In my ancestral homelands of northern New Mexico there resides knowledge that is held within Tewa deserts and forested landscapes, where mountains are elders, and our rivers are alive with a spirit that has sustained us since time immemorial with traditional knowledge that continues to guide us to be caretakers of this place. Countless prayers of First Nations are recorded here within shared memory of all that exists, and so is an act of violence so great that it will forever be recorded in sacred time. For in the western region of our Tewa world, in our beloved Jemez Plateau, site of a dormant super-volcano, and home to numerous ancestral, cultural sites, is where man first birthed the atomic bomb at Los Alamos National Laboratories (LANL).
The first nuclear device was detonated on July 16, 1945 in southern New Mexico, and the subsequent fallout poisoned generations of more than 30,000 land-based peoples who lived adjacent to the Trinity test site, and this plume would also cross state lines. “The National Cancer Institute (NCI) is carrying out a study to quantitatively estimate the range of possible radiation-related cancer cases in New Mexico that may be related to the nuclear test.”1 This will be the first attempt at a public health study about cancer some 75 years after the Trinity Test. Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety reports that “The people who lived adjacent to this bombing site have cancer rates four to eight times the national average.”2 The people of New Mexico and those downwind and downriver from Los Alamos deserve sincere acknowledgement and repentance from the U.S. government, access to healthcare and speedy inclusion in the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. It will take a national and global outcry for this atonement to be enacted.
Other indigenous and land-based peoples were also irreparably harmed by environmental releases during production at LANL leading up to this first explosion, which was followed by the countless deaths of those on the receiving end of these a-bomb-inations in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This first assault of the nuclear age began with a rapid declaration of war on Mother Earth and her peoples, in which there were 2,053 nuclear weapons “tested” above and below ground, and in our oceans. We now have “naturally occurring” levels of background radiation as a result of these tests, and it is estimated that about 40 percent of the population will develop cancer.3
In my Tewa homelands in north-central New Mexico, it is difficult to reconcile how we existed in reciprocity in a rural, land-based agricultural existence as farmers, ranchers and seed savers, isolated from the industrial age, only to be thrust into the nuclear age when the “land was seized under a set of values that separated the peoples from the land.”4 This forcible act imposed a culture of violence on our soils, seeds, air, waters, future generations and spiritual existence that continues to enact harm to this day. Soil samples collected by soil chemist Morgan Drewniany with the indigenous women’s nonprofit Tewa Women United in the Río Arriba Valley of New Mexico in 2015 offers a preliminary study on soil contamination by LANL: “Over 100 samples were tested for arsenic, perchlorate, RDX and hexavalent chromium using quantitative or semi-quantitative colorimetric methods. All four contaminants were found to be elevated, with levels above or closely approaching established health-protecting quality limits. It is clear that with levels this high, the health of those exposed is threatened, as are the surrounding waterways.”5
I know that nuclear energy is a false solution to our current energy crisis, if only because of the teachings held in our shared stories as peoples impacted by the nuclear age. This is knowledge that has gone around the world, and now needs to be reburied and held as sacred, never to be forgotten in our oral her-story.
In reflecting on our traditional, pueblo life-ways and unique worldview that has endured three waves of colonization and the constant environmental violence and racism of corporate and military institutions, I look to our elders. Our sacred mountains have borne witness and continue to hold teachings of sustainable living and abundance. In our ancestral homes, now ruins at Puyé cliff dwellings, is a prime example of some of the first solar-powered architecture. My elder, Kathy Sánchez, likes to say, “The only safe nuclear energy is 92.96 million miles away, found in our sun.” This we can tap into with the full blessing of the first peoples of this land. Solar and wind energy are nothing new when looking at pre-history and what we can learn from the indigenous peoples.
I am from the Winter People and I am Badger clan. At Puyé, you can see where the old ones built their winter adobe homes on the southern side of a tall cliffside, where they would be heated by full sun. In the summer, they moved to a village on the top of the mesa where basins built into the rock harvested rainwater, and they could live in the relative coolness and life lessons that the forest offered. This is an example of how the Tewa summer and winter clans came to be, living in balance of seasonal time, with shared roles and responsibilities that was accepting of their place and a watershed that was all too precious and deeply respected. Their energy system consisted of values in which nothing was wasted, everything was recycled, you only took and harvested what you needed, water was regarded as life and medicine, and people were taught to love, respect and take care of one another.
The spirit of these elements is not being honored or respected in such a way that is in line with “taking only what we need.” Minerals and fossil fuels are being unearthed at such an accelerated rate that the prehistoric time held within them is being released too rapidly, and as a result we can all feel the reality of this fast-paced society we have created. It is a model that cannot sustain human life in the epochs of time that is held within stones and mountains. True time is held in cycles of cosmic spirals rather than in the linear, binary existence that came with the colonizers’ mindset.
The impacts of our dependence on dirty energy are being felt globally in indigenous communities. There is a direct connection to environmental violence perpetuated against Mother Earth and the violence enacted upon women, girls and other genders. Women and girls are the first to feel the impacts of climate change when it comes to the devastation of super storms and relocation due to sea level rise. In my region we are impacted by long-term drought that has made our forests extremely susceptible to wildfires.
