For 10 years, Native Americans and non-Indian activists fought together to block a proposed nuclear waste dump.

Ward Valley: An Extreme and Solemn Relationship

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This is our land, this is our water, these are our roots. It is sacred to us because it is part of us. The desert has been our home since time immemorial. We have an extreme and solemn relationship with this land.

—Llewellyn Barrackman (Mojave elder)

Ward Valley is located on a wide tilting plain of creosote and bursage in the southeastern corner of California, 18 miles west of the town of Needles. This remote valley, ancestral home to the Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cahuilla, Cocopah, Quechan and other desert peoples, became ground zero in the fight over nuclear waste, endangered species and sacred lands during the 1990s. A company by the name of U.S. Ecology (formerly the Nuclear Engineering Corporation) proposed to dump long-lived radioactive wastes in shallow, unlined trenches above an aquifer that connects to the Colorado River, a habitat considered critical for the survival of the endangered Desert tortoise (Gopherus agassizii). U.S. Ecology has previously left a trail of leaking dumps and litigation across the country from radioactive poisons that will last for the next quarter of a million years and more. Ward Valley was selected as a shallow grave for these wastes as a cheap and dirty solution for the nuclear power industry, and the dump was part of a larger strategy to bail out the industry and place the burden of radioactive waste disposal onto the taxpayers. Native American lands are targeted as repositories for the nation’s wastes as a form of toxic colonialism. Low-income populations and communities of color are considered to be the “paths of least resistance,” and the desert is conveniently characterized as a wasteland. The fight against the dump became a protracted showdown between a handful of antinuclear activists, indigenous and environmental groups, idealistic attorneys, renegade scientists, local residents and the five Colorado River Indian tribes against some of the most powerful corporations in the nation in alliance with corrupt elements in the federal and state governments. This corner of the Mojave Desert became contested territory and a high-stakes proxy war. Would Ward Valley remain a pristine desert landscape, protected habitat for an endangered species and a sacred site for the Colorado River Indian peoples, or a nuclear wasteland and national sacrifice area poisonous for the next 12,000 generations?

Over My Dead Body

In 1989, while on a solo camping trip at Hole in the Wall in the Mojave National Preserve, I retrieved a call from two activist friends, Ward Young and Rachel Johnson, inviting me to join them in a meeting with tribal leaders at a place called Ward Valley. Their message, they explained, was that the government and the nuclear industry wanted to build a radioactive waste dump in the Mojave Desert and no one knew about it. That next evening I followed their directions, exited Interstate 40 at Water Road and took a dirt road south toward a flickering light in the distance. The dark night sky in the Mojave Desert is a stunning sight abundant with stars, bright planets and the wide dusty ribbon of the Milky Way.

As I drove through the warm night, I had to swerve to avoid Sidewinder rattlesnakes twisting across the road. I approached a cluster of cars and trucks and could see a group of people seated around a large bonfire. I greeted my friends and was introduced to members of the Mojave and Chemehuevi Indian tribes. A Chemehuevi game warden by the name of Chance walked around the fire with his shotgun slung across his shoulders as he talked about the plans for a nuclear-waste dump in their ancestral lands. “Who will speak for the Desert tortoise, the Red-Tailed Hawk, the Golden Eagle, the Rattlesnake, the Raven and the Bobcat?” he asked.

Chance stared into the night, fire jumping in his eyes, and warned, “The only way they will build a dump here is over my dead body!” I believed him. I did not know at the time that this meeting was the beginning of a decade-long struggle that changed the lives of everyone involved.

