Saturday, 16 January 2010

Why the Black Hills?

In 2005-2006, I was working as a researcher for a TV series. My work led me to meet a group of women called the International Council of 13 Indigenous Grandmothers. They are women healers gathered together from around the world ( Their mission statement reads:

WE, THE INTERNATIONAL COUNCIL OF THIRTEEN INDIGENOUS GRANDMOTHERS, represent a global alliance of prayer, education and healing for our Mother Earth, all Her inhabitants, all the children, and for the next seven generations to come. We are deeply concerned with the unprecedented destruction of our Mother Earth and the destruction of indigenous ways of life. We believe the teachings of our ancestors will light our way through an uncertain future. We look to further our vision through the realization of projects that protect our diverse cultures: lands, medicines, language and ceremonial ways of prayer and through projects that educate and nurture our children.

In June, 2006 I traveled to South Dakota to meet the grandmothers and partake in part of the gathering. I'd never been to South Dakota before and I wasn't quite sure what to expect of it or of the grandmothers. I found that I was deeply moved by both. The Black Hills of South Dakota is one of the most beautiful places I've ever been. Rivers run through it, with waterfalls painting white columns on the rock cliffs. There are meadows and forests. Buffalo roam in a state park there. Deer frolic in the forests. The water is crystal clear. (Less attractive but impressive in their own right, Mt. Rushmore, the quaint towns, and the mining sites at Deadwood.) I don't know what I was expecting, but I was delighted by what I found.

As for the grandmothers, once the project was introduced, they went around and introduced themselves and their concerns for the world and their homes. It was heartbreaking to hear their stories. On the first day of the public gathering with the grandmothers, the two who are from South Dakota and the Oglala Lakota band of the Great Sioux Nation welcomed everyone. They are sisters and nurses. They welcomed people to the Black Hills, a sacred place, and talked briefly about significance of this place for their beliefs. They spoke of a desecrated landscape: the huge holes that had been left by mining, the uranium that was flowing in the rivers and poisoning them, giving them cancer, the birth defects. They cried as they talked about not only the people and their community that were suffering, but of the hills that also suffered. They spoke of the monumental task of trying to stop the mining companies from drilling more, creating more radioactive waste, and trying to get the government to clean up the current radioactive sites and rivers.

What can one do to help? Raise awareness, they said. They're working on a website. They're working on legal appeals. They're working to save their Black Hills and their families. It's not much, but hopefully by writing about it, awareness of the situation is raised a little.

The Black Hills and the Oglala Lakota are not the only victims of uranium mining or mining or pollution or cancer as a result of the quest for energy or wealth. Indigenous groups around the world are regularly kicked off their land or put at risk to deepen the pockets of large corporations. I talk about the Oglala Lakota and the Black Hills because they are an example of these atrocious goings-on, and an example that reached out and wrenched my heart.

In 2007, a call for the stoppage of all uranium mining was issued by indigenous groups from around the world ( If you feel moved as I do, raise your voice, however you see fit to, and join in the chorus calling for an end to uranium mining.

I wrote an essay on uranium mining in the Black Hills because I saw it as an opportunity to educate myself further and to raise awareness. It wasn't the best essay, but it did allow me to deepen my understanding of the situation and gave me a chance to write about an issue close to my heart. Below are excerpts from it.

A Brief History of the Black Hills (excerpt from my essay "Capital v. Culture")

Conflict over resource extraction and development has existed in the Black Hills for the Oglala Lakota for as long as they have had contact with European-American settlers.

The Black Hills, or Paha Sapa (Fixico, 1998, p 125) as it’s known in Lakota, has been a sacred place for the Oglala Lakota and the people of the Great Sioux Nation for tens of thousands of years. The Black Hills are also sacred to more than sixty indigenous nations. These nations have been traveling there for “millennia” “to conduct spiritual ceremonies, gather medicines and lodge poles” (White Face, 2007). Harney Peak in the Black Hills is said to be the center of the universe for the Lakota and Red Lodge Canyon features pictoglyphs depicting the seven rites of the sacred pipe. The Black Hills is their Mecca, their Jerusalem, their church, their burial site, their medicine cabinet, their altar upon which they go to receive sacred rites and to seek visions from Wakan Tanka. The Black Hills is the holiest of holy places for the Lakota, and all things originating from it are also holy, so holy in fact that no animals that come from the Black Hills are killed.

There were many conflicts between the Lakota and European-Americans in the process of westward expansion. In an effort to stop the violence and create lasting peace, the United States government gathered up the leaders of the Indian groups in the area and offered them all of the land of South Dakota west of the Missouri river in exchange for peace. The Lakota and other groups wanted to protect their land; the government wanted to protect its people and ensure westward expansion. Some say that the Indians were forced to sign the treaty (white people were slaughtering buffalo to try to reduce the Indians’ capacity to feed their people); others say it was in the interest of both parties and all were willing. Out of this meeting came the Treaty of Fort Laramie of 1868 which states that the aforementioned land is

“set apart for the absolute and undisturbed use and occupation of the Indians herein named, . . . and the United States now solemnly agrees that no persons . . . shall ever be permitted to pass over, settle upon, or reside in the territory described in this article” (PBS, 2001).

The United States upheld its end of the bargain for seven years. When gold was discovered in the Black Hills, the government offered $6 million for the purchase of the Black Hills. When the offer was refused, the government casually turned a blind eye to the trespassing that ensued in the search of gold. In 1876, the government gave instructions that the Lakota should be “round up” and forced to remain on reservations (Bonvillain, 2001, p 227). By 1877, the government took back the land illegally and opened it up for white settlement and, thus, unfettered mining.

