Warnings from First Americans: Insidious Changes Are Underway that Will Affect Us All

Stephanie Woodard

The Nevada Test Site, established in 1951 to test nuclear bombs above and below ground, is in the middle of the lands of the sovereign Western Shoshone Nation. With nearly 1,000 nuclear bombs having been detonated on their lands, the Western Shoshone could be considered the most bombed nation on Earth. This image is from the first televised atomic detonation at Frenchman Flat on February 1, 1951.

The worst mass shoot­ing in recent years. Esca­lat­ing threats of nuclear war. Cat­a­stroph­ic hur­ri­canes. Calami­ties and fear rock the nation these days. Mean­while, pub­lic ser­vants are char­ter­ing pri­vate jets, and the president’s fren­zied tweet­storms cre­ate yet more chaos and divi­sion. As the tweet­er-in-chief seeks syco­phan­tic praise (or any­thing to divert our atten­tion from Robert Mueller’s accel­er­at­ing inves­ti­ga­tion), seri­ous pol­i­cy changes have been pro­posed, or are under­way, in numer­ous aspects of Amer­i­can life.

For an update, Rur­al Amer­i­ca In These Times spoke to Native Amer­i­cans — peo­ple whose sur­vival requires being extreme­ly well informed about what all branch­es of the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment are up to. From their van­tage point as sov­er­eign enti­ties with direct gov­ern­ment-to-gov­ern­ment rela­tion­ships with the Unit­ed States, the tribes have a unique per­spec­tive on issues includ­ing vot­ing rights, the econ­o­my, the extrac­tive indus­tries’ hold over this admin­is­tra­tion and more.

In each case below, they explain how pow­er­ful­ly and com­pre­hen­sive­ly this administration’s mis­guid­ed poli­cies would impinge on each and every one of us. After all, every­thing is con­nect­ed,” as Tim­bisha Shoshone Trib­al His­toric Preser­va­tion Offi­cer Bar­bara Durham puts it.

Fire on the mountain

Kim Jong-un can relax! We have already nuked our­selves and are look­ing into a great way to poi­son our­selves even more with radioac­tive waste. In June, Depart­ment of Ener­gy (DOE) Sec­re­tary Rick Per­ry sug­gest­ed using the Neva­da Nation­al Secu­ri­ty Site, aka the Neva­da Test Site, as an inter­im waste dump and at the same time reopen­ing licens­ing pro­ce­dures for near­by Yuc­ca Moun­tain. Under Perry’s plan, the moun­tain, revered as a sacred site by area tribes, would even­tu­al­ly become the per­ma­nent repos­i­to­ry for spent nuclear fuel and oth­er radioac­tive material.

The waste would trav­el via roads and rail­roads through com­mu­ni­ties through­out the coun­try as it made its way to Neva­da. Once it arrived, its home would be deep inside the earth­quake-prone moun­tain. The DOE’s Final Envi­ron­men­tal Impact State­ment (FEIS) for the project admits that Yuc­ca Moun­tain may be shak­en by ground motion” and that beyond-the-design” events could col­lapse the waste facility.

The Depart­ment of Ener­gy’s pro­posed radioac­tive mate­r­i­al repos­i­to­ry at Yuc­ca Moun­tain. (Info­graph­ic: ener​gy​.gov)

The Tim­bisha Shoshone gov­ern­ment blast­ed the Per­ry pro­pos­al, cit­ing the ground­wa­ter con­t­a­m­i­na­tion that the Nuclear Reg­u­la­to­ry Com­mis­sion has said will like­ly occur, even with­out earth­quakes. Tim­bisha Chair­man George Ghol­son told the Depart­ment of Ener­gy the project affronts the Timbisha’s way of life, is dis­re­spect­ful to cul­tur­al beliefs, and con­sti­tutes an envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice infringe­ment on the rights of a sov­er­eign nation. Effects on pub­lic health and sacred sites have not been prop­er­ly stud­ied, Ghol­son says, point­ing out that his peo­ple have lived in the vicin­i­ty of the moun­tain since long before the Unit­ed States exist­ed. Native activists, notably Tom Gold­tooth from Indige­nous Envi­ron­men­tal Net­work, also exco­ri­at­ed the idea, along with Nevada’s state offi­cials and Con­gres­sion­al delegation.

