Native American Belief In Water 10-2015
Published on: Mar 3, 2016
Transcripts - Native American Belief In Water 10-2015
Native American Belief in Water: An Environmental Justice Context
Ian Zabarte 2015
Yucca Mountain, Nevada is undergoing licensing as a high level nuclear waste repository by the
US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC). Included in this study is the potential impact to
Native Americans from the release of radiation into the groundwater from the proposed high level
nuclear waste repository at Yucca Mountain, Nevada. Native American’s tribal members have
special expertise that result in a unique understanding of their environment through a shared sense
of place along the Amargosa River. Their lifeways produce a perspective of risk that has not been
understood despite past efforts by the Department of Energy’s (DOE) Native American Interaction
Program in place since the 1980’s. For the purpose of Yucca Mountain site characterization, the
DOE considers the whole of Native American society through a focus on cultural resources—in
essence a social disconnect.
The general public including Native Americans rely on intuitive judgments called “risk
perceptions.” Expert judgments and public intuition seem to suffer from the same biases: new
evidence is consistent with one’s initial belief; contrary evidence is dismissed as unreliable,
erroneous and unrepresentative (Slovic 1987). According to Slovic’s research the most important
message is that the public conceptualization of risk is much richer than that of experts reflecting
legitimate concerns that are omitted from expert risk assessment. The result of not considering
public views including Native Americans is the failure of risk communication and risk
management. Both the public perception and expert opinion must be respected.
The US NRC’s supplement to the US DOE 2002 Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and its
2008 Supplemental EIS is limited to the potential environmental impacts from the proposed
repository on groundwater and from surface discharges of groundwater. The DOE conducted an
analysis of environmental justice as required by Executive Order 12898, “Federal Actions to
Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations.” This
Executive Order directs agencies to identify and consider disproportionately high and adverse
human health, social, economic, or environmental effects of their actions on minority and low-
The DOE environmental justice effort does not identify any high and/or adverse impacts to
members of the general public. Further, DOE has not identified subsections of the population,
including minority or low-income populations, who would receive disproportionate impacts. It has
identified no unique exposure pathways, sensitivities, or cultural practices that would expose
minority or low-income populations to disproportionately high and adverse impacts. This
oversight has led the DOE Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to conclude that no
disproportionately high and adverse impacts would result from the Proposed Action of the DOE.
This study considers the Native American perspective that views the world as a seamless landscape
with myriad connections to past, present and future use of land and water to protect and preserve
There are many ways to conduct scientific research. One way is for researchers to go into a tribal
community extract confidential information, construct scientifically meaningful databases or
questions answerable with scientifically quantifiable methods, then interpret the results based on
the external values and objectives of the researches conducting the study. This approach may work
well for some research studies. In cases where the tribal community has already been adversely
affected, however, this approach may have disastrous effect. It leaves tribal communities feeling
used and victimized beyond the initial injury which prompted concerns for the need of research in
the first place. A more logical approach for both the tribal community and scientists is to include
the tribal community in collaboration with scientists to do the needed research.
This study uses an integrated approach using a Native American researcher to conduct interviews
and interpret meaning from respondent’s interviews. This approach allows the tribal community
an opportunity to understand the needs of science as well as provide a level of openness in the
communication of potential tribal impacts and concerns which would not otherwise be available
to scientists. A tribal researcher can obtain a deeper understanding of the internal functioning of
community, its practices and norms of behavior. This research could access the richness of tribal
communities interpretation which they would not otherwise have access or opportunity to realize
without the direct collaborative participation of community members in the research.
Our study takes place in October and November of 2015. A qualitative research approach is
determined appropriate to obtain a broad range of meaning from respondents interviewed about
water contaminated with radiation discharged from the proposed Yucca Mountain site some time
into the future. Participation by Native American respondents was voluntary and met fully with
human subjects experimentation research protocol. Due to time and funding constraints, a Western
Shoshone tribal member with expertise in conducting qualitative research and contacts with tribal
community stakeholders conducted the study. Use of a tribal member aids in access to tribal
communities, contact with tribal community stakeholders and facilitates the interpretation of
context in interviews that are conducted.
