Indian Territory

"We have only one planet: one water, one air, one land.

If we don't take care of it, it won't take care of us.

I pray for forgiveness from the water, the air, Mother Earth.

I pray for healing for the people."

[Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone Spiritual Elder, Nevada Desert Experience flier announcing 1992 Lenten protest at the Nevada Test Site]

For better or worse, the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute Indian tribes have become inextricably bound into the Yucca Mountain debate, both through their geographical and cultural heritage and through an uneasy symbiotic relationship with fringe environmentalists. Earth Worshippers of both the environmental movement and the anti-nuclear religious sects have adopted Nevada's Indians as lovable pets, whose naturalistic culture is a convenient manifestation of their own sociological theories.

Sadly, this means Indian input into the Yucca Mountain debate has often been limited to their doing sacred rain dances for the benefit of environmentalists intent on showing that using the geological formations beneath Yucca Mountain for radioactive waste storage is spiritual sacrilege. As Mary Manning of the Las Vegas Sun reported in May of 1984:

"The Shoshone Indian tribe may have a claim to Yucca Mountain, one of nine sites proposed as a high-level nuclear waste site.

The Indian Land Commission awarded $23 million to the Shoshone under the Ruby Treaty in the mid 1970s for land taken by white settlers, but the tribe refused the money, said Bill Vincent, Citizens Alert Southern Nevada coordinator, during a public hearing in Las Vegas.

They claimed that the land was still theirs. The Indian lands issue still is under appeal.

"Their land claim may still be open," Vincent said. Included in that claim is the remote volcanic tuff mountain targeted by the U.S. Department of Energy as a choice location for a high-level nuclear waste repository.

Indian tribes have a stake in DOE plans, Judy Treichel of Clergy and Laity Concerned said. Under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act, Indians are entitled to federal funds when their land is used for nuclear waste disposal.

"There are large amounts of money available to the tribe," she said.

[Manning,Mary; Las Vegas Sun, 5/23/84]

What is disturbing about this article is that most of it doesn't deal with Indian issues or Indian spokespeople, but with Citizen Alert and its white environmental activists. The question is whether Citizen Alert and Clergy and Laity Concerned (our notorious Judy Treichel) were speaking for the best interests of Nevada's Indians, or whether these peace protestors were pushing an anti-nuclear agenda by any means possible, and found the Indians convenient puppets.

Actually, it is a misconception that all Indian tribes are alike and oppose nuclear technology unequivocally. While the Western Shoshone from northern Nevada have opposed Yucca Mountain without qualification, their neighbors to the south, the Southern Paiute, have taken a much more flexible position, taking active part in the cultural resources studies that were conducted at the site. Jim Arnold, a Southern Paiute, has been a key cultural resources consultant to the repository study.

Other tribes have had mixed reactions to the nuclear issue. According to an Indian periodical called Indian Voices:

Other Tribes who have declared their lands "Nuclear Free Zones"

The Salish and Kootenai tribes of the Flathead Nation in Montana declared their land free in 1984. The Inuits of Alaska appealed to the United Nations to establish a Nuclear Free Zone in the Arctic. In 1979 and 1981 the Cheyenne River Sioux of Eagle Butte, South Dakota barred the location of nuclear wastes within the boundaries of the reservation. The White Mountain Apache of Arizona passed a resolution in opposition to the construction of a nuclear power plant in their area. [NIC, Indian Voices, p4, Woozhch'IID 1994]

On the other hand:

$Tribes invite Nuclear Waste$

Two Native Nations, the Mescalewro Apache (NM) and the Skull Valley Goshute Tribe (UT), are moving forward in the process to select tribal lands for nuclear waste storage despite widespread criticism from, environmenmtalisyts who are advocating their reservations be declared "Nuclear Free Zones." Both the Goshute and Mescalero Apache of New Mexico have so far received $300,000 in DOE funding and are each applying for an additional $2.8 million to continue studies for potential waste storage sites. [NIC, Indian Voices, p4, Woozhch'IID 1994


The two main tribes involved in the Yucca Mountain dispute are the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute. Historically the two tribes were often enemies who through a quirk of their boundaries apparently divide claim over Yucca Mountain (see Figure 7) Paiute traditions view Yucca Mountain as near the sacred center of their universe, giving them an especially good reason to be wary of disruption of the area. The Paiutes have not pressed their claims as vigorously as the Western Shoshone, however, whose position seems to be part of a larger battle with the federal government based on disagreement over settlement of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1873. Because Shoshone opposition to Yucca Mountain has been most vocal, they have become the favorites of national and international environmental groups.

To show just how indispensable the Western Shoshone have become in the anti-nuclear and peace and justice mythology, we quote from a Las Vegas Review Journal World Brief from July 14, 1993:


London - Fourteen women who breached the walls of Buckingham Palace in an anti-nuclear protest Tuesday while Queen Elizabeth was inside were charged with conspiracy and disorderly conduct, police said.

The women, from a group calling itself the Women's Nuclear Test Ban Network, scrambled up ladders to scale a perimeter wall topped with barbed wire.

