The US uses the Sonoran Desert both as a site to force non-white migrants to risk death and as a Hollywood film location to mimic Southwest Asia and North Africa through tropes of treasure hunting and fighting “terrorists,” a racist framing also deployed against Black and Brown migrants. This Western genre of representational imaginary—migration/voyage, treasure hunting, and killing disposable non-white people in the way of plunder—is not new. This is also the imagery of a wasteland full of riches, with only disposable nonhuman others in the way of European progress and self-actualization —imagery that has been used to justify violence and extraction from the Crusades to the colonialism of the Americas.1 Orientalist plunder, this time in the name of sustainable development instead of the holy cross or Manifest Destiny (though I would argue there is a continuum between these justifications), is now what is fueling the “white gold rush” of lithium extraction and deepening the devastation of colonial water drainage in the Southwest. 

Desert Water Scarcity Is a Colonial-Made Crisis

In the 1840s, the gold rush and the US-Mexico War brought thousands of settlers seeking wealth fueled by biblical images of conquest across the Southwest into California, the Yukon, and the Pacific Northwest. Mining has a history of genocide, slavery, and violence in this region that is hidden, distorted, and in many ways unknown outside of Indigenous communities.2 Our lands bear the mark of this violence—from abandoned open-pits of toxic sludge that were once sacred mountains in Ajo, Arizona, to suffocating clouds of methane on Navajo Nation, to deforestation and drainage of water systems so extreme that the ground is collapsing in central California.3 The combination of mining, water drainage, and colonial development has led to massive deforestation and ecosystem collapse across the Southwest. These extractive processes are what has turned the Sonoran Desert, a region that has held Indigenous cities, vast agricultural societies, and continental trade routes since time immemorial, into a scene of death, a Devil’s Highway, for migrants who have no other safe alternatives.4

Indigenous peoples did engage and build upon the land, creating complex systems for food and technology trading, travel, cultural exchange, knowledge production, art, and religious practices. The difference between Indigenous engineering and colonial development is stark. Indigenous engineering often amplifies the diversity and complexity potential of the ecosystem to make it more resilient because the land is us and this relationship is sacred. Colonial development functions through resource extraction and depletion, destroying ecosystems because human supremacy dominates the land and nonhuman beings.5 You can see this in how Indigenous peoples relate to water, especially in the desert. The rivers throughout Arizona were massive before colonial water extraction through dams, pipelines, and diversion into mines, plantations, and cities. The rivers and Indigenous water systems made the region a critical beaver habitat. Anglo colonizers first came here as fur trappers and destroyed river ecosystems by overhunting.6 Imagine the Phoenix metropolitan area two hundred years ago, a lush river wetland within the desert, lined with miles of forests and streams created by beaver dams. Akimel O’odham people built massive irrigation systems to bring water into villages and farms through hundreds of miles of canals that were among the world’s most advanced engineering feats, considered far superior to European technology when Anglo settlers arrived in the mid-1800s. O’odham water systems allowed seeds to travel and trees such as native palms, ironwood, and mesquite to flourish. These trees replenish soil nutrients, boosting crops and the ecosystem. Plantation and corporate agriculture drain water and soil, leaving behind monocrops, methane clouds, and endangered species. White settlers attacked Indigenous access to water to colonize the desert. In 1870, settler diversion of the Gila river launched a forty-year famine that decimated O’odham and Pii-pash peoples.7 Settler demands for resources pushed many Indigenous peoples devastated by the water extraction-induced famine to the logging, mining, and farmworker industries, which all furthered the problem of water drainage and deforestation. Colonialism creates coercive situations where Indigenous and oppressed peoples must engage with extractive projects to survive. This tension is at the heart of the “jobs versus the environment” problem we still navigate.

My family is O’odham from Yuma, Arizona, where the Colorado River and the Gila River converged before dams limited their flows. Near Yuma, the Colorado River used to run thirty to forty feet deep and up to a mile wide.8 The Gila River was also massive in the 1800s. My elders have passed down oral histories of these sacred waters. I grew up with the river’s sweetness in my mouth through the nostalgia of my grandfather’s stories, which were actually his grandparents’ experiences told to him as a boy, of how the Colorado tasted on a hot day when poured from a clay olla very carefully so as not to stir the ruddy sediments resting at the bottom of the pot. Hence the river’s name in Spanish, colorado, the color of red earth. These were waters that held six-feet-long fish that weighed nearly a hundred pounds.9 But my elders passed down stories of the mid-1800s, before the dams and colonial diversion when fish in the Gila or Colorado could be almost twice that size. My generation may never know a fish that big in Southern Arizona because there are simply no longer rivers deep or wide enough to allow them to live. We pass these stories down as a form of mourning, weaving together current and scale so the fish may swim again, if only in our memories. We restore the rivers in story and action, just as my Northern California Indigenous friends talk about their ancestors’ June hogs, chinook salmon larger than a grown man that they are fighting dams and ranchers to see again.10

The US water grid depends on dams, reservoirs, lakes, wells, desalination factories, wastewater treatment factories, and a complex system of pipes that bring water that used to flow above and below ground into fields, homes, decorative landscaping, and businesses. The colonial water system can be in many ways defined by the modern toilet, where millions of people shit into fresh, potable water and flush it away as if drinking water too were merely waste and not the sacred source of life. This “shit in drinking water” mentality defines how water is managed and used throughout society, from natural gas fracking and lithium mining to needlessly maintaining endlessly thirsty golf courses and lawns. To be able to shit in drinking water is what the river and groundwater systems, the veins of North America, have been bled dry for. 