Hot Enough to Fry an Egg on the Sidewalk

One impossibly hot afternoon, a group of activists were hanging out in Bill and Billy Gorby’s double-wide trailer in a nicely landscaped park on the shores of the Colorado River. With headwaters in the Rockies at 13,000 feet, the Colorado River has been so constricted with dams that by the time it reaches Needles the once mighty river turns into a placid canal. We were in town to testify before a panel of the National Academy of Sciences, tasked to evaluate the dump proposal at the request of the Secretary of the Interior who delayed a decision on the project by calling for another hearing. Dr. Howard Wilshire, a government geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, risked his career by identifying the subsurface pathways by which plutonium, cesium and other long-lived radioactive waste would eventually reach the Colorado River. Former nuclear engineer Ernest Goitein testified that the tests performed by U.S. Ecology on the migration rates of the nuclear wastes leaking from the site were deeply flawed. My job was to prove to a hostile panel of scientists with ties to the nuclear industry that the removal of the desert tortoise population from the dumpsite, as proposed by the dump contractor’s paid “biostitutes,” was contrary to the recovery and conservation of the species and would directly result in tortoise mortalities. The hearings were scheduled to reconvene later that afternoon and there was nothing to do until then but drink iced tea and lay down in front of merciful fans and air conditioner vents.

Bill and Billy were longtime Needles residents, having migrated in the 1970s from Texas so that Billy, who flew crop dusters, could treat his beleaguered lungs to the dry desert air. The Gorbys were completely and tenderly dedicated to each other and they graciously opened their home to a motley crew of activists. Along with other local residents, including the city mayor and city council, they fought against the dump. The Gorbys spent months walking door to door in the small town of 6,000, talking with their neighbors, handing out information and organizing opposition to the dump. As we lay motionless on the floor, someone checked the thermometer on the front porch—120 degrees F in the shade!—and suggested that we try to fry an egg on the sidewalk. Billy, a diminutive woman with a charming Texas accent, retrieved an egg from the refrigerator. We braved the insane heat and cracked the egg on a metal sewer cover expecting it to sizzle. We stood there for a few minutes and watched as the egg slowly became leathery and opaque and then, only half satisfied with our experiment, went back inside to the cool of the fans and air conditioning. We watched out the window as a feral dog with protruding ribs and sagging teats lapped up the abandoned egg.

The Naked Truth

Steve Lopez is a former councilmember of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe and lives in government housing on the reservation on the outskirts of town. He was a high-school football athlete who lost the use of his legs in a terrible car accident while driving back to the reservation from a trip to Las Vegas when he was 16 years old. Steve became an eloquent and effective spokesperson for his tribe and possessed a keen understanding of the law and a solid purchase of political strategy. He participated in numerous meetings with public officials pulling no punches with his analysis of the dangers and corruption associated with the dump project, and the dump’s impact on his tribe and culture. On a trip to San Francisco, Steve met with the Environmental Protection Agency to assert that the agency’s advisory committee had no choice but to declare that the proposed dump would violate the federal government’s mandate to promote environmental justice. He rolled into the meeting in his wheelchair and took the mic from the podium. While wearing a bright-pink T-shirt from a Las Vegas bar called THE NAKED TRUTH, he proceeded to cite the law, executive orders, demographic and economic studies and related court cases in an argument to persuade the advisory committee that dumping nuclear waste in the ancestral lands of the lower Colorado River Indian tribes was a clear abrogation of environmental justice regulations and executive orders.

“The government has stolen our lands, marched us onto reservations, robbed us of our resources, punished us for speaking our languages and practicing our religions, forced our children into boarding schools to learn your language and your religion and impoverished us. Now you want to contaminate our lands with the worst poisons ever made,” he exclaimed with a powerful delivery and moral authority.

After weeks of deliberation, the EPA’s advisory committee issued a rare proclamation against the dump.

After the meeting at the EPA, we traveled to a local radio station where we were scheduled to talk about the dump project and encourage people to support our efforts to stop it. In order to set the sound levels, the engineer in the control room asked Steve what he had for breakfast. “A quart of beer, a jelly donut and a few cigarettes” was the response. The engineer joked, “Sounds like you covered all the food groups,” and then proceeded with the show. We found out later that the mic was live the whole time.

