Why the Saami Council damages the Saami community with its political, biased and anti-Russian statement

Following § 1 of the Statute, the Saami Council is a public and independent cultural and political cooperation organization of the major Saami organizations in Norway, Russia, Finland and Sweden. The Saami Council is a non-governmental public organization.

Also, according to § 2 of the Statute, the main goals of the Saami Council are the protection of the interests of the Saami as a whole people, the strengthening of the sense of solidarity of the Saami people across the borders as an entire people and indigenous people, and the work with the aim that the Saami will be recognized as a whole people and indigenous people in the future, whose cultural, political, economic, civil, social and spiritual rights must be guaranteed through the legislation of each separate country, treaties between the affected states and the Saami representative bodies, as well as international legal agreements. The Saami Council also works internationally to promote the development and protection of the interests and rights of the Saami and other indigenous peoples.

Based on the results of consideration of the statement for the suspension of cooperation with member organizations on the Russian side, the Kola Saami Association asks for clarifications – why the Saami Council damages the Saami community with its political, biased and anti-Russian statement and jeopardizes the Saami unity for the sake of the current political situation.

In connection with the above, we inform you that the Kola Sami Association will be forced to withdraw from the Saami Council. This fact means that the Saami Council cannot speak at events of any level on behalf of the Russian Saami.



– It’s no wonder since that organization is entirely under the Putin government’s control, says Indigenous activist Pavel Sulyandziga, who has escaped to the USA.

Russia’s largest Indigenous organization, RAIPON (Russia’s northern Indigenous people’s organization), has declared that it completely supports Vladimir Putin’s Ukraine war. In the statement sent to the Russian president it says so:

– The Russian NGO RAIPON supports the intention and actions to save the rights and interests of the inhabitants of Donetsk and Luhansk’s people’s republics and Russia’s interethnic security.

Behind the statement stand 40 Indigenous groups of Russia, including the «Association of Kola Sami», one of the two largest Sámi organizations of the Murmansk region.


– It’s not strange that RAIPON supports the war. It’s entirely natural for that organization to do so, says the Russian Indigenous activist and RAIPON’s former vice president Pavel Sulyandziga. 

Sulyandziga, who belongs to the Udege people, escaped from Russia in 2017 and lives now in exile as a refugee in the USA. 

He says that since 2013 RAIPON hasn’t been an independent Indigenous organization.

– The organization is part of Putin’s government and represents the government’s interests. The organization has also, since 2013, reported on Russian Indigenous leaders to the police and state security authorities, says Sulyandziga.


Sulyandziga is among other Indigenous activists who have had to leave Russia and founded a new independent organization of indigenous peoples.

– Russia’s Indigenous peoples can’t sit still when the Russian leader goes to war against Ukraine and the people of that state.

– We don’t support that war and support Ukraine’s people that now fight for their state.

– We encourage Russia’s Indigenous peoples to refuse to take part in this shameful war, says Sulyandziga


He says that it has been difficult in Russia to work for Indigenous rights for a long time already. However, conditions worsened after Russia went to war with Ukraine in February.

– If you’ve watched the news, you can hear that Putin recently said that he’d got his eyes on people working together with the Western world. So now it’s extremely dangerous to work with Indigenous and human rights.

– It was already difficult, but now it may be life-threatening, says Sulyandziga.


UN Permanent Forum for Indigenous Peoples’ leader Anne Nuorgam says that she is worried that Indigenous organizations will get mixed into the war.

– It’s frightening because Indigenous peoples live both in Russia and Ukraine. It shows how democracy has been limited in Russia for the last 10-15 years, even if Indigenous rights have been developing, says Nuorgam.


– It also shows how the state can decide over private organizations. So the members must support the state’s interests, even if they don’t support these issues. It’s frightening to see where that has taken us now, says Nuorgam.

Journalists: «How should we understand it when a well-known Indigenous organization supports Putin’s war?»

– That’s the situation they have. They remain a separate organization when they are not in opposition to the state, neither personally nor the organization in itself. That’s their only option. If one looks at it with Western eyes, it’s unfortunate because they lose our trust, says Nuorgam.


Russia’s Indigenous Peoples speak out against the war in Ukraine

Because of the war in Ukraine, Russia has been banned from attending this year’s United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, which opened this week in New York.

Instead, a Ukrainian delegation, led by an ethnic Crimean Tatar, is taking their place.

Also in the Russian government’s absence, exiled and emigre Russian Indigenous Leaders have formed an anti-war coalition calling on their people in far east Russia, not to support it.

The coalition includes The International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia, the Congress of the Oirat-Kalmyk People, the Buryat Democratic Movement and the National Movement of Peoples of the North.

Gathered in New York at the United Nations forum, their joint statement will not go down well in Moscow:

We, representatives of the indigenous nations of Russia, call on our fellow citizens, servicemen and those liable for military service who belong to indigenous nations, and other nations of the Russian Federation — not to take part in the shameful war that is being called a “special military operation” in Ukraine.