The Network group said it was demanding royal recognition of the Western Shoshone Indian reservation near the U.S. nuclear weapons testing site in Nevada. The group said 23 British nuclear explosions since 1957 at the site had brought poverty and sickness to people in the area. [Las Vegas Review Journal, July 14, 1993]

The international portrayal of the Western Shoshone as helpless victims has larger political implications than merely concern for the plight of Nevada Indians. Various social liberation movements require an oppressed people as a catalyst for political action. Among the environmental movement are those who believe toxic dumps are purposely placed in disadvantaged communities as a mechanism for subjugating those populations, rather than simply as the practical result of economic and technical considerations. Liberation theology, which has had a profound influence on the Test Site protests of the Franciscans of the Nevada Desert Experience, also requires an oppressed class displaced from the land derived from this philosophy's roots in Brazillian land reform. Claims that the Shoshone have been disenfranchised from the land are therefore a prerequisite for greater political protest.

In reality, the Western Shoshone's economic problems more likely stem from their preoccupation with protesting the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain to the exclusion of more lucrative claims for benefits from the federal government. While the Southern Paiute settled their claims against the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1873 in the mid-80's, as of 1994 the Western Shoshone Council had still not accepted their $22 million set aside as compensation (the amount is now larger due to interest). This settlement for lands that were stripped from the Shoshone by the federal government, lands which include parts of the Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain, has been ajudicated through the courts to the Supreme Court level and is not likely to be much changed in the future.

In retaliation, the Shoshone Tribal Council has over the years made allies with American Peace Test, Citizen Alert, Nevada Desert Experience, Greenpeace and a number of anti-nuclear protest groups, going so far as to issue permits to Test Site protestors for access to Indian lands!

Of course, the Shoshone and Paiute may very well deserve a much better settlement for Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain lands than is now being offered; it would not be the first time Indian tribes had been offered glass beads for commercial property. However, this points to the possibility that just compensation for land is more central to the Western Shoshone position in regard to Yucca Mountain than its radiological hazards:

Ian Zabarte, Manager of the Western Shoshone Nuclear Waste Program, has strong opinions regarding Native American Sovereignity and Nuclear Waste issues.

Zabarte says, "I want to challenge the Department of Energy attempt to load and control a process of involving Stakeholders. I also hope to convince interested parties to take a stand in support of Native American Stakeholders to make decisions themselves without interference. I believe that if you understand the legal and historical cases of Native American Sovereignity, particularly Western Shoshone land rights, you will chose to take action to work with Native Americans to change the laws which keep them disenfranchised and compel the U.S. Government to follow the laws . . . not just those that provide some benefit to the United States Government.

[Western Shoshone Offer Strong Medicine to the DOE, Indian Voices, p3, Wooshch 'IID 1994]

Both the pacifist religious environmentalists and the Western Shoshone know a shotgun wedding when they see it and their alliance is shaky at best. Indian land claims are supported by the environmentalists who in return are allowed to carry on NTS protests with tribal approval and occasional logistical aid. The problem for the Indians is that by using this tactic they haven't married just one protest group, but have been forced to bring a whole range of protest groups under the tent flap.

In the Western United States, the original Indian way of life fell as much by its confrontation with the Iron Horse and technological acceleration as by confrontation with white men. It is unlikely the Indian tribes of Nevada will have much luck stopping the wheels of progress this time around either at Yucca Mountain or the Nevada Test Site and the question becomes whether at some point they will break with the environmentalists and the state and negotiate separately. In that case, Citizen Alert, Nevada Desert Experience and NWPO may not prove to be the best and strongest voice for the Indians, and the Western Shoshone may find more forceful voices among their own elders who can speak for the economic and political interests of the Indian reservations.

Fortunately, Section 118 of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act does give affected Indian Tribes some say in the repository siting process and access to compensation. Among a number of important statements regarding Indian rights :

Sec. 118 (a) Participation of Indian tribes in repository siting decisions. Upon the submission by the President to the Congress of a recommendation of a site for a repository located on the reservation of an affected Indian tribe, the governing body of such Indian tribe may disapprove the site designation and submit to Congress a notice of disapproval. . . . .

(b) (3) (A) The Secretary shall provide financial and technical assistance to any affected Indian tribe requesting such assistance and where there is a site with respect to which the Commission has authorized construction of a repository. Such assistance shall be designed to mitigate the impact on such Indian tribe of the development of such repository. . . .

(6) Financial assistance authorized in this subsection shall be made out of amounts held in the Nuclear Waste Fund established in section 302 [42 U.S.C. 10222]

While Yucca Mountain is not legally on tribal reservation lan as per settlement of the Ruby Valley Treaty by the Supreme Court, their cultural links to the land are still quite strong. Unfortunately, access for the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute to the financial and technical assistance designated by the Nuclear Waste Policy Act has been lost in the shuffle as Nevada's Senators, Governor, ex-governor, mayor and assorted anti-nuclear environmentalists pursued their own political self interests. Tribes not shackled by the Nevada political situation may receive substantial benefits.

