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It Is Heavy on My Heart
by Gail Tremblay

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Artist’s Statement

I first became aware of the effects of nuclear pollution on reservations in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when I began reading about rising cancer rates on the Navajo reservation. Because piles of radioactive dust and rock (tailings) from uranium mining had never been cleaned up by the corporations who did the mining, people living in areas on the reservation where the mining was done were suffering from the health problems associated with long term cumulative effects of radiation exposure.

Next, I heard about the effects of the Nuclear Testing of Atomic Bombs in Nevada on the health of the Shoshone peoples there. Then I heard about the negative health effects on Yakama and Coleville people caused by radioactive emissions and spills from the power plants at Hanford Nuclear Reservation where the earliest reactors were used to enrich uranium and create plutonium for the first nuclear bombs. During the long period of the Cold War when several countries were testing nuclear weapons, people around the Arctic were exposed to large doses of nuclear fallout, and I began to hear stories about the health effects on Inupiat and Inuit peoples. Because indigenous people in all these places hunt and/or fish and gather local plant foods also exposed to radiation, native people concentrated much higher rates of radiation in their bodies than many non-native people in surrounding areas. People who lived a less tradition life style and bought food in grocery stores that was shipped in from less contaminated areas would still suffer from health problems, but generally their exposure levels were lower unless they grew and raised their own food.

At the same time, the U.S. government supported corporations like General Electric to develop Nuclear Power Plants, and this policy generated an incredible nuclear waste problem. U. S. officials eventually decided to look to reservations to create Monitored Retrievable Storage (MRS) facilities to house that waste while a permanent storage facility was built. During the 1990’s, large amounts of money was paid to several tribal governments to do feasibility studies. When people in the various tribal communities being studied learned that their reservations were being considered, movements to stop MRS sites from being built divided communities into factions where large numbers of people didn’t want to risk radioactive contamination if an accident occurred. The U.S. government targeted reservations because they are by treaty sovereign nations and U.S. citizens in surrounding communities and states have no control over them. Many communities are still feeling the negative effects of this U.S. policy in their relationships and on their lives.

Current U.S. nuclear policy calls for building a permanent storage facility at Yucca Mountain, a place where much of the early testing of Atomic Bombs was done. Yucca Mountain lies on an earthquake fault and both the Shoshone people and millions of non-Indian citizens of the state of Nevada oppose this policy. Current U.S. Nuclear Posture Statements also call for the building of new nuclear power plants that will create more nuclear waste, the development of new, small nuclear weapons called bunker busters for use in “limited” nuclear wars, and the testing of these new weapons. One wonders how many more people will suffer from rising cancer rates, birth defects and other health problems related to nuclear pollution if such a policy is implemented.

Such policies are dangerous for all people on the planet, not just future enemies of the United States government. To date the United States is the only country to actually use nuclear weapons and weapons using spent nuclear materials in war against other countries, but a number of the deadly effects of our nuclear programs have injured and harmed people inside U.S. boundaries. For people in indigenous nations who are most likely to be impacted by future mining, testing, or waste disposal, current nuclear policy statements are plans by the U.S. government to commit further genocidal, international crimes against humanity. It is immoral when a government endangers the right of Native peoples in nations inside their boundaries to a healthy life. It is a travesty to endanger peoples practicing their traditional life ways on this planet, Mother Earth, who has sustained life for countless generations. In the face of such policies, it is time for all Americans to stand up for the health of the planet and the health of all the beings on it. One needs to think about rising cancer rates among friends and relatives and to chose leaders who will make policies that are not quietly killing the people one loves. Decisions that are not good for people being born Seven Generations in the future are dangerous decisions.  It is important to choose leaders whose decisions support life and balance on the Earth. This installation is meant to educate about these issues and give voice to indigenous people who are struggling for environmental justice.

-Gail Tremblay   



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