Callie Shanafelt Wong
Laura Berglan, Earthjustice
Ash Ponders for Earthjustice
May 30, 2023
Ha’Kamwe’ is a naturally occurring hot spring in the Big Sandy River basin where the Mojave and Sonoran deserts meet in what is now known as Arizona. Ha’Kamwe’ is a sacred healing place for the Hualapai Tribe. This important cultural and ecological site is threatened by a proposed lithium mine, as a subsidiary of the Australian company Hawkstone Mining Ltd. seeks permission to explore and drill on three sides of the spring, which would destroy cultural sites and block access to the oasis for desert wildlife. Visiting the site with a reporter from the Phoenix New Times, Hualapai Tribe Director of Natural Resources, Richard Powskey, said, “This spring is a place for healing and medicine and other things that they have here. Our people are buried all through here. There’s a grave just on the other side of this hill right here.”
The Land and Its People
Hualapai, pronounced Hwal’by, means “people of the tall pines.” Their ancestral homelands span five million acres across the state of “Arizona.” According to a booklet from the Hualapai Cultural Center, “The riparian environment along the Colorado River has offered Hualapai people successful living in the region that is a rich resource base for hunting, gardening, plant, root, and mineral gathering, amongst geologic formations of river and springs. Native plants include desert tobacco, cane reed, bear grass, various cacti, and edible grass seeds. Seasonal migrations for hunting and gathering of sustenance resulted in acquiring a variety of foods that extended through different elevations and geographic locations. Spiritual and life skills were conveyed partially during these migration events with Hualapai teaching their children traditional knowledge through hunting and gathering, song and oration, and environmental stewardship.”
The discovery of gold forced the Hualapai to defend their territory. They resorted to guerilla warfare tactics between 1866 and 1868, fighting against ranchers and the United States government. After heavy losses, the Hualapai signed a peace agreement with the United States in 1868. In 1871, the Hualapai were incarcerated at Fort Beale Springs. Disconnected from their hunting, fishing and farming grounds, with food resources depleted by settler ranchers and farmers, the Hualapai became dependent on army rations. At least 140 Hualapai men joined the army, becoming scouts in order to earn an income.
In 1874, the Hualapai were forced on the La Paz Trail of Tears, driven from their homes to the desert of the Colorado River lowlands. Women of the tribe were sexually assaulted by soldiers, elders died, and some survivors fled into the desert. After a year of incarceration in an army camp, the remaining tribal members escaped to their homes only to find them occupied by ranchers. Now they hold a yearly relay called the La Paz Run to commemorate this tragic history.
Those who managed to return could see that the combination of settler ranchers and the coming railroad meant that they were losing both their homes and their entire ecosystem. Hualapai elders, specifically Cherum, met with managers of the Atlantic and Pacific Railroad to set aside reservation land. In 1881, the US government put some land in trust for the tribe.
In 1883, President Chester A. Arthur created the Hualapai’s current reservation on one million acres of their traditional homeland. Today, the 2,300 Hualapai living on and off the reservation have maintained 14 of their kinship bands. The majority of tribal members live in Peach Springs, Arizona. The current northern boundary of the reservation runs along the Grand Canyon and Colorado River.
Halfway between Phoenix and Las Vegas the tribe also owns the 360-acre Cholla Canyon Ranch, which includes the sacred site Ha’Kamwe’, known in English as Cofer Hot Spring. Hualapai Tribe member Ivan Bender is the caretaker. “To me, it holds a really, really sacred valley of life,” Bender told High Country News. The Hualapai described the site in a written comment to the Bureau of Land Management (BLM): “Cofer Hot Spring is a sacred medicinal spring where Native people have, since time immemorial, gone for healing, prayer, and to conduct ceremonies related to birth, young women’s coming of age, and other important life transitions.”
In 2002, the BLM and the Western Area Power Authority (within the U.S. Department of Energy) determined Ha’Kamwe’ to be eligible for the National Register of Historic Places as a Traditional Cultural Property (TCP).
