Actions for Nuclear Abolition and Indigenous Rights
Diane and Peter Swords
We recently spent 12 days around the Nevada Test Site (NTS) and Yucca Mountain as guests of the Western Shoshone people. Welcomed by the Shundahai Network, we shared in traditional ceremonies and joined with two dozen members of the Family Spirit Walk who were finishing their trek from Los Alamos, New Mexico to the NTS _ over 800 miles. Perhaps the most powerful message of this journey was the profound connections we experienced _ with our "relatives" on the walk, and between the issues that brought us together. Having hiked the final 70 miles from Las Vegas to the NTS, we dedicate our story to these walkers, their ancestors and their descendants.
Each person we met taught us something new about the nuclear cycle. Gilbert Sanchez, of the Tewa Tribe in whose New Mexico territory the walk began on August 9, struggles against the mainstream among his people in opposing the nuclear industry. Los Alamos, NM, is home of the first nuclear bomb, and site of continuing weapons production. Owen, a young musician, had helped lead the trek through Navajo territory near Big Mountain, translating his native friends' stories of resistance to relocation and mining. A Havasupai man from the North Rim of the Grand Canyon also spoke of fighting the uranium industry. David, a "downwinder" from St. George, Utah, had lost several family members to cancer. Walkers carried a pinwheel on a stick inscribed "to Bethany, age 6", who had just died in St. George.
Participants came from along the route and far away. Willie is not sure where his people come from. They were probably nomads, and land-less Indians were first to be exterminated. We are all natives of this planet, Willie reminds us. Jenn, a young activist from Pennsylvania, spoke of learning how the nuclear industry connects to her struggles against the death penalty, the School of the Americas and corporate globalization. Norb, 78, had worked as a geologist at Hanford, Washington, researching methods to dispose of nuclear waste, until realizing that safe disposal is impossible. He then dedicated his life to ending its production. Marieke came with others from Belgium, because nuclear proliferation is a global problem. They reported an action in Belgium on October 5 in which activists demanded to inspect the US weapons facility there.
Walking with Shundahai
The Shundahai Network formed at the Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS) in 1994, and evolved into an international network of activists and organizations bridging environmental, peace and justice, and human rights communities. Their campaigns, like this walk, incorporate community building, education, spiritual ceremonies and nonviolent direct action. They work closely with the Newe, or Western Shoshone People. Newe land, which includes the NTS, Yucca Mountain and several military bases and bombing ranges, has never been legally ceded to the US. The Newe have hunted, gathered and grazed animals on this land for thousands of years. They kept the peace in accordance with the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, despite the encroachment of miners, gamblers and the nuclear industry. They want to continue celebrating Mother Earth with future generations.
But the Newe are the "most bombed nation on Earth." Since President Truman put the NTS on their land in 1951, more than 120 A-bombs were set off in the atmosphere, plus over 700 exploded underground. Fallout contaminated areas from Idaho to Mexico. The US Departments of Energy, Defense and the Interior have not only taken Shoshone land; they have systematically poisoned the water, killed the plants used for medicine and food, and rounded up their livestock. Worst of all is the radiation, our "biggest enemy," says Corbin Harney, spiritual leader of the Western Shoshone.
In Vegas, the walk grew to about 50 people. As we walked along Interstate 95 near Nellis Air Force Base, military activity grew too. We could hear the explosions right beside us as tanks rolled and fighter bombers swooped in to bombard practice targets. On the evening of Native American Awareness Day (a.k.a. Columbus Day), as we were entering a sweat lodge, a rocket contrail lit the western sky. The next day we read that a Star Wars missile had been tested.
When we arrived at the Nuclear Test Site, Johnnie Bobb of the Western Shoshone drummed a welcome. Gilbert Sanchez called out "We come in peace" and presented the ceremonial staff to Corbin. Willie reminded us that the staff carries prayers from everyone along the route, and that each of us brings with us our own circle of relatives.
At the NTS, armed guards from Wackenhut, Inc., a private company, patrol the perimeter, arresting "trespassers." Sixty-six of our now about 400 member group were arrested, 42 for crossing the line at the gate, 19 for "back-country" actions entering the test site from the desert, and five for a "back country" action at Yucca Mountain. The sheriff warned that our group probably harbored terrorists or sex offenders, that the authorities have a right to do surveillance and infiltration, and that he studied and admired the efficiency of the Nazi police. Who are the terrorists, we ask?