In 1962, after several decades of mining and development, the state of South Dakota purchased the Black Hills from the United States government and declared it “closed to all”, shutting out the Oglala Lakota completely while it turned it into a national park, bulldozing trees, move earth, building roads, and paving parking lots.

Mining for various natural resources has continued since the 1870s. After gold, there was mining for various other resources including coal (found in the 1970s) and uranium. Uranium was first mined during the Cold War period as the United States armed itself for nuclear war.

The Lakota have been fighting to regain ownership of the Black Hills since the 1870’s. They’ve filed numerous claims, some of them were rejected outright and others were successful, but never to the extent that they’ve been able to regain ownership. One ruling awarded them “just payment” in the amount of $17.5 million plus interest since 1877 for a total of $122.5 million, but the Lakota refused the money, stating that the Black Hills were not for sale. Today that money sits in a trust monitored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs and continues to earn interest (Fixico, 1998) and the Lakota’s continue their fight.

The Current Situation

Powertech Uranium (the Industrial Capitalist) is a Canadian company looking to turn a profit from uranium mining. Also on the Industrial Capitalist side, and for some different reasons, are the governments of the United States and the state of South Dakota. Both stand to benefit monetarily, mostly through application and permit fees, from allowing Powertech Uranium to mine in the Black Hills. In addition, the governments would also benefit from the availability of any uranium produced by successful mining efforts as it would provide more fuel for nuclear power plants. The importance of this should not be underestimated, as energy is considered to be fundamental to social organization and a central factor in society (Lutzenhiser et al, 2002, p 224). The United States is an Industrial Capitalist society that values all of the things that Industrial Capitalists do. If it is true that evolution of a society is directly related to the amount of energy per capital available (ibid) and that “the energy available to man limits what he can do and influences what he will do” (Cottrell, 1955, p 2), then it is in the best interest of the United States to continue to provide enough energy and even excess energy so that innovation, competition, and capitalism can thrive.

Powertech has filed applications with the federal and South Dakota state governments for leases to extract uranium by means of In Situ Recovery in the Black Hills. The most recent set of applications was filed in late 2009 for a lease allowing them to drill 155 exploratory wells. Powertech is not new to the Black Hills. A 2008 article (Cramblit) states that the company has over 4,000 uncapped and unmarked uranium exploratory wells in the area from prior exploratory leases.

The Defenders of the Black Hills, the activist arm representing the indigenous society of the Oglala Lakota, is fighting to protect this sacred site by filing legal motions to prevent Powertech Uranium from drilling damaging exploratory hills in search of and mining uranium. In addition to not wanting to witness to further damage to the sacred place, they are also concerned with the health consequences for their people who live down stream from the proposed mining sites and who depend on the aquifers that would be put at risk by In Situ Recovery (or Leach) mining.

In Situ Recovery involves drilling wells into the earth to the depth of the ore deposits. A solution, lixiviant, is injected via the wells to dissolve the uranium. Two wells are drilled for each location: one for the lixiviant processing plant which mixes and sends the solvent into the ore deposit and the other for the uranium processing plant which sucks up the dissolved uranium for processing. The uranium if processed further into yellow cake which is then packed into 55-gallon drums and transported off-site for further processing (Nuclear Regulatory Commission, 2009).

This process is water-intensive and the water used is exposed to radioactive material. Although Powertech claims this process is safe, there are risks. The proposed sites for Powertech’s wells are the Lakota and Fall River aquifers (Cramblit, 2008) so the wells drilled will run through the aquifer to the ore deposit below. Environmental risks include damage to the wells or pipes which could lead to radioactive water or material leaking into the aquifers or run off into surrounding rivers. Dust from the yellow cake is highly radioactive and can be carried on the wind. Any of these scenarios carry health risks. Contact with the radioactive dust has been linked to lung cancer. Contact or consumption of radioactive water has been linked to cancers and birth defects. Both of which are seen on the Pine Ridge Reservation, with an increased cancer rate being noted since the 1970s (Defenders of the Black Hills).

The Oglala Lakota’s concerns about health are not unfounded. At a meeting in 2005, “discussions centered on the radiation levels in some areas reported at a staggering 1,400 times higher than the ordinary background radiation on the Grand River in the Cave Hills . . . . Also discussed was the high proportion of cancer related illnesses and birth defects” (Cramblit, 2008). In July of 2007, warning signs were posted along the Cheyenne River near Red Shirt, SD, just outside the Pine Ridge Reservation, stating that high levels of radiation had been found in the river (Defenders of the Black Hills, 2007). The Oglala Lakota use the river to fish, to irrigate their crops and to swim in during summer months.

There are already thousands of mines in the Black Hills, and hundreds in Wyoming whose runoff comes through the Cheyenne River. There may be nothing the Oglala Lakota can do about the mines already drilled, but they are doing everything they can to prevent further mines from being built (ibid).

Motions filed in the state of South Dakota have been repeatedly denied. The Oglala Lakota has proposed that one reason their calls for the permits not to be granted have been unheard is due to the governor, who appoints the people who oversee the approval of permits, having a vested interest in the success of Powertech, stating that his relative is employed by the company (Associated Press, 2008).

In addition to fighting in the courts, they are working on a public awareness campaign, hoping to inform and activate citizens into activity that the government can’t ignore.

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