradleboards and shelters, and knapping obsidian into knives, arrowheads, and other tools while telling stories around the fire.

With the hunters away, danger approached. A raiding party from another tribe – the Pit River Tribe from what is now northeastern California — came upon the family group left behind at Thacker Pass. They swept down quickly, killing those who resisted and seizing the rest as captives to take back to their territory.

When the Nuwu hunters returned from Paradise Valley, they found disaster. A full moon shone above Thacker Pass, and the rotting entrails of their relatives were spread out across the sagebrush. 

This is why, in Paiute, Thacker Pass is called Peehee mu-huh, or “rotten moon.” 

Desperate to rescue those who remained alive, the hunters tracked the raiding party west, soon catching up with them. Under cover of darkness, the best scouts crept forward and made themselves known with whispers through the shrubs. The captives were able to respond by pretending they were singing, and an escape plan was arranged.

With a strategy now in place, the Nuwu hunters carried out a daring raid of their own, attacking the raiders with bows as the captives ran directly towards the arrows arcing overhead. With the captives freed, they escaped into the night and returned to Thacker Pass and their surrounding homeland.

Image: Max Wilbert

It is customary, every Memorial Day, to bring flowers to the graves of the dead. Peehee mu’huh honors this tradition. 

It is spring, and the wildflowers have arrived. Periwinkle Lupine, scarlet Indian Paintbrush, white Mountain Phlox and slender pink Cold-desert Phlox wending up through sagebrush, pure yellow Arrowleaf Balsamroot, stunning bi-colored Sagebrush Violets, and many more who I don’t know the names for.

The mountain is alive with color. The sun brushes the western horizon, rimming the blooms with backlight. The flowers pay tribute to those who came before. To the generations of Sagebrush and rabbits and earthworms, creating soil. To the coyotes and deer and antelope who lived and died here, their bones providing nourishing the next generation of life. To the Nuwu ancestors who died here. To all who came before.

“Every Mother’s Day, we go to Thacker Pass for the wildflowers.” That’s what one of the residents of Orovada said in a public meeting two months ago. Ever since, I’ve been waiting for the blooms to come. Now they are here, and they are beautiful.

Image: Max Wilbert

A day comes and goes. Yesterday, I was on the mountainside above camp sitting among the wildflowers as the sun sank beneath the flank of the Montana Mountains. Today, snow buries the land. A spring storm is blowing. Snow coats every surface and the wind buffets my tent. My fingers are numb. 

Five months into our campaign to protect this land from an open-pit lithium strip mine, and still spring is fickle.

This snow will soon melt, and water will seep into soil and be sucked up by thirsty wildflower roots. But there is another storm coming, far harsher than this. The headsman’s axe rises over the neck of Thacker Pass. Lithium has been found here, a new “white gold” which drives men crazy with lust for money and power. The fuel of Elon Musk, the world’s richest man. The new geostrategic resource. The new oil. 

And that is why a multinational corporation plans to bulldoze this land and bury the wildflowers, their roots, and their seeds under tons of rubble; to blow up this land; to dig up the ancestors remains in the soil here and turn beauty into desecration and habitat into money. And that is why the State Government of Nevada has signed onto this plan, providing millions of dollars in subsidies to the Canadian mining corporation, Lithium Americas.

They claim this project is “green;” that the planet will be saved by blowing up a thousand places like Thacker Pass to manufacture millions of electric cars, rolling out of factories in endless ranks like soldiers on the march. They are either lying, or dangerously misguided. This project relies on diesel semi-trucks, massive earth diggers, toxic chemicals, and mountains of fossil fuel inputs. And it will release toxic air and water pollution and over 150,000 tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year.

The way they see it, there are billions of dollars in the soil here, and this is a business opportunity. 

The way I see it, there are bones in the soil here, and this is sacred land.

Here at Thacker Pass, and in countless other areas around the world, the winds of change are blowing. The metronomic “tick” of the stock market marks the drumbeat of progress, marching us deeper into ecological collapse. Bank accounts grow bigger as places like Thacker Pass are sacrificed; mountains blown up, forests bulldozed, rivers poisoned—all to save the world.

In a February 1968, as the Vietnam War raged (“It became necessary to destroy the town to save it”) and less than two months before his assassination shook the nation, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke in Washington D.C. and left one of his most important quotes.

“Cowardice asks the question, ‘Is it safe?’ Expediency asks the question, ‘Is it politic?’ And Vanity comes along and asks the question, ‘Is it popular?’ But Conscience asks the question, ‘Is it right?’ And there comes a time when one must take a position that is neither safe, nor politic, nor popular, but he must do it because Conscience tells him it is right.”

The wildflowers wave in a cold spring breeze. They are calling out. It is time to make a choice. Where do you stand? With the wildflowers standing sentinel over the graves of Peehee mu’huh? 

Or with the bulldozers? 

Max Wilbert is an organizer, writer, and wilderness guide. He has been part of grassroots political work for nearly 20 years. His second book, Bright Green Lies: How The Environmental Movement Lost Its Way and What We Can Do About It, co-authored with Derrick Jensen and Lierre Keith, was released in March.

The opinions expressed above are not necessarily those of the Sierra Nevada Ally. Our newsroom remains entirely independent of our opinion page. Published opinions further public conversation to fulfill our civic responsibility to challenge authority, act independently of corporate or political influence.

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