Why Did We Join This Journey?
As longtime nuclear abolition activists, we're more concerned than ever about current trends in US nuclear policy. These deeply troubling developments occurred this year:
· The Pentagon released its "Nuclear Posture Review" in January. It calls for increased spending on new nuclear weapons including likely resumption of full scale nuclear weapons testing at NTS.
· The Senate approved Yucca Mountain in July as the nation's first permanent high-level nuclear waste dump. Over 50,000 "Mobile Chernobyl" shipments will come through communities around the country, including Syracuse.
· Bush's National Security Strategy document, released in September, outlines the principles guiding American security policy. A prominent feature of this document is "preemption," described as "using military force before someone has used it against us, to deal with an imminent threat, which can be the acquisition of weapons of mass destruction by rogue states or used by terrorists." This is an attempt to legitimize efforts for world domination.
· In October the Department of Energy announced plans to build a facility to resume production of plutonium pits for nuclear weapon triggers. Production at Rocky Flats, Colorado stopped in 1989 because of extreme contamination and the Cold War's end.
The Bush administration is stepping up propaganda about Iraq's "weapons of mass destruction" and about human rights violations by that "rogue state" under Saddam Hussein. But we recall that the US was the first nation to produce, deploy and explode atomic bombs; and continues threatening to use them.
As we meet victims and families devastated by the US nuclear industry, it is clear that "using weapons of mass destruction against one's own people" was not exclusive to Iraq. Ward Churchill points out that US treatment of native peoples fits the UN's 1948 definition of genocide.1 Former Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall reinforces this claim: " the United States government's atomic weapons industry knowingly and recklessly exposed millions of people to dangerous levels of radiation the Cold Warriors were willing to sacrifice their own people in their zeal to beat the Russians." 2
In the early `90s we heard reports from the 1992 World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg, Austria. Indigenous groups from around the world were surprised to find they were not the only ones sickened and traumatized by the chain of uranium mining, processing, weapons production, testing, nuclear energy, waste transport and disposal. Later, at the 1999 Peace Action Congress in Albuquerque, we heard first hand accounts from people within the US. We heard from Pueblos who lost their land to the Los Alamos National Laboratory; "downwinders" whose families were decimated by fallout from nuclear tests; Pacific Islanders whose atolls were obliterated; and from Western Shoshone people. But we were also inspired by their spirit. Every morning we greeted the sunrise in a ceremony led by Corbin Harney, of the Western Shoshone. When we read about the Family Spirit Walk we recalled Corbin's dedication, and committed to support the Shundahai Network's efforts to "break the nuclear chain."
Speculations on Learnings from
The Family Spirit Walk
Much of the work of this walk parallels what many of us do here in Syracuse. Unfortunately, there are plenty of related installations in our state to make it possible to address the nuclear chain in our own back yard. But was there something especially effective about the Family Spirit Walk?
Public education on the walk was excellent, from the careful "sound bites" on our signs as we walked the highway, to media events, press conferences and news releases, to the two weekends of teach-ins we experienced, and previous ones along the 800 mile route. Direct action varied from chaotic when 400 people approached the line, to carefully planned events by three small affinity groups. Legal and media back-up provided by Shundahai made all the actions worthwhile in drawing public attention to the grievances _ at least on a regional level. Long-time activists bill the test site also as training ground for civil disobedience because there are a range of options from simply low-risk crossing the line to "back country" trespass actions and more high-risk possibilities. Although the magnitude of the beast we face felt daunting, we could draw attention to it through our actions.
The uniqueness of this journey, though, was the intense effect it had on individuals. The deepest change would be in those who traveled the full distance. But even after our two-week experience, our understanding of the issues and their relationships moved from a cerebral one to a more holistic comprehension that has entwined with our caring for the people we met on the way. Others echo feelings of intensified reverence for the planet. Experiencing this in the desert, as the sunrise changed the colors and shapes of the mountains in the distance, was magnificent. Corbin's call to bring more people to Nevada next year means more than an invitation to an exciting trip. It is really a call to a lifetime commitment, here just as much as there. Will you join us?
For more information, please see www.shundahai.org.
1 Churchill, Ward (1997): A Little Matter of Genocide: Holocaust and Denial in the Americas 1492 to the Present
2 D'Antonio, Michael (1993): Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America's Nuclear Arsenal
Diane has worked against nuclear weapons since 1980. Peter is a social worker concerned about human rights.