Two tribes are identified with ties to the Yucca Mountain region for the study, the Western
Shoshone tribe and Southern Paiute tribe. Of these two tribes, the Western Shoshone tribe has a
treaty with the US that is, “in full force and effect” according to a 1990 opinion by the Federal
District Court Judge Bruce Thompson. Application and effect of the Treaty of Ruby Valley (Map
Attached) is politically contentious and not used by the DOE in scientific site characterization
studies of Yucca Mountain. The interviewer is a Western Shoshone with strong political views
critical of the US in general, and the DOE specifically, believing that exposure to radioactive
fallout in atmospheric testing of weapons of mass destruction is responsible for the adverse health
consequences known to be plausible from exposure to radiation that the Western Shoshone tribe
experiences. Acknowledgment of the 1863 treaty by the DOE may have prevented the expenditure
of time and over $10 billion taxpayer dollars, but may have also acknowledged treaty obligations
of the US. In 1998, one segment of the Western Shoshone tribe, the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe,
sough involvement as an “affected Indian tribe” under the Nuclear Waste Policy Act of 1982 (PL-
97-425). An affected Indian tribe is defined as:
The term “affected Indian tribe” means any Indian tribe— (A) within whose reservation
boundaries a monitored retrievable storage facility, test and evaluation facility, or a repository
for high-level radioactive waste or spent fuel is proposed to be located; and (B) whose federally
defined possessory or usage rights to other lands outside of the reservation's boundaries arising
out of congressionally ratified treaties may be substantially and adversely affected by the
locating of such a facility: Provided, that the Secretary of the Interior finds, upon the petition of
the appropriate governmental officials of the tribe, that such effects are both substantial and
adverse to the tribe.
As an “affected Indian tribe” the Timbisha Shoshone Tribe is eligible for funding to conduct its
own site characterization of the proposed Yucca Mountain site and participate as an admitted party
to the NRC licensing proceedings. The Timbisha Shoshone Tribe was not formally contacted for
this study and is anticipated to provide its own formal comments in the licensing proceedings.
However, individual tribal members were contacted and did participate in this study.
The investigator contracted by the State of Nevada to conduct our study made initial contact to the
Western Shoshone respondents was made by attending a cultural event at Poohabah, a traditional
Native American healing center at Tecopa, California. Follow-up was made by telephone and site
visits to each individual contacted. Southern Paiute people were contacted by telephone and then
site visits made to each individual contacted on the Moapa River Indian Reservation at Moapa,
Nevada. The study identified ten (10) individuals known to the interviewer to be knowledgeable
of living tribal lifeways in the Yucca Mountain region. Six (6) individuals are Western Shoshone
and four (4) are Southern Paiute. Seven (7) respondents are female and three (3) are male. Three
respondents are elders aged sixty (60) years and older, one is under thirty (30) years old. Six (6)
respondents are in their fifties (50’s). The interviewer made contact with additional tribal members
from Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute and other regional tribes with interest and concern that
are willing to participating but, could not be pursued because of time and funding restraints. No
federally recognized tribes or tribes with affected tribe status were contacted, but should have been,
if funding and time were available for a thorough study.
During each interview a map of the Death Valley regional groundwater flow system is provided
to respondents to focus the interview. Transportation issues were briefly discussed. Each
interview is taped and a copy of the interview accompanies this study. Major themes were
identified before the interviews. Coding of interview responses was conducted after interviews
were conducted. Respondents were interviewed individually or in groups of two. Respondent
interviews were documented upon a rectangular matrix listing respondents and the common issues
each reported when interviewed.
Our study documents Native Americans beliefs about water, the use of water and the potential
impact resulting from contamination to water used by tribal people. This is done within the context
of environmental justice considering disproportionately high and adverse human health, social,
Tribe Home Water
Darlene Graham Western
X X X X X
Barbara Durham Western
X X X X
Mandy Campbell Western
X X X X X
Pauline Esteves Western
X X X X X
Vickie Simmons Southern
Moapa X X X X X
Deanna Domingo Southern
X X X X X X
Unice Ohte Southern
Vernon Lee Southern
X X X X X
Joe Kennedy Western
X X X X X X X
Patti Kennedy Western
X X X
Totals % 100% 50% 50% 50% 60% 20% 100% 30% 10%
economic, or environmental effects of federal agency actions on minority and low-income
communities. Nine (9) broad themes were considered for coding Native American responses.
