Environmental Suicide or Economic Survival

by Gerard Donnelly Smith

September 22, 2003


According to the Utah Division of Indian Affairs' Goshute Page,

"The Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians is a federally recognized Indian Tribe located in the west desert of Tooele County. They are part of the larger Shoshonean-speaking Native American groups that lived in the Intermountain West . . . . The Skull Valley Band of Goshute Indians has no natural resources and rely on economic development to sustain them. They currently lease a rocket test facility located on the Reservation from which they currently derive their income and benefits. Because the Skull Valley Goshute Reservation is located in an area which has been designated as a waste zone [emphasis added] by the State of Utah, they must rely on economic development programs which are consistent with the numerous waste, production and testing facilities which surround the Reservation."

Since gambling is illegal in Utah, the Goshutes do not have that lucrative source of income available to most other Nations. Since Utah policy is controlled by Mormon ideology in regards to gambling and other such vices, the Goshutes have very limited opportunities. Because the reserve has been designated as "a waste zone," the Goshutes can only hope to attract more hazardous waste for economic, and thus cultural survival. To that end the Goshutes applied for a grant under the Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) proposal, made possible 1992 by the Office of Nuclear Waste. MRS was specifically designed to encourage the storage of spent fuel on Native American Reservations.

The reservation is part of the original homeland of the Goshutes, but represents only a fraction of the several hundred miles of territory they held before being limited to the present 18,000 acres by Woodrow Wilson in 1917 and 1918. In that sense, the Goshutes were not moved to "inhospitable lands" from their more lush woodland forests as were the less fortunate Nations who were moved to Oklahoma by Jackson's Indian Removal Act of 1830. According to the Utah Division of Indian Affairs, "They lived in the most desolate part of what is now the western portion of Utah and eastern Nevada...at a minimum subsistence level with no economic surplus on which a more elaborate sociopolitical structure could be built." From President Wilson's perspective, the Goshutes were already on undesirable real estate. Certainly wasn't the Black Hills, he might have thought.

Now that the Goshutes' homeland is designated as a "waste zone," they can store or burn more chemical, nuclear and biological waste in this most "desolate part...of Utah." What else can be done in a waste zone? Currently, government contractors already burn nuclear waste NW of Skull Valley, while to the South a magnesium production plant deemed unsafe by the EPA has, on occasion, released chlorine gas into the air. East of Skull Valley, the largest nerve gas facility burns up some of the US government's weapons of mass destruction. Skull Valley is surrounded by environmental disasters just waiting to happen.

Hopefully proper storage of nuclear waste and continued EPA "vigilance" will assure the Goshute membership and other concerned native peoples, as well as well-intentioned white folks, that the Goshutes Reservation will remain hospitable and habitable.

However, one might draw the analogy between the "waste zone" defined Goshutes Reservation and the Hanford Nuclear Reservation where increased infant mortality and fetal death rates, iodine-131 exposure, and increased thyroid disease are of primary concerns. According to M. Stewart and G.W. Kneale, in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine, April 1993, 7000 workers at the Hanford Plant showed a significantly higher rate of "myeloid leukemia and cancers of the respiratory and digestive systems and blood forming tissues." So far federal health agencies have found some increase in cancers of the central nervous system in children of workers, and have traced the increase of radionuclides in the indigenous peoples of Columbia River Gorge to their consumption of contaminated fish. Recently, the US District Judge presiding over the Hanford downwinder lawsuit asked for 12 "bellwether" plaintiffs by Sept. 9th, 2003 for an initial trial to determine if Hanford contractors should be held accountable for the health problems of all 3,400 individuals suing for damages.

But the Skull Valley facility won't be Hanford: the newest technology renders the nuclear waste and the chemical and biological contaminates relatively harmless, so claim the experts quoted on the Goshutes web site. In constrast, in Nevada the citizens were so concerned about possible failures in the storage facilities at the proposed Yucca Mountain facility that 80% rejected the project. Despite assurances similar to those on the Skull Valley Goshutes web site that the storage facility would be perfectly safe, and that transportation of the materials would also pose no significant health hazard, Yucca Mountain is still a nuclear waste free zone.

Will this economic gamble protect the Goshutes from future poverty, ensure a renaissance for Goshutes culture, perhaps prompting a population increase, maybe preventing the completion of genocide? To place a people upon a reservation with little or no resources, then to deny that people the economic opportunities available to the larger culture equals genocide. Poverty -- and the depression that comes with poverty -- can lead to alcoholism, drug abuse, violence, and suicide. All these "virtues of poverty" are familiar to Native peoples, and are well documented in medical, anthropological and psychological journals. Will housing nuclear radiation help the Goshutes reverse these trends that have effected them since contact with the Mormons in 1847?

To inflict upon the group conditions that will lead to the group's physical demise (extermination) represents genocide according the U.N. Convention on Genocide. Since being placed on their "waste zone" reservation, the Goshute people have become significantly fewer in number. According to the Skull Valley Band's figures, "At their peak the Goshutes numbered about 20,000. Today there are less than 500 Goshutes, of which 124 belong to the Skull Valley Band." Will the nuclear storage facility reverse the conditions inflicted upon them by contact? 10,000 years may tell. That's how long spent nuclear fuel remains lethal.

The Skull Valley Goshute Executive Committee did ask for membership opinions, and sought the opinions of others concerning the proposed nuclear waste storage facility. Despite their willingness to debate the issue, their web site does contain mostly pro-storage information from Scientists for Secure Storage and the Nuclear Regulation Commission. One editorial respondent categorized the pages as propaganda. Despite the fact that spent fuel is lethal for 10,000 years, "After careful consideration, the Skull Valley Band of Goshutes have leased land to a private group of electrical utilities for the temporary storage of 40,000 metric tons of spent nuclear fuel." Despite heavy opposition and a vote boycott from other Goshutes (rumors are that only 50% voted), the dice have been cast.

In a state without gambling, where the major religion believes Native Americans are the fallen tribe of Israel who will be turned "white and delightsome" on judgment day, the Goshutes are staking everything on federal promises that the storage tanks won't leak.

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A Genocide Museum For The U.S. - by Philip Greenspan (Sept. 1, 2003)


Gerard Donnelly Smith, a poet and musician, teaches creative writing, literature and composition at Clark College in Vancouver WA. CERRO de la ESTRELLA (Logan Elm Press, 1992) was chosen for The Governor's Award for the Arts in Ohio, 1992. Excerpts from THE AMERICAN CORPSE (10 poems) were published in Apex of the M in 1995. He is the current director of the Columbia Writers Series, an Honorary Board Member of The Mountain Writers Series, and co-advisor of the Native American Student Council at Clark College. He has also organized readings for Poets Against the War.

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Published September 22, 2003
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