The Tim­bisha Shoshone live west of the moun­tain and test site and still feel the effects of the hun­dreds of det­o­na­tions that occurred there, the first of which hap­pened in 1951. Accord­ing to Durham, radi­a­tion has become part of large areas of land and water, redis­trib­uted via forces such as the winds, the aquifers and the tran­spi­ra­tion cycle. As a result of exist­ing con­t­a­m­i­na­tion, trib­al mem­bers in cer­tain areas are reluc­tant to hunt and col­lect pine nuts, both sta­ples of the tra­di­tion­al diet, says John­ny Bob, med­i­cine man and tra­di­tion­al chief from the Yom­ba Shoshone, who live east of the mountain.

Yom­ba Shoshone med­i­cine man and tra­di­tion­al chief John­ny Bob col­lect­ing pine nuts, a sta­ple of the her­itage Shoshone diet, in the Neva­da moun­tains in the fall of 2016. (Image: Joseph Zummo)

The Unit­ed States faces one more very large bar­ri­er at Yuc­ca Moun­tain, adds Bob. In 1863, Shoshone trib­al heads and Unit­ed States rep­re­sen­ta­tives signed the Treaty of Ruby Val­ley, which declared friend­ship between the par­ties and guar­an­teed the tribes a home­land that encom­pass­es most of Neva­da and mas­sive chunks of Ida­ho, Ore­gon, Cal­i­for­nia and Utah. The fed­er­al gov­ern­ment seemed to for­get all about the agree­ment for decades, though of course there were dis­trac­tions — the Civ­il War, Lincoln’s assas­si­na­tion, the Sioux defend­ing their home­lands and more. After the Unit­ed States woke up to the gigan­tic gap in the nation­al map, it tried unsuc­cess­ful­ly for decades to pay off the Shoshone tribes.

We respect the treaty,” says Bob. And we don’t want the nuclear waste.”

DOE offers one bright spot in all the con­tro­ver­sy: Accord­ing to the FEIS, Yuc­ca Moun­tain is high­ly unlike­ly” to erupt as a volcano.

This land is whose land?

The Trump admin­is­tra­tion is try­ing to shov­el vast and pris­tine por­tions of the Unit­ed States into the maw of the extrac­tive indus­tries, such as min­ing con­cerns and fos­sil-fuel companies.

An attempt to cut back the size of nation­al mon­u­ments includ­ing Bears Ears, a Utah mon­u­ment replete with trib­al sacred sites, in order to allow oil and gas drilling has gar­nered much pub­lic­i­ty and the threat of a trib­al law­suit. The rever­sal of Oba­ma-era pro­hi­bi­tions against oil drilling in the Arc­tic and Atlantic seas has already been chal­lenged by a law­suit by the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty, the Native orga­ni­za­tion REDOIL (Resist­ing Envi­ron­men­tal Destruc­tion on Indige­nous Lands) and addi­tion­al con­ser­va­tion groups.

A Puebloan gra­nary with­in the Bears Ears Nation­al Mon­u­ment in Utah. (Image. blm​.gov)

Also in the administration’s crosshairs is Bris­tol Bay, an expanse of Alaskan land and water that sup­ports a $1.5‑billion salmon fish­ery. The bay under­pins the sub­sis­tence life­ways of sur­round­ing tribes while pro­vid­ing some 14,000 jobs and pump­ing asso­ci­at­ed spend­ing and tax­es into the state and nation­al economies.

In 2014, after years of sci­en­tif­ic study and pub­lic com­ment on a pro­posed cop­per, gold and molyb­de­num min­ing oper­a­tion for the water­shed of the bay, the Envi­ron­men­tal Pro­tec­tion Agency (EPA) found that Peb­ble Mine would dev­as­tate the area. Fast for­ward to May of this year. With­in hours of meet­ing with Peb­ble Mine own­ers, accord­ing to a CNN report, the Trump EPA sug­gest­ed with­draw­ing Clean Water Act restric­tions on the mine and opened a pub­lic-com­ment peri­od on the con­cept. Admin­is­tra­tor Scott Pruitt said the EPA did not seek a par­tic­u­lar out­come” for this turn­around but wished to be fair” to the mine.

