Native Americans Bear the Nuclear Burden

by Andreas Knudsen

Reprinted from Indigenous Affairs. Published by the International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs.

NATIVE COMMUNITIES, primarily in the western US, have been chronically exposed to low doses of radiation for over forty years. This exposure derives from the many nuclear activities on indigenous lands such as uranium mining and milling, uranium conversion and enrichment, and testing of nuclear weapons. More than one half of all US uranium deposits lie under reservation land. In the past, the Secretary of the Interior was authorized to lease tribal mineral resources for national defense purposes. In return for mining rights, the large energy consortiums have historically paid royalty fees and employed Indians in substandard working conditions.

Although native communities bear a disproportionate burden of risk from those activities compared to the general public, they are in many ways the least equipped communities to respond appropriately. Information on exposures and their health effects is often inadequate, incomplete, inaccessible and incomprehensible. The environmental consequences of uranium mining, atomic bomb testing and production, and radioactive waste disposal on or near reservation lands have often been disastrous. Estimates conclude that over 22,000,000 tons of mine tailings or waste by-products have been left at 24 locations in nine western states since the 1950s and that 220 acres of tailings have contaminated the Four Corners region alone. This article looks at the cases of two nations—the Western Shoshone and the Pauite-Shoshone of Ft. McDermitt.

The Western Shoshone Nation

Because of the long-term use of the Nevada Test Site (NTS), which is located on traditional Shoshone land, the Western Shoshone nation has become known as the most bombed nation on earth. The 928 American and 19 British nuclear explosions in Newe Sogobia have been classified by the Western Shoshone National Council (WSNC) as bombs rather than “tests.” The purpose of a bomb is to destroy while the idea of a test is to introduce something new. About 1,350 square miles of their total territory of about 43,000 square miles has been destroyed by hundreds of craters and tunnels, which are uncontrolled underground nuclear waste dumps, by nuclear bombs since 1951 when the bombing began. But no treaty, agreement, vote or sale exists that give the US permission to explode nuclear bombs on or under the Western Shoshone Nation. The Treaty of Ruby Valley of 1863, signed by representatives of the US and the Western Shoshone and ratified by the US Senate in 1866 and confirmed by President Grant in 1869, recognized Shoshone territorial sovereignty. The treaty did not transfer ownership rights and is till in effect. But through a variety of ethically and legally dubious methods, land was taken from the reservation. US authorities in the form of the Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, Park Service, Fish and Wildlife, Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Defense, Department of Transportation, etc., control now approximately 90 per cent of the Shoshone land.

Environmental monitoring reports for the NTS from the 1950s until 1991 document substantial low level releases of radioactive iodine, strontium, cesium, plutonium and noble gases that have contaminated lands in Nevada and Utah. The Western Shoshone reservations, Duckwater and Ely are within a fifty-mile radius of the NTS and were more heavily contaminated. Residents reported unusual animal deaths, hair loss and gardens turning black. The health of the population still remains at high risk from cancers and birth defects. Despite these facts, the US government has now designated an area of the Western Shoshone Nation, known as Yucca Mountain, to become the final repository for the high level nuclear waste from the US nuclear industry. The Department of Energy (DOE) estimates that its scientific investigation of the site will be concluded by 2001, at a cost of $6.3 billion (year-of-expenditure dollars) and a repository could be opened by 2010. The DOE is no longer looking for another site. Although the tribe is very concerned about observed health and environmental effects, there are no official health studies under way, no offers to remedy environmental pollution, no programs for early detection of disease or disease surveillance in place.

In order to collect data on the effects of nuclear fallout from the NTS, WSNC started its own project in 1994. The main goal of the Western Shoshone Health Project is to provide data on the state of the land, soil, water, plants as well as the health of the people. This project is part of the Native American Health Network. Various organizations such as the Childhood Cancer Research Institute (CCRI) and Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) work together in that network. They targeted the Western Shoshone and Paiute communities in the Great Basin among their highest priorities.

The overarching goal of the project is to begin proactive steps to correct the imbalance of risk by fostering a better understanding of radiation health issues among members of Native American communities to meet growing concerns about past and ongoing exposures. The communities will be empowered to obtain appropriate health protection and community controls for the future. A part of the project is the Training of Trainers program. This is a comprehensive, integrated program of training and technical assistance for the purpose of empowering native people to protect their communities and nations by arming them with an understanding of critical social and technical radiation issues directly affecting their health and environment. The program will create a unique partnership between researchers, health care providers and native communities by promoting a combination of indigenous thinking coupled with technical skills. The community trainers will take technical information, processes and techniques and translate them into a cost effective approach for the communities by developing education modules. The modules will be utilized by the community trainers for educating community members on the issues. Beyond this, the general research goal will be to use existing data resources to compile important information on off-site exposures for the communities, including those exposures to and from specific environmental or food chain pathways. Health scientists from the Center for Technology, Environment and Development (CENTED) at Clark University, Worcester, MA, are maintaining a dialogue with the community as their research is carried out so that they may benefit from local knowledge and experiences. For example, the Western Shoshones have indicated that mule deer, sheep, rabbits and pine nuts are main sources of subsistence for their people. As such, research on the up-take of radionuclides to these animals and roots are of much interest to them. They also mentioned several nuclear tests that they were particularly concerned about. Such community input will guide the scientists’ research, help to prioritize data collection and lead them to investigate other related issues of concern.

