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Nature, Natives, and Technology
An Interview with Winona LaDuke
Winona LaDuke is an Anishinaabe, in English, known as a Chippewa or Ojibwe Indian who works with a number of native and environmental organizations. A Radcliffe graduate, she currently lives on the White Earth Reservation in Northern Minnesota, where she is working for an end to acid rain, for clean water, and for the secession of the North American wild-rice bowl, which is the Anishinaabe treaty area. She talked with Science for the People about the problems uranium mining has caused native peoples.
SftP: In what ways does uranium mining affect native peoples?
LaDuke: Let’s start with an example. In 1952, the Anaconda Company discovered uranium at the village of Paguate on the Laguna Pueblo Reservation. Two decades later, Anaconda held claim to the largest uranium strip mine operating in the world. The Jackpile Mine provided the people of Laguna Pueblo with a healthy tribal treasury and much-needed employment. Then, in 1981, when the mining cycle inevitably turned from boom to bust, the Anaconda Company decided its job-along with the jobs of the Laguna-was finished. With the closure of the Jackpile Mine, the Laguna people face some stark problems, which, unlike their benefactor, the Anaconda Company, won’t disappear.
In 1973, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) came to visit the Laguna Pueblo and found that the Rio Paguate River was contaminated with radiation from the Jackpile Mine, as was most of the groundwater near the village of Paguate. During a second visit in 1975, the EPA found that, not only in Laguna Pueblo, but throughout the entire mining region of the Southwest the groundwater was heavily contaminated with radiation.
In 1978, when EPA officials returned for the last time, they determined that several of the buildings at the Pueblo were contaminated with radiation. The community center, the Jackpile Housing Project, and the tribal council headquarters had all been constructed with radioactive materials from the mine.
Because of the groundwater contamination, the drinking fountain at a nearby rest stop on highway I-40 has been fitted with a special water purifier, which removes particles of radionuclides. Visitors, people passing through, don’t have to worry about contamination, but the nontransient populations of Acoma, Laguna, and Dine (Navajo) Indians aren’t so lucky.
A young Acoma Indian, Manuel Pino, expressed his fears about radiation after one of the Acoma grandmothers died from bladder cancer. Most of the Acomas live to be almost a hundred but she died young. The only thing that could have caused it, he believed was the water-the radioactive water. It takes the old and the young first. In the past two years, other Acoma grandmothers had died, apparently from the same cause. “Their water is the same water,” he said, “the water that comes from that mine and those other mines west of the reservation. Uranium is a killer.”
SftP: How does the water become contaminated? By a slow process of rain leaching radioactive materials from tailing dumps?
LaDuke: That’s part of the problem, but there have also been major accidents at the uranium milling plants. The United Nuclear Company’s Churchrock accident, which followed Three Mile Island by four months, occurred when an impoundment dam busted open. One hundred million gallons of highly radioactive water and 1,100 tons of mill tailings were immediately released into the Rio Puerco River, near Grants, New Mexico. The company had known that the dam was faulty; it had cracked two years prior to the break.
The Dine community of Churchrock was immediately affected by the spill. Animals became so contaminated with radiation that their internal organs completely deteriorated. Since the Dine depended on the animals, particularly the sheep, for their subsistence, their supply of food as well as water was eliminated. Young children were brought to Los Alamos for radiation counts, but the studies were conducted inappropriately and inadequately. Disaster relief was nonexistent until the Kerr-McGee Company finally agreed to haul in water from its Grants headquarters.
Despite the fact that it was the worst spill of radioactive materials in U.S. history, the Churchrock accident received minimal press coverage. Perhaps the press and Kerr-McGee thought that, because the accident occurred in an area of low population, where radiation levels were already quite high, it was really not news. If the same spill had happened in a wealthy white community, the media might have responded differently.
But there’s irony there: because so little public attention focused on the United Nuclear Company’s Churchrock “booboo,” no one bothered to follow the flow of water from the Rio Puerco into the Little Colorado River, the Colorado River, and finally Lake Mead-which is a source of water for the mostly white, urban population living west of Las Vegas.
SftP: Presumably, Grants isn’t the only area where Native Americans have to drink contaminated water.