Mother Earth Songs

We organized a number of gatherings at Ward Valley, a difficult task that took much logistical planning. Hundreds of people camped out on an abandoned airstrip surrounded by desert valleys, alluvial fans and chocolate-colored mountains. Meetings held in huge olive-green surplus military tents lasted for hours and days as we discussed the latest developments in the campaign and engaged in the laborious process of developing strategy by consensus. The winds could be ferocious especially in the spring—I remember when a gust blew over a huge tent. The participants were so intent on their meeting that they continued without the benefit of their shelter. Hopi spiritual leader Thomas Banyacya, Sac and Fox activist Grace Thorpe (daughter of the famous athlete Jim Thorpe), Diné and Mdewakaton Lakota environmental activist Tom Goldtooth and local tribal elders and leaders visited our encampments. The elders spoke about “all our relations”—the interconnectedness of all life and the historic fight against the desecration of their land.

Colorado River Native Nations Alliance (CRNNA) activists along with Reverend Jesse Jackson conduct a spiritual vigil at the LA Federal Building on December 14, 1995. Photo: Phil Klasky L to R: Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone, Shundahai Network; Wally Antone, Tribal liaison for Save Ward Valley Coalition, Quechan; Llewellyn Barrackman, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe.  Photo: Molly P. Johnson. L to R: Brad Goans, Alliance of Atomic Vets, peacekeeper team; Rick Beaumont, peacekeeper team ; Catherine Powell, BanWaste; John Stevens; far right (unknown). Photo: Molly P. Johnson. Activists holding the line at Ward Valley occupation, 1998.  Photo: Molly P. Johnson. Quechan Lightning Singers and dancers at front line of occupiers blocking police from entering Ward Valley, February 13, 1998. Photo: Greenaction. BLM officials (far left) sent to evict activists. Wally Antone (Quechan), right; AIM member (far right), Feburary 13, 1998. Photo: Greenaction. Fort Mojave tribal member Steve Lopez (seated) leads sunrise ceremony with Spirit Runners to Ward Valley. Photo: Greenaction. A group of activists occupying Ward Valley camp in 1998.  Photo: Molly P. Johnson.
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L to R: Corbin Harney, Western Shoshone, Shundahai Network; Wally Antone, Tribal liaison for Save Ward Valley Coalition, Quechan; Llewellyn Barrackman, Fort Mojave Indian Tribe. Photo: Molly P. Johnson.
Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney was known for his tireless advocacy against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. His people’s homeland, promised to them in the Treaty of Ruby Valley in 1863, became the most bombed nation on earth as the United States and Great Britain released the fury of over 1,000 nuclear weapons above and below ground at what has become the Nevada Test Site. Corbin testified before the United Nations about the proliferation of nuclear weapons and traveled to Kazakhstan in solidarity with Russia’s indigenous people whose land was used for that country’s nuclear tests. I had the honor of being arrested with Corbin (and hundreds of other people) as we blocked the entrance to the “gates of hell” in defiance of the policy of mutually assured destruction. At the protest encampments at Ward Valley, Corbin would rise each morning before dawn to play his hand drum and sing seven sacred songs as the sun’s rays reached across the sky and onto the land. People gathered around him, holding hands and dancing in a circle, one side step following the other. We were terribly sober about the odds we faced as we fought against some of the most powerful forces in the country and persevered without knowing if or how we would win. However, one morning, as I emerged from my tent and joined over 500 people at Corbin’s sunrise ceremony, it felt like something had changed, that we actually had a chance of succeeding.