Water is life, is a theme identified universally among respondents. This theme is viewed from the
religious perspective of spiritual life; and from the perspective of physically life-giving
nourishment that water provides.
A Southern Paiute respondent spoke of the Southern Paiute peoples sense of place as being where
the water is, “The people would all be where the water was. That’s path that everyone would take
and how we would find all our stuff.” Another respondent recalled a Southern Paiute elder,
Clarabell Jim, now 100+ years old telling of the water flow from Forty Mile Wash when she was
a little girl, “There, that is where they got their salt. Then if the radiation gets in there, then the
salts no good.” The response demonstrates the Southern Paiute connection to the land and sense
of place. Southern Paiute practice a ceremony called the Salt Song Trail that represent ancient
villages, gathering sites for salts and medicinal herbs, trading routes, historic sites, sacred areas,
ancestral lands and pilgrimages in the physical and spiritual landscape (Cultural Conservancy
2009). Another Southern Paiute respondent spoke of the water historically used by his family,
“Natives have a true connection to the land…being proper stewards of the land. Water is a sacred
thing. It’s just life giving water…without water nothing happens.”
Western Shoshone responses also shared the theme, water is life. “Everything has a spirit. I
believe in the water spirit.” Speaking of how she knows, intuitively, “I know water is life. Mineral
water is good for your body. It is important to believe water will help them.”
Another Western Shoshone respondent stated, “Water is life, to animals and plants. It’s supposed
to be pure…supposed to heal. It’s healing waters are known to be healing because of their warmth.
They go there if they get sick…bathe and give prayers there. We have been here before written
time. There have been a lot of people that tried to get rid of us. But, if it (radiation) is going to
be detrimental to our health, then we have to take care of the people. If we got no water, then
what? We supposed to survive on bottled water?
Another respondent spoke of Western Shoshone Spiritual Leader, Corbin Harney, recounting his
story, “He was supposed to go out and better the people and the environment through water. Then
he figured it out. The spirit will come to him through water. Then he found healing water. Its very
important.” Corbin Harney spoke of the water talking to him, telling him to go to the healing
water. Corbin Harney followed the message given to him by the “water spirit” for many years
looking for the place told of, and in 1998 founded Poohabah at Tecopa, California. Poohabah
means doctor water in the Shoshone language. Poohabah plays a role maintaining Western
Shoshone traditional lifeways and sponsor Cultural Sharing Weekend(s) each year. Western
Shoshone never know where or when the spirit of the land (or water) is going to come to them.
Taking away or destroying these sacred landscapes may limit or destroy their connection to the
“spirit” of the land, a living religious lifeway.
One water, is a theme that half of the respondents touched upon. This theme is viewed from two
perspectives, that all water in its various forms are connected; and, all water in the Yucca Mountain
region and beyond in the Great Basin are physically connected. Additional time may have allowed
this theme to be followed in each perspective and observed from all respondents.
Two (2) Western Shoshone respondents gave accounts of the physical connection of water.
Speaking of radiation, “It’s going to get there. My dad (Shoshone elder) tells a story of putting a
vessel…didn’t know what it was made of, into Fish Lake and it popped out at Devils Hole. I
wondered…it wouldn’t take a lifetime. How do we not know they are connected. There is also a
story by my grandfather of a creature that goes back and for the between Walker Lake, Fish Lake
and Deep Springs.”
The second Western Shoshone respondent also mentioned two stories. “A Paiute man spoke of
his grandmother putting something into the water over here in Amargosa and it came up over here
in Badwater. In Lone Pine…somebody put it in, a plant I think…put it in the aquifer, water running
through Lone Pine there and it came up at here at Badwater. That’s two stories with the same
outcome. Pahrump is separate. Devils Hole is on our side.”
These two accounts demonstrate a prehistoric tribal knowledge and belief of the interconnected
water flow system of the Yucca Mountain region. Western Shoshone “know” that radiation
released from the proposed Yucca Mountain repository will reach the tribal community village at
Furnace Creek in Death Valley, California.
A third account by a Western Shoshone elder also confirmed the physical water being connected.
