Tribes strike back at mining

  • Georgia Iukes, tribal activist

    Photo courtesy Georgia Iukes
  • Joe Pakootas, Colville tribal leader

    Photo courtesy Colville Tribal Council

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

COLVILLE INDIAN RESERVATION, Wash. - When the Battle Mountain Gold company came to this 1.4 million-acre reservation in 1994, tribal elder Georgia Iukes says, "Boy, that got my dander up." At the meeting, she spoke forcefully against the exploration contract the company wanted the tribe to sign.

At a later public meeting, Iukes, a 73-year-old great-grandmother, confronted a burly company geologist. "I told him, 'There's no way any money comes out of mining except for the company. There's no way you're going to have gold mining here. There's no way you're going to do this with my land.' "

To make good on her promise, Georgia Iukes and her husband, Steve, began holding workshops for tribal members. With other concerned tribal members, they formed the Colville Indian Environmental Protection Alliance to oppose hardrock mining on tribal lands.

The Indian Alliance produced educational videos and newsletters and brought in speakers from Indian communities around the West to talk about their experiences with hardrock mines. The efforts paid off in 1995, when the membership of the Colville Confederated Tribes voted to ban hardrock mining on the reservation. The Tribal Business Council affirmed the ban.

Not that the Confederated Tribes couldn't use the money. The confederation isn't large - 4,000 members live on the reservation and another 4,000 are scattered around the Northwest. The tribal economy is poor, explains Business Council Chairman Joe Pakootas, a youthful-looking 40-year-old former construction worker.

Tribal government and the tribe's economic development corporation are the main employers on the reservation. Gambling generates more than half the tribes' $45 million payroll. Even so, 28 percent of the Colville tribes' reservation population lives below the poverty line. The reservation's average household income of about $19,760 lags behind that of the two counties it's situated in.

Nonetheless, Pakootas rejects mining. "You know, we talk about seven generations in the future," says Pakootas. Mining "is good for today, not tomorrow. I prefer to have the ecology stable and pristine." The tribal council recently banned clear-cutting on the reservation in much the same spirit.

Once hardrock mining was banned on the reservation, the Indian Alliance turned its attention to Battle Mountain Gold's proposed Crown Jewel gold mine on Buckhorn Mountain. Buckhorn Mountain is well off the reservation, about 70 miles from Nespelem, the tribal headquarters where most of the tribe live. But the mountain and surrounding land were once part of the reservation, and the tribes still have rights to game, salmon and other natural resources on what is now national forest land.

The Tribal Business Council, responding to the Indian Alliance's continued lobbying, passed a resolution opposing the Crown Jewel. The tribes have filed a lawsuit in federal court against the U.S. Forest Service, challenging the validity of the environmental impact statement for the mine.

The tribes have also sued the state over the granting of water rights to the mine (both lawsuits have been joined with the environmental groups' lawsuits). Under treaties with the U.S., the tribes' fishing rights in the area amount to a senior water right.

Pakootas acknowledges that the Confederated Tribes' opposition has the potential to kill the mine, but "that's not how we're looking at it, at all," he says. "Our main goal is to protect the resources."

It's a neat twist to history. Gold played a major role in divesting the tribes of most of their homelands.

When the state's first gold strikes were made here in the 1850s, the entire upper Columbia Basin was controlled by the 11 aboriginal tribes that now make up the Confederated Tribes. As whites entered eastern Washington, many seeking gold, they pressured the U.S. government to push the nomadic tribes onto reservations.

In 1872, President Ulysses Grant set up the original Colville Reservation - more than 3 million acres between the Okanogan River and the Selkirk Mountains. A second reservation, the Moses-Columbia, was set up in 1879 under the leadership of Chief Moses of the Columbias. It was an immense tract bounded by the Cascades on the west, Lake Chelan on the south, and the Okanogan River on the east.

Almost as soon as the reservations were created, white farmers and gold miners led by pioneer Hiram "Okanogan" Smith began lobbying the federal government to open up the land.

Chief Moses complained to an Indian agent about the encroaching whites, "You white men have a nose like a good hunting dog sniffing out my country."

Within four years of its establishment, the Moses-Columbia Reservation was erased and its indigenous residents moved to the southern half of the Colville Reservation (they were later joined there by the Nez Perce band led by Moses' good friend, Chief Joseph).

The Colville Reservation was also shrunk, first losing 200,000 acres to white farmers near the Columbia River. Then the whole northern half was erased due to pressure from gold miners - including Buckhorn Mountain and the deposit of gold targeted by the Crown Jewel Mine today.

Georgia Iukes says her family was from the Wenatchee area and moved north to the Methow Valley due to pressure from homesteaders. When gold miners and ranchers came to the Methow, her family moved to Nespelem on the Colville Reservation, where she lives today. She figures lingering anger among Indians has come back to haunt today's miners.

"There's a lot of resentment," she says. "I'm resentful. We had to give up our rights. Each one of these 11 bands have homelands they should be living on." Although the land is gone from their hands, "we still have values up there" to protect, she says.

The Confederated Tribes preserved their hunting and fishing rights on the northern half, affirmed by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1975. As trustee, the Forest Service is supposed to protect those rights, but tribal attorney Steve Suagee says the Forest Service managers have "acted more like a trustee for the mining company rather than the tribes. That needs to be reversed."

The Forest Service's Phil Christy says that the agency has tried to take into account the tribes' concerns. "It's a difficult road to walk between mining rights and Indian rights," he says.

"We must preserve and protect what's left," says Barbara Aripa, a tribal elder who punctuates her points with smiles. "I've got a taste for deer," she says. "It's part of me. I'm part of it." The deer are sustenance to the tribes, but more than that, the act of hunting is central to the tribe's cultural identity. More than 600 tribal members actively hunt the Colville Reservation's former north half, Aripa says.

Tribal hunting on Buckhorn Mountain has already been disturbed by the mine exploration work, according to Aripa. If the mine is built, its footprint of nearly 800 acres will do irreparable damage, she says, and she fears the mining will spread. "They'll keep mining from one site to another."

She compares the proposed mine to how her people find food. "When we dig roots, we don't leave the ground open," she says. "Even for just one root, we close it up again."

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