By Henri Migala
November 18, 2021 (Wikieup, Ariz.) -- Few, if any, narratives in America are older, or more repeated, than the story of Native peoples struggling to protect their lands, resources, lifeways and even their culture, from exploitation, abuse and destruction. That very story is yet again unfolding with the Hualapai Nation in northern Arizona, where people are in a struggle to protect their ancestral lands from lithium mining. It’s a struggle that pits the long-term energy interests and demands of the United States against the cultural values of the Hualapai people, the health of the land and its inhabitants, and has nothing less at stake than the very survival of the entire Hualapai nation.
Ivan Bender, caretaker of Cholla Ranch and Hualapai Tribal Member, has spearheaded the efforts to protect the place considered sacred by the Hualapai people from a proposed lithium mine and the test drilling related to the project. With the support of a diverse group of dedicated individuals from a wide variety of backgrounds, from the Muslim community to a graduate student from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UCSD studying water quality, the group is the driving force leading the multi-state opposition to the mine. Together, Hualapai Tribal members, local community members and allies are working to prevent further exploratory drilling for the Big Sandy Lithium Project that they say would desecrate Ha’Kamwe’ (“warm spring,” in the language of the Hualapai people) and the ancestral homelands of the Hualapai people.
Twenty-five people from four states and multiple Native communities came to Arizona on the weekend of November 6-8 to express their opposition to the proposed lithium mine near Wikieup, AZ.
What is Ha’Kamwe’?
According to the Protect HaKamwe.org website, Ha’Kamwe’ means warm spring in the language of the Hualapai people. Ha’Kamwe’ is fed by water naturally stored underground in volcanic rocks that seal it off from the land surface above (aka, a confined volcanic aquifer). Under pressure, water flows underground along a geologic fault and emerges from the spring.
This sacred spring is a place for healing. In the words of a Hualapai Elder, “this is holy ground!”
Who is protecting Ha’Kamwe’?
Ivan Bender, caretaker of Cholla Ranch and Hualapai Tribal Member, is leading the way to protect the place considered sacred by the Hualapai people. The Hualapai Tribe, and the Inter-Tribal Association of Arizona (including 21 tribes), are opposed to the mine. The community of Wikieup, adjacent to the proposed mine, has also voiced many concerns at several assemblies with mining representatives.
Bender, who lives on, and is the caretaker of, the Cholla Ranch-Hualapai Sovereign Land, was first made aware of the drilling during one of his routine drives around the area. Bender came upon a rig and a team of people drilling next to the Hualapai reservation. “They didn’t say or tell us anything,” said Bender (referring to the drilling). “I just saw them when I was driving around doing work on the Ranch.”
Bender said he stopped to talk with the people working the drills to tell them to not drill near the well that supplies the water for the reservation. But then he saw that they had drilled exactly where he told them not to drill.
“There used to be a steady overflow of water from our well on the Cholla Ranch-Hualapai Sovereign Land,” said Bender. “The water pressure used to be a lot greater and stronger before they drilled the hole. But after they drilled near our well, they drilled down 300 feet, the water is now only a trickle compared to what it used to be.”
“This area is truly an oasis in the desert,” continued Bender, “and we want to keep it that way.”
Natives from the Yuman Language Family Band Together
The Tribes that make up the Yuman Language Family span the SW United States and Northern Mexico. At one time, these native groups all belonged to the same, larger indigenous group. Both the Kumeyaay in San Diego and the Hualapai in Arizona belong to the Yuman Language Family speaking people.
“We are all of the Yuman Family. They are our brothers and sisters and that’s why we feel so passionate about helping them with their Sacred Water, Sacred Sites, and not have it erased from their history,” said Bobby Wallace, a Tribal Member of the Barona Band of Mission Indians.
Wallace has been actively engaged in social justice issues related to Native Americans, their heritage, and their lands, years including the Upper San Diego River Park Project and many more issues across Turtle Island, for many. “If we want to retain our historical sites, protect the water on Turtle Island, and protect the future for generations to come, we have to fight and stand up for what’s right!! That means all water and all life around it!!”
Wallace went on to explain, “We are in a very strange time in history where big money is crashing upon us, and if we can’t think wisely and press back on the decimators of Mother Earth, we will lose everything! Especially our water, which we, nor anyone, can afford to lose. We are in a serious drought and every drop underneath the ground counts.”
Wallace first met Ivan Bender when he went to Arizona a few years ago to lead a march to support and protect the bees. At that time, he told Bender to call him if he ever needed help on anything else.
It wasn’t long after that Bender took Wallace up on his offer, and called him to discuss the drilling near the Hualapai reservation. Without much prompting, Wallace committed himself to support Ivan, the Sacred Water and the struggle of the Hualapai to assist in protecting their land and water.
Also joining the support of the Hualapai was Chief Harry GoodWolf Kindness of the Mohawk-Oneida Tribe. Chief Kindness is one of the original social justice warriors fighting for native rights since the early ‘70s.
