Story and Photographs by FRIDERIKE HEUER
History connects the dots of our identity, and our identity was all but obliterated. Our land was taken, our language was forbidden. Our stories, our history, were almost forgotten. What land, language, and identity remains is derived from our cultural and historic sites. . . . Sites of cultural and historic significance are important to us because they are a spiritual connection to our ancestors. Even if we do not have access to all such sites, their existence perpetuates the connection. When such a site is destroyed, the connection is lost.
— Chairman Dave Archambault, II, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe
The minute when temperatures dropped last week I went for a bit of gallery hopping, early enough in the day that they were all empty. Nothing much to report until I entered Russo Lee Gallery, drawn by Ghosts in the Machine, an exhibition title that spiked my interest. I associate that phrase with British philosopher Gilbert Ryle, who coined it to describe the mind/body dualism of Descartes and subsequent philosophers. Ryle picked apart the notion, held since Descartes’ time, that the mind is separable from the body (the ghost and the machine, respectively). Why would an artist be interested in tackling a controversy that has been long since settled in psychological science? Maybe an allusion to the connection between materials used and concepts expressed?
I was way off — what else is new. The show’s title refers to a recruiting video from the U.S. military to attract attention to its psychological operations division. Watch it here; the selling of psychological warfare is perturbing, to say the least. Creepy, more likely.
According to Native American artist Ka’ila Farrell-Smith (Klamath/Modoc), the artwork on view is conceptually linked to the surveillance state, one that uses all kinds of control mechanisms to pursue its goals, including squashing resistance to the extraction and transportation of fossil fuels and other minerals desired by industry. A deeper window into her reasoning can be found on her website, in a letter to Sen. Jeff Merkley that outlines her stand as an activist as well as an artist.
Looking at her work at Russo Lee Gallery, I was taken by multiple aspects of the gray scale paintings. Some interesting visuals, some probing conceptual issues, and some important questions raised by her exposition. Visuals first: the 21 or so paintings of this body of work use repeat patterns, created by a constrained range of colors and found objects used as stencils that anchor the gaze. They have sharply defined contours and a lot of contrast that the eye is drawn to, in juxtaposition to the hazy, floating color fields that are sprayed and enhance a sense of depth, with occasional hand-drawn patterns alleviating the impact of rigid man-made machinery. They all superficially resemble each other, and it takes a while for the variability underneath to emerge — I’ll get back to why that might matter in just a bit.
They also exhibit hints of pink here and there, flags of resilience in a black and white world, beautifully arranged. One of the stencils is amorphous enough that it could be a more biological form, rather than the strict geometry of circles and grids, alluding to the ghost, perhaps, and assigned a central role in the smaller paintings.
Before you learn even more, these paintings do capture a sense of unease, increased by the disorientation introduced by the many overlapping layers, creating fragmented space. This apprehension is growing when you realize that the pigments are augmented by lithium-infused earth that the artist collected in her travels along the Oregon border and Nevada, site of the struggle over one of the largest lithium mines in this country.
Under the Trump administration, the U.S. Bureau of Land Management fast-tracked and approved Lithium Nevada Corp.’s new mine at Thacker Pass (Peehee Mu’Huh) near the Oregon border, 200 miles northeast of Reno, Nevada, and close to the Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Indian Reservation. The Biden Administration has given its support for the extraction project, a cornerstone of its clean energy plans to combat climate change. Mining at Thacker Pass would provide lithium for more than 1.5 million electric vehicles per year for 40 years, claims the company.
Conservationists and adjacent tribal nations have gone to court against the project, on grounds of destroyed habitat for imperiled sage grouse, pronghorn antelope and other species in violation of environmental laws and fearing catastrophic groundwater pollution. In addition, the mine will destroy lands sacred to tribal members, site of a massacre in 1865 that killed many of their ancestors. A month ago, on July 17, 2023, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals gave the final green light for Lithium Nevada Corp. to go forward with construction, ignoring the claims and concerns of the people most affected by the rupture in the land, ruling against their interests.
Some of Farrell-Smith’s paintings allude to this concrete situation, with the chemical notation for lithium — LI — in some of them, or the Indigenous name for Thacker Pass found in others (Peehee Mu’Huh). But the work, for me, poses a larger question, or actually two of them. For one, why has the U.S. not adjusted its mining law from 1872, a law that precluded options for environmental protection needs or negotiating Indian interests? Secondly, and difficult to answer, what do you do if the overall imperative for societies to combat the effects of the climate crisis conflicts with the needs and demands of some of its constituent groups, continuing a historic pattern of violating their rights?
Here are some facts of the legal history (I am summarizing what I learned here.) Mineral exploration on public lands is governed by the General Mining Law of 1872, which makes “all valuable mineral deposits” in public lands “free and open to exploration.” It used to be gold and silver mining that polluted water and destroyed the land. Now companies are after the so-called “green” metals, lithium, cobalt, copper and rare earth elements used in electric vehicles and other clean-energy applications. And of course the return to visions of nuclear power has uranium miners surface again.
