Days of Revolt: Sacrifice Zones
In this episode of teleSUR’s Days of Revolt, Chris Hedges and two Native American activists discuss the violation of land and lives of Indigenous peoples, particularly the decades of open-pit uranium mining that is responsible for spreading nuclear contaminants across the continent today
CHRIS HEDGES: Hi, I’m Chris Hedges. Welcome to Days of Revolt.
Today we’re going to talk about the long war that has been waged by this nation against Native American peoples, their land, their customs, their language, their tradition, the exploitation of that land for natural resources, and the consequences of that. Abandoned uranium mines poison the water. And with me in the studio to discuss the devastation that has been visited on their peoples, on their nations, is Charmaine White Face from the Oglala Tetuwan Nation. Or as she says, she’s from POW Camp 344, which is what it was originally called when that reservation was set up. And Petuuche Gilbert from the Acoma Nation in New Mexico. Thank you very much.
So let’s begin with you, Charmaine. We have seen–and of course the treaty violations were largely made when gold was found in the–.
CHARMAINE WHITE FACE: Sacred Black Hills.
HEDGES: The Black Hills, by Custer. You know, that treaty violations were routinely broken in order to extract natural resources. But we’ve now come to a point where the poison that’s left behind is–and of course, your nations did not in any significant way benefit from the exploitation of those resources. The only thing it left you was a deeply polluted radioactive, you know, a dangerous environment that is now taking the lives of natives, native peoples. And perhaps you can lay out for us, you know, what it looks like, what you’re dealing with.
WHITE FACE: In our treaty territory we have more than 2,000 abandoned uranium mines. We know 2,247 for sure.
HEDGES: This is in South Dakota?
WHITE FACE: South Dakota, parts of North Dakota, Montana, and Wyoming. That’s the ’68 treaty territory. Western South Dakota, from the Missouri west.
These mine–we never gave permission for any of this to happen within our treaty territory, and we still fight for the return and the enforcement of the treaty. We have the highest cancer rate in the country. That’s from a study done by the Indian Health Service. And we call this as, you know, we are the people of the Northern Great Plains.
HEDGES: Is this from primarily abandoned uranium mines? Or what, what is the–.
WHITE FACE: It’s not just the uranium mines. The uranium mines, yes, they contributed to it. And they also pollute all the rivers. All the rivers in western South Dakota and northeastern Wyoming are polluted with radioactivity. But also from the coal. Surrounding the Sacred Black Hills, which are on the western part of South Dakota, surrounding it is a coal field. One of the largest open pit coal mines is in Wright, Wyoming, right on the other side. And they produce 40 percent of the coal in the United States. Their coal comes to the East Coast and the West Coast in trains every 20 minutes. These are mile to mile-and-a-half-long trains.
But what people don’t know is that the whole Northern Great Plains, if you study the geology of it, the whole Northern Great Plains had a lot of uranium and radioactive particles. So all of this coal is laced with uranium. And it–when they mine it they, you know, they drill deep holes, they put diesel in there and nitrogen, and then they blow it up. And when they mine it, if you drive over there you can see the air is all brown. And that has radioactive particles in it, as well as the carbon, you know, sulfur, whatever, from the coal. And it comes over, the winds carry it over South Dakota, across all of our reservations, our POW camps.
But why I’m here, or what I want to do, is I keep telling people we’re the miners’ canary. In the old English coal mines they used to take a little miner down with them. When the poison gases were there, the canary would die, okay. We are the miners’ canary. Because we’re breathing in radioactive particles from the abandoned Uranium mines. We’re breathing in radioactive particles from the coal mining. Also from the coal-fired power plants.
HEDGES: Those uranium mines, when were they exploited? In the ’30s and ’40s, or–.
WHITE FACE: No, no, this started in the ’60s and ’70s.
HEDGES: I see.
