Protecting the sustainability of traditional lifeways

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River on the ceded lands of the Yakama Nation.

The Hanford Reach of the Columbia River on the ceded lands of the Yakama Nation.

A guest blog by Yvonne Sherwood

I’ve been told the white bluffs within Yakama ceded land are medicinal – but how would I know in what ways? Our families have not returned for too many generations. I lack the embodied knowledge of the white bluffs and so lack the ability to share with you the smell of the soil, the sound of the water, the feeling of the air. Like many, I’ve only seen the pictures. What I do know is that every summer, winter, or spring I’d return home to the Yakama Reservation from my studies at UC Santa Cruz, I would learn each time that another friend or family member was suffering from cancer -  a sister, one of my mother’s closest friends, a relative’s co-worker. And while sitting in a local university on the Yakama Reservation that hosts a community science fair, the speaker would share the “best ways” to prepare our traditional food, the salmon, that comes from the river: “Lower your intake and when you do eat, don’t broil the fish or eat the cheeks, the best method is one that allows the fats to run away from the salmon... This way the risk is lowered. We tell our elders this, but you know they are set in their ways and they’re not going to eat less or throw away what they consider the best parts.” The reason we cannot return to the white bluffs or other sites is due to the release of radioactive waste from the Hanford Nuclear Facility.  

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River (1960).

Nuclear reactors line the riverbank at the Hanford Site along the Columbia River (1960).

Hanford, considered to be the most radioactive contaminated site in the Western hemisphere, holds more than 2/3rds of the United States’ nuclear waste, and it is located in the ceded area of the Yakama Nation. Hanford also sits on the Columbia River, the largest river in the Pacific Northwest, a river that supports fisherman, supplies drinking water, and is a spawning place for different Salmon. Many might also be interested to know the rivers supports the nation’s leading rates of agricultural production. Despite claims that the site was selected because it was barren, it was not. And in 1943, the area that included burial sites, historic village sites, subsistence resources, and non-native settlements was cleared for the top-secret production of plutonium for war efforts.

The mushroom cloud from the Nagaskai bomb (1945) highlights the more well-known effects of nuclear devices.

The mushroom cloud from the Nagaskai bomb (1945) highlights the more well-known effects of nuclear devices.

In total, over 2,058 nuclear devices, either uranium or plutonium, and for reasons ranging from “peaceful use” to “weapons related,” have been detonated around the world. The U.S. alone, by official count, has detonated between 1945 and 1992 at least 1,054 nuclear devices (DOE /NV 209). Many of us are aware that these devices were detonated in the South Pacific, at the Nevada Testing Grounds, and Trinity Testing Site. Few people, however, understand how the production of these nuclear devices, the detonations, and waste associated with this process have displaced and affected thousands of people – most aggressively affecting Indigenous communities around the world - and communities that stay are unable to practice their lifeways. For example, my Yakama family members’ treaty rights that include grazing, gathering, hunting, fishing, and water use have all been affected by contamination from Hanford. Put simply, you cannot eat and harvest what has been poisoned.

As a research intern for the Center of World Indigenous Studies, I work with a group of scientists that produce independent research and education with Fourth World nations to advance Fourth World self-determination and well-being. The project to which I’m most closely involved is called the Nuclear Risk Assessment and Action Research Project. Within this project we investigate the risks and pathways of nuclear contamination on tribal communities within the Columbia River Basin. In addition to examining how nuclear contamination affects lands, water, air, and foods – we also examine how this contamination affects Fourth World self-determination? That is, how does nuclear contamination affect Fourth World peoples’ ability to practice their life ways, including those in the Yakama Nation?

Center for World Indigenous Studies affiliates, including the author. From left to right: Janna Lafferty (Researcher), Russell Jim (Site Supervisor), Dr. Rudolph Ryser (CWIS Chair and Principal Investigator), Yvonne Sherwood (Researcher).

Center for World Indigenous Studies affiliates, including the author. From left to right: Janna Lafferty (Researcher), Russell Jim (Site Supervisor), Dr. Rudolph Ryser (CWIS Chair and Principal Investigator), Yvonne Sherwood (Researcher).

The action project, while currently in the phase of data collection, will work closely with tribal peoples as well as members of the public interested in taking action to explore ways in which we can respond to protect all future generations. The research emerges directly out of discussions with key community members working on the issue of nuclear contamination on the Columbia River Basin.  By doing this research and engagement, we hope to decrease the risk for all Columbia Basin residents, sustain and invigorate cultural and social practices of the Yakama Nation and other tribal groups, and prevent future nuclear contamination. 

Yvonne Sherwood is a PhD student in the Sociology Department at UCSC.