The Impact of the Nuclear Age on Native Americans

Lanterns for Peace Presentation on the Impacts of the Nuclear Age on Native Americans

Impact of the Nuclear Age on Native Americans



    ( The legend of the Navajo predicting  Hiroshima and Nagasaki.)


The nuclear age has left its deadly mark on the lands and lives of Native Americans.


Uranium has often been found on sacred Indian lands in this country and on sacred sites of indigenous peoples in other parts of the world. Two thirds of the United States' known uranium reserves are located on Indian reservations or on treaty lands. Navajo lands alone are estimated to hold  over 70 million pounds of uranium reserves, one of the largest reserves in the entire country.

Over the years, uranium mining has scarred and poisoned these lands.


Indians have been recruited as uranium miners from the early days of nuclear weapons development. For many years there was no ventilation system in the mines to vent radon gas or any other forms of health protection. As a result, the rate of serious illness from radiation exposure to the miners has been very high.


The mountains of radioactive  tailings left behind from the uranium mining give off dangerous radon gas and are often located next to Indian villages. Wind and rain spread the deadly carcinogenic dust. For years, Indian children played in the mountainous piles of sand-like tailings and their families were told nothing of the danger. 


The Navajo Nation encompasses areas of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. More than 1000 uranium mines were leased by the government in the reservation. From 1944-to 1986 Nearly 5,000 Navajo people worked in the mines. In 1986 the Navajos stopped the mining but now there are over 500 abandoned mines and mountains of tailings from the milling. The deadly health effects still linger.


The Downwinders are those who were irradiated from the fallout from atmospheric tests at the nuclear test site in Nevada.  Amongst the first downwinders were Indian communities contaminated from the fallout of the first nuclear test explosion - the Trinity bomb - near Alamogordo, New Mexico. The fallout fell on a vast region of southern New Mexico.



On July 16, 1979, 94 million gallons of liquid uranium milling waste broke through a dike at the Church Rock Uranium Mill  in New Mexico that was operated by United Nuclear Corporation. It spilled into the Rio Puerco which flows through northwestern New Mexico. It was the biggest accidental release of radioactive material in the United States. The spill contaminated the river and its watershed for hundreds of miles downstream, through Gallup, New Mexico and into Arizona, causing the river to turn yellow. As it flowed through Navajo lands the people  who walked into the river were burned on contact and suffered from boils. They could no longer use the river for drinking water or washing. Their sheep that drank from the river died. Their bodies were so contaminated they could not be used for meat. 


Just days after the disaster, tests 80 miles downstream showed 7,000 times the allowable standard of radioactivity for drinking water. The river could not be used for humans or animals or irrigation.

In addition, water from underground uranium mining was continually pumped into the Puerco River over many years.

Decades later, the Navajo continue to suffer from the Church Rock Uranium spill with astronomical rates of birth defects, kidney disease and cancer. Despite its economic benefits, the Navajo Nation has forever banned uranium mining and development on Dine land.


The Nuclear Weapons Test Site in Nevada is located on the traditional land of the Western Shoshone Nation. The Shoshone people have been struggling to shut down the test site for years and have been working and demonstrating side by side with anti-nuclear activists. Atmospheric tests were ended with the Partial Test Ban Treaty in 1963 but underground testing continued until 1992.  In 1997, the Shoshones again led protests against sub-critical nuclear underground tests at the site.  


[Chris, add to this, correct it or whatever.] In 201? I joined the Nevada Desert Experience, an annual protest at the Nevada Test Site.  ?# of us walked 60 miles through the desert from Las Vegas to the Test Site praying and demanding that the site be shut forever. Tens of thousands have protested there over the years with thousands of arrests. etc.


Also, on Shoshone land, in an area near the Nevada test site, is Yucca Mountain. It is being developed for a permanent disposal site for high level radioactive waste from the nation's nuclear weapons program. The Shoshone have been struggling to keep that site from opening. The state of Nevada is also strongly opposed to the waste site.

In 2002 Yucca Mountain was officially designated for permanent nuclear waste disposal and construction continued. It was shut down in 2010 due to seismic activity and safety concerns. Then the Trump administration restarted the licensing hearings to move ahead with construction this past March. But on July 4th this summer, a large earthquake struck the area, followed by many more quakes. There are now more demands to permanently shut down the Yucca Mountain site.

There is a long history of seismic activity in the region. Nevada is the 3rd worst state for  earthquakes. There are 33 faults in the area of Yucca Mountain and over 620 quakes since 1976. In 1992 a 5.6 magnitude quake actually damaged buildings on the site. Yet it is here, on native land, that the government wants to deposit its deadly nuclear waste from the nuclear weapons program.


To facilitate its plans, the US Government created tribal councils all over the country. The government approaches them with bribes of large amounts of money to have mining and nuclear waste storage sites on their reservations. This often causes divisions within the tribe as the traditional people do not recognize the authority of these councils.  A classic example is the Skull Valley Goshutes in Nevada, a small tribe of 118 members that was split on the issue of a high-level radioactive storage site for commercial nuclear waste. Tribal leaders were offered a bribe of $250 million. Traditional members of the tribe were able in 2006 to halt the project through litigation and collaboration with anti-nuclear allies.

The site was to hold 40,000 tons of high-level waste from commercial nuclear power plants including waste from Wisconsin's Dairyland Power Co-op and Wis. Electric Power. It would have been built and run by Private Fuel Storage of Wisconsin.


There is a disproportionate targeting of Indian reservations as locations to store nuclear waste. Using large sums of money to entice the economically burdened to accept nuclear and other toxic waste, that nobody else wants to deal with, is a serious moral issue of environmental and racial justice.


Currently - there is uranium mining near the Grand Canyon in the land of the Havasupi.

Radioactive materials are being transported from this site across Navajo territory.

etc. etc.

[From what I saw in a video of a public hearing - the Hualapai Nation and the Navajo Nation were testifying against the mining.  j.]


Native people everywhere view the earth as sacred, as a living creature, as the Mother of life.  It is an inherently opposite view than that of technological peoples who see the earth as a resource to exploit.


As a Menomonee Indian woman, Ingrid Wahinawatok has said, "The traditional Indian people are protecting something that is important for everyone. They are trying to keep the land alive, and the world in balance."


As we work for the abolition of nuclear weapons and a livable climate for this planet, we need to learn how to live again in harmony with one another and our Mother Earth, how to live in balance. Our survival depends on it.

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  • Linzi Knott
    commented 2021-10-29 11:44:18 -0500
    Also many nuclear power plants around reservations, continually emitting radiation into the air and water.