The tribe wrote that Ha’Kamwe’ “is part of a sacred cultural landscape that is recounted in what is known collectively as the Salt Song Trail, whose songs are practiced ceremonially by the Hualapai Tribe and other neighboring tribes. One of the Hualapai keepers of the Salt Song Trail cycle, now long deceased, specifically recounts Cofer Hot Spring (Ha’Kamwe’) as part of the song cycle. The interconnected landscape surrounding Cofer Hot Spring is an integral part of this sacred cultural landscape. This landscape has for centuries played an essential role in the religions, traditions, and cultures of the Hualapai, Yavapai, Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Southern Paiute, Hopi, and Colorado River Indian Tribes. Cofer Hot Spring is a holy site and TCP with deep religious, cultural, archaeological, historical, and environmental significance.”
Current Challenges and Preservation Efforts
In 2018, Ha’Kamwe’ caretaker Ivan Bender began to hear the loud rumbling noise of exploratory drilling. The Australian Company, Hawkstone Mining Ltd, doing business as Big Sandy Inc., drilled 49 holes in exploration Phases 1 and 2 without any tribal consultation and without preparing environmental or cultural impact statements—all of which was legal under the Mining Law of 1872. What is proposed in Phase 3 is much larger, requiring an environmental assessment under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). In June of 2020, the BLM finally invited the Hualapai Tribe to participate in consultation, which is also required by NEPA. The Tribe repeatedly requested to serve as a cooperating agency, a request that went all the way to the BLM Director, but their request was denied in November 2020. In March 2021, BLM released their draft Environmental Assessment for Exploration Project Phase 3 without any consultation with the Tribe. For four months BLM collected public comments and the Tribe submitted extensive comments. The Hualapai Nation was clear: “We view any further exploration or potential mining in this area to be an imminent threat to sovereign Hualapai tribal interest, which are protected under federal trust obligation and other federal laws.”
Phase 3 includes tripling the exploratory drilling Hawkstone Mining Ltd has already done. Following that, the company wants to establish an open pit mine on 331 BLM claims over 9.6 square miles of land. Hawkstone subsidiary Arizona Lithium Limited expects to extract 20,000 tons of battery-grade lithium per year for up to 40 years. They plan to build a 50-mile underground slurry pipeline to move the ore to Kingman, Arizona, where they will use sulfuric acid to extract the lithium. The mine location is also roughly 600 miles southeast of a Tesla lithium-ion battery gigafactory in Storey County, Nevada, which is known as Nsenery. The mining project location is of strategic importance because it would be well-connected to the battery factory by interstate highway.
In 2017, President Biden signed an Executive Order, The Federal Strategy to Ensure Secure and Reliable Supplies of Critical Minerals, to push US agencies to support domestic production of rare earth minerals like lithium that are needed for electric vehicle batteries. The Inflation Reduction Act provided a tax rebate for people buying electric cars—but only if the resources are produced domestically in the United States.
Arizona Lithium Limited and Navajo Transitional Energy Company announced in December 2022 that they would team up to further develop the project. Arizona Lithium Limited has mining claims on more than 6,000 acres of federal land set aside for the project. The tribally-owned Navajo Transitional Energy Company will manage everything from permitting requirements to final mine design and construction of the project.
While the project hasn’t received final approval, these plans indicate that the companies are expecting to proceed.
While the mine will not be on the Cholla Canyon Ranch, it surrounds it on the three sides, with the nearest drilling hole only a few hundred yards away. The BLM has failed to analyze the impacts of drilling on the spring, which could cause decreased water flow. Some of the drilling has already penetrated the earth 700 feet from the sacred spring.
At a Wikieup community information session in 2021 many of the 100 attendees were concerned that the proposed mine would drain too much water from this already drought-prone area. Caretaker Ivan Bender feels that the waterflow of the well that feeds Ha’Kamwe’ has already decreased due to the company’s drilling. There is a dispute between the company, the Tribe, and local ranchers regarding how shallow the water table is, with those who live in the area concerned that drilling could easily puncture the aquifer.
In the early 2000s a power plant was proposed in the area and though it was never built the Environmental Impact Statement for that project found “the discharge from Cofer Hot Spring would be reduced, and possibly cease, as a result of groundwater withdrawal from the volcanic aquifer.”
The Tribe is concerned the proposed lithium exploration activity would deplete the spring as well.
