The narrow gulch didn’t offer much space to lay out a town site.
Old historic photos from the late 1870s show log and tent framed structures straddling the muddy trail, which became Main Street.
Only a couple of side streets paralleled it at its widest point. After that houses haphazardly found perches on the steep sides of the hills flanking Deadwood, South Dakota.
At the peak of the gold rush, which sparked its growth, Deadwood held only about 5,000 people, or just a sixth of that of Dawson City during its heyday two decades later.
The reason for this was that Lead higher up the trail, neighbouring Central City and other smaller mining camps in the vicinity took their share of the gold seekers, merchants and less reputable hangers-on.
We remember Deadwood probably because of the host colourful characters, real and imagined, who occupied it during its riotous rush days.
Back in 1968, I had my chance to spend some quality time with the likes of Wild Bill Hickok, Calamity Jane Canary and other Deadwood residents from the 1870s and 1880s.
Mount Moriah Cemetery, Deadwood’s Boot Hill, sits just east and a steep climb up from the current brick-fronted establishments along Main Street. It hosts notorious and common folk alike.
Project Christopher, a Canadian-American youth service group I had spent a couple of summers with back then, took on a day-long volunteer project of weeding untended Mt. Moriah gravesites.
Below us only RVs and tour buses created mayhem in the streets. You still could hear gunshots, though, but they came from a daily tourist season re-enactment of the Trial of Jack McCall. McCall was the ruffian who shot Hickok in Saloon No.10.
The residents of Mt. Moriah could tell many other tales of lawlessness.
A retelling must start with the Treaty of Laramie in 1868 between the Lakota Sioux and the US government.
It guaranteed the Lakotas ownership of the Black Hills. They held the Paha Sapa as they called them, sacred.
When the Custer Expedition of 1874 confirmed rumours of gold in the hills the rush was on. The treaty was scrapped igniting hostilities with the Sioux and allied first peoples.
Mining codes and other legal niceties were drawn up to suit the strong-armed interests of the moment.
Greed trumped any other consideration such as indigenous rights.
The lawless days that filled Deadwood’s Boot Hill are long over.
Those days aren’t history in scores of mining sites around the world though.
Last week, Sandra Cuffe of Rights Action (www.rightsaction.org) and Steven Schnoor, a PhD candidate from York/Ryerson Universities, finished a three-month, cross continental solidarity and education tour in Montreal where I heard them.
Their talk focused on current Canadian mining projects in Guatemala and Honduras.
The former INCO nickel project at El Estor, Guatemala, now run by Skye Resources of Vancouver through its subsidiary Compañía Guatemalteca de Níquel with the continued participation and land title control of the CVRD of Brazil-owned INCO occupied most of the presentation.
The corporate shell game suits the lax Guatemalan legal regime where “impunity is the rule,” Schnoor notes.
After all, mining interests virtually dictated the national mining code under which the Guatemalan government initially gave EXMIBAL, a subsidiary of INCO, a 40-year nickel mining concession covering 385 square kilometres on the north shore of Lake Izabal, which Skye Resources has conveniently inherited.
Falling nickel prices and the high cost of oil required fire their smelter forced the EXMIBAL to mothball the mine in 1981.
The indigenous Q’eqchi people whose territory the mine occupies never surrendered their rights to the land.
From the start they were very vocal in their opposition to mining on their traditional territory.
Their opposition cost them dearly.
According to two “truth commission” reports following in the bloody wake of decades of military rule, the United Nations and the Human Rights Office of the Archbishop of Guatemala both found INCO “complicit in grave human rights violations against opponents of the mining project,” according to a Mining Watch article (www.miningwatch.ca).
High nickel prices have again spurred interest in the project.
Cuffe and Schnoor reported on forced evictions in January of Q’eqchi villagers from traditional lands that they had reoccupied.
When challenged, government officials could produce no proof that Skye Resources actually had any legitimate right to the land.
Steven Schnoor documented the tearing down and burning of homes by mine employees in a widely viewed video which can be seen on the Rights Action website.
The current Canadian ambassador to Guatemala, Kenneth Cook, quickly launched a disinformation campaign in response.
This shows that the embassy serves as “a PR machine that supports Canadian mining interest in Guatemala,” contends Schnoor.
Whether environmental harm reduction, basic human rights or just wise use of public funds is at stake a legitimate, democratically determined rule of law must prevail.
A lawless frontier mentality is not acceptable anymore for mining, or anything else.