July 10, 2017
Hostilities have long persisted between Nevada's mining companies and the state's Native American population. That was particularly true in the Elko area in the early years of this century.
"There were many many years of bad, difficult communications with Placer Dome, which had a different way of approaching the concerns of the Western Shoshone," remembers Brian Mason, a member of the Western Shoshone, and now program manager of Native American Affairs for Barrick Gold Corporation.
Mason began his work in mining with Placer Dome's environmental restoration department.
Whenever Placer Dome opened the permitting process for a project, which includes public comment, it faced 200 to 300 objections from tribal members, he said. That led to lawsuits and court delays.
"I could see the struggle," he told the NNBW while in Reno for the interview. "They were not talking to each other, they were talking past each other."
Mason joined Toronto-based Barrick in 2005 after the company began the process to acquire Placer Dome, which purchase was finalized in 2006.
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Barrick immediately set out to develop a program similar to the cooperative agreements in Canada between mining companies and that country's First Nations population.
Mason was in the right place at the right time.
"It was important the person to do the new position be a Native American. But I had to get an education in mining," Mason said.
"Look at the traditional lands of the Western Shoshone, that's where (Barrick has) properties; in the heart of that."
Mason toured Barrick's Canadian holdings, talking to tribes and mining personnel about their agreements. He took the best ideas and helped craft a collaborative agreement with the Western Shoshone. Barrick officials and Western Shoshone leaders in eight tribes and bands signed the agreement in 2008. It's the first of its kind in the lower 48 states, Mason said.
The program provides educational benefits, employment opportunities, and other social programs, including an award-winning program to teach the Shoshone's native language to the tribe's youth.
The agreement promises that Barrick will meet with the tribes on a quarterly basis to discuss issues and that tribal members can travel through mining properties.
And most importantly, Mason said, the tribes "have the right not to give up the right to object to projects."
The first few years of the collaborative agreement were difficult.
"They were not fun. They were not pretty," Mason said.
That slowly changed as the tribal members realized they really did have a voice.
"The last four years, there have been no confrontations. There might be comments, but they are respectful," he said. "We've had very good dialog for the last four years. Without a doubt, it's improved relations."
And the agreement has paid off for the mining company. No objections were filed during the last two permitting projects.
"Zero comments means zero delays," Mason said, adding that delays cost money.
The agreement also has paid off for the eight participating tribes, which have a combined population of about 8,500.
Before the program, one colony had a high school graduation rate of only 6 percent, Mason said. This year, 47 tribal members graduated from college.
"It's night and day," he said. "We are fast becoming the most educated tribe."
Each year, Barrick hires 20 tribal members to intern for the mining company, but also helps those with different goals
"We have mining interns, but 90 percent of the students in the tribe are not studying mining disciplines," Mason explained. "Why not intern them in their tribes?"
It's a concept that has great benefits for the tribes and their youth.
Barrick funds each tribe so it can employ every student between the ages of 14 and 18 to do work for the tribe. Those students learn so-called soft job skills such as punctuality and hygiene, which open up job opportunities in their future.
"Now we're hiring college grads. They're engineers, metallurgists," he said.
"They are learning skills and coming back here and being productive, paying taxes."
A large number, 35 percent, of tribal members hired by Barrick are women, he said.
"Globally, the number of women in mining is about 12 percent."
With entry level jobs at Barrick running about $60,000 a year, the youth of the tribes see that they can have a future.
"It puts the burden on the youth" to take advantage of the opportunities, Mason said. "They can't just lie around. They all have opportunity.
"It's a heck of a program, I wonder why it hadn't been done before."
The tribe's youth aren't the only ones getting training. Mason also trains mine employees about the tribe's traditions and values.
"If a company doesn't have that training, it's not going to be as accepted."
The collaborative agreement between the Western Shoshone tribes in northeastern Nevada and Barrick has opened doors for both entities.
"As a tribal member," Mason said, "no other company is doing anything on that kind of scale.