No, not at all. On the Pine Ridge Sioux Reservation in South Dakota, there’s serious contamination. Federal maximum acceptable radiation dosages are two picocuries per liter of water. Several areas of Pine Ridge average between 19 and 25 picocuries per liter. In December of 1979, 38% of all pregnancies on Pine Ridge resulted in miscarriages before the fifth month, or excessive hemorrhaging, and 60%-70% of the children who were born suffered breathing problems caused by underdeveloped lungs and jaundice. Francis Wise, a young Indian lawyer who works with women on the reservation, decided that they had to do something about it.
The women of Pine Ridge began door-to-door surveys and scientific investigations of their environment. In March of 1980, Women of All Red Nations (WARN), an organization based in the area, released a preliminary study. The WARN study indicated that the reservation water contained pollutants from virtually every imaginable source. A major source was the two hundred-gallon spillage of uranium wastes from an abandoned mill in the nearby town of Edgemont, combined with the runoff from carcinogenic defoliants used in the area. To complicate matters, Ellsworth Air Force Base, which uses one-eighth of the reservation land as a bombing range, was contributing its share of pollutants, all of which were flowing into the water the people drink.
Subsequent investigations and a series of Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests verified what WARN feared. Indian Health Service records obtained through the FOIA revealed that between 1971-1979, 314 babies had been born with birth defects in a total population of 12,500 Indians.
SftP: You’ve given some specific examples of how uranium mining has affected native peoples. Could you give us an idea of the scope of the problem nationwide or globally?
LaDuke: The major uranium deposits under production in the world today are in North America, and the U.S. and Canada are the two leading producers; most of the deposits are in Saskatchewan, Ontario, New Mexico, and Wyoming. Other major producers are South Africa and Namibia, followed by Australia.
Without exception, uranium is located on the remaining land base of the indigenous people of these areas; and, without exception, these people–either as uranium miners or as the settled population–are getting the hell radiated out of them.
Two-thirds of all North American uranium is located on or adjacent to Indian reservations. In aborginial Australia, the figures are the same. Millions of acres of Canadian reserves are under lease for mining exploration. In 1976 alone, more than 30,000 mineral claims were staked on these reserves, primarily for uranium.
Without this context, radiation poisoning is fast becoming the main food of native peoples. And-in the name of economic and military security -control, occupation, and guns are the butter on the bread of oppression required to maintain uranium production. In Namibia, for example, South Africa maintains 70,000 government troops. Part of their job is to ensure-in defiance of U.N. sanctions-that uranium continues to be mined there. In North America, too, police forces in the form of FBI or Bureau of Indian Affairs SWAT teams are periodically brought in to protect uranium deposits and reinforce security at the mines.
SftP: Would you say, then, that uranium mining is a major cause of the oppression of native peoples?
LaDuke: Uranium itself is not what downpresses native peoples. If that were the case, the downpression would be restricted both in area and in time-to the nuclear era. The downpression of native people is linked to the subjugation and exploitation of the Earth. With each subsequent generation, the techno-industrial system creates demands for more resources from the land. First it was land for agricultural crops, then for gold, then for iron, then for oil, and now uranium.
Because the native people, or land-based, nonurban population, is closest to the Earth, its fate is directly related to the fate of the Earth–much more so than for an urban population which has buffered itself by means of a need-production-supply chain and a set of technological accoutrements to meet immediate physical demands.
An event like a blackout, which both causes and adversely affects the technological basis of urban, industrial society, may be regarded as an environmental crisis in urban and suburban America: for a moment, technology seems an enemy to consumers of techno-culture, but soon the lights are back on. For a native land-based population, in contrast, an environmental crisis is the flooding of one hundred thousand square miles of northern Quebec Indian reserves for a hydroelectric project that keeps the lights bright in New York City. There’s a big difference.
SftP: You have spoken of the “downpression” of native peoples. Is there a particular reason why you chose that term?
LaDuke: I use the word downpression instead of oppression because it makes the concept I wish to express very clear. Downpression means to keep down, to force the people to live on their knees rather than stand free. Oppression doesn’t convey this meaning so directly.
SftP: Has this downpression of native peoples been going on long?