It would appear that soldiers from Indigenous regions have been killed in relatively large numbers since the war began, so their statement continues, with a plea:

Today you have a chance to save your life, the future of your nations, and the lives of thousands of innocent people in Ukraine. Stop taking part in hostilities. Do your best to block your colleagues from going to war in Ukraine. Disobey the orders of your superiors who order you to shoot Ukrainians and destroy Ukrainian cities.

It makes no sense to die for palaces, yachts, billions owned by Putin and his friends. Don’t give up your young life for their property. Do not commit sin killing civilians — children, women, and the elderly. Each of us must remain Human.Your families and loved ones are waiting for you at home. Oppressed, impoverished, native republics, districts, districts, and villages are waiting for you. Their future depends on each of you.

You may be wondering why all of this concerns me… an Australian who has never been to Russia? The answer is, I have no choice.

My wife Masha is a proud indigenous Siberian from Yakutia and a member of an organisation with permanent status at the UN forum, advocating for native people across vast far east Russia.

Since the start of the war, operating in Russia right now, is virtually impossible for her organisation, but as an Australian citizen, Masha is able to get to the United States to deliver their speech to the general assembly.

She has three minutes at the podium on Thursday and will explain that Russia’s indigenous people were never consulted nor gave their consent to this war — and that they too are victims.

She will also point out that sanctions imposed on Russia will greatly affect the Arctic regions, where life expectancy is already poor and that consideration needs to be given to establishing humanitarian corridors to these areas.

With the supply of essential medical equipment from Europe blocked, it is a matter of life or death in one of the most inhospitable climates on earth.

The forum continues next week. Updates to follow.


War protesting Sámi activist from Kola seeks asylum in Norway

“I can never return to Russia before the genocide regime is changed,” says Andrei Danilov, a Kildin Sámi from Olenegorsk on the Kola Peninsula.

Danilov is a well-known Sámi politician and member of the Sámi Council’s Culture Committee. The Council represents the Sámi across the borders in Russia, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

A few days after Putin launched Kremlin’s bloody war on Ukraine, Andrei posted a photo of himself holding an anti-war poster in front of Russia’s Embassy in Oslo “No War – Peace on Earth”.

“My decision is to seek political asylum,” he says to the Barents Observer.

“In Norway, I can freely and safely speak the truth and fight for the rights of indigenous peoples,” Danilov argues.

While Andrei Danilov in Norway can voice his opinion against the war and freely debate challenges for indigenous peoples in the Arctic, the space for debate inside Russia is of another kind.

Both the Chairman of the Council of Indigenous Minorities under the Government of the Murmansk Oblast and a representative for the Association of the Kola Sámi participated in the war support rally on the anniversary day of Crimea annexation. The propaganda show was headed by Governor Andrei Chibis who stood on stage wearing a hooded sweater with a “Z” on the chest.

In Lovozero, the main Sámi settlement on the Kola Peninsula, supporters placed the “Z” on reindeer, echoing Kremlin’s narrative on the Russian army’s so-called denazification of Ukraine.

NRK Sápmi was first to report about the event and posted a video from the staged support.

With Kremlin’s “Z” on two reindeer, Russian and Sámi flags, the locals in Lovozero staged a pro-army, pro-Putin message.

Andrei Danilov is not the first representative of Russia’s Arctic minorities to flee the country for political reasons. Exile indigenous peoples representatives have on several occasions voiced their protest against environmental problems caused by mining and industrial pollution. The protests from abroad, like after the big oil spill near Norilsk in Siberia, are often met by counterarguments by indigenous peoples in Russia.

So also when it comes to the ongoing war in Ukraine.

Two statements, two realities 

RAIPON, the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, last week published a strong-worded statement criticizing the exile community’s view on Ukraine. The organization represents indigenous peoples across the Russian Arctic, from the Kola Peninsula in the west to Chukotka Peninsula in the east.

RAIPON says these “figures” living abroad that signed the appeal against the war in Ukraine have “lost contact with their native land” and “have no moral and factual right to speak on behalf of and express the opinion of our peoples.”

The statement says Russia is not responsible for the ongoing tragedy of killing civilians, illegal occupations of Crimea, or violating the rights of indigenous peoples of Ukraine.

“Indigenous peoples of our country have been living and developing as part of the Russian state for more than a thousand years,” RAIPON argues. The header to the statement consists of a new indigenous peoples art symbol with the text ZaRossiyu (For Russia) written with the “Z”.

The exile indigenous community’s statement is “strongly condemning Putin’s war against Ukraine and demands respect for human rights abroad as well as at home.”

One people, four countries 

In Norway, Andrei Danilov says he will continue fighting for Sámi rights. “I have not left my homeland, but moved to another area in Sámi-land,” he underlines.

President of the Norwegian Sámi Parliament, Silje Karine Muotka, says to NRK Sápmi that she supports Danilov’s right to get asylum.

“The Sámi is one people in four counties. Our traditional areas of living are in Russia, Norway, Finland and Sweden.”

Muotka notes that also after national borders were drawn the Sámi have lived as one people with the same cultural heritage and affiliation to Sámi areas.


My life is in great danger in Russia

The war in Ukraine became the triggering reason why Andrei Danilov no longer wants to live in Russia.