Spanish colonizers first came to this region seeking minerals and enslaved Indigenous and African peoples in mines, missions, and plantations. Spanish and US colonizers drained, built over, or contaminated most of the natural water sources in the region. Colonial mining and farming techniques brought massive deforestation and water depletion. Mining requires vast amounts of water that becomes polluted by toxins in the extraction process. The gold rush brought hydromining and toxic metals and chemicals we are still dying from exposure to.11 And military bases, bombing ranges, freeways, mines, wind farms, solar farms, and racist border walls continue to drain aquifers and destroy sacred Indigenous archaeological areas, sacred sites, burial grounds, ecosystems, and scarce desert water sources. But a new gold rush is coming that threatens to suck the most arid regions of the Southwest dry for a short-lived technology marketed as a carbon solution that may not have much impact on climate change at all.

Lithium Mining: How False Climate Solutions Are Sucking the Desert Dry

Lithium is a metal inspiring what Forbes Magazine has called a white gold rush, decimating water sources around the globe for its current use in high-capacity batteries and military technologies.12 Lithium minerals naturally exist within rocks, clays, seawater, and saline brines. Over millennia, rain and runoff from thermal hot springs near ancient volcanoes leach lithium particles out of the rocks and soil and into pools, where the lithium sinks into clay basins. When the water in ancient lakes and springs evaporates, lithium also becomes part of the salty brine left behind. Many of the sites of naturally occurring lithium, such as primordial salt lakes, clay fields, and ancient hot springs, are sacred to local and Indigenous peoples. The body’s contact with lithium-infused waters and clays can be powerfully healing—spiritually, emotionally, mentally, and physically.13 In Western medicine, for example, lithium is prescribed for Alzheimer’s disease, bipolar disorder, and depression. It is also added to drinking water to lower regional suicide rates.14 The healing power of lithium is part of sacred creation stories. This mineral that scientists say comes from star stuff is considered an ancestor to Indigenous peoples.15

The transition from fossil fuels to lithium-ion batteries in electric vehicles is a continuum of the process of colonial development’s theft and burning up of our sacred ancestors. Indigenous resistance to lithium extraction has been exploding across the globe, from the Andean Atacama to Australia and now the US Southwest, as Indigenous water protectors step up to defend the sacred from a colonial gold rush driven by military and technological interests.16 But lithium is only a temporary transitional step toward whatever the long-term replacement for fossil fuels will be. The technology sector is already working on alternatives to lithium-ion batteries because they are too environmentally damaging to produce.17 Demand for lithium is driven by electric vehicles, which do not, in the long run, make a significant reduction to carbon emissions when you include their manufacturing processes and the electrical grid the cars need to charge up. At best, electric vehicles could only reduce global CO2 emissions by 6 percent, when they need to be reduced by 80 percent to mitigate global warming.18 The rush for lithium is not about environmental sustainability or mitigating climate change. The dash to destroy sacred Indigenous sites and finite desert water sources for lithium mining is merely a momentary blip in the consumption cycle, which will move on to a new product in a decade or two, leaving irreversible damage and water loss in its wake.

There are currently two main methods of mining lithium: hard rock mining and brine evaporation. Hard rock lithium mining involves drilling holes and blasting away mountains to remove lithium-containing rocks from the landscape. The rocks are roasted and covered in sulfuric acid to leach out the  lithium. This is how current lithium mines in Australia operate, and it is the process proposed in Serbia that would destroy farms, historical sites, and rivers.19 Hard rock mining destroys the land surface, disrupts ecosystems, and creates toxic waste. It may also disturb groundwater, poison, or reduce access to water for farms and wells. Brine evaporation lithium extraction involves pumping ancient, salty, mineral-rich water from underground into shallow pools on the surface, where it evaporates under intense sunlight and dryness. This process is used in the Andean highlands of Chile, Bolivia, Argentina, and Nevada.20 Pumping and evaporation drain non-renewable groundwater and change the balance of brine and freshwater that the fragile desert ecosystem and traditional Indigenous lifeways rely on.

