Shundahai Network: Building the Will for Nuclear Abolition
by Diane Swords

Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney welcomes Tewa leader Gilbert Sanchez and 30 anti-nuclear activists who walked from New Mexico to the Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS) in 2002. This walk was followed by a protest of about 500 people at NTS. Since Harney’s death in July 2007, Shundahai Network has re-committed to continue the work and to raise the numbers of protesters into the thousands. Photo: Diane Swords

Shundahai Network has reaffirmed its goal of nuclear abolition with an impressive five-year plan - to open a new staffed office in Las Vegas, close the Nevada Nuclear Test Site (NTS), prevent nuclear waste dumping at Yucca Mountain and return treaty lands to the Western Shoshone people. I was fortunate to be at the January 11-13 strategy meeting in Las Vegas with about 30 other activists to be sure Shundahai's abolitionist vision would live on. To see the new energy in this organization, recovering from recent financial troubles and the death of its founder and spiritual leader, gives great cause for hope.

Some people claim that the goal of nuclear abolition is unrealistic. Environmentalist Chip Ward writes specifically about groups that accomplish what is considered impractical. He includes Shundahai Network in his book Hope's Horizon, because, as he told me in a 2004 interview, "I'm really attracted to groups that do things that are impossible." Shundahai Network, he notes, is not afraid to use the language of abolition.

Jonathan Schell also supports nuclear abolition. Schell is a lecturer at Yale, Senior Fellow at the Nation Institute, and author of 13 books, including The Fate of the Earth. In his book The Unfinished Twentieth Century, he argues that the task of nuclear abolition is imperative, not impossible. He asserts that the real impossibility is sustaining the current strategy of maintaining US weapons while denying them to others. The alternatives are total proliferation - a recipe for annihilation - or abolition. Clear steps for abolition have been outlined. The difficulty is human, not technical: the will must be established. Shundahai Network intends to build that public will.

Shundahai's roots are in the Nuclear Weapons Freeze and American Peace Test (APT). The Freeze was the national movement that swept the nation in the 1980s and brought the largest demonstration in US history to the streets of New York City in 1982. Its tactics were mainly national legislative actions and ballot resolutions. In the western US, APT split from the Freeze to focus on direct action, bringing thousands to protest and cross the line to break the law at NTS during the same years. After the1992 testing moratorium, APT succumbed to partial success and internal conflict.

But Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney was deeply concerned that nuclear weapons were still being developed at NTS through sub-critical tests and computer simulation. He helped to start an organization which the founders named Shundahai Network. The word Shundahai is spoken at the end of many Shoshone prayers, something like the word "amen." It means "peace and harmony with all creation" and signifies the spiritual and unifying intentions of the group. Corbin was determined to bring together traditional Western Shoshone and long-time white anti-nuclear activists, whom many of the Shoshone characterized as immoral hippies. These groups had very different cultures and ways of working. Their collaboration brought difficult struggles and rich rewards, thanks to his tireless bridge-building. Corbin's charisma drew in people of many faiths and of no formal religion who were inspired by his dedication to all life.

Corbin was also determined to bring 40,000 people to shut down NTS. He saw this number as representing the protestors at the Soviet test site in Kazakhstan in 1989, led by the Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement in which Corbin participated, and whose work played a role in ending Soviet testing. The story of the Nevada-Semipalatinsk alliance of US-Soviet anti-nuclear movements had little exposure, but it must be made known as a prime example of the power of civil society. Reading of the effect US protests at NTS had in inspiring activists in Kazakhstan reminds us that no matter how discouraged we become about the effects of our efforts, they may have ripples far beyond what we can imagine. That is probably why Corbin insisted on publicizing this powerful if symbolic aim. (You can read more at and

Inspired by Corbin in his last years, a young woman named Katheryn Nichol is volunteering several months of her time to write grants. She led Shundahai Network's January strategy session to develop plans on which to base these grants. Four top strategies were selected by the group.

First, participants plan to hold gatherings at NTS each spring and fall, to energize current activists and inspire and train new ones. Many people report having their lives changed by such events. Participants will gather for several days for informational workshops, skills trainings, formation of affinity groups, ceremonies and fundraising concerts, all culminating in civil disobedience actions. One of the main topics of consideration will be "Complex Transformation," the plan of the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration (NNSA) to revitalize the nuclear weapons complex at eight locations across the country, in violation of US obligations under the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty. Activists plan major outreach at the Democratic and Republican Conventions in August and September to inform those attending and bring them out to the Fall 2008 gathering.

Staff and volunteers will develop high school and college curricula and introduce them into schools as a second strategy component. These curricula will respond to promotional materials being distributed by the Department of Energy. Models of such curricula already exist. Through these programs, students will learn about nuclear issues and about opportunities for resistance, including internships that Shundahai Network will sponsor to spread the outreach further.

Third, a "waste cask show" will be on the road by 2009. Activists will travel to five locations each subsequent year with a replica of a nuclear waste truck carrying a container of the type that will come through many communities under plans to dump nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain. Shows will highlight opposition to continuing efforts to license Yucca Mountain Repository, and to development of new power plants that will produce more waste.

Finally, meetings with lawyers are under way to further efforts to return treaty lands. Shundahai Network is collaborating with the Environmental Law Alliance Worldwide (ELAW) in this project.

In Syracuse, Peace Action has reaffirmed its top priorities as abolition of nuclear weapons and safe disposal of nuclear contaminants. Could renewed attention to abolition be a trend? Attention is certainly needed as we witness NNSA's plans for Complex Transformation to develop "usable" nuclear weapons, President Bush's budget request of $495 million for a Yucca Mountain dump, and talk of a new nuclear power plant at Nine Mile Point.

The Nevada-Semipalatinsk movement teaches the power of collaboration. How can we, in Syracuse, learn from and collaborate with Shundahai Network? We can send representatives to gatherings to be inspired and bring back insights. We can contribute to the curriculum and propose it in our schools. We can work with Peace Action and SPC to spread the attitude that abolition is necessary and possible. We can send testimony and attend hearings to oppose Complex Transformation - see for instructions for sending testimony and a schedule of hearings. And we can begin plans now to travel to the NTS gathering in the fall.

Diane is an anti-nuclear activist and adjunct faculty in Sociology and Women's Studies at Syracuse University.