– I’ve been thinking about this for a long time.  The war between Russia and Ukraine has been a huge shock to the fact that I have sought political asylum in Norway, Danilov informs NRK.

Danilov is from Olenegorsk on the Kola Peninsula in Russia.  In recent years, he has worked as director of the Sami Cultural Heritage and Development Foundation in his hometown.

 He feels compelled to leave his homeland

– My life and my security are in great danger in Russia due to my activity in the defense of human rights, Danilov explains.

NRK meets Danilov in a city center hotel in Oslo.  Here he is waiting for his asylum application to be processed. He is the first Russian-Sami asylum seeker in Norway.

After he came to Norway, Danilov has become acquainted with two asylum seekers from Ukraine.  They are originally from Chechnya, but fled to Ukraine 20 years ago. Then Russia went to war against Chechnya because the republic wanted to secede from Russia. Now they are on the run again.

We met Andrey first at the refugee camp. We know that he is Sami from Russia. He is a very nice person, says Ahmed. For his own safety, he didn’t tell his full name. Ahmed is happy that there is no conflict between Russians and Ukrainians here in Norway. – Thank God that there is no war here. Thank God!

 Danilov believes that war is a very negative thing.

– I’ve seen refugees.  I have seen children, women and old people, who have lost their homes, who have lost everything.  Of course I can not sit and watch this from the side.  These are also people, says Andrei Danilov in a low voice with a tear in the corner of his eye.

Andrei Danilov appreciates that he can live safely in Norway, without being persecuted because of his political opinion. – Now I understand that I may never be able to go home again. This is very sad, says Danilov. PHOTO: DAN ROBERT LARSEN / NRK

Advocate for the rights of indigenous peoples

Danilov is a well-known advocate of indigenous peoples’ rights among both Russian and Nordic Sami.

He has held various positions in local Russian Sami associations. Today he is a member of the Sami Council’s culture committee. The Sami Council is a Sami cooperation body in Norway, Sweden, Finland, and Russia.

– I defended human rights of indigenous peoples. These are Sami people and other indigenous peoples who live in other parts of the country, says Danilov.

AGAINST POLLUTING MINING: Last year, Andrei Danilov took part in a campaign against the mining giant Nornickel. Campaigners asked Tesla founder Elon Musk not to buy nickel from the Russian company. Photo: Private

We tried to achieve that it should adhere to the principle of FPIC, i.e., free, prior and informed consent. The goal was to start a dialogue between indigenous peoples and industrial companies, Danilov explains.

He elaborates:

– The Arctic territories are rich in natural resources. But it is also a land of the indigenous peoples. So by using our resources, preserving our nature, maintaining our traditional lifestyle, we affect the interests of the industrial companies.

Arrested by police

Andrei Danilov has fought for the Sami’s rights to traditional hunting for several years.

-I have won in the Court of Appeal. Nevertheless, we are not allowed to exercise that right. This process will take a long time.

In August 2021, Danilov was arrested by a policeman during a festival in Montsegorsk. He spent five days in jail.

– The policeman asked me questions about Sápmi and Sápmi as separate state. He also asked me – do we have our own laws, government, and how do I think about it. It was clear that he would involve me under the extremism law, Danilov thinks.

Those convicted under the most severe sections on extremism and separatism in Russia can spend many years in prison.

– I could risk never getting out of prison.


How Ukraine invasion will hit Russia’s marginalised: An indigenous activist explains

Down To Earth talks to Pavel Sulyandziga, an indigenous activist about what is happening in Russia, especially to its indigenous and marginalised people

A lot has been said about how the Russian invasion is devastating for Ukraine. But what about the people in Russia? A war always comes at a cost; also, there are economic sanctions against Russia by the United States and some of its allies. While the possible effect of these on the common Russian has been discussed, what about the country’s marginalised communities?

The country is home to a large number of indigenous minorities — from the Karelians and Saami near the Finnish border to the Chukchi on the Bering Strait.

Pavel Sulyandziga is an indigenous activist from Russia who has taken political asylum in the United States. He is a member of the Udege, a people found in the Russian Far East, near the Pacific port of Vladivostok. Their homeland is also home to the Amur tiger, the largest cat in the world, which is a cultural totem of the tribe.

Down To Earth caught up with Sulyandziga and asked him about what exactly was going on in Russia. Edited excerpts:

Rajat Ghai: Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused consternation around the world. But, away from the headlines, how will these developments affect the indigenous, minorities and marginalised communities in both countries?

Pavel Sulyandziga: The war is impacting everyone. The sanctions that have been invoked by other countries will have a strong impact on Russia and will impoverish common people.

What is even more terrifying is the Russian regime will now be even less concerned about the rights of indigenous and minority peoples in the country.

The rights of indigenous people are often violated. These people will now be ignored more. Land theft and the violations of our rights will become more frequent. Our efforts to protect those rights through the courts and other ways will be ignored.

Indigenous people live in remote areas that are cut off from the mainstream. Groceries and other products will not be provided or will become costly and unaffordable.

RG: Are there indigenous communities in Ukraine?

