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."

High Country News Classifieds
  • ELLIE SAYS IT'S SAFE! A GUIDE DOG'S JOURNEY THROUGH LIFE
    by Don Hagedorn. A story of how lives of the visually impaired are improved through the love and courage of guide dogs. Available on Amazon.
  • COMING TO TUCSON?
    Popular vacation house, furnished, 2 bed/1 bath, yard, dog-friendly. Lee at [email protected] or 520-791-9246.
  • NORTHEASTERN UNIVERSITY
    All positions available: Sales Representative, Accountant and Administrative Assistant. As part of our expansion program, our University is looking for part time work from home...
  • COMMUNICATIONS ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Position Title: Communications Associate Director Location: Flexible within the Western U.S., Durango, CO preferred Position reports to: Senior Communications Director The Conservation Lands Foundation (CLF)...
  • HISTORIC HOTEL & CAFE
    For Sale, 600k, Centennial Wyoming, 6 suites plus 2 bed, 2 bath apartment. www.themountainviewhotel.com Make this your home or buy a turn key hotel [email protected]
  • MAJOR GIFTS OFFICER
    High Country News, an award-winning news organization covering the communities and environment of the Western United States, seeks a Major Gifts Officer to join our...
  • RUBY, ARIZONA CARETAKER
    S. Az ghost town seeking full-time caretaker. Contact [email protected] for details.
  • VICE PRESIDENT, LANDSCAPE CONSERVATION
    Basic Summary: The Vice President for Landscape Conservation is based in the Washington, D.C., headquarters and oversees Defenders' work to promote landscape-scale wildlife conservation, focusing...
  • BRISTOL BAY PROGRAM DIRECTOR
    Seeking a program director responsible for developing and implementing all aspects of the Alaska Chapter's priority strategy for conservation in the Bristol Bay region of...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The National Bighorn Sheep Center is looking for an Executive Director to take us forward into the new decade with continued strong leadership and vision:...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Powder Basin Watershed Council, based in Baker City, Oregon, seeks a new Executive Director with a passion for rural communities, water, and working lands....
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Powder River Basin Resource Council, a progressive non-profit conservation organization based in Sheridan, Wyoming, seeks an Executive Director, preferably with grassroots organizing experience, excellent communication...
  • ADOBE HOME
    Passive solar adobe home in high desert of central New Mexico. Located on a 10,000 acre cattle ranch.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Eastern Nevada Landscape Coalition, based in Ely, Nevada is looking for a new executive director to replace the long-time executive director who is retiring at...
  • STEVE HARRIS, EXPERIENCED PUBLIC LANDS/ENVIRONMENTAL ATTORNEY
    Comment Letters - Admin Appeals - Federal & State Litigation - FOIA -
  • LISA MACKEY PHOTOGRAPHY
    Fine Art Gicle Printing. Photo papers, fine art papers, canvas. Widths up to 44". Art printing by an artist.
  • LOG HOME IN THE GILA WILDERNESS
    Beautiful hand built log home in the heart of the Gila Wilderness on five acres. Please email for PDF of pictures and a full description.
  • SEEKING PROPERTY FOR BISON HERD
    Seeking additional properties for a herd of 1,000 AUM minimum. Interested in partnering with landowners looking to engage in commercial and/or conservation bison ranching. Location...
  • COPPER STAIN: ASARCO'S LEGACY IN EL PASO
    Tales from scores of ex-employees unearth the human costs of an economy that runs on copper.
  • EXPERT LAND STEWART
    Available for site conservator, property manager. View resume at http://skills.ojadigital.net.