From uranium mining in the Four Corners to the Hanford nuclear site, the U.S. government has consistently treated First Peoples’ land with disregard.
Uranium mine tailings clean-up near Moab, Utah.
Photo Credit: Gary Whitton/Shutterstock
In March 2008, a small group of medicine people, healers and health professionals accompanied a native woman back to the Four Corners Reservation in Arizona after 22 years of self-exile. She had been suffering from leukemia, and then kidney failure from chemo, as a result of unknowingly playing in uranium tailings as a child. Yet she was healing despite stopping chemo, and she knew enough from her tradition that physical healing depends also on spiritual and soul healing, and so the journey was arranged.
The first morning in Tuba City, Arizona, we were surprised to meet members of the U.S. Geological Survey team who were looking to discover hidden uranium tailings poisoning the waters. As it happened, the woman had such information from her childhood, and in turn the survey team directed us to a private back road so that from above, we could view the now covered pit where she had played.
It was an extraordinary visit and significant for each of us in different ways. I was deeply rattled at the very beginning when we stopped at midnight at the entrance to the reservation in the tiny town of Cameron. We wanted to approach this homecoming with formal respect. It was necessary to do ceremony. We exited from the cars although it was bitter cold, and I bent down to touch the earth. Running my fingers through the sand, I was astonished to find they were hot. Cameron had been a major mining and storage site for uranium, but uranium is not hot. Nevertheless, on this cold night in March in Arizona, the sands were hot.
I could not forget that moment. It persisted in my thinking for years. In 2011, I began writing a novel, A Rain of Night Birds, about two climatologists, one native and one non-native, who upon meeting each other had to face the emotional and spiritual anguish of their profession. Unsurprisingly, the non-native woman goes to Cameron and discovers that the sands are hot. Her professional training doesn’t help her solve the mystery, but she pays respect to the profoundly wounded earth.
Writing a novel is a mysterious process. Fiction requires the bedrock of truth to be of value and truth requires fiction to translate its deepest meanings and implications. When I was writing the novel, I found myself seeking the bedrock through which the story of the characters’ love for each other and their anguish for the world would be revealed. In October 2013, I visited the Columbia Gorge Interpretive Center Museum and was captivated by the First Peoples exhibit on the history of the original people who lived in the area of the Gorge.
Like the burning sands of Cameron, I could not forget these First People. I was also puzzled by the focus of the museum, at once on the First Peoples and their ways of life, myths and wisdom, and also on the local history of transportation in the modern era. It is a disconcerting juxtaposition of soul and steel. The next August, I had to return; the Columbia Gorge and the Four Corners Reservation were becoming important sites in my novel. I had two visits in mind: the first to the Hanford Nuclear Reservation and the second to the Yakama Reservation.
The U.S. government has the audacity to call Hanford a “reservation” after expropriating Lalik (Rattlesnake Mountain), sacred to the Yakama, for use by the Manhattan Project, which built the B Reactor, the first full-scale plutonium production reactor in the world, which made Fat Man, the bomb that destroyed Nagasaki. Hanford is decommissioned now, but it cannot be cleaned up. It is one of the 10 most toxic sites in the world and the most toxic in the United States. It affects the entire Columbia River and its watershed.
Aerial view of the 100-B Area with Reactor B, the first large-scale nuclear reactor ever built. (image: Everett Historical/Shutterstock)
When my traveling companion and I applied for reservations for the tour of Hanford, we were told they were sold out until 2012. But the day before we left for the Northwest, two tickets became available, so we took the tour into hell. The following day, we met with Russell Jim, an elder of the Yakama Nation, head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program.
Jim spoke with us about the devastation of the land, how it is affecting the Yakama Nation and about the environmental impact of the radioisotopes that were released into the areas surrounding the B Reactor and the other nuclear reactors aligning the Columbia River. He spoke of the radiant salmon hanging to dry on the porches of the local people, and the radiation experiments enacted on non-consensual local natives. “But we will not leave our way of life,” he said. He was determined that his people would not become like the conquerors, or like those who created Hanford and nuclear bombs.
At its best, literature allows the reader to enter another world and experience another being’s life. In order for this to come about, the writer herself must enter the reality fully. In 1977, I had breast cancer. In 2008, I put my hands on the earth on the Four Corners Reservation and discovered the sands were hot. In March 2011, at the time of the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima, I lay down in my imagination within the body of the Earth Sea Mother to feel the radiation burn she cannot escape. On Aug. 11, 2014, I took the public tour of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where an accidental release of a plume of radiation burned into my body, evidenced by extreme C-reactive protein levels that took months to cool. For the next years I lived in the body of my imagination or the imagination of my body or both of the realities of the two climatologists whose lives I was coming to know and chronicle in my novel.
We will not survive as people or as a planet if we do not learn each other’s reality in every cell of our bodies. We will not survive if we do not look unflinchingly at the grave harm we are doing. Empathy and the willingness to experience common jeopardy may help us heal our psychotic condition. Writing this on April 6, 2017, I learn that our infantile and demented president has sent 59 Tomahawk cruise missiles onto the bleeding soil of Syria. This Earth Day, I offer you an excerpt from A Rain of Night Birds. May our Earth Mother survive us, somehow.
September, 2007, Canyon de Chelly. It was just weeks since Terrence had collapsed. As they drove in the long about way she and her father favored through Cameron, Tuba City, Kayenta, Many Farms to Chinle, Sandra’s thoughts inevitably flitted to the earlier trip. She had never gained an understanding of the hot sands. She couldn’t set it entirely aside because she believed that Terrence had buckled when he penetrated, with his piercing eyes, the history that led to the contamination of sacred land at Hanford Nuclear Reservation. He had looked through Wy’east (Mt Hood) to see it, in the way he had looked at the 2007 IPPC report through the wide-angle multidimensional lens of his mind.
Alone at Massacre Cave Outlook, where the brutal Kit Carson and his men had slaughtered mostly women and children in order to eradicate the Diné, the sands dribbled back into her consciousness. Terrence’s precarious condition had seemingly allowed her to set aside the entire spectrum of ills from the Anthropocene – from war to the poisoned earth – to focus on him. And also his condition had raised her alarm to orange alert. Worried about him, she turned away from the hot sands, but she could not forget them when standing at Adah Aho’doo’nili (Two Fell Off).
She could see into the earth to its fiery core and as far as the sun, as he could see forward and back seven generations and widely to the origin of the wind, its destination and return, to the swirl of currents, rising and falling, emerging and diminishing, an unending circle encompassing the globe.
Now she – so much had they become one – had to hold alongside Terrence’s collapse looking at Hanford, the inescapable fact, though she did not understand it, that the sands at Cameron had been hot at midnight on a cold March night, 2005, just before the advent of the spring equinox.