The agency and the mine face fierce oppo­si­tion in Alas­ka that cuts across all eth­nic­i­ties and rela­tion­ships to the water, says Alan­nah Hur­ley, the Yup’ik exec­u­tive direc­tor of Unit­ed Tribes of Bris­tol Bay, which rep­re­sents 14 tribes. Com­mer­cial and sport fish­er­men have joined indige­nous peo­ple as they ral­lied, peti­tioned and spoke out against the mine. Dur­ing the nation­al elec­tion in 2014, two-thirds of Alaskans vot­ed to cre­ate bar­ri­ers to the open­ing of Peb­ble Mine. The oppo­si­tion won in every precinct in the state.

Sock­eye salmon in Bris­tol Bay. (Image: epa​.gov)

Noth­ing has changed about the project and the objec­tions to it. The only change is the polit­i­cal lead­er­ship of this coun­try,” says Hur­ley. This admin­is­tra­tion puts prof­its before human beings and before sci­ence. It is will­ing to cre­ate a human­i­tar­i­an, envi­ron­men­tal and eco­nom­ic cri­sis in Alas­ka so that a min­ing com­pa­ny can reap prof­its. If the admin­is­tra­tion suc­ceeds, a huge sus­tain­able resource will be destroyed.” 

These days, Hur­ley is trav­el­ing around Bris­tol Bay, let­ting iso­lat­ed com­mu­ni­ties know what is going on so they have the infor­ma­tion they need to sub­mit com­ments to the EPA. We want to make sure our voic­es are heard,” says Hurley.

Robin Samuel­son, a Curyung trib­al mem­ber and pres­i­dent of Bris­tol Bay Eco­nom­ic Devel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion, has vowed to fight the mine to his last breath. At that point, he says, his grand­chil­dren will take up the cause: And their kids are going to fight Peb­ble. We and Bris­tol Bay will nev­er give up.”

Alan­nah Hur­ley, the exec­u­tive direc­tor of Unit­ed Tribes of Bris­tol Bay, oppos­es the Peb­ble Mine at an EPA hear­ing back in 2014. (Image: save​bris​tol​bay​.org)

Locked and leaded

On Ryan Zinke’s first day as Sec­re­tary of the Inte­ri­or, he rode to work on a horse and signed an order. The doc­u­ment rescind­ed restric­tions on use of lead-based ammu­ni­tion and fish­ing-line sinkers while on lands man­aged by the Fish and Wildlife Ser­vice (FWS). An attack on our hunt­ing her­itage” was how the NRA described the Oba­ma-era restric­tions, which would have phased out these uses of the tox­in on FWS lands by 2022.

Though the nation has long banned lead in paint, water pipes and gaso­line, hunters and fish­er­men still pump star­tling amounts of it into the ecosys­tem and food chain, accord­ing to the Cen­ter for Bio­log­i­cal Diver­si­ty. In the Unit­ed States, an esti­mat­ed 3,000 tons of lead are shot into the envi­ron­ment by hunt­ing every year, anoth­er 80,000 tons are released at shoot­ing ranges, and 4,000 tons are lost in ponds and streams as fish­ing lures and sinkers — while as many as 20 mil­lion birds and oth­er ani­mals die each year from sub­se­quent lead poi­son­ing,” the Cen­ter says.

An X‑ray reveals a .22 cal­iber lead bul­let lodged in a Cal­i­for­nia con­dor’s stom­ach, con­firm­ing sus­pi­cions that it died from lead poi­son­ing. (Image: ven​tanaws​.org)

Tribes try to salve the wounds. At the Zuni Pueblo eagle sanc­tu­ary in the New Mex­i­co desert, some of the birds cared for there have lead-relat­ed ner­vous-sys­tem dam­age. This is the result of con­sum­ing the car­cass­es of ani­mals that have been shot with lead pel­lets, or of being shot them­selves. In August 2017, the Sis­se­ton-Wah­peton Oyate, in South Dako­ta, cel­e­brat­ed the release into the wild of an eagle that a zoo had reha­bil­i­tat­ed with the help of lead-test­ing equip­ment donat­ed by the tribe.

