YAKIMA INDIAN NATION, TOPPENISH, WASH.–Here at the nearly completed Yakima Nation Cultural Center the Native Americans have a favorite saying: “Y: can begin to understand a human being only after you have walked a mile in his moccasins.” For Russell Jim, the tribal councilman, even the environmentalists do not appreciate the tribe’s growing concern over government-corporate moves to concentrate radioactive and chemical wastes on the nearby Hanford Reservation.
Now controlled by the Department of Energy, the Hanford Reservation was once part of the Yakimas’ tribal land. In 1855, the U.S. government and the tribe signed a treaty whereby the Yakimas ceded away an area that now constitutes 25.4 percent of the state of Washington. Their current tribal lands are about the size of Rhode Island. But under the treaty, the tribe retained food-gathering rights on the ceded lands (such as fishing and digging for edible roots).
Russell Jim says that presently the question is whether that “food is gat enable” given the toxic wastes and their possible spread into the soil and water. The Yakimas want to have a respected role in federal-state decisions on radioactive and chemical-waste disposal sites at Hanford. They see the “Hanford solution” as discriminating against rural people.
Some call the environmentalists’ reluctant inclination that Hanford is the least worst solution a “failure of nerve in the search for safety.” They reject the argument that at Hanford an accident will affect the minimum possible number of people for two reasons. One is the “Indian reverence of nature as a sacred trust.” The other is that for them, the 500 Yakima Indians, “the concept of evacuation from their tribal lands is meaningless.”
Knowing that the odds are not in their favor, Russell Jim and the tribal elders are cautiously trying to make the nuclear and chemical interests around Hanford and in Washington answer their questions. As an indication of their seriousness, the tribal council in June 1979 unanimously passed a resolution “banning the transportation of nuclear wastes, residues, fuels, products and byproducts from nuclear material across or within our borders by any conveyance.”
Then, together with 26 other American Indian tribes in the West, they passed a joint resolution last year “emphasizing the importance of tribal involvement in the siting and licensing of nuclear-waste facilities, and the need for government recognition of the unique legal and trust status of Indian tribal interests in these decisions.” There is much uranium mining on tribal lands, such as the Navajo Nation, and other tribes are near existing radioactive-waste disposal sites.
Being a small tribe, the Yakimas are having difficulty finding scientific and legal expertise. They have observed that “scientists and lawyers openly disagree on the issues involved.” What they are too polite to say is that most of those specialists who say “Don’t worry” are part of the nuclear industry.
In testimony before Sen. Gary Hart’s subcommittee a year ago, Russell Jim said the “Yakima Indian people do not get their main food supply at the local A&P or Safeway. Our religion and culture are deeply interwoven with the gathering of wild and natural foods, thus making our people more vulnerable to nuclear contamination.”
Some Yakimas, knowing how long radioactive materials have been finding their way into the Columbia River, no longer eat the salmon–an avoidance that would have been unheard of in years past. Wild animals and birds have contaminated themselves at Hanford and taken this radioactivity far afield, according to a mid-70s scientific report in Health Physics Journal.
It is remarkable how self-contained the Yakima leaders can be in the light of their troubles. The strongest language I heard or read while visiting the Yakima Nation were the words by a tribal councilman who had written: “The cynical stance of local officials is best summarized by the statement of one of the local Rockwell-Hanford officials who admitted prior knowledge that the ground was sacred to the Indians and with a laugh said, ‘Well, it wasn’t sacred to the Department of Energy.'”