The Issue of the Ft. McDermitt Pauite-Shoshone–Background

The Quinn River Band of the northern Pauite originally inhabited the lands of the current Fort McDermitt Indian Reservation. As a result of the Indian Reorganization Act (IRA) of 1934, the members of the tribe adopted a Constitution and Federal Corporate Charter, and became the federally recognized Fort McDermitt Paiute-Shoshone Tribe. As for many other tribes, the adopting of an IRA Constitution and Corporate Charter was to terminate the Tribe’s traditional form of government and dispute resolution. It also established a republican form of government and court system. The IRA also imposed tribal laws codified in the Tribe’s constitution and federal Corporate Charter which tribal and federal officials neither take into consideration in their deliberations nor abide by. Furthermore, the IRA allowed the federal government more authority in intra- and intertribal affairs.

The tribe originally comprised a much larger land base, but a large part was taken away by dubious methods. Eventually, a Land Claims Commission was established to dictate monetary settlements, which many tribal members accepted. However, as many as two or three dozen of the more traditional families would not accept any monetary compensation, believing that by doing so they would be relinquishing their inherent rights as indigenous peoples. But because they did not accept the money, they did not become enrolled tribal members. At the reservation there are now approximately 400 enrolled members and about 300 unenrolled. The MRS Localization Process

Because of the desperate economic situation at Ft. McDermitt reservation, the Tribal Council was willing to participate. Participation in that process means access to $100,000 in the first phase and $200,000 in the Phase II-A for feasibility studies and education.

Research for a Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) for nuclear fuel has a very high priority for the DOE. The 23,681 MT (metric tons) of nuclear fuel in 1992 and its growth is a pressing problem. The Nuclear Waste Negotiator (NWN), a federal agency working closely with the DOE, but accountable only to the President and Congress, has to find one or even more sites where the radioactive material can be deposited for the next 30 or 40 years before final storage, possibly at Yucca Mountain Repository.

NWN’s first attempt to establish an MRS in Tennessee failed because of the opposition of the State, the Governor and inhabitants. That is why NWN is now looking for sovereign volunteers. In May of 1991, the NWN sent a letter of introduction to all state and territorial governors, Tribal and Business Council governors, Tribal and Business Council chairpersons, and presidents of Pueblos and Native American Nations (both federally recognized and unrecognized). In June, feasibility assessment grants from the NWN Fund were authorized through the DOE. The size of the grants are determined by tribal conditions. Phase II-A offers an additional $200,000 for continued education and feasibility studies. All nine of the Phase II-A applications were held by Native American Nations, therefore, if a MRS is to be sited, it will be on an Indian reservation. Phase II-B offers up to $2.8 million to continue feasibility studies and education outreach, to enter into formal negotiations, identify potential sites and commence an environmental assessment. One has to remember that a volunteer participant can drop out of the MRS process at any time and without any explanation. At the time of writing, the Mescalero Apache and the Tonkawa Tribe of Oklahoma have voted down the plans of their Tribe Councils. But with the carrot or the stick tactics, the Apache’s Tribe Council persuaded the tribe to a new and, for the Council successful vote. In this way, the pressure on the Ft. McDermitt Pauite-Shoshone will increase too. The tribal supporters of MRS expect $60,000-$70,000 per capita payments per year. But in spite of their poverty, most tribal members are unwilling to trade their land for money under the MRS arrangement. Tribal member Dennis Smartt said: “If I sell my land, I break my connection with my heritage and I can never get that back.” Many tribal members have complained about a lack of credible information concerning the MRS project, including outright fabrications put forth by DOE promoters. The result of a mail-in-survey which was organized by Citizen Alert shows that 77 per cent of tribal members are opposed to the project. Tribal members ousted four pro-MRS incumbents in the November 1993 election but the Tribal Council is still in favour of the MRS.

Grace Thorpe, who is the Sac and Fox Tribal Health Commissioner and daughter of the legendary athlete Jim Thorpe, stated to the National Congress of American Indians, “The nuclear waste issue is causing mental and possibly genocidal decisions regarding the future of our people. It is wrong to say that it is natural that we, as Native Americans, should accept radioactive waste on our lands, as the US Department of Energy has said. It is a perversion of our beliefs and an insult to our intelligence to say that we are natural stewards of these wastes.”

For further information, please contact:

Western Shoshone National Council (WSNC) P.O. Box 210 Indian Springs, NV 89018-0210 Phone/fax: 702-879-5203

Western Shoshone Health Project Citizen Alert Native American Program (CANAP) Attn. Virginia Sanchez P.O. Box 5339 Reno, NV 89513 Phone: 702-827-5511 Fax: 702-827-4299

Andreas Knudsen is a member of the IWGIA Danish National Group.

“The International Work Group for Indigenous Affairs (IWGIA) is an independent, international organization which supports indigenous peoples in their struggle against oppression.” IWGIA publishes Indigenous Affairs four times a year. Subscriptions in 1996 are US $30 for individuals and US $50 for institutions. Contact: International Secretariat, IWGIA, Fiolstraede 10, DK-1171, Copenhagen K, Denmark. E-mail

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