They shall be remembered forever
They shall be alive forever
They shall be speaking forever
The people shall hear them forever
The deep darkness and ever-present horror of the American genocide of the First Nations of California during the gold rush of the 19 century colours everything. The following reflections on the Sierra Funds ‘Reclaiming the Sierras’ conference in April 2015 will not be an attempt to educate on the murky history of California. I am not qualified to do so. The original people of California where not the only First Nations people to suffer in the name of ‘Coyote Piss’, the descriptor used when talking about gold. But for the sake of this article I will keep my focus to California. As an outsider observing the historical trauma that was carried out against the First Nations I simply cannot rehearse it here. What it does re-enforce for me as a jeweller, an activist and anti-poverty campaigner, is the simple fact that gold is not a neutral product and the way it is removed from the ground is never benign.
The Yuba gold fields remain an emasculated tundra of toxicity and mine waste. Even now, 150 years after the gold rush, life is struggling to return. The scale of the devastation cannot be put into words – only breathed in like a noxious fume, to be cleansed in the crucible of The Sierra Fund’s good intentions and exhaled as hope for a cleaner future. The Sierra Fund educated guess is that there is 19 to 21 million pounds of mercury caught up behind the dams throughout the Sierra’s watersheds. Naturally the consequences of this are considerable, especially on fish stocks and the subsequent health of local populations who eat fish. Standing in the Yuba fields is not however, some form of existential historical identification with a less enlightened history. It is the awakening of the very real present day toxic legacy being delivered in the name of gold. Generations to come in the Amazon, the Congo, Mongolia, Uganda, where grinding poverty and the politics of daily bread drive small-scale miners to work marginal gold deposits using mercury to amalgam their small amounts of gold with their bare hands, will reap the toxic whirlwind being sown in to our world’s eco-systems. Mercury usage in gold mining continues to be the most disturbing practice I witness in my work with impoverished gold mining communities. It was poignant as I gazed out over the sparse grass lands of Yuba, that the Californian Poppy danced in the light breeze. A reminder that on American fields, like their European counterparts from World War 1’s Somme and Flanders fields, the poppy remains a sign of pathos and hope in the midst of such great tragedy.
The challenge the Sierra Fund has set itself is not easy, in fact it is deeply complex, a truly unprecedented challenge in my experience. What started as an idea to restore the ancient salmon runs of the Sierra’s that had been blocked off by the building of dams across the rivers. Why build dams? To hold back the vast amounts of mining waste that was being dumped into the rivers and polluting and flooding pasture and agricultural lands further downstream.
This restoration of salmon runs led to the environmental remediation of the mercury from the watersheds given the high quantities of mercury that had built up behind the dams. I am no scientist, hydrologist or dam engineer, but I hazard a guess that removing the mercury from the silted dams will prove an impressive and complex process in and of itself. An environmental challenge that the Californian authorities now recognise as an example of true citizenship. It is scandalous that given the evidence of mercury toxicity still leaching into the river system from old gold mines like Malakoff Diggins, the authorities have done NOTHING. But I guess this is more reflection on our own societal failings, given we know politicians are impotent to change for the common good. In applauding the Sierra Fund for picking up the eco challenge of mercury remediation, they file themselves away in the archives of political impotency.
However the other visceral dynamic at work here is the genocidal history of the First Nations and their raw, traumatic and every present relationship with Coyote Piss. It was the gold that led to their particularly horrific removal from the landscape. How the Sierra Fund square this historical injustice with the clean up of toxicity and restoration of salmon runs is anyone’s guess. The principle by-product of mercury remediation will be gold. Fantastic I hear the greedy gold miners shout, but a note of caution. If remediation leads to another rush to mine gold using the green halo effect to claim being an environmentally responsible gold mining company, without recourse to the bloody history and recompense being paid to those Nations that survived, they will be adding deeper humiliation and injustice upon the nations already living under the constant dis-inheritance of land because of gold. Whatever happens to this gold, it must be used to bless and beneficiate the First Nations, before it enriches private companies and stock holders. This is natural justice. Whether the First Nations will accept this remains to be seen and is part of the hard work the Sierra Fund are undertaking as they seek to create the worlds most powerful and desirable Origin of Denomination gold brand.
This is a gold I would be proud to use. A gold product that pays reparations to First Nations, cleans up the toxic stain of large-scale environmentally devastating gold mining and is used to create a redemptive story about gold that we can actually be proud of. To this end I have offered to design a jewellery collection that will not only use the gold from this source, but will also be used to support the work of the Sierra Fund in mercury remediation. If I can do anything with my Valerio Jewellery brand, this is it. Subvert the luxury jewellery narrative and introduce a more honest and truthful story. I think this is what jewellery should be about. Talisman’s telling the truth.
Written after the Sierra Fund Conference – April 2015
To define gold in pure economic terms is facile and profoundly deceptive. It makes me realise that organisations like the politically constructed World Gold Council – the trade body that represents the world’s biggest gold mining corporations – is a morally and ethically shallow boat plagued with gold fever. WGC consider the mature stage of modern gold mining started with the 19 century gold rush in California (click here for more info). Little has changed in their ideology, I have personally witnessed large-scale mining’s devastation of entire mountains, crushing and leaching these mountains through cyanide, the rape of those eco-systems from which the financial wealth is used to enrich elite minorities. Their only reason for existence is to greedily accumulate money at the expense of everything else – this is apparently called civilization and economic development. LSM gold mining is the dark soul of capitalism. It’s rapacious greed is a manifestation of its corporate spirituality. The hydraulic mining that so devastated the Sierra’s in the 19 century, was the beginning of this modern type of mining and was guilty of the genocide of the First Nations people of California. A part of the modern-day gold mining story WGC and others wish to avoid at all costs. A very interesting foundation to modern gold mining techniques.
I appreciate that identifying with marginal voices and glossed over injustices, or coming out and saying that large-scale gold mining is socially irrelevant and no longer a required industrial activity, will be damaging to my reputation as a jeweller. It may have a detrimental effect on my income and may push me further into the bracket of radical activist who consistently backs the losing horse. But I cannot ignore the voices I heard in California, when they said ‘Coyote Piss killed us’. I stand as a witness to this truth.