As the sun rose over the desert mountains to the east and a golden light flooded the valley, Corbin heated the skin of his drum on a small fire and massaged its face with large, coarse hands that had known hard work on cattle ranches in Nevada and Utah. He sang his Mother Earth Songs as we danced slowly around him. I can still hear his deep gravely voice encouraging us to, “Pray your way, not my way, pray your way,” in an invitation to begin a day of political organizing with a spiritual foundation. On one of the mornings, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) ranger, tasked to patrol the protest camp, asked Corbin if he could join the prayer circle. Corbin readily agreed and I can recall the curious image of the ranger with his signature hat and gun belt holding hands with a green-haired protester on one side and a native elder on the other as the sun rose above the Mojave desert.

One late evening as a few of us sat around the fire that served as the hearth for our encampment, a caravan of vehicles entered the site. An old woman attended by her family emerged from a tribal van from the Colorado River Indian Tribes. They led the elder to a chair by the fire and heaped blankets on top of her. We offered them hot tea and a warm welcome. The woman rose up from her chair and was handed a frayed woven pouch of corn meal. With a hand gnarled from age, she reached into the pouch and threw the corn meal in all four directions. “This blessing will protect this place. God bless you for being here,” she said. She began to sing and a chill seized my spine as she let out a piercing cry at the end of her song.

Sacred songs were offered at Ward Valley to protect the land and I became fascinated by the history and meaning of the songs, their ability to bring people together and their power to defend the sacred. This interest helped to inform my graduate studies and led to my collaboration with The Cultural Conservancy, a non-profit indigenous rights organization dedicated to the preservation and revitalization of endangered stories, songs and languages and the defense of sacred sites and ancestral lands. I worked with Ward Valley activist, Chemehuevi tribal leader and culture keeper Matthew Leivas and Kaibab Paiute elder Vivienne Jake on the preservation of the Nuwuvi people’s sacred Salt Songs performed numerous times at Ward Valley for the purpose of protecting the site. I also had the great privilege of assisting Mojave elders Llewellyn and Betty Barrackman in the preservation and translation of the Mojave Creation Songs, an elaborate 525-song cycle and epic poem performed at memorial ceremonies.

Headquarters for the Desert tortoise

I made many trips to meet with the Colorado River Indian tribes to discuss legal and political strategies. We were looking for legal precedents and relevant laws, but the statutes that are supposed to protect sacred sites, cultural resources and religious freedoms are weak and unenforceable. At the end of one of these meetings, Mojave tribal councilmember and spiritual leader Llewellyn Barrackman called me over to sit next to him. I had developed tremendous respect for this soft-spoken elder who embodied all of the best qualities of a leader: steadfast values, honest and direct communication, courage in the face of adversity, and an unwavering dedication to his people. Mr. Barrackman was a self-taught tribal administrator who had shepherded his people toward self-determination against unimaginably frustrating bureaucratic obstacles. “College boy,” as he liked to call me, “sit down and listen. When you go back home, remember this—Ward Valley is headquarters for the desert tortoise.” I asked him what exactly he meant by that, and he replied that it was my job to figure it out.

Drusilla Burns (Mojave elder) and her Grandaughter Ashley Hemmers at the 17th Ward Valley reunion in 2015. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

Drusilla Burns (Mojave elder) and her Grandaughter Ashley Hemmers at the 17th Ward Valley reunion in 2015. Photo: Kim Stringfellow.

As I began to investigate the status of the Desert tortoise in California’s Mojave Desert, I found out that this relative of the dinosaurs had been listed as an endangered species and that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had failed to designate the critical habitat needed to conserve and protect the tortoise within the mandated time frame. I was not surprised since—in my experience, the Fish and Wildlife Service often has to be forced by the courts to list threatened and endangered species and take the prescribed measures to protect them from extinction, especially when there are competing corporate interests. I learned that the agency had contracted with a group of conservation biologists to prepare a study of the areas that should be protected as habitat essential to the survival of the species. The Fish and Wildlife Service refused to provide access to this report, so I decided to try to track down its authors.

One by one, the university biologists who had contributed to the document refused to provide me with the locations of areas that would be candidates for the designation of critical habitat. They explained that they were afraid that they would lose their government research contracts, tenure or funding for their projects if they revealed the results of the study.

