Last Columbus Day, a group of Native Americans staged a small news conference at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas, bearing signs denouncing a nuclear waste disposal site 90 miles away at Yucca Mountain. Among the speakers was Tom Goldtooth of the Indigenous Environmental Network, who had just arrived from the oil pipeline protests at Standing Rock in North Dakota. “We have to stand together in solidarity to protect the sacredness of water but also the sacredness of our Mother Earth,” Goldtooth said. “It’s very serious.”
Environmental groups and Native tribes have a natural alliance, rooted in Natives’ commitment to their lands. They teamed up to battle the pipeline running through the Dakotas in a dramatic standoff, although the Trump administration has allowed the project to go forward. Natives and environmentalists are also linking arms in Northern California to restore endangered salmon to the McLeod River at Mount Shasta and to fight plans to raise the height of Shasta Dam, which would flood sacred sites of the Winnemem Wintu tribe.
Yucca presents a more complex challenge, in part because the federal government has controlled the area for so long. In the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, the Western Shoshone tribes gave the federal government use of the land but not ownership, and they have refused to accept $145 million in settlement money in order to hold on to their claim. “If there’s a fight over tribal land, it was fought a long time ago,” says Rep. John Shimkus, R-Ill., a leading proponent of the Yucca project in Congress. “I would have a hard time understanding today what their claim would be based upon, given the security and the big fence around a property that’s bigger than some of our New England states.”
Native tribes are understandably wary of government assurances around contamination. In the 1950s, the military tested nuclear bombs near Yucca — the mushroom clouds were visible from Las Vegas. Underground testing continued until 1992. People who lived downwind in Nevada, Utah and Arizona saw soaring rates of cancer, and won compensation from the federal government for their health woes. Barbara Durham, tribal historic preservation officer for the Timbisha Shoshone tribe, remembers warnings within the tribe not to eat the rabbits and deer covered in boils that wandered onto Timbisha land in the Death Valley portion of California.
In a reversal from his predecessor, President Donald Trump this year requested $120 million for Yucca, and a Shimkus-authored bill to move along the process is expected to clear the House this fall. Even if those efforts succeed, waste shipments to Yucca remain years from reality, but political momentum is likely to spark protests — and the Dakota Access Pipeline struggle could provide a model. “I sure hope so,” says Durham, when asked if Yucca is the next Standing Rock. “We could use the support and the manpower.”