PS: There are indigenous people in Ukraine. The majority of them live in Crimea, which was annexed by Russia in 2014. There is military action taking place on the Crimean Peninsula currently.

At the time that Russia annexed Crimea, many indigenous leaders left the peninsula and moved north into central Ukraine. Today, a number of them have taken up weapons and are fighting for their country.

RG: What are the issues of indigenous people in the Russian Federation presided over by Vladimir Putin?

PS: The biggest tragedy at the moment is that people in Russia’s indigenous communities are being called to serve in the war in Ukraine.

This is especially concerning since many of these communities are not fully informed about what is going on in Ukraine thanks to Russian propaganda, which tells them that they are going to free the country from ‘Banderites’ (from the name of Stepan Bandera, a far-right Ukrainian politician of the last century) and Nazis.

Unemployment is quite high in these communities. They are being promised huge sums of money to enlist and fight.

I would like to underscore that most Russian indigenous communities are small in number and the loss of a few members may be a big one for such groups. For instance, my people, the Udege, live in four villages and number 1,600 people.

The other issue that I see as very important is of food and groceries and whether people will receive them. I am also concerned about medical care since most of these communities do not have hospitals and are forced to travel to seek medical care.

Now, with the value of the rouble declining and living costs increasing, I am worried that people may not be able to receive proper medical care or medicines.

Of course, the ongoing issues of land seizures and violation of our environmental rights will continue and possibly become more difficult to address given the current wartime situation and its impacts on government.

RG: Russia has the largest shoreline in the Arctic, which is now melting. What changes will take place in the Russian Arctic given that President Putin has voiced its full exploitation?

PS: There are definitely some significant causes for concerns. Russia has extensive plans for exploiting Arctic resources, especially oil and gas.

It is my belief that due to the lack of technical support from western companies, they will be forced to delay these projects. They are just not in a position currently to implement them.

RG: Will the war in Ukraine affect the environment in the wider region? 

PS: There is certainly the potential for significant complications. I am watching the situation quite closely, specifically with regard to Russia’s takeover of the Chernobyl site and the Zaporozhia nuclear power station.

I am worried about the possibility of Putin making use of biological weapons in the region. Let us hope that does not happen.

Of course, the impacts in Ukraine are terrible. The bombs, the planes and the technology that has been used there has a high degree of toxicity and will have an impact on communities.

RG: What are the similarities and differences between the USSR and Putin’s Russia, especially in terms of political economy?

PS: There are huge differences in basic economic terms. Russia delayed in developing it but it still has a market economy, which did not exist in the Soviet era.

But things are much worse today than in the Soviet Union. The Soviet economy and nation were self-contained. They produced everything themselves even though it was not of good quality. That is gone in today’s Russia. Putin has buried manufacturing and industry.

For instance, the domestic commercial airline industry entirely depends on Boeing and Airbus planes. Seventy per cent of their parts have to be imported. Even the Russian car industry depends on imported parts.

One thing that the Soviet regime does share with Putin’s Russia is the lack of concern for the people. The soldiers sent to the frontline in Ukraine are novices. They are not prepared for this kind of undertaking and are essentially cannon fodder.

The famous Soviet military commander, Georgy Zhukov, when asked about losses on the front, is known to have said: No problem. The mothers will bear more children.

Putin is the same.

We see this in Volodymyr Zelensky’s frequent ceasefire proposals for prisoner exchanges, evacuations and collecting the dead. But Putin refuses to engage. It shows that he just does not care.  

RG: How has Putin fared in conserving wildlife and biodiversity? 

PS: I have two answers to this. First, I would say that Putin couldn’t care less about environment and ecology. But Putin’s regime does have some accomplishments with regards to environmental conservation.

But these accomplishments are focussed in the public relations sphere rather than meaningful conservation and protection. When we talk about the Amur tiger, it is an achievement.

In conversations I have had with conservationists, they say ‘You Udege people are lucky. Putin loves your tiger.’

At some point, Putin decided that he was going to be the biggest protector of tigers in the world. He proposed a global programme that involved the heads of six tiger range countries. He wanted to host the first tiger summit. It was supposed to take place this autumn in Vladivostok near my homeland. But I don’t think it will take place now.


RAIPON supports the decision of President Putin to start the war in Ukraine

Dear friends, brothers and sisters!

Today, the Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North, Siberia, and the Far East of the Russian Federation held a meeting of the Coordinating Council, where leaders of indigenous peoples and leaders of regional NGOs unanimously supported the decisions of our president, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

The text of the letter can be found below or by clicking on the link.


Statement of the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia

WE – the undersigned representatives of the Indigenous peoples of the North, Siberia and the Far East living outside of Russia against our will—are outraged by the war President Putin has unleashed against Ukraine. At the moment, the entire population of Ukraine is in grave danger. Old people, women and children are dying. Cities and towns of an independent country are being destroyed because their inhabitants did not want to obey the will of a dictator and a tyrant.

As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE express solidarity with the people of Ukraine in their struggle for freedom and are extremely concerned about ensuring the rights of Indigenous peoples during the war on Ukrainian territory, including the Crimean Peninsula that remains illegally occupied by Russia.