In 2011, my Pueblo of Santa Clara lost 80 percent of our lands and watershed to the devastating Las Conchas wildfire. Now we are working to remediate the dangers of flooding due to forest loss and earthen mountainsides that burned so hot they became like hardened glass. We are working to regrow our cathedral forest. My children will never know it as it once was. It is estimated that it will take over 300 years to regenerate. We remain hopeful and strong as a people working toward healing. What is painful is that the fire was diverted north towards our homelands in order to protect LANL facilities and the nuclear waste dump there known as Area G, where more than 30,000 barrels of mixed radioactive waste lie above and below ground in unlined dirt pits. This was the third time these labs housing plutonium were threatened by wildfires, and I can’t help but think that nature is trying to cleanse herself. It is also a site riddled with seismic fault zones, and it is located above our sole-source aquifer, which means that more than half the population of New Mexico depends on that water for survival. I can tell you stories for hours of hundreds of contaminated sites that pose further threats to our water and health.
Indigenous women are also the most vulnerable when it comes to negative impacts on the well-being of our bodies. Women’s bodies are more susceptible to contamination, and exposure to toxicity is only increasing. There are many studies of toxicity found in breast milk and the implications for future generations. Mohawk midwife Katsi Cook teaches us about “women as the first environment.” It is known amongst Native populations that our health and wellness are very dependent on the health and wholeness of our surroundings. One cannot be separated from the other. When I was pregnant with my daughters, all of their ova (eggs) were developing within them with the potential for reproduction. In my pregnant state, three generations were being held all at once. This it true for all diverse cultures and is another reason why we must protect those most vulnerable in our communities.
As a Native woman living adjacent to a nuclear weapons facility, I can tell you that I am not protected by current environmental radiation exposure regulations. My children are not protected. Do you know who is? Known as “reference man,” the International Commission on Radiological Protection defines him as a 154-pound adult white male of western European descent and custom, being 5’7” in height, and between 20–30 years in age.”6 According to Dr. Mahkijani, women are 52 percent more likely to get cancer from the same dose as a man, and infants when exposed to radioactive iodine are 75 percent more likely. Some of the toxins from nuclear sites can cross placental boundaries. This is an example of how environmental justice intersects with reproductive justice.
This environmental racism also does not consider the lifestyle of Native and land-based people, who are outdoors for longer periods of time, still grow their own food, harvest rainwater and use natural springs and bodies of water in our ceremonies, hunt, fish, gather wild plants, gather natural clays and dyes, etc. This puts us at risk for multiple and cumulative exposure to toxins over long periods of time, a factor that is also not considered when determining “allowable” levels of contamination into our environment and when determining water quality standards. We cannot wait for science to validate the harm we know is happening. We must be counted as experts that can help heal this place we are a part of. The process of health studies, while needed, is costly and takes long periods of time. We must not be required to give up our ancestral ways of knowing to protect ourselves from environmental violence. It is time for-profit industries are held accountable, and that we are no longer classified as collateral damage for the war machine or fossil fuels industry.
First Nations Peoples are an indicator species of the continued colonization and violence enacted on this continent. All the diverse people who call this planet home would do well to ensure that indigenous peoples are healthy and thriving, as their survival is now entwined.
The water in our bodies comes from the same source as all other water on our planet. First and foremost, we are water beings, born from water, and cannot live without water’s life-giving gifts, a covenant that we share with all other life here on Mother Earth. We also share our life and resiliency with our corn mothers and all our seeds, which evolved with us so that we could thrive in mind, body and spirit. It is important that they are adapted to the changes that are happening, that they are protected from genetic contamination; for our true sovereignty is held in them. We lose it all when we lose our ability to feed ourselves. It is profound how growing corn teaches us to be in a good way with ourselves, each other and with the Earth.
To do this, we must work to ensure the health of our lands, air and waters, so that this memory held within the cells of our seeds and genetic memory can continue to inform our journey as spiritual human beings. This journey is awakening us to a time of healing, a time that will right the wrongs that are so apparent. To do nothing is sealing our destructive end and is no longer an option. We must at least try. Our spiritual evolution awaits our higher selves, and we can be nurtured alongside our reclamation of meaningful relationships to all of creation.
To all my relations reading this, I urge you to listen deeply to the struggle and voices of global indigenous communities who are currently putting their lives on the line to protect what they hold sacred. I urge that you open yourselves in mind, heart and spirit to the healing that happens when we love and respect water as the source of all life, how it will ultimately lead to loving and respecting ourselves and each other, and that it will give you the strength to take actions as a fellow “protector,” one in harmony with all life and creation.
Beata Tsosie-Peña is of mixed ancestry from Santa Clara Pueblo and El Rito, NM. She is a poet, farmer, early childhood specialist and program coordinator of Tewa Women United’s Environmental Justice Program. http://tewawomenunited.org
1 “Study to Estimate Radiation Doses and Cancer Risks Resulting from Radioactive Fallout from Trinity Nuclear Test,” NIH: National Cancer Institute. https://dceg.cancer.gov/research/how-we-study/exposure-assessment/trinity
2 “Commemoration events of Trinity Bomb Test and Church Rock Uranium Tailings Spill Set for Saturday, July 16 in Tularosa and Church Rock, NM,” Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety, July 20, 2016. http://nuclearactive.org/commemoration-events-of-trinity-atomic-bomb-test-and-church-rock-uranium-tailings-spill-set-for-saturday-july-16-in-tularosa-and-church-rock-new-mexico
3 “National Cancer Institute, Cancer Statistics,” 2016. https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/understanding/statistics
4 “Community Summary of CDC’s Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment (LAHDRA) Project,” 2010. http//www.lahdra.org/pubs/Final%20LAHDRA%20Community%20Summary_December%2002%202010.pdf
5 Morgan Drewniany, Red Dust (2015),1.
6 Arjun Mahkijani, “The Use of Reference Man in Radiation Protection Standards and Guidance with Recommendations for Change,” Institute for Energy and Environmental Research (April, 2009).