Proposed lithium mines in Nevada and California intend to introduce new mining methods: clay leaching and brine ion exchange. Lithium-containing clays have previously not been profitable enough for companies to mine. Now, projects in Nevada and Arizona propose to extract lithium from clay by leaching it with sulfuric acid, killing ecosystems and sacred waterways. Producing the sulfuric acid on-site would emit toxic sulfur dioxide, polluting the air for local living beings. Radioactive material (such as naturally occurring uranium) underlining the mining sites could be exposed and released into the air, water, or soil. Brine ion exchange is another new risky extraction process proposed to mine lithium in the Salton Sea in California. Geothermal brine would be pumped from underground to flow past specialized beads that remove lithium ions from the solution. Then the beads are washed with an acid to remove the lithium and form a lithium-ion solution in a process that changes the water’s chemistry, potentially releasing toxic metals into fragile desert water systems, ground, and air. 

Indigenous people in the Southwest have been here, standing between their sacred lands and waters and a surge of mining violence, before. This might be a new gold rush, but in many ways it is the same genocide. Indigenous worldviews work through a complex set of spiritual interrelationships that do not separate body from community or people from land and nonhuman beings. We understand that violence against the ecosystem is violence against the people. Ecocide and genocide are coconstituted and mutually reinforcing. If lithium mining causes the extinction of plant and animal species, it will also harm human life. What good is a fast battery if we cannot breathe air or drink water? A technocrat may respond that we could build battery-operated filtration systems to survive. But a justice-centered response would then ask the question: To whom and what will we be chained if we are not free to breathe or free to drink water without purchasing these machines? Can we call that kind of “survival”— without clean air, water, land, and ecosystem—a good life?


Ha’Kamwe’ is a sacred site of springs, creeks, homes, and arid mountains with iconic rock formations and ancient cacti within Cholla Canyon Ranch near Wikieup, Arizona, where the Mojave and Sonoran Deserts meet within the Big Sandy River basin. The ranch is managed by the Hualapai Tribe. The ancestral homelands of the Hualapai people surrounding the site are managed by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM). Ha’Kamwe’ means “warm spring” in the language of the Hualapai people.21 Ha’Kamwe’ and the surrounding Big Sandy River Valley and adjacent mountains, hills, and deserts are part of the ancestral homelands of the Hualapai Tribe, as well as the Yavapai-Apache Nation, the Yavapai-Prescott Tribe, the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, the Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, the San Juan Southern Paiute Tribe, the Hopi Tribe, and the Colorado River Indian Tribes.22 Ha’Kamwe’ Spring is fed by water naturally stored underground in volcanic rocks that seal it off from the land surface above (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.”23

Hawkstone Mining Ltd, an Australian company, is developing the Big Sandy Lithium Project to mine lithium-containing clay. The next stage of exploration drilling would surround tribal land, including Ha’Kamwe’, on three sides, destroying cultural sites and blocking access to the oasis for desert wildlife. Exploration drilling is less than seven hundred feet from the spring. The proposed mine includes a massive open-pit mine, a sulphuric acid plant, a fifty-mile slurry line to transport toxic material from the mine to Kingman, and intense pumping of finite groundwater in an extremely arid desert region for the slurry line. The extraction process will destroy many adjacent residents, tribal members, and farmers’ wells. The mine would also require the construction of numerous access roads and drill pads. Twenty-four-hour lights and loud noise will devastate the fragile wildlife system that depends on Ha’Kamwe’ Spring and Burro Creek for the only water sources in the region, such as bats, owls, eagles, foxes, deer, pollinators, and migratory birds. Other companies like Bell Copper Corporation and Bradda Head Holdings Limited. are also moving in to set up mines in the Hualapai region. The Hualapai people fear they will soon be surrounded with toxic sludge and pit mines instead of the majesty of the pristine Grand Canyon region, where they rely on tourism from visitors eager to see natural beauty, not the marks of environmental racism.

The Hualapai people look at existing open-pit mines in nearby Bagdad, Arizona, as a sign of what the lithium gold rush could bring to their sacred springs. Several generations ago, a non-native rancher planted a grove of Middle Eastern date palms around the spring, transforming Indigenous Hualapai lands into his orientalist vision of an oasis. Much of the drive for lithium extraction stems from the military-industrial complex in optics, lubricants, and space technology. The electronics industry fuels the second-largest lithium demand for batteries that charge computers, cell phones, and a myriad of cheap throwaway gadgets. Like the colonial quest for oil that drove the bombing of Bagdad in Iraq, this nexus of military, electronic, and transportation consumption seeks to destroy the Indigenous desert that colonists have tried to remake as a new frontier. Meanwhile, Indigenous peoples in both places bear the brunt of resource colonialism in lost lives and ecosystems. 