Chief Kindness mentioned, “We had our first walk in September, when we walked for 110 miles over 4 days, from Peach Springs to Kingman, ran past Hualapai Mountain and then on to Ha’Kamwe’ to bring attention to the Lithium Mining. Paperwork from the Hualapai Tribe was served to the Drilling Company first and then to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) with Official notice for them to cease the drilling, and to not allow the mining.”
“The BLM said the paperwork was not correct. But it was. So, we will march to the BLM office to issue the papers to them again, as a second notice,” stated Kindness, with conviction.
Serving Notice to the Drilling Company and BLM
The goal of the weekend of November 6th was to strategize, then to serve notice to the mining company and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) from the Hualapai Nation to stop all drilling and to oppose the mine.
On Sunday, November 7, a group of 12 crammed into a pickup and went looking for the drilling companies. They traveled in approximately 11 miles through the mountains until we came upon one of the drill sites.
Bobby Wallace and Chief Kindness politely approached Victor, the lone miner who was working the site for the American Drilling Corporation, who came and kindly greeted the group.
“We are from the Yuman Language speaking people, supporting the Hualapai People, land and ancestors the original people of this territory,” said Wallace. “We want to give you this document so you can take it back to your Prime Contractor, and show them that we really don’t like the mining, that’s going to tear up Hualapai Ancestral Lands. They have cremation sites, history, heritage, and water, and we feel that the lithium mining is going to take it all away.”
“We want to let you know, we really don’t like it,” continued Wallace. “We really don’t.”
Victor listened politely, and said “I didn’t even know what we were drilling for. They just said they need 10 holes drilled.”
“And you can pass this on to the BLM and their chain of command as well,” shared Wallace. “We really don’t appreciate how they can just start throwing out permits without Tribal Consultation. I mean, real Tribal Consultation. Like, sitting down and talking about where sacred sites are, and every place you’ll dig.”
The next day, a larger group met in Kingman, Arizona. They convened in an open lot, shared a prayer circle, organized themselves, and marched for about a mile to the US Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management. All along the march, the group were supported by people honking their horns as they drove by in solidarity.
Joining the group were Yousef Miller from Activist San Diego and the San Diego Racial Justice Coalition, who drove up that morning to join the group, and Drake Havatone, a Spiritual leader of the Hualapai, and his son Longhair Havatone.
The group convened in front of the BLM office for prayers and chanting. Ivan Bender addressed the group, stating, “What we want for our children, and our children’s children, is to enjoy what we enjoy today. That’s what we want for our generation. We don’t want the lithium mine here today, not tomorrow, not next year, not 10 years from now. Someway, somehow, we hope they understand.”
Bobby Wallace, Chief Kindness, Yousef Miller and Drake Havatone then walked up to the BLM office, where Amanda, a BLM representative, came out to greet the group.
“We went out and delivered papers again to the drilling company, and talked to the guy working, respectfully,” said Wallace. “Please, be easy with the permits, because they guys are drilling through the water. They’re drilling through sacred sites of the Hualapai People. It’s disrespectful. We don’t like it.”
Wallace continued, “You’re the Bureau of Land Management. You’re supposed to protect everything, the trees, the land and the water, everything. We were here first and have been here since the beginning and that should include protecting us too. We’ve been here before anybody. So, please, hear what we have to say.”
He added calmly, “I don’t know how many times we have to come back. We’re being honest. We’re good people. We’re not disrupting anything. We just want some respect, as people. We’ve already gone through that in our history, being treated as less than dogs. Now we can speak up. Now we can come and talk to you guys in a rightful way. But our brothers and sisters of the Hualapai people are being left out of this stuff. They should be notified, and see what they have to say about this. Instead of just sending people out there to just start punching holes into Mother Earth.”
Wallace concluded, “We’re here to show some respect and say, ‘hear our voices.”
Amanda responded politely, stating, “Tribal consultation is ongoing. No decision has been made at this time. I appreciate you coming here to talk to me and express your concerns for the project.”
Support from the Community
Bender and the Hualapai are also getting support to their opposition to the proposed lithium mine from local residents.
“My family had ranchland when I was growing up as a kid,” said Karen Vanderlit. “I came up to see my old ranch about a year ago and I met Ivan Bender. I discovered that my old ranch was part of the Hualapai reservation, and consequently, I learned about the lithium mining that’s going on.”
She added with dismay, “I then learned that the community of Wikieup hadn’t been informed about the Phase 3 drilling, or that they were doing a public commenting period. So, I drove up to Wikieup and started asking community members if they knew anything about it, and nobody seemed to know anything. So, I was a little upset about that.”
“I’ve been in Wikieup for 30 years,” shared Pat Sherril, another local resident. “We have fought off other things, but this is unprecedented because now we’re in a drought and we’re being attacked by the mining industry. If they’re successful, we know they’ll destroy the land.”
“The real issue for the community is, where would we move, if we did? Where would we find a place that is as beautiful as this? And be able to afford it,” asked Sherril.
“We’re growers and it’s important for us to have that water so that we can continue to do our operations,” said Sherril. In addition to the destruction caused by pit mining, another major issue is the large amount of water required to extract the lithium. Extracting only 1 ton of lithium requires approximately 500,000 gallons of water. And this is in a region experiencing a major, prolonged drought.
