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Nuclear Testing in Newe Segobia, Western Shoshone Lands, Nevada, US


Description:

The United States tested nuclear weapons on the traditional homelands of the Western Shoshone from 1951 to 1992. Deemed the Nevada Test Site (NTS) by the U.S. government, and Newe Segobia, meaning “Peoples’ Earth Mother”, by the Western Shoshone, this land was used to test the world’s most dangerous weapons. In 1941, part of Newe Segobia was designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as the Las Vegas Bombing and Gunnery Range. Nine years later, part of the gunnery range was turned into a nuclear weapons test site. However, the NTS was not officially confiscated from the Western Shoshone until 1951, when President Truman forcibly relocated 100 Native American families[1]. Nuclear weapons testing is particularly destructive because of the resulting proliferation of nuclear fallout. Although the testing occurred on Western Shoshone lands, fallout from the NTS fell over both Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute communities [8].

Native communities that surround the NTS include the Moapa reservation to the southeast, the Pahrump Paiute Tribe and the Las Vegas Paiute Colony to the south, the Duckwater Shoshone and Yomba Shoshone to the northwest, the Timbisha Shoshone to the west, and the Goshute reservation to the northeast, which does not even include the historic use of the land by many different sects of the Mojave and other Great Basin Native Americans [2]. Altogether, the area downwind from the NTS consists of mostly Native Americans and Mormons, both marginalized communities in the US.

Nuclear testing constitutes an environmental injustice because of the physical and emotional intergenerational trauma caused through changing the very genes of the indigenous people exposed to fallout, as well as turning their local environments dangerously radioactive [10]. Although nuclear tests were detonated in the name of national security, Western Shoshone communities experienced a very real nuclear war as a result of the US testing program.

The NTS was used for nuclear weapons testing until 1992 when the US ceased nuclear weapons testing in response to the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty. Since 1951, there have been around 900 nuclear tests for both Great Britain and the US at the NTS, 105 of which were above ground, and all of which were conducted on land that belongs to the Western Shoshone [3]. Since 1963, all of the tests were conducted underground, but the tests still leaked radiation into the atmosphere [4]. From 1951, to 1992, 220 of the above and below ground nuclear tests released radioactive plumes, a majority of which traveled east over Native American reservations [3].

Moreover, decisions were explicitly made that increased the exposure of indigenous peoples to fallout. The policy of the Atomic Energy Commission was to cede testing when the wind was blowing South, towards Las Vegas and Los Alamos, but testing was allowed to occur when wind was blowing east towards Native American and Mormon communities [5]. Atomic Energy Commission members even described the native communities downwind of the test site as a “low-use segment of the population” [5]. As a result, Native American communities have experienced poor health and an excess of radiation related diseases in themselves. Community members who were exposed as children now experience twice the thyroid cancer risk of non-native people [7].

Most of the research on the health impacts of nuclear testing used research tools that did not take into account indigenous lifestyles and diets. As a result, radiation exposures calculated for Native Americans living downwind of the NTS are not accurately represented in DOE dose reconstructions. The surveys used to create these dose reconstructions did not even include Native Americans.  Studies that have attempted to include native subsistence diets, by looking at estimated doses from eating rabbits, have resulted in dose estimates above DOE estimates for all pathways combined in the area of Duckwater, Nevada [7].

Local communities mobilized against this injustice. Mary and Carrie Dann “trespassed” on the NTS in 1974, resulting in the Department of the Interior Suing the two sisters. The Western Shoshone have been resisting the occupation of the NTS since 1980. One strategy of protest has been to use symbols representative of colonial power against the federal government and the military, such as passports and No Trespassing signs. In the process, the Western Shoshone reappropriate the structures of settler colonialism [6]. This strategy began in 1987, when Western Shoshone leaders started to issue permits for protestors when entering the occupied Western Shoshone land. By issuing their own permits, the Western Shoshone challenge assumptions about borders, and who determines property ownership and rights [6].