In 2018, Big Sandy Inc. started exploratory drilling to estimate lithium reserves and potential profits in the area. They drilled almost fifty times in exploration phases with no tribal or community consultation, no environmental or cultural impact assessment, which is allowed under the 1872 federal mining law. In June 2020, the Bureau of Land Management invited Hualapai Tribe to participate in consultation. The Hualapai tribal government accepted the offer and requested to serve as a cooperating agency, but the BLM did not respond. Then in November 2020, the BLM denied the tribe’s request to participate as a cooperating agency. In March 2021, the BLM released an environmental assessment for the mining project’s next exploration phase and now the Hualapai, other impacted Indigenous nations,  residents, businesses, and farmers anxiously await the BLM’s decision. Meanwhile, the Hualapai caretaker of Ha’Kamwe’ Spring has observed more drilling farther from the site. This lithium project is still in the exploration phase at time of writing. NOW is the time to stop it!

Peehee Mu’huh

The connection between the white gold rush for lithium and the genocide of the nineteenth-century gold rush is direct for Paiute and Shoshone peoples. Peehee Mu’huh is the site of an 1865 massacre of Paiute and Shoshone people by US cavalry and a settler paramilitary death squad organized around Fort McDermitt. The settlers named the area Thacker’s Pass for Charley Thacker, a culprit of the massacre who also stole two Indigenous babies from the camp after murdering their sleeping families.24 But to the Paiute and Shoshone people, this area is sacred Peehee Mu’huh, place of the rotten moon, where traditional medicines and obsidian used to make tools are still gathered, and where endangered plants and animals reside. It is also a burial site that would be extremely painful to disturb for the descendants of the massacre survivors and their larger community.  

But the lithium mining proposal threatens to destroy the area forever, including the massacre site, burial grounds, and the habitat of the critically endangered Crosby’s buckwheat and Kings River pyrg. The proposed mine at Peehee Mu’huh would have similar impacts to the project proposed at Ha’Kamwe’, such as an open-pit strip mine two miles wide and a mile long that would burn about 22,600 gallons of diesel fuel per day for both on- and off-site daily operations.25 The mine would also require an immense factory that would burn nearly one hundred semitruck loads of oil refinery waste sulfur daily to make the 5,800 tons of sulfuric acid the mine would need for daily operations.26 

The irony of environmentalists driving the lithium gold rush by claiming it is a sustainable energy source is strikingly absurd and Orwellian. Daranda Hinkley, a young Pauite and Shoshone water protector, explains that “the country believes they need to transition to ‘green energy,’ to save the planet and cut down carbon emissions. They do not realize that in return for electric car batteries, aggressive lithium mining will harm the planet more in the process.”27 Proponents of electric vehicles claim that they will reduce carbon emissions. But the Thacker Pass mining project is an example of why this claim is problematic. The mine will produce more than 150,000 tons of carbon emissions annually, meaning it will create roughly 2.3 tons of carbon emissions for every ton of lithium it makes.28 The math for lithium as a climate change solution doesn’t add up.

Nevada is the driest state in the US. Residents fear the impact of mega-mining projects on their already overtaxed water tables. The mine would need to extract “more than 5000 acre-feet (1.7 billion gallons) of water annually from an aquifer in the Quinn River Valley which is already over-allocated by more than 30,000 acre-feet per year” to function.29 This amount of water extraction could dry local wells and springs, further impacting residents and endangered species. It will also reduce groundwater levels to create dust bowl conditions. The area is home to pronghorn antelope, bighorn sheep, deer, sage grouse, golden eagles, and critically endangered species of snail and trout. Among the medicinal plants and traditional foods of the Paiute and Shoshone peoples that require this land to continue are exceedingly rare desert wildflowers and old-growth sagebrush. The mine will probably leach uranium, antimony, sulfuric acid, and other toxins. For the original peoples, ancestors, land, and nonhuman beings, this is a fight against genocide and ecocide, for an end to gold rush violence at long last.

Salton Sea

The current Salton Sea was created in 1905 when settlers attempted to drain the Colorado River into the California desert, but instead sent river water into an ancient salt basin for over a year. Once created, the salty inland sea gained additional water from agricultural runoff, which also contained tons of toxic fertilizers, nitrates, arsenic, and pesticides. The Salton Sea began to shrink in the 1990s when contaminated runoff flows slowed down. The water became stagnant; toxic algae blooms killed off the artificial lake’s fish and migratory birds. Ongoing evaporation is reducing the sea to a thick salt slurry surrounded by thousands of acres of dried toxic dust that causes alarming rates of respiratory illness such as asthma for the local population. The attempt to extract agricultural value from the desert created both an ecological and public health disaster.

But there is a deeper history to this sea, which long ago was an ancient lake connected to the Colorado River. Over many thousands of years, the lake expanded and evaporated, leaving behind salt flats and creating sand dunes sacred to the Cahuilla, Kumeyaay, and Cocopah people. The area of the lake still contains significant archeological sites for Indigenous peoples and evidence of long-term habitation. Cahuilla peoples live in the communities around the Salton Sea, along with marginalized low-income migrants and communities of color who are priced out of urban centers like Los Angeles. Indigenous people and people of color form the front lines of those who will be most impacted by lithium extraction.