As representatives of Indigenous peoples, WE are outraged by statements of the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) on March 1, 2022 and the statement of civil society leaders on March 2, 2022 in support of the decisions of President Putin. Such public statements can only be considered as direct support for the military aggression against the Ukrainian people, and their signatories are accomplices of the murderers of civilians in Ukraine.

WE believe that the Russian Association of Indigenous Peoples of the North (RAIPON) has become an adjunct of the Russian Government domestically and internationally. Once a leader in the protection of Indigenous Peoples’ rights, it is today became an organization whose main purpose is to justify the actions of the Government and extractive companies that feed President Putin’s regime and destroy the traditional lands of indigenous peoples.

WE believe that the leaders of RAIPON—Grigory Ledkov, Alexander Novyukhov, and Anna Otke who signed the letter should be also treated as war criminals, not merely accomplices of the war, because they voted for military action as members of the Russian Parliament.

From now on, WE will consider any statements on any international platforms made by RAIPON and its representatives or by representatives of other organizations of Indigenous peoples which supported Vladimir Putin’s decisions regarding Ukraine as falsehood and propaganda as their main purpose is maintaining the prestige of the Russian authorities at the international level.

WE call on any international organizations, nonprofit and intergovernmental, scientific, environmental, human rights and others, including institutes and branches of the United Nations, the Council of Europe, and the Arctic Council to ignore the statements of RAIPON representatives and spokespeople of other organizations which supported Vladimir Putin’s decisions. Those statements are propaganda originating in the Russian political regime. We appeal to the international community to no longer consider RAIPON a legitimate representative of the Indigenous peoples of Russia.

WE also declare that we are withdrawing from all Russia-based organizations and networks of Indigenous peoples of Russia in which we were previously members. We announce the creation of a new, independent organization—the International Committee of Indigenous Peoples of Russia.

Tjan Zaotschnaja – Itelmen

Dmitry Berezhkov – Kamchadal

Pavel Sulyandziga – Udege

Yana Tannagasheva – Shor

Andrey Danilov – Saami

Vladislav Tannagashev – Shor

Irina Shafrannik – Selkup

UN Special Rapporteur to Review the Problem of Access to Clean Water for Indigenous Peoples of Siberia

ADC Memorial has reported to the UN Special Rapporteur on human rights to safe drinking water and sanitation on the violation of the rights of the indigenous peoples of southern Siberia to safe drinking water and sanitation. Reports from civil society will be included in the report to the 51st session of the Human Rights Council in September 2022.

The material submitted by ADC Memorial presented an overview of violations of the environmental rights of indigenous peoples of southern Siberia – the Khakas, Shor, and Teleut peoples – who are harmed by the activities of coal and gold mining companies that have polluted the water, soil, and air. Coal mining and placer gold mining have already caused a true environmental catastrophe for many regions. With the development of the coal industry in the Republic of Khakassia, many lakes and small rivers that are a source of drinking water for the local population and for livestock are gradually drying up and becoming polluted. Gold mining is equally destructive for bodies of water. In May and June of 2021, WWF experts identified 30 cases of complex river pollution resulting from placer gold mining in four regions of Siberia on plots along a total length of 1,474 km. Of these cases, five occurred along 203 km in Khakassia, and five were found along 218 km in Kemerovo Oblast. Such a powerful adverse impact on the soil and water of indigenous peoples makes traditional nature use impossible and harms the health of indigenous peoples.

The material devotes special attention to the fact that Russian law does not give indigenous peoples the right to own land that is part of their traditional settlement territories. The law only provides for the right to use lands at no charge in places where indigenous peoples have traditionally lived and supported themselves. As a result, territories that have served as a place of life and activity for indigenous communities for millennia and have been used for traditional trades like raising livestock, hunting, fishing, and foraging are being transferred to private companies that are decimating the natural and cultural environment of these indigenous peoples.

Mining companies are also able to violate the environmental rights of indigenous peoples because Russia’s law on small indigenous peoples does not contain the concept of free, prior, and informed consent to all actions concerning territories where communities reside. According to the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, the principle of free, prior, and informed consent is a necessary condition for managing any activity relating to traditional lands, territories where indigenous peoples live, and resources indigenous communities use in their daily lives.

The lack of strict norms protecting the situation of indigenous peoples living on their ancestral lands leads to violations of the right to land, the right to a healthy environment, and the right to the self-determination and cultural development of indigenous peoples. These violations are systemic. The Russian government must respect and protect indigenous rights in accordance with its international obligations.


As Miners Chase Clean-Energy Minerals, Tribes Fear a Repeat of the Past

Mining the minerals that may be needed for a green energy revolution could devastate tribal lands. The Biden administration will be forced to choose.

YELLOW PINE, Idaho — Net in hand, Louis Reuben waded into the frigid waters where his ancestors once fished, long before Idaho’s rivers were dammed and contaminated, before the Nez Perce were driven off their land when white miners struck gold.