Local native communities also established the Native Community Action Council, made up of 15 community representatives from the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute tribes to monitor research and health outcomes related to the nuclear tests. The Western Shoshone National Council along with several Western Shoshone communities filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December, 2002. As a result, the Commission found that the U.S. was violating the human rights of property, due process and equality under the law [1]. Importantly, the Commission also ruled that the U.S. used illegitimate means to claim Western Shoshone lands [1]. 

Every spring, thousands still gather at the Peace Camp with plans to invade the NTS. Western Shoshone people and their allies ignore fences and signs prohibiting civilians from military land, and continue to walk across their land, visit traditional sites, hunt and gather on ancestral lands.

Basic Data

Name of conflict:Nuclear Testing in Newe Segobia, Western Shoshone Lands, Nevada, US
Country:United States of America
State or province:Nevada
Location of conflict:Nevada Test Site
Accuracy of locationMEDIUM (Regional level)

Source of Conflict

Type of conflict. 1st level:Nuclear
Type of conflict. 2nd level:Military installations
Nuclear waste storage
Specific commodities:Nuclear tests

Project Details and Actors

Project details

•The United States tested nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site from 1951 to 1992. Since 1951, there have been around 900 nuclear tests at the NTS, 105 of which were above ground. Since 1963, all of the tests were conducted underground, but the tests still leaked radiation into the atmosphere. From 1951, to 1992, 220 of the above and below ground nuclear tests released radioactive plumes, a majority of which traveled east over Native American reservations.

•The area downwind from the NTS consists of mostly Native Americans and Mormons, both marginalized communities in the US. Decisions were explicitly made that increased the exposure of indigenous peoples to fallout. The policy of the Atomic Energy Commission was to test only when wind was blowing east towards Native American and Mormon communities and not towards more white dominated communities in Las Vegas and Los Alamos.

•Native American communities have experienced poor health and excess of radiation related diseases in themselves as well as contamination of local ecosystems. Community members who were exposed as children now experience twice the thyroid cancer risk of non-native people.

•The Western Shoshone National Council along with several Western Shoshone communities filed a petition with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in December, 2002. The Commission found that the U.S. was violating the human rights of property, due process and equality under the law. The Commission also ruled that the U.S. used illegitimate means to claim Western Shoshone lands.

Type of populationRural
Affected Population:>90,000
Start of the conflict:1951
Relevant government actors:Atomic Energy Commission, Department of Commerce, Department of Defense, Department of Energy, Indian Claims Commission, Western Shoshone National Council, Inter-American Commission on Human Rights
Environmental justice organizations (and other supporters) and their websites, if available:- Native Community Action Council (https://www.nativecommunityactioncouncil.org/)
- Mary and Carrie Dann and their supporters
(https://rightlivelihood.org/the-change-makers/find-a-laureate/mary-and-carrie-dann-of-the-western-shoshone-nation/)

Conflict & Mobilization

IntensityMEDIUM (street protests, visible mobilization)
Reaction stageIn REACTION to the implementation (during construction or operation)
Groups mobilizing:Indigenous groups or traditional communities
Ethnically/racially discriminated groups
Western Shoshone
Forms of mobilization:Community-based participative research (popular epidemiology studies, etc..)
Lawsuits, court cases, judicial activism
Official complaint letters and petitions
Public campaigns
Refusal of compensation

Impacts

Environmental ImpactsVisible: Air pollution, Biodiversity loss (wildlife, agro-diversity), Food insecurity (crop damage), Soil contamination
Other Environmental impactsRadioactive contamination
Health ImpactsVisible: Other Health impacts, Exposure to unknown or uncertain complex risks (radiation, etc…), Mental problems including stress, depression and suicide
Other Health impactsHigh levels of radiation in the body from eating contaminated food and milk, increased risk of cancer from exposure to radiation
Socio-economical ImpactsVisible: Displacement, Loss of livelihood, Loss of traditional knowledge/practices/cultures, Militarization and increased police presence, Violations of human rights, Land dispossession, Loss of landscape/sense of place