In April of 2021 the Hualapai Tribe passed a resolution against the mine. “The Hualapai Tribal Council strongly objects to any further permitting of surface or subsurface disturbances within the Sandy Valley Lithium mining claim area, which will result in devastating impacts to significant cultural and spiritual resources; will threaten long-term tribal water rights and quality; will cause irreparable harm to the Tribe’s ability to continue cultural activities and to pursue economic development of Cholla Canyon Ranch, and will result in long term ecological destruction of a fragile desert environment, including plant and animal species with cultural significance. Further, should an open pit mine ever be permitted, it would create enormous public health issues caused by pollution, dust, noise, and overall safety concerns caused by having such a mine immediately adjacent to Hualapai land, as well as severe visual impacts.”
The Inter-Tribal Association of Arizona, an association of 21 tribal governments in Arizona, which provides a forum for tribal governments to advocate for national and regional tribal concerns and to join in united action to address issues, passed a similar resolution.
The Hualapai Tribe is demanding that the BLM develop a full Environmental Impact Statement as required by the National Environmental Policy Act. This would require a thorough examination of issues protected by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The Tribe asserts that these concerns were not adequately addressed in the published Environmental Assessment: “The BLM’s position as indicated in the EA implies that academically-based western science approaches to research take precedence over traditional Indigenous knowledge. This position is unacceptable and is not in keeping with the requirement to make a good faith effort to identify cultural resources.”
In January 2023, Earthjustice collected and submitted 31,671 letters demanding the BLM conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement.
What You Can Do
Sign up to support The Campaign to Protect Ha’Kamwe’ and follow the issue.
“Protect this sacred spring from dirty lithium mining.” Earthjustice. May 3, 2023.
“Protect Ha’Kamwe’.” Protect Ha’Kamwe’. May 3, 2023.
“People of the Tall Pines.” Hualapai Tribe. May 3, 2023.
“Hualapai Tribe.” Inter-Tribal Council of Arizona. May 3, 2023.
Kapoor, Maya L. “Mining for lithium, at a cost to Indigenous religions.” High Country News, June 9, 2021.
Kelety, Josh. “Tribe, Ranchers Say Proposed Lithium Mine in Wikieup Will ‘Ruin’ Their Water.” Phoenix New Times, June 11, 2021.
Kaufman, Wallace. “Sacred Is as Sacred Sells.” American Institute for Economic Research, July 20, 2021.
Calsoyas, Sakya. “Navajo Nation-owned utility company to develop Big Sandy Lithium Project.” KNAU and Arizona News, December 15, 2022.
“Resolution No .24-2021 Of The Governing Body Of The Hualapai Tribe Of Thehualapai Indian Reservation.” Hualapai Tribal Council. April 22, 2021.
“Comments on Sandy Valley Exploration Project (Phase 3) Environmental Assessment, NEPA Number DOI-BLM-AZ-CO10-2021-0029-EA.” Hualapai Tribe Office of the Chairperson. June 10, 2021.
“Big Sandy Lithium Project.” NS Energy, May 3, 2023.
“DOE/EIS-0315: Big Sandy Energy Project; Mohave County, Arizona.” Office of NEPA Policy and Compliance, May 3, 2023.
“Big Sandy Energy Project Environmental Impact Statement.” United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management and US Department of Energy, June 2001.
“Environmental Assessment DOI-BLM-AZ-C010-2021-0029-EA Big Sandy Inc. Sandy Valley Exploration Project (Phase 3) AZA-37913.” United States Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management, March 2021.
“Big Sandy Lithium Project.” Hawkstone Mining Ltd. May 3, 2023.
“Big Sandy Lithium Project.” Arizona Lithium. May 3, 2023.
“Arizona Lithium Limited And Navajo Transitional Energy Company Join Forces To Begin Sustainable Development Of The Big Sandy Lithium Project.” Navajo Transitional Energy Company. December 5, 2022.
“The Effects of Climate Change.” NASA, May 3, 2023.
“AR6 Synthesis Report.” IPCC, March 20, 2023.
“About The Hualapai Nation.” The Hualapai Department of Cultural Resources, April 2010.
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