“They used to say you could walk across the river on the backs of salmon,” he said one rainy autumn morning as he tallied and measured the depleted stocks of young Chinook salmon that hatch in these mountain creeks. “Now, it’s totally different. It’s devastating, if you think about it.”

President Biden came into office vowing to safeguard Native American resources like these and uphold the rights of tribes that have endured generations of land theft and broken treaties. But in the rolling headwaters of central Idaho, where mining interests have long overrun tribal rights, the administration’s promise is colliding with one of its other priorities: starting a revolution in renewable energy to confront climate change.

Deep in the Salmon River Mountains, an Idaho mining company, Perpetua Resources, is proposing a vast open-pit gold mine that would also produce 115 million pounds of antimony — an element that may be critical to manufacturing the high-capacity liquid-metal batteries of the future.

As it seeks the Biden administration’s approval for its mining plans on federal lands, Perpetua is waging an aggressive campaign to cast itself as an ally in a new clean-energy economy. It says its Stibnite Gold Project would be the only American mine to produce antimony, which now largely comes from China, and would supply the metal to a Bill Gates-backed start-up that makes batteries that could one day store energy on solar-powered electricity grids.

“It’s responsible, modern mining,” Mckinsey Lyon, a Perpetua vice president, said as she led a tour up to the dormant mining site, still contaminated by decades of mining. She said Perpetua would clean up the mountainous basin while extracting “minerals our country needs for energy security.”

The Biden administration has warned that failing to expand the nation’s supply of rare-earth minerals, including antimony, could present a risk to the nation’s energy and military preparedness. But deposits of antimony in the United States, unlike the one in Idaho, are generally small, and some of them locked away in mines that have been shuttered for decades.

Perpetua has launched a Washington campaign to press its case. In Idaho, it has made direct promises of money to neighboring communities, contingent on the project’s success.

Residents in Yellow Pine support the proposed mine because of the employment opportunities it would bring to the area.
Residents in Yellow Pine support the proposed mine because of the employment opportunities it would bring to the area.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Members of the Nez Perce tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management track how many male and female coho salmon have returned to Lapwai Creek.
Members of the Nez Perce tribe’s Department of Fisheries Resources Management track how many male and female coho salmon have returned to Lapwai Creek.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The clean-energy public relations campaign is the newest threat to the Nez Perce, who for generations have watched fish populations decline and pollution rise. Mining interests drove them out of their homelands and fouled their rivers and ancestral hunting grounds. For a community trying to preserve its culture and kinship with the territory, an effort that has involved millions of dollars invested in restoring fish stocks, the proposed mine represents another existential threat.

A review by the Environmental Protection Agency found that Perpetua’s initial plan for a 20-year operation would inflict “disproportionately high and adverse impacts” on tribes, according to a November 2020 letter from the agency, and environmental groups have warned that the mine could damage or destroy huge swaths of fish habitat.

The Nez Perce are not alone. Across the American West, tribal nations are on the front lines of a new debate over how to balance the needs and costs of clean energy. Extracting the fuels of the future is a process that is often far from clean, and just as fights over the environmental costs of oil exploration helped define the fossil fuel era, conflicts like this one are creating the battle lines of the next energy revolution.

The push to unearth new minerals presents a hard choice for the Biden administration in politically divided Western states where mining remains an important source of jobs and political power. The choices are destined to grow more challenging as commodities like lithium, copper, cobalt and antimony become more valuable, and critical to the nation’s future.

Perpetua says its Idaho mine holds enough antimony to one day power a million homes using hulking batteries that would capture and release energy created by solar farms. Perpetua and its partner, the battery-maker Ambri, say the batteries would last for 20 years and lose little of their power-storing capacity over their lifetimes, potentially revolutionizing America’s power grids.

But the batteries are a new technology that have yet to prove their effectiveness in the real world. And it will likely be at least another five years before any Perpetua project is able to deliver any antimony to be made into batteries.

In the Santa Rita Mountains in Arizona, a Canadian mining company that is seeking federal approval to dig an open-pit mine over the objections of the Tohono O’odham, Pascua Yaqui and Hopi people has said its copper will provide “the key element to our green energy future.”

The tribes say the mines would damage their hunting and fishing lands, siphon scarce water and desecrate burial grounds and ceremonial sites.

In Nevada, the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone are protesting a mining company’s efforts to blast apart a dormant volcano to dig for lithium — a critical mineral used in batteries for electric cars. In the Big Sandy River Valley in Arizona, another lithium mining project could destroy a hot spring considered sacred by the Hualapai Tribe.

An hour outside of Phoenix, leaders of the San Carlos Apache have been reaching out to Democratic leaders to stop a copper mining project that the tribe says would destroy a swath of sacred ground called Oak Flat. The British-Australian mining giant Rio Tinto wants to dig an underground copper mine that would create a mile-wide crater in the earth, which Apache people say would destroy land where they pray and hold four-day ceremonies to usher girls into womanhood.

The Biden administration delayed the project by withdrawing an environmental review that was fast-tracked in the final days of the Trump administration. But the tribe wants the project killed.

