Your country’s crumbling Native land is a major point of contention

In the 1950s, most of my ancestors in southeastern Arizona and southeastern New Mexico used to live there. Before the turn of the century, timber and agriculture were the primary industries for the area,…

Your country’s crumbling Native land is a major point of contention

In the 1950s, most of my ancestors in southeastern Arizona and southeastern New Mexico used to live there. Before the turn of the century, timber and agriculture were the primary industries for the area, along with an occasional silver mine. Diving for trout in the Tonto National Forest created an income source that my great-grandparents, along with many of their friends, depended on.

Like most Indian people of the Southwest, my ancestors had ancestral land that was sacred to them. Even today, I visit the area, sometimes in Tucson, to look at a lake or memory spot in Arizona, and sometimes in the Jemez Mountains and Emporia, NM, where my great-grandfather was a shaman. Like so many others who can’t take part in tribal life in America, this part of my ancestry has disappeared, long-since consumed by commercial development and agricultural expansion.

Related Image Expand / Contract (Cathryn Meyer)

In the last several decades, much of the land my family originally inhabited is in a state of post-apocalyptic situation, flooded by rising rivers and now a place where residential and commercial development is happening before us. We are dying. The land is dying. Our culture is dying. What will become of the land?

What we have left remains outside the people of the Eldorado, Huron, Tohono O’odham, and other federally recognized tribes that live in the region and suffer from the massive pollution from local gold and copper mines and industrial uranium mines that have poisoned our rivers, ground and air.

Ten years ago this month, the Boundary Waters Treaty Administration of the Oglala Sioux announced it would ask a court to decertify the Boundary Waters Treaty of 1909 to allow more mining in the area, except those that actually benefit the tribes and other endangered species. But such mining is only one threat. I also want to talk about nuclear waste dumping here, waste that is reaching unprecedented proportions in the area of our ancestral home.

In the 1970s, in an unprecedented confrontation, more than 2,000 people converged on Leith, ND, to protest the Buswell Nuclear Power Plant that was going to begin operation in the closest place to where my great-grandfather was a shaman in the Tonto National Forest. When the protests came to an end, Leith was left in ruins, partially de-constructed buildings leaning into each other in a seeming event of dynamite. Thousands of old miners died in Leith.

Although the Nuclear Regulatory Commission re-issued a license for the plant in 1982, in a catastrophic accident several years later in August of 1986, Leith became the worst site ever to have nuclear waste dumped into an area where the population resided. The site has become a smoking crater that is now dangerously radioactive. Rather than radiated uranium gas, the radiation for which there were no controls, the radiation from the incident occurred in water.

Related Image Expand / Contract (Cathryn Meyer)

There is evidence of nuclear waste in the fields of the abandoned or decommissioned nuclear power plants themselves. Today, according to a Union of Concerned Scientists report, there are up to three times more total radioactive waste at the nation’s 104 nuclear power plants, spread over 132,000 square miles in 13 states, than there is that separates the nation from the top of Mount Everest! Today there are 130 waste waste storage sites on U.S. land, many empty, in several states.

A New York Times report said: “One of the key problems at the reactors is that they are buried underground, rather than above ground like the main nuclear storage pools. That protects the reactor but doesn’t protect the spent fuel from wild weather or a facility collapse.” That is a problem we are all facing today.

It is estimated that the nation will need to build another 104 new power plants in the next 40 years. Congress is currently debating a number of federal nuclear waste storage sites, some of which would be located on public lands or under federal jurisdiction, to avoid the nightmare site of Leith and the contaminated soil.

Finally, on Sunday Feb. 5, a ship carrying 400 tons of radioactive spent fuel from the San Onofre nuclear plant, which was shut down on January 31, traveled from San Onofre to a site two miles away. The plant is one of 32 owned by Southern California Edison.

All of these problems, plus other ecological disasters that this president seems to care little about, have collectively eaten away at our ancestral land. We cannot retreat from this land anymore. We will have to fight to save our heritage, our families, and our way of life.

Cathryn Meyer, a Tohono O’odham

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