WHITE FACE: Yeah. So it’s after World War II. The exploration started, you know, right during World War II, and after World War II in the late ’40s, early ’50s, exploration. And in the late ’50s, early ’60s was when they were digging. And all of them are open pit. South Dakota has 272 by itself. One of them in the southwestern Black Hills, right by the, right–you know, I mean, abuting next to, or right in the Sacred Black Hills, one of our sacred areas, if you put it all together it’s zig-zaggety. But if you put it all together it would cover one square mile. And it’s, it’s deep.
And so when the wind comes, it’s easy–and we have tons of wind up there. And when the rain and the snow come, then this is where the runoff, yeah, that goes into the creeks and the rivers, but it also soaks into the aquifers.
HEDGES: Okay. What about the missile? Weren’t there missile silos?
WHITE FACE: Oh, the missile silos during the Cold War. During the Cold War there were hundreds of ICBM missile silos all over South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, North Dakota. These missile silos carried intercontintental ballistic missiles with nuclear warheads. Some of them were powered, for the guys that went down there, the airmen that went down there, were powered with diesel, diesel generators. But some of them were also powered with nuclear.
And what they did was when they said they imploded these in the missile silos, then they left the nuclear, the little power plants in there. So now this gives a reason for also the Air Force base to continue to be in operation, because they say they have to monitor as that, as that little nuclear generator disintegrates. Then it’s affecting the aquifers. And all they can do is monitor how far out the radioactivity is spreading. But it’s, it gives an excuse for why else would the Air Force base needs to stay there.
HEDGES: Let me ask you, Petuuche, in New Mexico are there, is it a similar situation as South Dakota, Wyoming? Different in any way, what you’re confronting?
GILBERT: I think it’s very similar in terms of the dependency of the United States on nuclear energy. So I call New Mexico a very irradiated state because of its attention on nuclear research. So in Mexico not only do you have abandoned uranium mines and mills, but you have your two National Laboratories–.
HEDGES: Los Alamos.
GILBERT: Los Alamos National Laboratories that still makes smart bombs. And that Sandia National Laboratories in Albuquerque that stores supposedly the world’s largest collection of nuclear warheads. And then you have your WIPP, the Waste Isolation Pilot Project plant in Carlsbad which is now closed because of problems, a fire that occurred a couple years ago. And then you have a uranium enrichment facility in New Mexico.
So yet this whole state that’s so dependent on this nuclear research, and the whole nuclear fuel cycle, what our concentration is is up, where I’m from, is the mines and mills which we call the legacy uranium mines and mills in the Grants Mining District. You have today, the EPA tells us there’s 97 abandoned uranium mines and five mills. And of course, all of these have created radioactive poisoning of the land, the people the environment and wildlife.
HEDGES: What is a, what is a mill? What does a mill do?
GILBERT: A mill would process the uranium ore into yellow cake.
HEDGES: I see.
GILBERT: So in, in this Grants [inaud.] you get five plants. They’re all closed, now, and they are administered by the Department of Energy or another [crosstalk].
HEDGES: And are you seeing the same kind of health effects?
GILBERT: Same kind of health effects. The refusal of the state of New Mexico, the refusal of the United States to do epidemiological studies or other real serious risk health impact studies. And that does–for example, today the citizens are okay with going with new uranium mining, because they don’t have the information to influence them, that radiation poisoning affects them and that they were all radiation victims as a result of these mines and mills.
HEDGES: And you’re seeing the elevated cancer rates that you’re seeing in South Dakota.
GILBERT: Yes, yes. There’s this one community that published what they call a death map in the Albuquerque Journal. It’s the Blue Water Valley Downstream Alliance organization. Their villages are less than 100 yards away from an old Homestake [inaud.] mill site, and that the people are dying from cancer, they claim, as a result of living right next and adjacent to this old mill.
So definitely radon gas, or radioactive particles contaminated the groundwater, that are affecting the health and welfare of the people, including the wildlife.
