The question was raised at a recent meeting called by Oglala Sioux Tribal President John Yellow Bird Steele about the idea of mining uranium on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation: ”Are you Oglala or Wasicu?”
If a person is Oglala, or Anishinabeg, or Dine’, or from any other indigenous nation that is trying desperately to retain their indigenous values, the answer to the possibility of mining uranium is a simple and resounding ”No!” The answer ”yes” to the question of mining uranium reflects the values of the Wasicu, or the white man, and the Lakota word wasicu literally means ”takes the fat” for a reason.
All of the indigenous nations understood what uranium was in their own terms and their own cultures. The Dine’ (Navajo) called it ”the yellow monster.” An Oglala holy man spoke of only those who had a dream and were protected could go into areas where uranium was naturally occurring. The understanding is entirely different than viewing uranium according to the Wasicus as an energy source, or natural resource. Mitochondria in the cell is also a source of energy that Wasicu scientists still do not understand, and their study of the cell is a lot older than the study of uranium.
Steele, as the president of one of the poorest tribes on the North American continent, is in the unenviable position of trying to improve the economic conditions on the reservation while at the same time trying to stay within the cultural, traditional values of the Oglala people. With the price of uranium soon to be reaching the $200 per pound category, and with uranium located all over the region, he called a meeting to discuss an offer made to the previous tribal president, Cecelia Fire Thunder. As the new tribal president, he has been asked to sign a memorandum of agreement with the mining entity, Native American Energy Group.
The slick handout from NAEG has a quote from Leonard Peltier on its front cover which states:
”I heard about your company and all the good things you are doing for Native Americans. Our people are good and deserve a chance to live a better life. Too many companies say they want to help, but in the end they only help themselves to our resources and give us barely enough to survive. I knew in my heart that someday a company like yours would come, a company that does not take advantage of us and truly wants to help. I have heard about your ‘Tribal Empowerment Program,’ and I wish to be a member and supporter. My supporters and followers also pledge their complete support for your company as well.”
A woman at the meeting said she was going to contact Peltier to see if he really did say these things, and to let him know what NAEG is planning for the Pine Ridge Reservation.
The handout further stated, ”Native American Energy Group is an energy company that was originally founded in 2001 to develop energy resources on Native American reservations in the United States. Upon inception, the founders of the Company initiated its current philosophy of commitment and dedication to create opportunities for an emerging group of American Indian Nations with abundant natural resources, to become producing nations which explore, produce and control their own natural resources.”
Again, we have an entity planning to come into the last Oglala territory and impose their philosophy in typical colonizing fashion. If NAEG was truly cognizant of Oglala philosophy and values, they would know in the first place not to call Ina Makoce, Mother Earth, ”natural resources.” If they understood the vast difference in philosophy between the Oglalas and the Wasicus, they would have known better than to even try to recommend destroying and hurting her by mining.
Even more unconscionable is the idea of waving the possibility of multimillion dollars in front of tribal presidents responsible for the economic development of a reservation that is slated for poverty by design. It is not just the epitome of colonialism, but is the equivalent of the guard of this prisoner of war camp opening the gate and telling the prison leader he will be free. Upon running, the prisoner will be shot for escaping; only in this case, the bullet will be the unseen, unsmelled, untasted form of nuclear radiation.
Steele is right to gather more heads together than just the OST Executive Committee, his own group of advisers, or even the entire tribal council when trying to decide what to do about something as dangerous as uranium mining. Along with the current tribal ban on mining on the reservation, Steele needs to arm himself with as much information and advice as he can muster to fend off the other uranium mining companies that are sure to come knocking on the door soon.
The task force he established was originally called the Uranium Mining Task Force, but after the presentations and discussions, concluding with the question of ”are we Oglala or Wasicu,” the group changed the name to the Natural Resources Protection Task Force. The new name fits according to Wasicu philosophy and understanding. If it were totally according to Oglala understanding, there would be no need for any task force, as we would all know that we must always protect Ina Makoce and we would never talk about mining. But the colonization and forced cultural genocide has succeeded so well that we must continue to learn all we can according to the Wasicu philosophy and understanding, then discuss with each other and remind ourselves of what it is in Oglala terms and values.
The front line helping President Steele is the young, educated and culturally aware staff that currently comprises the Oglala Sioux Tribe Environmental Protection Office and Natural Resources Regulatory Agency. If politics and corruption don’t interfere and they are allowed to do their jobs, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation may be one of the last places left in the upper Midwest that is not completely polluted by nuclear radiation.
Charmaine White Face, whose Lakota name is Zumila Wobaga, is Oglala Lakota. She is a biologist, physical scientist, former educator, writer and the founder and coordinator for Defenders of the Black Hills. White Face may be reached at email@example.com.