Lithium mining in the Salton Sea basin would require the construction of enormous toxic steam and waste-emitting factories, pilings, and geothermal energy plants. Mining companies also envision covering the desert, currently one of the last remaining inland water sources in the region for many of California’s migrating birds, with additional toxic battery and solar panel manufacturing plants.30 Another layer of risk for the region is that all of these facilities would be placed on active earthquake fault lines. Tampering with the groundwater and extracting deep underground geothermal reservoirs will undoubtedly increase earthquake activity, with potentially deadly impacts for local residents.  

Lithium gold rush extractors often try to frame their environmentally destructive work with terms such as green energy, a just transition, sustainable development, and a variety of other deceptive and meaningless phrases to disguise what is, in essence, raw disaster capitalism.31 The white gold rush is motivated by a strange mix of environmentalists and progressives demanding these greenwashing catchphrases and corporate, tech, mining, and military industrialist profiteers who care little for the environment, justice, or Indigenous communities that stand in the way of potential profits, no matter how fleeting the lithium consumption economic moment is. In the Salton Sea, and its abandoned water resort communities such as Bombay Beach, these disaster colonizers see a new “Orient,” just as the military expeditions that mapped overland routes to the goldfields in the mid-1800s imagined biblical oases awash with orientalist images of Arab and Asian money in the great plains and deserts of the West. To Indigenous peoples, this might be a new gold rush, but the health and spiritual impacts feel like a repeat of the same old genocide. 

Mines, Freeways, and Dams: The Nexus of Resource Extraction, Product Transportation, and Industrial Development 

Thousands of years ago, Indigenous peoples built many of the road systems used today to traverse the continent. But people often misunderstand the ways Indigenous peoples moved and lived their lives. The stereotypes of Indigenous peoples are either of isolated, static villages fixed in time and space that never really existed or of romanticized simplistic forest sprites frolicking in a biblical Eden that also never existed. The historical reality is that Indigenous peoples lived much as we do today, going camping during fishing season, going to the beach in the summer, checking out cool events in nearby communities or enjoying the mix of cultures in dense social centers, traveling for business or adventure, and living a life that was at once very local but also influenced by regional and continental economics, politics, and cultures. The new world that emerges from the crisis of climate change will probably continue these timeless social practices, as Indigenous peoples have always done. 

The difference between Indigenous ways of living with the land and colonial development is the scale and purpose for which movement happens. Indigenous peoples didn’t destroy entire rivers or flood whole valleys with dams that benefited the profits of a small minority.32 Nor did we blow up sacred mountains so that trucks could move goods ten minutes faster than they did before or cover sacred sites in excrement-snow just so rich people could ski on them.33 Mining is not new to the Americas, but the scale of it a thousand years ago was different than the scale of colonial invasion: slavery, oppression, man camps that disappear Indigenous women and two-spirits, and environmental catastrophe. The lesson of scale is also that instead of focusing on how to make the same extractive means work through mitigation, which often is just displacement of impacts onto those who are less valued, we need to move from reactionary defense against disaster colonialism to an offensive strategy of disaster decolonization. 

It is time to imagine a world that centers Indigenous relations to land and refuses extractive energy and development as the goals of human life. The time is ripe for a return to the radical antidevelopment thinking of the 1960s and the Mayan Zapatista movement that advocates for convivial technologies, autonomy, and degrowth as part of an anti-colonial, anti-imperialist praxis.34 These antidevelopment critiques have been taken up by Indigenous peoples but have largely not merged with environmental and economic justice movements in colonial societies, where demands are often still focused on jobs, shortsighted mitigation, and assimilation into colonial development—not its abolition. It is still highly discouraged for scientists, even those who center activism, social justice, and climate justice in their work, to imagine alternatives to energy and industrial development as the goals of science and technology. We need to ask: What if our world was no longer extraction-centered? Would energy even matter so much? Would we really need so much of it? Could we live with fewer jobs and more land-based autonomy? Probably, if we radically transformed the oppressive structures of our societies.

These big questions are difficult to work through for most folks, who feel like they need to take action now to address climate change and are lured by the ease of supporting the false solutions offered by extractionists instead of struggling for real change. It’s easier to buy a Prius for your miserable commute to work instead of abolishing shitty jobs and collectively organize to transform the structure of the economy and people’s relationship to land. For folks who find the larger transformative work paralyzing, I offer instead an approach to policy as a middle ground. Start to focus on reforms that would dismantle the colonial state, racial capitalism, and their apparatuses instead of reinforcing them. And don’t fall for the ruse of putting a brown face on the problem, as if representation will change the nature of the colonial hydra. Consider how effectively that has worked for the third-world decolonization movement, which moved toward liberating nation-states in the twentieth century only to find that colonial debt, structural adjustment, disaster colonialism, and imperialism have maintained their structural colonial positionalities even though they now have leaders who look like them. Systems require systemic changes, not different representatives.