For example, the Mescalero and Goshute indian tribes received substantial funds for studying possible acceptance of a monitorable retrievable storage complex on their reservation land. Interestingly, Nevada tribes (specifically the Fort McDermitt Paiutes on the Nevada Oregon border) who might have accepted an MRS facility on their land have been opposed by the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office on the grounds that Nevada is not legally obligated to accept both a repository and a MRS facility. The stakes are substantial:


Nevada or a neighboring state may be forced by the federal government to host a facility for spent reactor fuel if negotiations with Indian tribes fall through, U.S. Nuclear Waste Negotiator Richard Stallings warned Monday. . .

Fort McDermitt is one of four Indian tribes across the nation still actively negotiating with Stallings' office. The tribe, which has already received $300,000 in study grants, must now decide whether to welcome a host site. . .

These benefits, according to Stallings, include the creation of approximately 500 long term jobs and between $50 and $60 million in research money, which would come from the nation's nuclear waste fund. [Albert, Corey; Humboldt County Sun, May 18, 1994]

Because the authorization for the Nuclear Waste Negotiator runs out in early 1995, tribes who have researched the monitored retrievable storage option presently feel cheated because it appears another treaty has been placed on the table only to be drawn away at the last minute. The amending of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act in 1995 could lead to the Indian tribes being written out of the MRS solution. Even more controversial is that the MRS could be forced onto Nevada land despite the present prohibition against the repository and MRS being sited in the same state. Thus it is conceivable that the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute could see an MRS facility built on what had formally been their land at the Nevada Test Site, but without the benefit of compensation.

There is thus perhaps a false impression among at least the Shoshone that the Nevada Nuclear Waste Project Office is their benefactor. Because the state's position is to oppose Yucca Mountain at all costs, rejecting all suggestions of benefits, the Shoshone may in fact be hobbled by their association with the state. NWPO has, however, produced a respectable series of socioeconomic studies on Nevada's Indians, the result of work done at the University of Nevada Reno by Maribeth Hamby, Elmer Rusco and Mary Rusco [see Native Americans and Yucca Mountain: A Final Summary Report (Volumes I and II), NWPO-SE-041-91]. Actually, these were some of the few socioeconomic researchers employed by NWPO who are residents.


To understand why Yucca Mountain should be so important to Nevada's Indian tribes and carry cultural meaning beyond that of a desert rock outcrop. some history is necessary:


The Yucca Mountain area is located on the northern boundary of the Mojave Desert and southern boundary of the Great Basin Desert, and is an important area to many Native American ethnic groups. These groups resided there for thousands of years, using the land and its resources and building these into a cultural definition of themselves as a people. Most of these groups perceive that they were created in these two deserts and that, in so doing, the Creator gave them a special supernatural responsibility to protect and manage the land and its resources. In western terminology, these deserts are their Holy Land.

The Southern Paiutes, for example, believe that they were created by the supernatural near Charleston Peak - called Nuvagantu - located in the Spring Mountains, twenty-five miles southeast of the proposed Yucca Mountain high-level radioactive waste repository. According to Laird:

In prehuman times Nuvagantu was the home of Wolf and his brother, Mythic Coyote. It was the very heart of Tuwiinyaruvipu, the Storied Land.

There was and is no place in the Southern Paiute traditional territory more sacred than the Spring Mountains and the areas around them. Concerns for this sacred area have been expressed repeatedly in the cultural resources studies involving the Southern Paiute people because of its relationship to the Spring Mountains. [Literature Review and Ethnohistory of Native American Occupancy and Use of the Yucca Mountain Area, Science Applications International Corp.January 1990, p14]

Another subliminal current to the debate is the mistreatment of Southern Nevada Indians in historical times. For example:

1849 - The Manly-Rogers party stayed for nine days at a "hastily abandoned" Native American village "most likely Hugwap at Cane Spring . . . devouring the winters store of squash which they found there and fattening their oxen in the stubble in the cornfield [Lingenfelter, 1986

][Literature Review and Ethnohistory of Native American Occupancy and Use of the Yucca Mountain Area, Science Applications International Corp.January 1990, p70]

Later resistance to accepting a buyout of the Ruby Valley Treaty of 1883 thus become understandable. Indian occupation at Ash Meadows and local areas, combined with foraging of the lands surrounding Yucca Mountain, also lead to a certain reluctance to give up all rights to the area. To bring the land ownership issue into court, Shoshone sisters Mary and Carrie Dann, in 1974 elected to "trespass" on Bureau of Land Management controlled land by grazing their cattle without a permit. The Dann family has consistently resisted the takeover of the Yucca Mountain and Test Site area in actions since 1974, one member going to the extreme of dousing himself with gasoline and setting himself on fire.

Some of the most visible modern tribal groups in Nevada interested in the Yucca Mountain issue are the Western Shoshone National Council and the Intertribal Council of Nevada. However, these groups are not necessarily the final authority on these issues, having become locked into alliances that are unlikely to be effective negotiators.