White Knife: Life, Conflict, and Tradition in the Great Basin

By Ian Bigley, Mining Justice Organizer


Sacred land, greed, ancestors, and future generations were on our minds as the sun rose over Newe Sogobia and water evaporated from alfalfa fields. Members of the Great Basin Resource Watch board and a film crew from the Progressive Leadership Alliance of Nevada were given the privilege of visiting the Tosawihi Quarry. It was a two hour drive north of Battle Mountain on dirt roads. The ranches we passed are owned by Newmont Mining. It may seem odd that an international mining giant is in the business of ranching, but it all comes down to water. Newmont purchases the ranches to use excess water. Before arriving at the Tosawihi quarry we stopped at Rock Creek to smudge, show respect through prayer, and appreciate life giving water.


Tosawihi means different things to different people. For the Western Shoshone, it is a place that they have gone since time immemorial. The name, Tosawihi, translates to white knife and refers to the white chert present in the area. Chert is an opalite mineral that is used for stone tool production. The location isn’t only special due to material production. Tosawihi is a place for spiritual healing. It plays a role in practices regarding birth, life, and death so it is cyclically  interwoven into the fabric of Western Shoshone worldview. To extractive industry, it is instead the location of the Hollister mine where 115,000 ounces of gold has been extracted from two open pit mines and underground tunnels. Archaeologists, a third group of people with significant interest in the site, view Tosawihi as a vestige of the past. It is a place to study systems of production and distribution.


The Tosawihi chert is not only strikingly beautiful for its color like fresh snow, indifferent to the summer sun. Unlike other white chert, Tosawihi glows when exposed to a black light, and is thus easy to identify. Tools made of Tosawihi have been found as far north as Canada and as far south as New Mexico.


Despite the site being sacred to Western Shoshone, and interesting to archaeologists it has been impacted by mining. Under the 1872 federal mining law, mineral resource extraction is of the highest uses of public land, and since the site is managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), mining and exploration drilling has occurred throughout the quarry complex.


The Tosawihi quarry complex is sprawling. For the Western Shoshone, as a cultural zone, it has no distinct boundaries. Boundaries designed by academics and agencies do not represent the Tribe’s understanding of the site. An example of this is Velvet Canyon; the only location at the Tosawihi quarry to have protections as a cultural site. Velvet Canyon is no more or less full of Tosawihi chert as the surrounding area. It is not valid to weigh its cultural value against other locations at the quarry, for each spot in the landscape has its own independent value. In fact it is entirely unrealistic to order the magnitude of spiritual value for locations at the site as if it could be quantified in an unbiased manner from an outside perspective. Tribal Councilman of the Battle Mountain Band of Western Shoshone, Joe Holley, believes Velvet Canyon gained protected status due to the convenience of topography. As a readily definable canyon with clear boundaries it was more easily subjected the bounded categorization desired by agencies, mines,  and academics. This categorization does not represent the cultural use of the area. The arbitrary ranking entailed in categorization is damaging for it allows for sacrifice zones; we can destroy one area because the other area is protected.


“We aren’t fossils” is a phrase used by Joe Holley in describing the Tribe’s relationship with archaeologists. Researchers have asked questions such as how much time was spent between toolmaking and food production at the site, what was the social geography, and what was the extent of trade. All of these questions can either be answered by living members of the Tribe or are seen as arbitrary to the ongoing life and use of the site. Answering these questions do not strengthen spiritual ties maintained by ancestors and handed down through stories. Through these stories the Tribal members know what is important about the site and its history. Research questions seek categorizations which do not aid in the continued value of the site as a place of healing and traditions,rather they divide the landscape into neat boxes which can be controlled. The separations allow for parts of the quarry to be torn apart, soaked in leaching chemicals, and then reclaimed for Newmont’s cattle to graze.


Around the 1970s a team from the University of Nevada, Reno excavated a trench near the Hollister mine with the aim of determining the end of the cultural zone through defining the boundary of the chert deposit. The research design assumed cultural significance extended only to the chert, not the area as a whole. Tribal members know the extent of the cultural area and they alone can define it as members of the culture to which it is significant, yet they are not categorized as experts since they don’t have archaeological degrees. They lack control over defining the site.


Many parts of the site that are important to the Tribe are not seen as important to outside researchers and agencies. Tools which have been obviously  worked by people are considered artifacts, yet natural flakes are seen as different to outside eyes. Natural flakes of Tosawihi are often sufficiently sharp for use as tools, and are the obvious choice if available. Just because these pieces havn’t been altered by humans does not make them any less significant to the Tribe. For the pieces that have been worked, they are viewed as artifacts; historical, forgotten, and post-use. Finished tools at the site are not post-use. The way Joe Holley describes it, an arrowhead is a valuable tool similar to your computer or cellphone, and you wouldn’t just leave your computer somewhere for no reason. Tools that have been left are left for a reason. These tools have been left as offerings, and they continue to have spiritual utility even if they appear forgotten.


As stated previously, the Hollister mine is located within the broad cultural landscape. Sleeping shelters were located on the land which became an open pit mine. Generations of habitation and stewardship have been transformed into profits for outside corporations. There is ongoing drilling exploration at the Tosawihi quarry as mining corporations seek more wealth. These operations are monitored by cultural specialists from the Tribe. The cultural specialists, also referred to as cultural monitors, are private contractors hired through the BLM and paid for by the mining corporations.


The mining claim has complicated ownership. The open pits are owned by Newmont. The underground workings are currently owned by Klondex, a company with more respect for the Tribe than previous operators, yet Klondex is merging with Hecla mining. In 2017 Klondex “donated” 3,200 acres of land near Battle Mountain to the Western Shoshone, but “donated” is an inappropriate characterization. Based on the Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Western Shoshone never relinquished their land rights, and this stance has been supported by the Inter-American Commision on Human Rights. Regardless of nuance, this decision has been viewed as largely positive by the Tribe, and sets Klondex apart from how other companies have behaved.


Waterton, one of the previous companies operating at the Tosawihi quarry, did not apparently respect the Tribe. One of our guides who works as a cultural monitor recalled a summer when Waterton stopped paying for the tribes service as cultural monitors. From his perspective, Waterton wanted to prevent him from doing his job by making it unaffordable for him to continue, yet the Tribe came together to support the work until Waterton resumed payments. Another way Waterton’s behavior contrasts with Klondex is the compromises Klondex has made in how their drill rigs are placed. Waterton insisted on flattening the land on which the drill rigs were operated, and this caused undue degradation. Klondex has listened to the Tribe’s request to refrain from this practice, and they place drill rigs in locations which mitigate land disturbance. Yet, this doesn’t mean the cultural monitors jobs are easy. They still have to oversee the drilling to ensure spills of oil are cleaned up, artifacts are not stolen, and mine workers don’t disrespect the site more than it already is.


There is hope for a better future in the actions of Klondex, yet it comes with no assurances that other mining companies will follow the example. The Klondex land transfer was motivated by the good will of a single individual within the company.  We cannot depend on leaders of industry to make ethical decisions when they conflict with maximizing profits, for our social structure incentivises the latter and not the former. We must change social and economic policy, attitudes, and beliefs to craft assurances of future social responsibility.


As we drove back to Battle Mountain it was no longer the cool morning with hazy steam rising from the fields. The sun was high in the sky bathing the land in light. There weren’t long shadows giving form to the mountains, and the landscape seemed to blend together under the same sun. We stopped at Rock Creek again, and took a moment to appreciate the clean water that gives life.