A concrete example of this is the limited policy focus of Green New Deal advocates. Many of these advocates focus on policies to reduce carbon emissions, such as transferring the energy grid to lithium and solar panels that are created through horrifically destructive mining and child slavery in Africa.

These demands leave the structures of extraction and colonial overconsumption intact. Frontline Indigenous communities are calling for a policy agenda that works toward dismantling the colonial and extractive relationship between the state and land. The Paiute, Shoshone, Hualapai, and many O’odham, Kumeyaay, and Cahuilla people are united in their demand to reduce the Bureau of Land Management’s colonial and extractive function over their homelands. The BLM controls much of the open space and natural lands surrounding tribal reservations and constitutes one of the largest public land managers. But the BLM has long been structured to serve the interests of capital and extractionists over the public and has a violent historical relationship with Indigenous peoples. Frontline Indigenous peoples who engage in policy advocacy have focused on strategies to shift the BLM’s responsibility from extractionists such as mining companies and developers to the people, especially Indigenous caretakers of the land and their neighbors, who will bear the brunt of environmental impacts. The movement against lithium mining is demanding the repeal of the US Mining Law of 1872, which governs most of the West and Alaska and established hard rock mining as the primary use of all public lands unless the land is specifically protected (like a national park).35 The law gives miners the right to dig on up to five acres of public land without notifying the government, avoid taxes or royalties, and only pay a very minimal extraction cost per acre. The law allows mines to avoid environmental protections and all requirements to clean up toxins or repair the land when the mine stops operation. The law also requires the government to prioritize mining claims over all other proposals for the land, regardless of impact. Ha’Kamwe’ and Peehee Mu’huh are both on BLM lands governed by the 1872 Mining Law. 

So far, Green New Deal advocates and mainstream environmental groups have failed to get behind the demand to repeal the 1872 mining law. But this demand builds on the policy demands of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, which launched a historic defense against the Dakota Access Pipeline in 2016. Standing Rock was demanding the right of consultation, which included the right of refusal, on development projects in their historic homelands, not just within the boundaries of their reservation. This reform would have enabled the tribal government to reject the plans for the pipeline that has resulted in damage to burial grounds, farmlands, and the Missouri River. The right of consultation with enforcement of the right of refusal would allow Indigenous tribal nations a legal structure to fulfill their traditional vocation as caretakers and protectors of their homelands. If the federal government moved to allow Indigenous nations this right, many of the land defense struggles would have a different set of tools available to preserve sensitive ecosystems and confront environmental racism. This wouldn’t resolve all these struggles, in large part because federally recognized tribal governments since the 1934 Indian Reorganization Act have a long and complex history of corruption and complicity with mining and environmentally damaging development. But opening the door for a tribal right of refusal of projects that would negatively impact their environment or risk their public health would be an important step forward. It would also push non-Indigenous environmental groups to develop better relationships with Indigenous peoples, who could kick in enforcement and mitigation mechanisms that other frontline communities, such as low-income Black and Brown communities, would not have access to. These kinds of coalitions must be developed if our end goal is to stop environmental racism, rather than just move its impacts from one place to another. 

Disaster Decolonization 

My good friend and accomplice in the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice, Emma Harrison, sums up what all of us, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, must do in the face of this crisis: “Climate change and colonialism go hand in hand. That’s why decolonization is a better climate change solution than greenwashed energy technologies.”36 All over the world, Indigenous peoples are resisting mega infrastructure projects that benefit colonial development at the cost of destroying sacred lands, waters, and traditional lifeways. It is not traditional Indigenous peoples in rural reservation communities who need factories, space rockets, drones, bombs, hummers, disposable gadgets, and millions of electric cars. The need for massive electrification is not actually a basic human need—but clean water, healthy soils, and a thriving ecosystem are. We have lived since time immemorial without electrification. In Bill Haywood’s Book: The Autobiography of Big Bill Haywood, the radical union organizer related firsthand accounts of the Thacker Pass massacre. He also talked about his awe and amazement at seeing where the giant tracks of a prehistoric mastodon were followed in the fossilized mud by an equally ancient footprint of an Indigenous Paiute and Shoshone ancestor in the floor of the Carson Penitentiary prison yard when he visited political and Paiute prisoners later in his life. There is a lot of deep, intersectional work we need to do to bridge the struggles that Haywood and his International Workers of the World comrades represented—labor exploitation, migrants’ rights, racial and social justice, gender equity—with the decolonial struggles of Indigenous and formerly enslaved peoples. But the footprint of the mastodon hunter reminds us that climate change is not new. Indigenous peoples have been in these situations before because we have always been here, in our sacred places of creation. We will live through this, but only if we respect the land, as our traditional religions and teachings instruct us. These were lessons formed through other times—when the mastodons roamed our lands and we endured different crises, such as the birthing and death of the other worlds we acknowledge in our creation stories. They are our compass now as many of us find our paths back home and other communities in resistance come forward to forge new relationships with us through sacred site defense. Let us follow the steps of mastodon hunters in our roadmap to disaster decolonization; let us learn to live with the land instead of on the land once again. 


