July 20, 2021 Reading Time: 5 minutes

The Hualapai Indian tribe is protesting plans by Hawkstone Mining, an Australian company, to start a lithium mine next to Cholla Canyon Ranch, a 360-acre desert ranch the tribe owns in Arizona. (This small ranch is in addition to its 1 million acres, located primarily along 108 miles of the Grand Canyon.)  

Assuming challenges to the mine are unsuccessful, as they have been to date, the mine could produce 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year. The present price of lithium is about $9,000 per ton and rising, so Hawkstone could generate $180 million a year. In contrast, the ranch currently produces about $168,000 in revenue. (Figures are subject to changing market conditions.)

The Hualapai–Hawkstone conflict pits local and environmental interests against the Biden administration’s policy of building electric vehicles in the United States and sourcing the vital battery component lithium domestically. It also pits jobs in the automotive industry against a marginal cattle operation. The Hualapai are at a decided disadvantage in both debates, as if Lichtenstein objected to Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline, which passes under hundreds of miles of Baltic Sea from Russia to Germany.

The Hualapai, however, have another argument that has powerful national appeal, especially among Green New Dealers. The exploratory drilling and the probable mine that follows, they announce, would destroy Cofer Hot Spring on Cholla Canyon Ranch and landscapes sacred to the Hualapai.

“This spring [Cofer] is a place for healing and medicine and other things that they have here, Hualapai Tribe Councilmember Richard Powskey told the Phoenix New Times. “Our people are buried all through here. There’s a grave just on the other side of this hill right here. Just because this environment is harsh and hot doesn’t mean it’s not good for anything. It serves a purpose.”

Powskey is now supported by President Biden’s appointee to his Environmental Justice Advisory Council, Havasupai native Carletta Tilousi. Upon her appointment she said, “We’re . . . small groups of tribes that are near extinction. And all we ask is our sacred lands and our waters and our way of worship be protected. And I’d really like to see that be addressed in the White House.“      

In other words, the Hualapai, like the Sioux and other tribes, claim that they retain a legal right to prevent any use that disturbs what they consider sacred ground—even if the land is owned by others. That any religion might have such a right has not been recognized by courts. Nevertheless, legislatures and Congress have essentially created this right, almost exclusively for religious beliefs held by Indians.

Most religious claims on public policy have very little influence in Democratic administrations, (consider, say, efforts by the Old Order Amish to oppose an electrical generating complex in New York during the Cuomo administration). Indian religions are different. Children in public schools are taught that Indian religious practices are part of their deep respect for the natural environment. Even NASA’s Climate Kids website teaches children how to make rainsticks to please the rain gods. Crosses and nativity scenes are removed from public property, but totem poles with their spirit animals stand.

Two prevailing myths about American Indians are that they were, and at heart still are, socialists who shared everything; and that they were and are good stewards of their natural environments. Besides these being racist stereotyping and impossible generalities about hundreds of different tribes that were almost constantly at war with each other over resources and territory, an honest historian would be hard-pressed to find even one tribe with a history to fit even one myth.

Because popular stereotypes of Indian religions are woven into support for a liberal environmental agenda, however, any claim of sacred land has a powerful influence on policy. No member of Congress or occupant of the White House wants to be charged with trampling on the religion of the downtrodden.

The Hualapai, like most tribes in the nineteenth century, were victims of land grabs by Euro-Americans and treaties broken by the federal government. And like most tribes, they became beneficiaries of welfare subsidies from that same government. The subsidies might be considered a disorganized form of reparations. The accompanying conditions, like acculturation and assimilation, were often onerous, at least until the second half of the twentieth century.

Before one shelters in the notion of the oppressed Indian, however, consider a few facts about the tribe at present.

The Hualapai now have secure title to some 1 million acres of a reservation created in 1883 by President Chester A. Arthur after Hualapai rebellions were quashed. That is about 500 acres for every registered tribal member. In 2012, the Hualapai tribe received $5.4 million from the Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2012 for grazing. When the tribe’s casino failed in the 1990s, leaving behind a $1 million debt, the tribe created the Grand Canyon West resort and its glass skywalk over the Canyon. The tribe receives a million visitors a year at the Grand Canyon Skywalk. Online travel sources quote $39 for entrance, $20 to walk over the canyon, and $49 for a zip-line ride.

The Hualapai also receive additional income (they don’t disclose the amount) from leasing slot machine rights to other tribes, from a river rafting business, and from a hotel in Peach Springs. In other words, the Hualapai tribe, for the benefit of some 2,100 members, is in essence a sovereign socialist state acting as a corporation, with its members as shareholders. Like many corporations it enjoys large government subsidies.

 How the Hualapai acquired their present and past lands in Arizona is uncertain, but, according to the Atlas of the North American Indian by Carl Waldman and Molly Braun, probably by driving out previous inhabitants now known as the Sinagua. In the 19th century the last of the killing wars for territory ended like a game of musical chairs, with the Euro-Americans holding most of the seats. They committed those holdings to legal documents enforced by a powerful nation. 

The Hualapai also currently power their Grand Canyon West tourist attraction with large diesel generators. Nor were they adverse to covering many acres of sacred land with solar panels for electricity. Tribal council minutes show the tribe favored a pumped storage project near the reservation even though it would flood some 420 acres.

Nor has the tribe complained that a 500 KV high power electric line and its pylons would disturb sacred sensibilities. And on the reservation the tribe sells guide services and hunting permits for desert bighorn sheep, trophy elk, antelope, and mountain lion.

In its fight against Hawkstone, and indirectly against the Biden administration’s energy policy, the Hualapai have to rely heavily on convincing government that its claim of sacred rights has a value greater than the value of the lithium mine. With over 50 percent of reservation residents unemployed, the tribe is also saying that the value of its claim of sacred rights has more value than jobs for its impoverished families.

Should the claims of sacred land eventually be an important element in defeating the lithium mine, we can conclude that, whether it is the courts or the White House that deny the permits, they are assigning significant value to claims of the sacred. One caveat: the lithium deposits that surround the ranch on three sides probably underlie the ranch itself. If so, the market value of that land would be the future revenues of the lithium sales discounted for time and costs of extraction.

But if the ranch itself and surrounding lands have no lithium, then they have very little market value. While a precise value of sacred claims that stop mining or pipelines cannot be assigned, the impact of successful claims can certainly be measured in the value of lost jobs, higher prices for less abundant materials like lithium, delays and costs in slowing global warming.

Wallace Kaufman

Wallace Kaufman

Wallace Kaufman’s career spans writing, teaching, and real estate, where he pioneered in creating environmental covenants. He has a B.A. from Duke and an M. Litt from Oxford, where he was a Marshall Scholar.

Kaufman is the author of several books, including a memoir, a sci-fi novel, and an early critique of the environmental movement, No Turning Back: Dismantling the Fantasies of Environmental Thinking.

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