Humans are at risk as well. When hunters, fish­er­men and their fam­i­lies eat game shot with lead-based ammu­ni­tion or con­sume fish tak­en from con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed waters, the tox­in is on the menu. “[Lead] can degrade a person’s vas­cu­lar, renal, ner­vous and repro­duc­tive sys­tems,” with chil­dren espe­cial­ly vul­ner­a­ble to the effects, say wildlife biol­o­gists at the Yurok Tribe. They say the heavy met­al can’t be entire­ly elim­i­nat­ed when clean­ing the game, because lead-based bul­lets explode into frag­ments as small as a mote of dust when they strike a target.

Yurok com­mu­ni­ty out­reach pro­grams have warned of the dan­gers. A trib­al ammu­ni­tion exchange replaced hunters’ lead-based ammu­ni­tion with non-lead vari­eties. The project was a con­tri­bu­tion to trib­al and state efforts to restore the endan­gered con­dor, which, like eagles, are cul­tur­al­ly impor­tant birds that may be poi­soned by con­sum­ing con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed carrion.

What if sci­en­tists dis­cov­er that lead isn’t so bad? the NRA asks in a press release. A group of top sci­en­tists found plen­ty of rea­sons to scoff at this idea. They called lead one of the most-well-stud­ied” of poi­sons, with tox­ic effects…in humans and wildlife, even at very low expo­sure levels.”

In short, with tens of thou­sands of tons of lead bom­bard­ing the envi­ron­ment each year, we all have a shot at lead poisoning.

Ryan Zinke squints into the dis­tance with his shot­gun. (Image: DOI​.gov)

Equal­i­ty redefined

It’s not just Rus­sians any­more. Attacks against vot­ing rights are pro­lif­er­at­ing beyond Putin’s pals hack­ing into state elec­tion sys­tems or manip­u­lat­ing pub­lic opin­ion via social media. With the Trump administration’s all-out assault on bal­lot-box access, non-Natives are get­ting a taste of what Native peo­ple have long expe­ri­enced, accord­ing to OJ Semans, the Rose­bud Sioux exec­u­tive direc­tor of Four Direc­tions, a non­prof­it that advo­cates for equal rights.

To put it blunt­ly,” Semans says, as the Trump admin­is­tra­tion chips away at the abil­i­ty to cast a bal­lot, you non-Natives are becom­ing as equal’ as we are.”

Among admin­is­tra­tion efforts, Semans notes, a House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives com­mit­tee has moved toward defund­ing the Elec­tion Assis­tance Com­mis­sion, which helps improve elec­tion sys­tems and pre­vent hack­ing. Then there’s the Jus­tice Department’s oppo­si­tion to a fed­er­al-court deci­sion that called a Texas vot­er-ID law dis­crim­i­na­to­ry, along with the department’s scruti­ny of the Nation­al Vot­er Reg­is­tra­tion Act, with an eye toward purg­ing vot­er rolls.

Omi­nous­ly, Semans adds, the con­ser­v­a­tive-dom­i­nat­ed Supreme Court will soon take up a case in which a low­er court declared that Wisconsin’s Repub­li­can-con­trolled leg­is­la­ture had ger­ry­man­dered, or geo­graph­i­cal­ly rigged, vot­ing dis­tricts to ensure they could keep elect­ing their own. Will the Court’s deci­sion in the case clar­i­fy the issue?, Semans asks. Or will it make ger­ry­man­der­ing eas­i­er — fol­low­ing its own lead in Shel­by v. Hold­er, which demol­ished cer­tain por­tions of the Vot­ing Rights Act, mak­ing bal­lot-box access even more dif­fi­cult for vul­ner­a­ble vot­ers, includ­ing Native Americans.