I asked Sherril if the BLM, or any of the mining companies, notified anyone in the community about the drilling going on here or the proposed mining. Sherril replied, “No they haven’t. I wouldn’t have known about it if it had not been for Ivan knowing about the drilling. And then he told Karen Vanderlit, and then she got a hold of me.”
Sherril continued, “Hawkstone, the company doing the drilling, came in and were going to do a lunch presentation-thing, at somebody’s restaurant. We got them to switch it over to the school where we had standing room only. We had the support of the whole community to defeat the mine. Hawkstone is the company that is currently drilling but we don’t believe that Hawkstone actually has the capacity to make a mine. So, I believe they are a front drilling company for somebody else. I think it’s Freeport-McMoRan. They’re the ones who own the Baghdad mine now. They’re currently pumping about 8,000 acre-feet of water to operate their mine.”
The struggle over water is ever-present in the arid southwest, especially now, during a major, prolonged drought. “I was wanting to put a little pond on my property in Wickiup, and my gosh, they came unglued,” mentioned Sherril. ““Oh no! You can’t do that!” Because they didn’t want me to use any water. They can’t come in with a great big straw and then tell somebody with a little bitty straw that you can’t have any [water].”
I asked Sherril how many companies are involved in the drilling at the moment. “When this thing started, we had Hawkstone, Lithium America, who changed their name,” recounted Sherril. “What they do is always changing their names, and I think it’s just designed to try to confuse us, and keep us from getting a good footing in terms of our opposition. That’s a game they like to play. We’ve had that before.”
When asked what the next steps are for the local community, Sherril responded, “We’ll have a community meeting in Wickiup in about a week or two, where we’ll ask everyone to sign up on our social media accounts so we can start getting the word out farther. We’ll also start doing some testing of water in the wells on the east side of the river to establish a baseline of water quality. We already have water quality maps, where we can match that to. That way, if we do not win this battle and they come in and put this mine in anyway, any pollution that starts to seep in our water systems will show up, and we can verify that it’s from them. The Department of Water Resources will start monitoring water levels as well. We’ll be able to establish anther baseline.”
The Global and US Demand for Lithium
In this age of global climate change, and on the heels of the international COP26 summit (Conference of the Parties), attended by the countries that signed the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – a treaty that came into force in 1994, there has never been a more concerted effort to find alternatives to fossil fuels. One such alternative is electricity, and electric powered vehicles (EV). And a key component of the batteries of EVs is lithium.
"It's really the blood in a battery," said Jonathan Evans, president of Lithium Americas. "Without it the batteries won't work."
Transportation is the largest contributor to U.S. emissions (around 29% in 2019). Cutting emissions is crucial if Biden is to deliver on his ambitious climate goals and a switch from fossil fuel-burning engines to electric ones is a core component of the president’s strategy. Biden has committed to halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, in line with the Paris climate agreement, and reach a net-zero economy by 2050.
"The future of the auto industry is electric," Mr. Biden said in August. "There's no turning back." The White House announced in August of this year “an ambitious new target to make half of all new vehicles sold in 2030 zero-emissions vehicles.”
And it’s that conversion and commitment that is at the heart of the lithium controversy. Barrons.com states that “a single elective vehicle has roughly 10 kilograms—or 22 pounds—of lithium in it. A ton of lithium metal is enough to build about 90 electric cars.”
With automakers pledging to soon make most of their vehicles electric, lithium demand is expected to increase as much as tenfold in the next decade. Right now, most of it is mined in Chile and Australia, and almost all of it is processed in China.
Recognizing the precarious position that lithium production puts the United States in, the Department of Energy has released a national blueprint for lithium batteries. It says relying on other countries creates a "strategic vulnerability" for the U.S. economy.
Yet, the conversion to a “green economy” comes with its own high costs. According to AZCentral.com, in an article printed on October 2, “The Environmental Protection Agency said the metal mining sector accounted for 41% of toxic substance releases and estimated that hard rock mines have contaminated about 40% of watersheds in the West.”
The pursuit of energy has been a challenge for humans ever since energy was first harnessed. From the very first fire humans ever created, we have been releasing carbon into the atmosphere. At some point, at every point, we have to make a choice, because every source of energy has a price and a consequence.
As Chief Kindness summed up, the price and consequence will affect us all equally, whether we live in the city or on the Hualapai reservation. “We are one planet, one people, working together. There’s only one Mother Earth. It doesn’t matter what you think, where you come from, or what you believe in, if the planet is not here, nothing matters. Where do we live? There’s no Plan B?”
Image below: proposed drill sites (red dots) for Phase 3 of Sandy Valley Exploration Project. From Appendix D of Environmental Assessment DOI-BLM-AZ-C010-2021-0029-EA. White boxes with arrows added for emphasis.
The drill sites and mines come to the boundary of the reservation and the natural spring that feeds the Cholla Ranch-Hualapai Sovereign Land.