Terry Rambler, chairman of the San Carlos Apache, said he had been calling Mr. Biden and Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose agency oversees the Tonto National Forest where the proposed mining site sits. The tribe has vested special hopes in persuading Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, the first Native American cabinet secretary, to intervene.

“There’s a lot of hope and trust in her,” Mr. Rambler said.

Environmental groups worry that the mine could be devastating to fish habitat in the area.
Environmental groups worry that the mine could be devastating to fish habitat in the area.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Biden administration already has put limits on exploration, going to court to disrupt the Pebble Mine project in Alaska and barring new oil and gas leases in Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Other projects are also getting renewed scrutiny, but the administration has not closed any doors.

Steve Feldgus, the Interior Department’s deputy assistant secretary for land and minerals management, said in a statement that the department was committed to building a clean-energy economy while also protecting communities.

“We recognize that as demand for clean energy technology increases over the short- and medium-term, an increased supply of critical minerals and materials will be necessary to meet national and global climate goals,” he said. The agency will be engaging with a variety of groups, including tribes, to “ensure critical minerals production is sustainable and responsible,” he said.

Members of the San Carlos Apache and other tribes have filed lawsuits to fight the mines, but they face a legal system forged by century-old laws and court decisions that have favored the mining companies.

Federal mining law grants private companies enormous power to stake claims and dig on public lands, often despite arguments that mines violate treaty-guaranteed rights to fish, hunt and collect plants. Tribal members have also tried unsuccessfully to argue that mines would illegally prevent them from praying and practicing their religions on sacred public lands.

But the legal ground may be shifting. A 2020 Supreme Court decision expanded tribal sovereignty in Oklahoma and ordered the federal government to uphold the commitments it made in treaties with the Muscogee (Creek) Nation. Under the decision, the State of Oklahoma could lose its power to oversee coal mining on tribal lands, and tribes elsewhere are making reinvigorated legal arguments that proposed mines violate their treaty rights.

“They should have a decisive say on any federal action that impacts their people, their land, their territories and especially their sacred sites,” said Fawn Sharp, president of the National Congress of American Indians.

In Idaho, a 19th-century treaty between the Nez Perce and the U.S. government could prove critical to the fight against the Stibnite Gold Project.

Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Mark Wilson, a hatchery maintenance supervisor, passes a female fall Chinook salmon that is ready to spawn into a holding trough at the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery Complex.
Mark Wilson, a hatchery maintenance supervisor, passes a female fall Chinook salmon that is ready to spawn into a holding trough at the Nez Perce Tribal Hatchery Complex.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

The Nez Perce historically had a network of villages across some 16 million acres, from the ridge of the Bitterroot Mountains in the east to the Blue Mountains in the west. But as settlers poured in along the Oregon Trail, the federal government and the Nez Perce struck a treaty in 1855.

The Nez Perce gave up about half of their ancestral lands while retaining a right to hunt and fish in their “usual and accustomed places.”

Soon after, though, gold was discovered within the reservation. With prospectors flocking to the region, the U.S. government initiated a new treaty negotiation that shrank the reservation by 90 percent. Among the Nimiipuu, as tribe members refer to themselves, the 1863 agreement became known as the Steal Treaty.

With dams, mining, pollution and development now spread through much of the land, salmon, the signature species that has always been a bedrock of the environment in the Pacific Northwest, are struggling. Just 44 adult sockeye salmon completed the 900-mile journey this year from the Pacific Ocean to the Sawtooth Basin in Idaho. The Nez Perce now spend millions of dollars each year on restoration efforts, with hatcheries, testing and trucks to carry salmon past dams that produce some of the region’s hydroelectric power.

The Idaho mountain basin at the center of the latest fight is currently a dormant gash in the Payette National Forest.

The mine, in the ghost town of Stibnite, once produced gold and metals that hardened American munitions and armor in World War II. It now reflects the legacy of thousands of shuttered mines that have polluted waterways and soil across the West. Heaps of mine waste are contaminated with arsenic and heavy metals. A flooded mining pit slices a portion of the South Fork Salmon River in two, preventing fish from swimming upstream.

Perpetua has won over many nearby residents by promising to repair the damage done by more than a century of mining. It says it will restore creeks now channeled into rock-lined ditches and reconnect the severed section of river so fish can swim freely. There have been years of cleanup efforts at the site, but Perpetua says it alone is willing to undertake a full-scale restoration that could cost $100 million.

A stretch of Meadow Creek, which has been contaminated by waste from 20th century mining operations, is seen near the Stibnite Gold Project site
A stretch of Meadow Creek, which has been contaminated by waste from 20th century mining operations, is seen near the Stibnite Gold Project siteCredit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Willie Sullivan stands outside his home in Yellow Pine.
Willie Sullivan stands outside his home in Yellow Pine.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

“Nobody wants it in their backyard,” said Willie Sullivan, who manages the water system in the tiny nearby village of Yellow Pine. “But have the environmentalists stopped using phones or computers? The things that are required to develop these modern technologies all come from the ground.”

The Nez Perce and environmental activists say the mine will do lasting damage over the next 20 years.