OJ Semans, exec­u­tive direc­tor of Four Direc­tions, at a vot­ing rights hear­ing. (Image: vot​in​gright​sto​day​.org)

NARF attor­ney Natal­ie Lan­dreth, who is Chick­a­saw, rolls her eyes at the idea of the com­mis­sion run by Kansas Sec­re­tary of State Kris Kobach, which seeks to prove vot­er fraud while vac­u­um­ing up vot­ers’ per­son­al data. Lan­dreth called Kobach’s group a sham” in search of a nonex­is­tent prob­lem. It’s like set­ting up a com­mis­sion to hunt for uni­corns,” Lan­dreth wrote in a state­ment for a Sep­tem­ber hear­ing of the Native Amer­i­can Vot­ing Rights Coali­tion (NAVRC), which Semans chaired in Bis­mar­ck, North Dako­ta. The coali­tion includes NARF, the Nation­al Con­gress of Amer­i­can Indi­ans, the ACLU and oth­er con­cerned groups.

And don’t for­get the president’s sug­ges­tion dur­ing the 2016 elec­tion that his sup­port­ers take it upon them­selves to chal­lenge oth­er vot­ers, vig­i­lante-style, in the polling places. Vot­er harass­ment is some­times phys­i­cal­ly con­fronta­tion­al, but it doesn’t have to be in order to work,” Semans says. The NAVRC pan­el heard from Native vot­ers that they fre­quent­ly face unco­op­er­a­tive poll work­ers or a gaunt­let of unfriend­ly strangers act­ing as polling-place observers. Sit­u­a­tions like these can go a long way toward scar­ing off vot­ers,” Semans says.

When Natives need to reg­is­ter, vote ear­ly, get trans­porta­tion to dis­tant polling places, set up precincts in their own com­mu­ni­ties, and/​or use the ID they are like­ly to have, like a trib­al ID, they get lit­tle help from the local gov­ern­ments that admin­is­ter vot­ing, accord­ing to an In These Times inves­ti­ga­tion. Says Semans, We also don’t nec­es­sar­i­ly have the tech­nol­o­gy for the new vot­ing options — online bal­lot requests and the like. Any access we have, we got our­selves, through vot­er-reg­is­tra­tion dri­ves, get-out-the-vote cam­paigns and fed­er­al law­suits. We don’t even have mon­ey, so all this has been accom­plished with dona­tions, vol­un­teers and pro-bono attorneys.”

Advo­cates have turned to the fed­er­al courts to obtain vot­ing rights for Native peo­ple. From left, Michae­lynn Hawk, Crow; South Dako­ta ranch­er Bret Healy and Rose­bud Sioux Barb and OJ Semans, all from Four Direc­tions rights group; Mark and Ilo Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine, North­ern Cheyenne; and Tom Rodgers, Black­feet, of Car­lyle Con­sult­ing, seen in Port­land, Ore­gon, ahead of a hear­ing for Wan­der­ing Med­i­cine v. McCul­loch. (Image: Joseph Zummo)

In August, Semans served as an elec­tion observ­er in Kenya under the aus­pices of the Carter Cen­ter; he will return to Kenya for the Octo­ber re-do of the dis­put­ed pres­i­den­tial por­tion of the elec­tion. The Kenyan elec­tion amazed me,” Semans says. I saw a country’s orig­i­nal peo­ple involved in run­ning their own elec­tions. We don’t have that in the Unit­ed States.” He also saw that the Kenyan polit­i­cal-par­ty observers who scru­ti­nized bal­lots for irreg­u­lar­i­ties worked togeth­er to ensure every eli­gi­ble bal­lot was count­ed, no mat­ter for whom it was cast.

Think back to the Bush – Gore elec­tion and the hang­ing chads in Flori­da,” Semans says. In U.S. elec­tions, our goal when scru­ti­niz­ing bal­lots is knock­ing out the opposition’s votes. We put par­ty before coun­try. The Kenyans put coun­try before party.”

Semans says fight­ing for equal rights is a priv­i­lege. I wake up every morn­ing glad I can do this work. It’s a strug­gle for equal­i­ty for us Natives, of course, but for every­one else as well. Peo­ple of every descrip­tion have lived in, worked in or mar­ried into our Native com­mu­ni­ties. When we win, every­one wins.”

Stephanie Woodard is an award-win­ning jour­nal­ist who has writ­ten inves­tiga­tive arti­cles for In These Times. Her new book is Amer­i­can Apartheid: The Native Amer­i­can Strug­gle for Self-Deter­mi­na­tion and Inclu­sion.
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