Outcome

Project StatusStopped
Conflict outcome / response:Indian Claims Commission: created to compensate indigenous people for lost lands and resources, but this was used on behalf of the Western Shoshone, without their consent, to compensate them for the land confiscated for the NTS. As a result, the Shoshone have refused the funds and they remain in the Treasury Department.
Proposal and development of alternatives:Compensation and/or recognition from the federal government for the Western Shoshone or Southern Paiute who were exposed to radiation is non-existent. The Western Shoshone also never ceded their claim to the land where the Nevada Test Site is based. No fund has been established to pay for health issues resulting from the nuclear testing program.
Do you consider this an environmental justice success? Was environmental justice served?:No
Briefly explain:Compensation and/or recognition from the federal government for the Western Shoshone or Southern Paiute who were exposed to radiation is non-existent. The Western Shoshone also never ceded their claim to the land where the Nevada Test Site is based. No fund has been established to pay for health issues resulting from the nuclear testing program.

Sources & Materials

References to published books, academic articles, movies or published documentaries

[3]Quigley, Dianne, Virginia Sanchez, D. Handy, Robert Goble, and P. George. "Participatory research strategies in nuclear risk management for native communities." Journal of health communication 5, no. 4 (2000): 305-331.

[1] Fishel, Julie Ann. "United States called to task on indigenous rights: the Western Shoshone struggle and success at the international level." American Indian Law Review 31, no. 2 (2006): 619-650.

[6] Johnson, Taylor N. "“The most bombed nation on Earth”: Western [6]Shoshone resistance to the Nevada National Security Site." Atlantic Journal of Communication 26, no. 4 (2018): 224-239.

[9]Frohmberg, Eric, Robert Goble, Virginia Sanchez, and Dianne Quigley. "The assessment of radiation exposures in Native American communities from nuclear weapons testing in Nevada." Risk Analysis 20, no. 1 (2000): 101-112.

[7]George, Patricia, and Abel Russ. "Nuclear Testing and Native Peoples: Tribal research uncovers unexpected exposures." Race, Poverty & the Environment 11, no. 2 (2004): 38-40.

[2] Kuletz, Valerie L. The tainted desert: Environmental and social ruin in the American West. Routledge, 2016.

[5] Jacobs, Robert. "Nuclear conquistadors: military colonialism in nuclear test site selection during the Cold War." (2013).

[4] Solnit, Rebecca. Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000

[8]Johansen, Bruce. “The Most Bombed Nation on Earth.” In Environmental Racism in the United States and Canada: Seeking Justice and Sustaiability. ABC-CLIO, 2020.

[11] Dunning, Gordon. “FALLOUT FROM THE NUCLEAR TESTS AT THE NEVADA TEST SITE.” United States Atomic Energy Commission, May 1959.

[10]Landau, Arielle. “A Uniquely Destructive Injustice: US Nuclear Testing on Indigenous Lands – an Environmental Justice and GIS Analysis.” Unpublished (2021). https://alandaux.github.io/assets/A%20Uniquely%20Destructive%20Injustice%20-%20Final%20Draft.pdf
https://alandaux.github.io/assets/A%20Uniquely%20Destructive%20Injustice%20-%20Final%20Draft.pdf

Meta information

Contributor:Arielle Landau, BOLD Fellow at the EJAtlas
Last update05/10/2021

Images

 

Cumulative exposure (Roentgens) of American Indian Areas

Cumulative exposure (Roentgens) of populations from the Nevada Test Site, as estimated by Dunning (1959) [11] and compiled by Landau (2021) [10].

Cumulative exposure (Roentgens) of American Indian Areas

Cumulative exposure (Roentgens) of populations from the Nevada Test Site, as estimated by Dunning (1959) [11] and compiled by Landau (2021) [10].

Cumulative Exposure of Local Populations in Newe Segobia

Counter map of cumulative estimated exposure (mR) for all tests at the Nevada Test Site through 1985. Symbology for the Shoshone and Paiute tribes were traced from images on each tribe’s official website [10]. Radiation isodoses from Frohmberg et al. (2000) [9].