Finally, I visited the office of the chair of the group of scientists to deliver an impassioned personal appeal. Here was my last chance.

“You are a biologist, you study life and have a responsibility to protect it. We need that study to prove that the nuclear-waste dump would be located in the midst of critical habitat for the Desert tortoise. If this dump is built, it will severely threaten the tortoise’s chance for survival,” I pleaded.

The biologist made a phone call to his secretary, who entered the room a moment later with a brown paper bag. “If you tell anyone where you got this, I will deny it. It will be your word against mine,” he warned.

When I got to my car, I opened the study to find that the proposed dump site was determined to be in an area essential for the survival of the tortoise and a candidate for critical habitat. I immediately contacted our attorneys and a few days later we were in federal district court with an injunction against the dump armed with the protections of the Endangered Species Act. Our lawsuit before the 9th Circuit Federal District Court was appropriated, entitled Desert tortoise et al vs. Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt. The court action established 6.5-million acres of critical habitat for the endangered desert tortoise. Following the court decision, we thought that we had finally defeated the dump project with one of the most potent laws on the books, but we did not anticipate an act of Congress that would change the rules on us.

Ground Zero

Congress can make laws and break laws, and few people realize that the legislature can exempt specific projects from environmental regulation. After we won an injunction against a federal land transfer for the purpose of the construction of the dump, the two senators of the august body who benefitted most in contributions from the nuclear industry introduced a rider on a budget bill that would exempt Ward Valley from the Endangered Species Act. We were freaked out that Congress could circumvent the decision of the courts and decided to hold an encampment on the land to determine our next steps. In consultation with the elders and tribal leaders, the coalition of grass-roots groups fighting the dump decided to occupy the land and prepare for the worst. We established a permanent camp at the proposed dumpsite and planned for direct action. The BLM had established a camp of their own with a number of trailers parked near the entrance to the camp. Rangers with cameras with gigantic telescopic lenses took photos of everyone who entered and exited the camp and set up listening devices and other surveillance equipment.

American Indian Movement (AIM) activists controlled the entrance to our camp—no drugs, alcohol or weapons allowed—and helped to patrol the perimeter. Every night around the fire at the camp we named Ground Zero, we made plans to mount a sustained resistance to the federal government. The federal law-enforcement agent in charge of the growing detail gathering for a siege of our camp began to show up at the campfire at night to talk to the elders. They welcomed him and explained why they were willing to risk everything to protect the land. The government announced that in mid-February they would arrest anyone who defied the order to leave. The night before the evacuation order, the head agent announced to us that he could not carry out his orders to remove us and was being transferred to a post in Alaska. He explained that his teenage daughter planned to join our protest and he was not willing to arrest her.

The BLM had parked a dozen jail buses near the highway in anticipation of arresting hundreds of occupiers. The elders informed us that they were planning to hold a ceremony at the entrance to the camp and would sing all night and all day to protect the land. The next morning, 50 BLM rangers in riot gear with plastic handcuffs stood in formation facing the elders who were surrounded by concentric circles of about 500 Indian and non-Indian activists. We had invited the major television stations and newspapers to witness the confrontation. An official from the White House was nervously talking into a rather large satellite phone describing the situation. We asked him if the government really wanted the major news channels to show federal police handcuffing and hauling off native elders in the midst of a religious ceremony. A few tense minutes later, the new commanding officer barked out a command and the rangers pivoted on their feet and retreated. Ward Valley was saved.

Acknowledgments: It would be impossible to mention all the people and organizations that contributed to the victory at Ward Valley in this short piece, and it was not my intention to present a complete history of the campaign. For information on the Cultural Conservancy, please visit: www.nativeland.org.

This article is co-published with KCET Artbound. Visit Artbound’s Mojave Project page here.

Sound design by Tim Halbur

Photos courtesy of Greenaction and Molly P. Johnson

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