Ka’ila Farrell-Smith, “Ghosts in the Machine 020” (2022-2023). Northern Paiute lithium topsoil, acrylics, aerosols, and graphite on panel.
The law still allows claimants to pay an annual maintenance fee of $165 per claim in order to keep it active. Claimants — mostly multinational corporations — can pull unlimited quantities of minerals from their claims without paying a cent of royalties to the minerals’ actual owner, the American public. The law contains no environmental provisions and no reclamation requirements, so corporations can simply walk away from their mines once they’re no longer profitable, leaving the rest of us to pay for Superfund cleanups. Here are the numbers:
- 11.36 million: Acres of public land staked with active mining claims at the end of the 2022 fiscal year. This is a 932,000-acre increase from the previous year.
- 228,696: Number of active mining claims, covering nearly 6 million acres of federal land in Nevada at the end of FY 2021.
- 267,535: Number of active mining claims on federal land in Nevada as of June 12, 2023, an increase of nearly 40,000 in just 18 months.
- 13: Minimum number of active mining claims staked within Bears Ears National Monument since 2016. These claims were located either in the months just before the national monument was established, or after it had been shrunk by then-President Donald Trump but before President Joe Biden restored the boundaries. National monument status bars new mining claims, but does not affect existing ones like these.
- $34.4 billion: Value of non-fuel mineral production in 2019 on all lands in 12 Western states.
- Unknown: Amount of that mineral production extracted from federal lands. The number is unknown because federal agencies do not track production. Earthworks, a mining watchdog group, has estimated that $2 billion to $3 billion worth of minerals is extracted from public lands annually.
- 12.5% to 18.75%: Royalty rate on oil, natural gas and coal extracted from public lands.
- $14.8 billion: Royalties paid on oil and gas production from federal lands in 2022.
- $0: Royalties paid on hardrock minerals extracted from mining claims on public land, including copper, gold, silver, lithium, uranium and various “green metals,” between 1872 and 2023.
- SOURCES: Bureau of Land Management, Government Accountability Office, Congressional Research Service, Earthworks, Center for American Progress
Note that about 75 percent of all lithium deposits are on or near tribal land. The conundrum is, of course, that not only the financial goals of the mining operations once again subjugate Native American interests. For me the bigger question is, how do you weigh a planet’s need to get away from fossil fuel consumption against the clear damages done to tribal rights? Particularly when it is not even clear how much electric cars are really a net improvement for the environment, given the issues of water consumption during battery production and the lack of safe disposal strategies. Or how much the concept of “let’s build electric cars” distracts from the needs to fundamentally curb driving and flying and transporting goods long distance, or stop producing unnecessary consumer goods en masse?
The International Institute for Sustainable Development stated last year: “Lands inhabited by Indigenous Peoples contain 80% of the world’s remaining biodiversity. … Many Indigenous Peoples are at the frontlines of resisting the drivers of the global environmental crisis. Yet, international and national policies and laws do not recognize and support their collective rights.”
In our own country, those laws hark back to the Supreme Court’s adoption of the Doctrine of Discovery in 1873, in a case, Johnson v. M’Intosh, in which it was decided that Tribal Nations could no longer claim legal title to their own lands as their “rights to complete sovereignty, as independent nations, [were] necessarily diminished.” Natives could not be left “in possession of their country” because they were “fierce savages whose occupation was war, and whose subsistence was drawn chiefly from the forest.” As a result, “[t]o leave them in possession of their country, was to leave the country a wilderness” — that is, land that is not commercially exploited or colonially conquered in the name of what was then viewed to be American progress. (Ref.) This is still standing law. Some environmental laws started to emerge in the 1970s and have managed to improve the protection of endangered species, with endangerment or extinction measurable consequences of mining. These laws, however, have not managed to include into their canon the inherent sovereign right of Tribal Nations to protect the lands that contain their sacred sites and the remains of their relatives. These are intangible, cultural values that were simply not taken seriously enough to be fought for by non-tribal movements.
How, then, is the disturbance of sacred ancestral land and defiance of cultural and religious traditions, all in the name of resource extraction to further a “green” agenda (and the profits from it), in any way different from traditional colonial exploits? I had mentioned at the beginning that Farrell-Smith’s paintings superficially resemble each other quite a bit given the constrained set of colors and stencils. I feel that that in itself is a perfect metaphor for what has been done to Indigenous interests: Over and over and over again we see the same pattern of usurping land and harming cultural or historic sites, with slightly shifting justifications for the destruction of tribal sovereignty. Then it was the Doctrine of Discovery aimed to ban “savages” and “heathens” from standing in the way of “progress”; now it is the dire need for combating climate catastrophe on the backs of those who were perennial stewards of the land to begin with. What gives?
The work is up until the beginning of September — check it out!
This essay was originally published on YDP – Your Daily Picture on August 21, 2023.