  1. Henry Schaller, “Crusader Orientalism: Depictions of the Eastern Other in Medieval Crusade Writings,” Summer Research 327 (2018) ↩︎
  2. Benjamin Madley, An American Genocide (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2016); Dunbar-Ortiz, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States vol. 3 (Boston: Beacon Press, 2014); Simon J. Ortiz, From Sand Creek, vol. 42 (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2000). ↩︎
  3. Conrad J. Bahre, A Legacy of Change: Historic Human Impact on Vegetation in the Arizona Borderlands (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1991); Arizona Superfund Research Center, “Community Outreach Effort: Ajo, AZ,” February 16, 2005, accessed December 15, 2021,; Lois Henry, “The Central California Town That Keeps Sinking,” High Country News, May 25, 2021,; Klee Benally, “Covid-19, Resource Colonialism & Indigenous Resistance,” Indigenous Action, April 22, , 2021, ↩︎
  4. Winston P. Erickson, Sharing the Desert: The Tohono O’odham in History (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2021); see also the following historical and anthropological museums: Huhugam Heritage Center (, Pueblo Grande Museum (, Casa Grande Ruins National Monument (, and “Hostile Terrain 94” at the Museum of Us ( For the renaming of the sacred Hia Ced O’odham route to Devil’s Highway, and the impacts of colonialism on the water resources along the route and the risk to migrants, see Bill Broyles, Gayle Harrison Hartmann, Thomas E. Sheridan, Gary Paul Nabhan, and Mary Charlotte Thurtle, Last Water on the Devil’s Highway: A Cultural and Natural History of Tinajas Altas (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 2014); see also Luis Alberto Urrea, The Devil’s Highway: A True Story Back Bay Books, 2008. ↩︎
  5. Anderson, M. Kat. Tending the wild. University of California Press, 2005.; Kimmerer, Robin Wall. Braiding sweetgrass: Indigenous wisdom, scientific knowledge and the teachings of plants. Milkweed Editions, 2013.; Erickson, Winston P. Sharing the desert: The Tohono O’odham in history. University of Arizona Press, 2021. ↩︎
  6. Sauder, Robert. The Yuma Reclamation Project: irrigation, Indian allotment, and settlement along the lower Colorado River. University of Nevada Press, 2009. ↩︎
  7. Wilson, John Philip. Peoples of the Middle Gila: A Documentary History of the Pimas and Maricopas 1500s-1945. Gila River Indian Community, Cultural Resource Management Program, 2014.; DeJong, David H. Stealing the Gila: The Pima agricultural economy and water deprivation, 1848-1921. University of Arizona Press, 2009.; DeJong, David H. “Forced to Abandon Their Farms: Water Deprivation and Starvation among the Gila River Pima, 1892-1904.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 28, no. 3 (2004): 29-56. ↩︎
  8. Boime, Eric. “Navigating the Fluid Boundary: The Lower Colorado River Steamboat Era, 1851-1877.” Southern California Quarterly 93, no. 2 (2011): 175-200.; Lingenfelter, Richard E. Steamboats on the Colorado River, 1852-1916. University of Arizona Press, 1978. ↩︎
  9. Upper Colorado River Endangered Fish Recovery Program. “About the Endangered Fish.” Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  10. Admin. “June Hogs – The Legend of the Super Salmon.” OUD Magazine. January 16, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2021.; Dancing Salmon Home. Film, 60. ↩︎
  11. Chatterjee, Pratap. “The Gold Rush legacy: Greed, pollution and genocide.” Earth Island Journal 13, no. 2 (1998): 26-26.; Chatterjee, Pratap. Gold, Greed and Genocide: Unmasking the Myth of the’49ers. Project Underground, 1998. ↩︎
  12. Koerner, Brendan I. “The Saudi Arabia of Lithium.” Originally titled, “The Lithium Gold Rush.” Forbes Magazine. November 6, 2008. Accessed Dec. 15, 2021.; See also Kohl, Keith. “The Lithium Gold Rush is Underway: Tesla is the tip of the iceberg.” Energy And Capital. May 6, 2016. and Frankel, Todd C. and Peter Whoriskey. “Tossed Aside in the ‘White Gold’ Rush: Indigenous people are left poor as tech world takes lithium from under their feet.” Washington Post. December 19, 2016. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  13. Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017. ↩︎
  14. Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017. ↩︎
  15. Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. Quintanilla, E. Harrison, R. Sugla, and A. Martinez. “No comemos baterías: solidarity science against false climate change solutions.” Science for the People. Vol. 22, no. 1 (2019): 33.; Lowe, Jaime. Mental: Lithium, Love, and Losing my Mind. Penguin, 2017.; Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice and Sofie Wang. Salt to Stars: the environmental and community impacts of lithium mining.  ↩︎