HEDGES: What about infor–when you deal with the federal government in terms of getting information about what they’re doing, what’s being stored there, what’s the response?
GILBERT: Well, the response is negligible. EPA, the NRC, the state environment departments, have been attempting to clean up over 35 years, after 50 years of mining, you know, they’ve attempted to be cleaning up old uranium mines and mills.
HEDGES: These open pit–are they open pit mines?
GILBERT: Some of these, the abandoned uranium mines are all open, open pit areas that, of course, that collect water and contaminate the ground surface during water or storm runoffs, or dust is blowing all over the place. And just, like I said, creating this radioactive pollution over the, all over the land and the people.
HEDGES: Charmaine, you just said you were the canary in the–what did you mean by that? I mean–.
WHITE FACE: This–. First, you know, we are a thousand miles apart. His nation is 1,000 miles south of where mine is. And so–but yeah, his nation and my nation, we’re, we’re miners’ canaries. This, without getting any kind of remediation of all this radioactivity coming on our people, and in our area nobody knows about it. You know, the Northern Great Plains, how many people know that there’s 2,000-3,000 abandoned uranium mines in, in Wyoming, our, our area? South Dakota, Montana. Because for us, how I see this, is this is deliberate genocide. I see this as deliberate genocide, not letting people know about these abandoned uranium mines.
I found out about these in 2003 because I was looking at a draft environmental impact study for an oil well company that wanted to drill some more wells, and it was in there that they talked about these abandoned uranium mines. You know, but the forest service was looking at their wells, not the abandoned uranium mines. They had to be included in there. And so then I looked at that, and I thought, what is this, abandoned uranium mines? And that’s how we started our organization. And it was my project to learn about this.
HEDGES: But when you say canary in the coal mine, I interpret this to mean that you go first, but we go next.
WHITE FACE: Right. Exactly. And that’s why we came, or I came here. I want to tell people that, you know, just because we are, right, close to this, doesn’t mean that it’s stopping there. That coal that’s coming out of Wyoming, it comes here to the East Coast. It goes to the West Coast. And when they burn it, that coal smoke is not regulated or monitored for radioactive particles by the EPA. EPA does not monitor radioactive particles in coal smoke or in coal mining. The coal dust. They don’t monitor radioactive particles in the–. But for the East and the West Coast, wherever this Wyoming coal is going, people are breathing in radioactive particles from those coal-fired power plants.
And I mean, we have them in our area, too. So not only do we get it from the abandoned uranium mines, we also get it from the coal mining and the coal-fired power plants.
HEDGES: What does this say about the difference between Native culture, indigenous culture, and Euro-American culture?
WHITE FACE: For me it says that your American culture doesn’t understand the earth, mother earth. And, and they would harm her. And that’s what’s happening. We knew about uranium. And we knew you don’t touch it. Only certain ones were allowed to go in certain places. And some of these were called sacred places, because only certain ones could go in there. Oil, coal, uranium, no. that’s supposed to be left in the ground. There’s a reason why it’s there. And it, and it’s, it has been this way since, like you said, since they first came taking the gold out of the Black Hills. That’s sacred. A reason, there’s a reason. Everything has a spirit. And that whole spirit, all of it is related to the earth.
HEDGES: Well that, is that–. Well, I think there were 400 treaties signed with indigenous people, of which the Euro-Americans violated every single one, including the 1868 treaty, which was over the Black–which took the Black Hills from–.
WHITE FACE: Right. We’re still fighting for it at the UN.
GILBERT: But I also wanted to say that it’s also, yes, it’s exploitation of indigenous peoples’ lands, territories, and resources. At one time, you know, there was a popular word under, I think it was President Nixon’s administration, creating national sacrifice areas.
HEDGES: Sacrifice zones, yeah.
GILBERT: And that area there was really the Four Corner state area of the United States.
HEDGES: Unfortunately, people live there.
