First we ‘bombed’ Western Shoshone, now we may poison them, ourselves |

First we ‘bombed’ Western Shoshone, now we may poison them, ourselves

By Amy Hadden Marsh

“Yucca Mountain? Isn’t that some old Indian reservation?” asked a Glenwood Springs resident last week just before I left for an anti-nuclear gathering near the Nevada Test Site.

“No,” I replied. “Yucca Mountain is on Western Shoshone land. They don’t live on a reservation.”

Western Shoshone territory (Newe Sogobia) covers roughly 43,000 square miles and extends south from western Utah and eastern Idaho through the eastern half of Nevada and into the Mojave Desert in southeastern California. What this person didn’t know is that it still belongs to the Western Shoshone people.

In 1863, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Ruby Valley with the Western Shoshone. This “treaty of peace and friendship” proposed to end Shoshone armed defense of the territory so that the U.S. could acquire gold from the area and establish protected communication and transportation routes to California. The treaty was ratified in 1866 and confirmed by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1869. Significantly, the treaty also recognized Shoshone sovereignty. No lands were ceded. No ownership rights were transferred. It is still in effect.

Yucca Mountain, the proposed repository for high-level nuclear waste, nestles in the backcountry of the Nevada Test Site, almost smack in the middle of Newe Sogobia. The Test Site was established in 1951 solely for the purpose of experimenting with nuclear detonations. The Western Shoshone National Council classifies the 900-plus tests conducted since 1951 as “bombs” because “the purpose of a bomb is to destroy.”

According to Bernard Nietschman, professor of geography at the University of California at Berkeley, “no treaty, accord, agreement, vote, or sale exists that gives the U.S. permission to explode nuclear devices on or under the Western Shoshone Nation. The bombs constitute an attack against the Western Shoshone Nation because they destroy part of it.”

Burying high-level nuclear waste under a mountain sacred to the Western Shoshone destroys part of it, too. In short, the purpose of the Nuclear Test Site as well as that of the proposed Yucca Mountain repository flies in the face of the Treaty of Ruby Valley.

The Western Shoshone also believe that if the effects of nuclear weapons tests were not harmful or destructive, they would be conducted in a less remote area inhabited by non-native people. They have a point.

With few exceptions, purveyors of hazardous materials in this country have historically proposed or built toxic, municipal, and medical waste incinerators and toxic waste dumps near low-income communities largely inhabited by people of color, luring support with empty promises of jobs and money.

Now, the silent deserts and canyons of Indian Country are targets for nuclear waste. Since the early 1990s, however, western Native American nations, including the Mescalero Apache in Arizona, the Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan, Cocopah, and Colorado River Indian tribes of Ward Valley near Needles, Calif., and, most recently, the Skull Valley Goshutes near Salt Lake City, have refused to sacrifice their ancestral lands for the sake of storing nuclear waste.

For those of us who don’t consider ourselves part of a marginalized population with little political influence, it may be tempting to say, “Well, that will never happen in my neighborhood.”

If we allow the licensing of the Yucca Mountain repository, the largest nuclear waste shipping campaign in history will begin next year. High-level nuclear waste from reactor sites, three-quarters of which are east of the Mississippi River, will begin a 30-year journey by rail and highway through 43 states and within a half-mile of 52 million citizens – all of our neighborhoods.

For those of us who don’t appreciate the desert as something more than a sun-scorched, waterless netherworld or who don’t understand the Native American sense of generational responsibility to the earth, it may seem necessary to say, “But, we have to put the nuclear waste somewhere.” It already is somewhere.

The most sensible and viable means of storing nuclear waste is dry-cask, on-site storage, which is in use across the country. The U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission has ruled that on-site nuclear waste storage is safe for up to 100 years and forgoes the need and cost of moving the waste. That gives us time to create and improve technologies for handling existing waste and to continue shifting energy demands to renewable sources, thereby reducing the production of more nuclear waste.

Yucca Mountain is a huge issue involving corporate money and politics and many things over which we have little control. But it also represents what is sacred to all of us: our land, our communities, our families. We are no different from the Western Shoshone in that regard.

Nevada Gov. Kenny Guinn has vetoed the initial approval of the Yucca Mountain repository. The U.S. House of Representatives recently voted to override that veto. The U.S. Senate could vote on the veto as early as late June.

Contact your senators. Urge them to support the veto. Imagine the outcome if 52 million citizens declared, “Not in my neighborhood.”

For details, contact:

Citizen Alert at or 775-827-4200

Greenaction at

Indigenous Environmental Network at

Nuclear Information and Resources Services (NIRS) at

Shundahai Network at or 801-359-2614

Amy Hadden Marsh is a resident of Glenwood Springs.

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