  16. See Cartier, Tian and Martín Longo, dir. En El Nombre de Lithio. 2021; Argentina: Calma Cine and Farn. Film,  and I encourage readers to explore the coalition Yes to Life, No to Mining and the partner organizations for case studies and information on Indigenous and community resistance to lithium extraction around the globe, including Australia, Serbia, and the U.S. Full disclosure, my collective the Center for Interdisciplinary Environmental Justice is an active member of this coalition. ↩︎
  17. ↩︎
  18. Sigla, Rishi. “How Green is Green Technology?” Tomorrow Unlocked. Accessed December 15, 2021. ​​;  Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. ↩︎
  19. Yes to Life, No to Mining Coalition. “On the Frontlines of Lithium Extraction: YLNM Lithium Communique #1.” Yes to Life, No to Mining. September 21, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021.; Allam, Lorena. “Failures at Every Level: changes needed to stop destruction of Aboriginal heritage after Juukan Gorge.” The Guardian. October 18, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021.; Boffey, Daniel. “Rio Tinto’s past casta a shadow over Serbia’s hopes of a lithium revolution.” The Guardian. November 18, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  20. Kaunda, Rennie B. “Potential environmental impacts of lithium mining.” Journal of Energy & Natural Resources Law 38, no. 3 (2020): 237-244. ↩︎
  21. Protect Ha’Kamwe’ is the website and instagram account to follow for information directly from Haulapai land and water protectors. ↩︎
  22. From the Hualapai Tribe’s comment on the Big Sandy Exploration Project Phase 3 Environmental Assessment, Hualapai Tribe Office of the Chairperson. “Comments on Sandy Valley Exploration Project (Phase 3) Environmental Assessment, NEPA Number DOI-BLM-AZ-C010-2021-0029-EA.” June 10, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  23. Statement by tribal elders on ↩︎
  24. Autobiography of Big Bill Hayward, the International Workers of the World (I.W.W.) labor organizer, recorded the testimony he heard directly from the massacre survivors in his memoir that documented the brutality of the mining industry and other fields he worked to organize. See Haywood, William D. Bill Haywood’s book: the autobiography of William D. Haywood. Pickle Partners Publishing, 2018.  ↩︎
  25. Protect Thacker Pass. “Information.” Protect Thacker Accessed December 15, 2021. and Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  26. Protect Thacker Pass. “Information.” Protect Thacker Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  27. Hinckley, Daranda. “Peehee Mu’huh Speaks.” This is Reno: Local News and Events. August 31, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  28. Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  29. Protect Thacker Pass. “Fact Sheet Three” Protect Thacker Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  30. Cantú, Aaron Miguel. “In Search of ‘Lithium Valley’: why energy companies see riches in the California desert.” The Guardian. September 27, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  31. Cantú, Aaron Miguel. “In Search of ‘Lithium Valley’: why energy companies see riches in the California desert.” The Guardian. September 27, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ; Brito-Millán, M., A. Cheng, L. Quintanilla, E. Harrison, R. Sugla, and A. Martinez. “No comemos baterías: solidarity science against false climate change solutions.” Science for the People. Vol. 22, no. 1 (2019): 33.;  Harisson, Emma. “Electricification will not stop climate change. It will displace thousands of Indigenous people.” Medium. April 22, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021.; Salomon, Amrah. “Decolonizing the Disaster: Defending land & life during Covid19.” Political Theology Network Symposium. October 24, 2020. Accessed Dec 15, 2021. ↩︎
  32. Fuck dams. ↩︎
  33. Akimel O’odham Youth Collective. “O’odham Zombies March Against the 202.” Censored News. June 25, 2013. Accessed December 15, 2021.; Akimel O’odham Youth Collective. “ADOT is racist! O’odham resistance against the Loop 202.” Akimel O’odham Youth Collective Blog. November 17, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  34. Illich, Ivan, and Anne Lang. “Tools for conviviality.” (1973).; Esteva, Gustavo, and W. Sachs. “Development. The development dictionary: A guide to knowledge as power.” Population and Development Review 18 (1992): 1.; Esteva, Gustavo, and Madhu Suri Prakash. Grassroots postmodernism: Remaking the soil of cultures. Zed Books Ltd., 2014.; Esteva, Gustavo, and Carlos Perez. “The meaning and scope of the struggle for autonomy.” Latin American Perspectives 28, no. 2 (2001): 120-148. ↩︎
  35. Earthworks. “The General Mining Law of 1872. Polluter of water, provider of pork.” Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎
  36. Harisson, Emma. “Electrification will not stop climate change. It will displace thousands of Indigenous people.” Medium. April 22, 2021. Accessed December 15, 2021. ↩︎