GILBERT: Unfortunately that’s indigenous peoples’ homelands, which you’re willing to exploit that for the energy needs of the United States. But now today it’s, I like to say that it’s [inaud.] culture. And the United States is still benefiting from concentrating on rural areas, or people is environmental justice issues, because they’re taking coal, oil, gas from rural areas where there’s few people there, and none of the people are complaining that would influence American policy.
And so as a result, you know, that the peoples’ lives or lands are destroyed by the energy needs of this nation. And in this case it’s uranium that we’re against. Some of this, like the [inaud.] mines that want to mine at the sacred place of Mt. Taylor, that indigenous peoples are opposing, but our organization, the Multicultural Alliance for a Safe Environment is saying it affects all people, and that indigenous peoples alone, or the small organization of MASE cannot stop new uranium mining, but it’s going to have to really change the mindset of the American public.
WHITE FACE: When the Nixon administration made that designation of national sacrifice areas, there was two areas. The Four Corners area, where he comes from, and the Great Sioux Nation area, where I come from. And we happen to be, the Navajos and your people together, happen to be one of the largest reservation places. We happen to be the largest one up in the Northern Great Plains. And our treaty–see, our treaty was still there.
The, the problem that–another problem we keep facing is population density. You know, it was so easy to create national sacrifice areas because we don’t have the population densities to stop it. And especially in the Northern Great Plains, nobody heard about it. Nobody who knew, you know, who knew what was going on up in the Northern Great Plains. I asked the CDC, please come and do a health study, and they said, no. you don’t have a million people in South Dakota. We won’t come.
So how do we–we don’t have any big universities or, you know, academic institutions, medical colleges, up where we are. So we don’t have any of the medical studies that need to be done. There’s a lot of studies that need to be done. This study that I talk about was from the Indian Health Service, and that showed that, you know, it’s broken down into regions. And so it showed that Northern Great Plains has the highest cancer rates.
HEDGES: How has this affected water?
WHITE FACE: Water. The–you’ve heard about the Bakken oil range.
HEDGES: Yeah, of course. You should probably explain what that is.
WHITE FACE: Okay. Bakken, B-A-K-K-E-N, oil range. National Geographic did an article about it I think in March 2014. It’s in North Dakota.
HEDGES: It’s where all the fracking is.
WHITE FACE: Right. And what they did was when they were drilling–you see, I told you that the whole area has, like, a uranium–okay. They’re drilling through that to get to the oil. And all that drill waste that comes out is radioactive. They collect it in socks. They literally look like big huge socks. They’re white, too. Big huge socks. It would cost, like, $10,000 to move these to the only repository, which was in Colorado, which means going all the way through South Dakota, through Wyoming, and into Colorado. So they just start dumping on any place, because of that–.
HEDGES: Didn’t they spray it on the roads, or–.
WHITE FACE: It was all over. In the ditches, you know. You find an abandoned barn and it’s full of these radioactive socks. But the thing that happens is when it snows or rains that starts polluting the watersheds, and the river it pollutes is the Missouri River.
Now, the abandoned uranium mines, also, all their runoff goes into these rivers in western South Dakota, empty into the Missouri River. We’ve done, our little organization, did baseline tests, and we show all this radioactivity is going into the Missouri River. How many communities get water from the Missouri River? And now with the Bakken adding it, how many, how far down is it going? I wish I had the money to do the water tests, down the Missouri River, into the Mississippi on down into the Gulf of Mexico, I wish I did, to find out how far is that? Because you can tell. You can tell if it’s mined uranium. There is an isotope ratio you can tell.
So the abandoned mines, they contribute to the runoff. But the other thing about the abandoned mines, I mean, they’re not big, huge bowls. So it snows, it rains. They soak into the aquifers. And so again, it pollutes both the well water and the surface water.
HEDGES: Let’s talk about resistance. How do we, how do we fight back?