“We are always involved in water at Amargosa cause of the flow. They’re all connected…Oasis
Valley, Amargosa, Ash Meadows, Tecopa and Furnace Creek. It was a real river. That’s the
Indian name for Beatty, the “river.”
The theme, medicine, plants, minerals is observed in half of the respondents. A Western Shoshone
respondent spoke of water at Poohabah, Tecopa being, “Mineral water…good for your body. At
the pools I sing and give thanks for what our bodies need.” Water then, nourishes the physical
body in health and in sickness. As aforementioned by the same respondent, “Its important to
believe water will help them.” This statement reflects the belief that any radioactive contamination
is unacceptable and will do harm.
Another Western Shoshone respondent, the youngest of those contacted, spoke intimately of the
water, “Water is our everything. You have to have it for your food…crops, everything, our
mesquite. Everything would die out here.” Mesquite is a food source, medicine and shelter that
is in continuous use by the Timbisha Shoshone. Mesquite is important and is contemplated for
future use by conservation planning today. (Attachment -Furnace Creek Land Uses)
The Western Shoshone elder stated that, “We didn’t want to be in one place and we make sure.
That’s why we have Scotty’s Junction, Lida Ranch, all with water. Natives didn’t live like that.
Never over using it. We moved…then we would move on. They knew there was another generation
of animals coming. They needed food for their young ones.” Water is viewed as essential to the
land use and planning needs of the Timbisha Shoshone to nourish plants for consumption by
indigenous animals and ultimately, conservatively, use and consumption of animals by the
Western Shoshone people.
A Western Shoshone respondent speaking of radiation, “Its not meant to be there…not supposed
to be doing what they’re doing. When you take it away (water)…culture and religion when you
should be able to use it. Once you take that water away from the people and they can’t use that
water anymore that’s who they are being. That water give them these certain minerals…and that’s
supposed to be there and makes them who they are. That’s they’re make-up is that water. If they
don’t have it , that’s not who they are.” The respondent identifies a sense of place and being of a
Timbisha Shoshone. Their identity is connected to unique minerals in the water flows that are
essential to the construction of tribal community identity. Radioactive contamination threatens the
identity of the Timbisha Shoshone. “Each spring has its own minerals and flavors. Certain muds
are used to cleanse and suck out poison.” Medicinal uses of water are clearly recounted by
Western Shoshone respondents.
Protective behavior including praying was also universally addressed by all respondents. Praying
is a living tribal lifeway that acknowledges the importance of life and the intent by tribal
community to protect and conserve the land and water. A Southern Paiute respondent states, “We
have to save it because we might really need it, that water.” Another Southern Paiute commented
about water, “Spiritual uses for it. You help the stuff grow. You don’t get the water to help like
plants and stuff, you don’t get anything. You have to feed the earth…in order to help it grow. It
was blessed. You blessed that water. You blessed that ground. You blessed those…” Living
tribal lifeways include praying as helping the land and plants, a conservation method.
Western Shoshone also use prayer as a protective behavior to protect and conserve the land and
water in the Yucca Mountain region. A Western Shoshone respondent details traditional tribal
religious practices, “Always pray for the water here (Poohabah)…seeing things spiritually. At
ceremony I offer water...to heal Mother Earth. Prayer pole, vision quests, morning circle and
sweats at Yucca Mountain.” Western Shoshone continue to practice traditional tribal ceremonies
on their land at Yucca Mountain without DOE permission (Photo 1).
Another Western Shoshone respondent stated, “You pray for everything, you pray for the sun to
come up, water to flow and be pure and the human race to go on…everyone else too.” You use it
(water) to cleanse yourself, you use it to pray, make yourself good.”
Still another Western Shoshone respondent describes the water as sacred, “When it comes from
the sky and comes to earth…we have to take care of and respect it, use it in your prayers. The
places where water is, are very important. Only spiritual people can go in there and use that
water first. No one can go in there. The spiritual people go in there and talk to the water before
anyone can go in there and use that water.”
Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute people are spiritual people who continue to practice
conservation and protective behavior through prayer which produces a shared sense of community-
-a living tribal lifeway. Each tribe depends on the purity of water for their continued existence as
it flows from the land. Their tribal activity is based upon the use and conservation of water,
planning for future needs. Tribal community activities take place in the larger regional area and
are not confined to reservation(s) boundaries. Tribal knowledge is drawn from a lifestyle of
interdependence with the surrounding environment for food, water and the construction of tribal
identity through conservation and prayer practiced in the tribal community. Prayer practiced in
tribal communities is a method for bringing awareness to conservation of land and water, a living
lifeway defining tribal identity and sense of place—passing down tribal knowledge to future
generations. Native Americans need to have an ongoing connection to “place(s)” to maintain their
identity as a distinct people. A failure of the environment can result in the ruin of tribal identity.
A different lifestyle, diet, shelter, mobility and prayer define Native American living lifeways.
Prayer, conservation and protective measures are also used to pass on traditions and a sense of
place. Based on lifestyle differences, exposure to Native American is likely to be higher than the
non-Native American public. Increased exposure risk would be evidenced by difference in diet,
what they eat and how they prepared their food; shelter, where they live and what their houses are
made of; mobility, where they went, how long they spent there, and what they did there.
Lifestyle differences exist between the general public and Native American tribal communities.
This idea has been reinforced over and over again by the US. Native American collaborative
research has found significant increase in exposure to radiation based on lifestyle differences. The
reasonably maximally exposed individual modeled for the Yucca Mountain project is not
appropriate to use for Native Americans. The DOE has not considered alternative lifestyle more
closely related to the Native American living lifeway found to exist in this study. Native American
research has found that:
Because of differences in diet, activities, and housing, their radiation exposures are only
very imperfectly represented in the Department of Energy dose reconstructions. There are
important missing pathways, including exposures to radioactive iodine from eating small
game. The dose reconstruction model assumptions about cattle feeding practices across a
year are unlikely to apply to the native communities as are other model assumptions about
diet. Thus exposures from drinking milk and eating vegetables have not yet been properly
estimated for these communities. Through consultations with members of the affected
communities, these deficiencies could be corrected and the dose reconstruction extended
to Native Americans (Quigley and others 2000).
Participation by Native American respondents was voluntary and used methods that met fully with
ethical standards of human subjects experimentation. Many respondents found during the
interview process new insights and meaningful connections between past experiences and the
present. These new insights suggest the possibility of deeper understanding and meaning not yet
expressed. A follow-up study could unlock valuable knowledge about Native American
Use of a tribally affiliated researcher allows the tribal community the opportunity to understand
the needs of science as well as provide a level of openness in the communication of impacts,
concerns and derived meaning which would not otherwise be available to researchers. Additional
positive benefits include a tribal community based understanding of nuclear issues. Also,
researchers can obtain a deeper understanding and care of the internal functioning of tribal
community, its practices and norms of behavior, and gain an understanding of the richness of the
tribal community which they would not otherwise have access or opportunity to realize without
the direct participation of tribal member as the researcher.
Time was the most important resource lacking in this study leaving the researcher without
sufficient time to conduct more extensive interviews and interpretation of more specific meaning.
Failure to provide effective notice, funding and time to respond may be a cause of environmental
justice for not providing Native Americans ample support and time for review.
Cultural Conservancy Storyscape Project (2009)
Furnace Creek Land Use--Timbisha Shoshone Homeland: A draft Secretarial Report to Congress
to Establish a Permanent Tribal Land Base and Related Cooperative Activities (circa 1990)
Cardinalli, Death Valley Regional Groundwater Flow System (1968)
Paul Slovic, Perception of Risk. Source: Science, New Series, Vol. 236, No. 4799 (1987)
Quigley and others, The Assessment of Radiation Exposures in Native American Communities
From Nuclear Weapons Testing in Nevada, Risk Anal. (2000)
Thompson, US v. Dann (1990)
U.S. Department of Energy 2002. Final Environmental Impact Statement for a Geologic
Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at Yucca
Mountain, Nye County, Nevada. DOE/EIS-0250. Washington, D.C.
U.S. Department of Energy 2008. Final Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement for a
Geologic Repository for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel and High-Level Radioactive Waste at
Yucca Mountain, Nye County, Nevada. DOE/EIS-0250F-S1. Las Vegas, Nevada.
US v. Dann (1990)
Western Shoshone Treaty Land, Zabarte 2003
Prayer pole/flag on Yucca Mountain, Zabarte Circa 2001.