Perpetua would vastly increase the footprint of the mine, digging three pits hundreds of feet deep. It would divert creeks and a river, potentially harming more than 20 percent of the area’s salmon and trout habitat, according to analyses by environmental critics. (The company disputes those assessments and says it would actually increase salmon habitat by restoring damaged rivers.) The Environmental Protection Agency has said the mine could produce mercury pollution and long-lasting contamination in the streams and groundwater.

Mining machinery on site will crush millions of tons of ore, then use cyanide to extract the gold. The waste, a contaminated sludge of 100 million tons of earth and water, will be stored in a mountain valley behind a 450-foot rock dam. Perpetua says it is a secure design, fortified by liners and a huge rock buttress, but a spill or leak could harm fragile fish populations and do long-term environmental damage.

To transport thousands of construction workers, miners and support crews to a remote site up twisting, rutted dirt roads, Perpetua plans to carve a new road on the fringes of pristine wilderness. Heavy trucks will make dozens of trips every day for years. Some residents who have watched drivers lose control and tumble down the mountains, their trucks landing in the streams, say they are terrified about the environmental consequences of a roadside spill.

Perpetua has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars wooing nearby communities and burnishing its image as a mining company that can help produce the technology to wean America off fossil fuels.

The company’s largest shareholder is the billionaire investor John Paulson, a supporter of former President Donald J. Trump, but Perpetua has reached across the aisle to lobby politicians in Washington. The company has spent $200,000 on Washington, D.C., lobbying, retaining the services of a former Obama energy-policy official and an aide to former Senator Harry Reid, a powerful Nevada Democrat with deep ties to the mining industry.

The company has also gone to unusual lengths to build support in local communities. It brought a plan to local officials promising to award grants from a nonprofit foundation it created to support community projects, with the company contributing more funds each time the project reached a new milestone — after getting federal approval, after getting final permits, after starting construction and after starting production.

Colby Nielsen, the council president in the town of McCall, said that many locals were opposed to the project, and that he felt the company’s proposal was improper.

“I think the benefit agreement was just their attempt to buy people off, essentially, in a legal way,” Mr. Nielsen said.

Downtown Cascade, Idaho, a town that would receive financial support from the mine if the project moves forward.
Downtown Cascade, Idaho, a town that would receive financial support from the mine if the project moves forward.Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

McCall did not sign on to the agreement. But a series of other local communities did. The mayor of Cascade wrote that the project could bring “some much-needed economic stimulus.” Officials in Adams County wrote that the project “will provide substantial benefits.”

Idaho’s Republican-controlled Legislature is also supporting the project.

In interviews in the tiny town of Yellow Pine, residents said they supported the mine’s promises to create hundreds of jobs and clean up decades of environmental contamination.

The company’s charity has given $30,000 in grants to Yellow Pine — to build a helipad, to improve the dirt roads, to help the volunteer Fire Department upgrade its hoses and fittings. Residents said the company has included them in planning discussions and listened to their concerns about truck traffic.

“You do have a sense of, ‘Am I being bribed into this?’” said Merrill Saleen, deputy chief of the Yellow Pine Fire Department, which applied for $17,000 in grants from the company. “But it is without strings.”

The U.S. Forest Service, which has the authority to greenlight the mine, is conducting another environmental review of the project after the company changed its mining plans. An earlier analysis released during the Trump administration was criticized by conservation groups and other federal agencies as flawed and full of holes. The Trump administration had allowed the company, then known as Midas Gold, to write the biological assessment for its own project.

“The Forest Service continues to work with the mine proponent, cooperating agencies and other stakeholders regarding concerns about fisheries and aquatic-related issues,” the Forest Service said in a statement. The agency said it was “making every effort to mitigate for concerns expressed by the tribes.”

Perpetua says its updated plans would shrink the size of the site by about 13 percent and reduce higher water temperatures — which can be deadly for fish — by planting trees and bushes. The new environmental analysis is expected early next year, and could be the starting point for years of lawsuits and regulatory fights.

A group of children attend a contemporary powwow dance class at Lapwai High School on the Nez Perce Reservation. 
A group of children attend a contemporary powwow dance class at Lapwai High School on the Nez Perce Reservation. Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times
Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, in Lapwai. 
Shannon Wheeler, vice chairman of the Nez Perce Tribal Executive Committee, in Lapwai. Credit…Tamir Kalifa for The New York Times

Along the banks of the Clearwater River, Shannon Wheeler, the Nez Perce vice chairman, walked next to a pair of hatchery pools, watching salmon as they flopped in the water, acclimating to the water conditions and preparing for a journey out to the ocean. Just up the gravel road was another pool, filled with larger salmon that had made it home. But they were covered in white fungus, scarred by the challenges of traveling through dams and a river warmed by an extreme heat wave stoked by climate change.

The tribe’s stories tell of how the salmon saved the Nez Perce, Mr. Wheeler said. Those stories have been passed through generations, affirming a bond and an ancient covenant with the salmon.

“Salmon saved us,” Mr. Wheeler said. “When he saved us, he also said that he would give himself to us, and when he gave himself to us, he would lose his voice. And so then we would have to be his voice.”