Albion Monitor /Commentary

[Editor's note: Since February 11, protesters have occupied the site where California wants to construct a "low-level" nuclear dump. This area is home to five Native communities and several endangered animals and plant species.

Former Congressman Dan Hamburg is among the environmentalists joining Elders of five Colorado tribes and other Native people to non-violently stop California and the federal government from "desecrating the sacred lands of Ward Valley." To update this report, Hamburg writes on March 23:

The encampment is now in its 42nd day with no end in sight.

Tribal reps are in DC this week to see Babbitt, but there doesn't seem to be a true negotiating position on the part of the feds. They sent Ass't Sec for Indian Affairs, Kevin Gover, out last week to meet with the tribes. His position: End the encampment and allow the tritium testing to go forward, we'll give you $25K to conduct studies on environmental justice and sacred site issues. The tribes were insulted.

The "village" varies in size from 30-50. It swells for "special events" like concerts or ceremonies. We went through some harsh wind and rain. Now it's more like desert heat with some wind. Lots of blooming -- apparently it's the most beautiful desert spring in 100 years!

In Defense of Silyaye aheace

by Dan Hamburg

on Ward Valley
The current confrontation at Ward Valley over the construction of a nuclear waste dump is classic David versus Goliath. On one side, the federal and state governments, seemingly all powerful but in reality sycophants to corporate interests. On the other, five Colorado River Indian Tribes whose total membership is less than 6,000 people, aided by grassroots environmental organizations like GreenAction and EarthFirst! and by the American Indian Movement (AIM).

The contradictions apparent in siting a nuclear waste dump here are readily apparent. Ward Valley, known by the Mojave people as Silyaye aheace, is critical habitat for the federally listed desert tortoise. The dump site sits above the aquifer that feeds the Colorado River, just 18 miles to the east. The firm hired by the government to evaluate the site and construct the dump, US Ecology, has a horrible track record in terms of containing radioactive waste even for a few decades, let alone for the millenia required.

Any one of the above should be sufficient reason to cancel plans for this dump. Interestingly, though, the tribes that live along the Colorado River-- Fort Mojave, Colorado River, Cocopah, Quechan, and Chemehuevi -- are basing their resistance primarily on spirituality. This confounds the bureaucrats and politicians. How does one compromise with, or successfully bribe, people who have taken an oath based on their sacred regard for the ground on which their ancestors lived and died?

The tribes have asked to meet with President Clinton, or at least Secretary of the Interior Babbitt, to discuss the situation. Instead, they hear from a spokesman from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) that they are dangerously "upping the ante" simply by making such a request. This is arrogance. The tribes are sovereign nations and must be afforded the respect of meeting with officials who can actually make decisions. A recent meeting with an Interior Department undersecretary for Indian Affairs resolved nothing because the official had no authority. This is an insult to the tribes.

The Ward Valley controversy has dragged on for more than 11 years. It came to a head about a month ago when the BLM ordered protesters off the site so that test drilling for tritium could proceed. (Tritium is radioactive hydrogen left over from the aboveground nuclear bomb testing since the 1940s. It lingers in the air, water, and soil worldwide.) The tribes have told the BLM that testing was irrelevant since they would not allow the desecration of the land to continue.

The encampment (now called "the village" by occupants) at Silyaye aheace is now in its sixth week. There is no end in sight. Elders perform sacred ceremonies around the clock. AIM is here to protect the elders, as are tribal members and non-native activists. Some have said they will die before they allow a nuclear dump on land that was home to their ancestors and is therefore sacred to this generation and generations to come.

The confrontation at Ward Valley is emblematic of the kind of questions we face as a culture in the coming decades. Are we willing to risk contaminating the water source for millions of people while desecrating sacred land just so we can put our garbage "out of sight, out of mind?" If applied with enough brute force, this "strategy" may succeed for awhile. But only for awhile.

There are brave, committed, and above all, patient people at Silyaye aheace. They are standing against a culture gone too far, but they are also standing for a better, safer future for all our children. Indian people believe that decisions should always be made looking ahead to "the seventh generation." How can that be applied to the disposal of nuclear waste that remains lethal for more than a thousand generations?

It can't. That's why this dump must be stopped. The production of nuclear waste must likewise be stopped. Save Ward Valley! Our children will thank us to the seventh and even to the seven hundredth generation.

Dan Hamburg is a former congressman and currently executive director of V.O.T.E., a Bolinas-based foundation. He is a candidate for governor of California on the ticket of the Green Party. He and his wife Carrie have been camping at Ward Valley since February 11.

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Albion Monitor March 24, 1998 (

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