LaDuke: There has been a clear historical pattern to the subjugation of native peoples, which, like the subjugation of the natural environment, is at least four hundred years old in this hemisphere. It is even older in Europe. What the church and state have done in the Western Hemisphere has clear historical origins in the behavior of the same institutions in Europe. In both hemispheres, the exploitation of native peoples has expanded geometrically, not linearly. The industrial system has opened one mine, destroyed the ecological balance of one area, and moved onto another area: nothing is cleaned up in this system, and so the effects are cumulative, just like the effects of radiation toxins. Briefly, the subjugation, exploitation, and genocide of native peoples is structural, or systemic, in the development of the world.
SftP: This view of the development process has clear applications to the Third World, doesn’t it?
LaDuke: To native peoples, there is no such thing as the first, second, and third worlds; there is only an exploiting world-whether its technological system is capitalist or communist-and a host world. Native peoples, who are more numerous and occupy more land, make up the hosts.
Water, land, and life are basic to the natural order. All else has been created by the use and misuse of technology. It is only natural that, in our respective struggles for survival, the native peoples are waging a war to protect the land, the water, and life, while the consumer culture strives to protect its technological lifeblood.
This protective pattern of response can be seen in Euro-American communities confronting the current crisis in the disposal of toxic and hazardous waste. For the most part, they focus on containing, regulating, or controlling this insidious pollution, rather than on eliminating the problem at its source. The same is true of those who propose scrubbers as a solution to acid rain. The possibility of doing away with the industry and the technology altogether is not even considered.
The aboriginal peoples of Australia illustrate the conflict between technology and the natural world succinctly, by asking, “What will you do when the clever men destroy your water?” That, in truth, is what the world is coming to.
SftP: Have you anything to say about the coverage of Native American issues in the press?
LaDuke: It’s terrible. The desecration of the planet and of native peoples is hidden away in the back pages of the newspapers. Because the natural environment is not economically influential, politically prestigious, or fashionable, what happens to it cannot percolate into the information bank of the general population. The same can be said of the people who live closest to the natural environment-the native people. Native people have not attracted enough popular interest to be accorded a piece of the popular mind.
For example, the brutal struggle for a free trade union movement in Bolivia receives no press coverage by the U.S. Media Inc., liberal or not, while Poland is in the world’s eye. And on the subject of the MX missile system while nuclear-arms proliferation and the gross financial obesity of the Defense Department receive massive amounts of mental and media attention, the residents of Nevada – the Shoshone Indians – and their struggle against the MX remain invisible. And if white America has long been guilt-ridden because of a recurring “Indian problem,” white America is also guilt-ridden because of a recurring environmental problem. The white American system-and finally, white America itself-relate to both of these problems in the same way: by ignoring them. As far as the crises of water contamination, radiation, and death to the natural world and its children are concerned, “respectable racism” is as alive today as it was a century ago.
SftP: Could you say some more about this racism?
LaDuke: Simply, a certain level of racism and ignorance has gained acceptance – in fact, respectability. Like the wealthy, who think of blacks only as house servants and believe they are doing these people a favor by providing them with a clean job in a good family, the consumers of technoculture relate to the native and the environment in terms of master, servant, and house. We either pick your bananas or act as a mascot for your football team. In this way, respectable, enlightened people are racist. They are arrogant toward all of nature, arrogant toward the children of nature, and ultimately arrogant toward all of life.
The point is that Euro-Americans perceive the development of their culture as a mastery of the natural world, a prime example of the progress from primitive to civilized society. They seem to believe that this culture is either immune to ecological disasters, or clever enough to survive them. This is racism, founded on the precarious conception of the technological and mental superiority of the consumer-producer system.
SftP: We seem to have moved a long way from our starting point, which was the impact of the uranium industry on native peoples.
LaDuke: Not at all. Racism, oppression, and death are integral components of the resource development process, and they are all contained within the mining, milling, and technological use of uranium. Uranium represents the latest face-off between the technological world and the natural world.
That’s why natural people watch with dismay as concern about uranium mining in the general population steadily diminishes, and the issue of nuclear power fizzles out as the issue of nuclear weaponry grows. Perhaps people respond to issues in the way described by Don Morton, a white political exile from South Africa: “We get so caught up in the scientific minutiae about ‘nukes’ and related fields,” he said, “that sometimes we lose sight of the fundamental problem. If we could win the struggle to keep uranium in the ground, then we would have indeed sliced off the head of the nuclear industry and weapons threat.”