GILBERT: Well, for our, for our organization, it’s really educating the public, trying to convince the population, the public at large, that they have skin in the game. Local city mayors didn’t acknowledge [of] indigenous peoples that we have skin in the game. But we live there. So it’s convincing our leadership, who is convinced by the United States that they’re going to allow new mining, because of the 1872 mining act, convincing them that nuclear poison is affecting their lives, their future.
And our organization passed something that we call a nuclear–nuclear free zone declaration to say that we don’t want uranium mining or nuclear energy in, in our area there. But that needs to be enlarged. There needs to be a national program. So it’s creating resistance not only in, in community-level people, but throughout the state. Because as it is, the governor of New Mexico, who is really [extractive] oil and gas and mining because of monies and jobs, until the public at large convinces them that they’re going to go into, what, fracking. Burning coal, you know, uranium production.
So it’s–so it’s there. But I think the public at large is, is still naive about this nuclear reactive poison. So then education needs to be done. But then it’s also convincing the community to rise up against their politicians, against their leadership.
HEDGES: In terms of civil disobedience?
GILBERT: Yeah. I think that’s useful.
WHITE FACE: I agree with Petuuche. We do everything–well, like, we’re here, educating the people about it. Educating the people that no dose of radiation is safe. None whatsoever. Education is one. Another way we do it is we follow the process. We don’t like it, but we follow it, and we try to influence it as best we can. If it means stalling, hoping a mining company will go bankrupt before they finish the whole process, we get in every single step of the way. That’s another one.
Educating–and where I live, educating allies. Wasicu, we call white people, wasicu, allies, so that they can start, you know, getting involved. Because where I come from, they stay–the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said South Dakota’s the most racist state in the union. And so who’s going to listen to me? I’m just a little old brown Indian woman. Nobody’s going to listen to me, despite the fact I’m a scientist and I know what I’m talking about. So we enlist allies, and then allies, then they–once they join the fray, then fine, they bring in more. They bring in more, and then we, our organization, we back out and we start on another one.
And that, that is happening right now with a mining company that wanted, that wants to come in in the southwestern Black Hills and start a new ISL mine. They were a Canadian company. They started going bankrupt. We fought them for years, they started going bankrupt.
HEDGES: Is this, like, in the courts?
WHITE FACE: No, through the systems. Through the system, Nuclear Regulatory Commission. South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources. The Board of Minerals, you know, through the system. And now they sold out to, it was a Canadian company, now they sold out to China. To a Chinese company. But it has, it has gotten our allies, who are with us, our white allies who are with us, they have gotten more of the white community involved in that, because we have to fight the racism besides, you know, the environmental concerns.
But the one that we really rely on more, us, is prayer. We pray. Because many of these places are sacred sites. Our whole Black Hills are sacred. And we just had a win the other day. There was a little, a little tiny sacred mountain next to a big one. And this big one, people know it as Devil’s Tower.
HEDGES: I’ve been there, of course.
WHITE FACE: That’s a very sacred place to us. Close by it was a little sacred mountain. That little sacred mountain was to be mined for rare earth, and totally strip mined so it would be nothing. Rare earth. And the waste would be the uranium. So it’s radioactive no matter which way you look at it.
We did two prayer gatherings at the big one. Because we don’t want to expose this little one. But we prayed for that little one. Just last week I got notification–and we started in the process with, which is with the Nuclear Regulatory Commission. And it was hard–we don’t have a lawyer. Sometimes I have to play a lawyer, you know, I have to learn what I can and do what I can. And so I got us in there.
And I was just in there, I was just requesting a hearing, because this is a sacred place. And then we got word that the mining company has pulled out, they don’t have the funds to mine that sacred place. For us we say, okay, our prayers worked. We didn’t pray for them to go bankrupt, but we prayed for protection for that mountain.
HEDGES: Right. Thank you, Charmaine, and thank you, Petuuche. And thank you for watching Days of Revolt.
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