SftP: Do you think it’s possible to win that struggle?
LaDuke: Well, if we are to listen to U.S. economists, either progressive or conservative, the uranium mining industry is going bust. All of the big plans for mining expansion look like the delirious hallucinations of gluttons who ate too much. A 1979 joint report by the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency and the International Atomic Energy Agency predicted that the 368 operating mines in the U.S. would double their 1979 production levels by 1985, that Canadian production would also double; that South African production would be maintained; and that Australian production would increase twenty times by the end of the decade.
But in the last three years, the exchange value of uranium has dropped rapidly, from $43.25 per pound in late 1978 to $23 recently. The crash in the price of uranium has precipitated a halt to innumerable mining ventures around the globe and forced a number of mines across the United States to close. In the Grants mineral belt alone, Kerr-McGee has mothballed its Rio Puerco mine; Phillips Corporation has done the same for a large mining project; and United Nuclear (which, rumor has it, may be getting into fast foods) has closed three mines. Needless to say, all the experts in the nuclear industry look a little bit stupid.
Unfortunately, one would have to be even more delirious than the gluttonous uranium/nuclear industry to believe that, if the mines close down, the problems will simply disappear. The mountains that have been turned into molehills by the uranium industry are still as radioactive as they were five years ago. All of these sites, and the water that flows from them, will continue to leak radiation so long as the contamination is not contained.
The symptoms of the problem – nuclear power and weapons – won’t disappear either. If the industry doesn’t have enough uranium now to make the planet totally uninhabitable, it can always use those precious strategic stockpiles of ore, or reopen the mines and start all over again.
So when the people who live in the Grants mineral belt and elsewhere in uranium country see the mines close down, they say, “They’ll come back again. They always come back for more.” They remember that, before the uranium, it was coal, before that, it was oil, gold, copper, and silver.
There is a critical difference between the native’s mentality and the visitor’s mentality, that is, the mentality of industry. The visitor moves from resource to resource, from mine to mine, from factory to factory, assaulting the Earth and the Earth’s people, and leaving behind skeletons. The native, nontransient population has no option to move or to evacuate. As Corbin Harney, tribal elder of the Shoshone Indian Duck Valley Reservation said, “If we do not have the land, we have nowhere else to go …. How can we lose something that is part of us, something that is tied to our lives?”
SftP: Looking to the future, do you see growing resistance by native peoples?
LaDuke: Of course. The native has no choice but to act in defense of the native community and the natural environment. And episode after episode of native people’s resistance to technoculture permeates the nuclear era. On May 29, 1980, a group of Ketchi Indians went to the mayor at Panzos, Guatemala, insisting that their land be returned to them. The Guatemalan army was waiting, and opened fire: three hundred natives were massacred. The incident was much like the massacre of three hundred Indians at Wounded Knee a century before. It is the same war.
In the Black Hills of South Dakota, a group of Lakota or Sioux have liberated an area of their sacred lands from government ownership. In April 1980, the Lakota began to resettle in the hills, in an effort to establish a self-sufficient community. Their peaceful encampment, called Yellow Thunder Camp, has met with military surveillance, terrorism, and harassment. The governor of South Dakota, William Janklow, has accelerated an aggressive anti-Indian campaign, but the group remains undaunted.
The land war in North America continues; but, perhaps because it is close, so real, and so disguised by the collective racism, downpression, and callousness of the American consumer, it is not noticed by most.
Resources are the staple which nourish the military-industrial-technological system, and perpetrate its expansion. The native sees that the system may drift and change, but it must always come back to the land for its food. That means it must come back to land-based peoples. For that reason, the system and the native have always been, and will always be, enemies.
For ongoing coverage of Native issues, we recommend:
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In the book Voices from Wounded Knee, 1973, participants tell the story of the Wounded Knee occupation. It is available from Akwasasne Notes for $6.95
For more information about Indian struggles against resource development, contact:
The Black Hills Alliance
P.O. Box 2508
Rapid City, SD 57709
The International Indian
777 United Nations
New York, NY 10017
For more information about Indian oppression, particularly as pertains to political prisoners, we recommend a two-part series which appeared in New Age Magazine, November 1980 and January 1981, called, “The Story of Leonard Peltier and a Culture Under Siege”. Write to:
PO Box 1200
Allston, MA 02143