New Internationalist


January 1993

new internationalist
issue 239 - January 1993

Rush to Point Zero
Most people will move away pretty fast if they hear that a nuclear bomb is
about to be exploded. Some, like Juley Howard, will move equally
fast - towards it. She explains why, and how, she is trying to stop the
British Government using Native American land for nuclear tests.

Graphic We first met the Western Shoshone Native People two years ago, a few days into what might be considered a crazy adventure to stop the British Government from exploding a nuclear bomb on Native land in Newe Segobia, US.

Greenpeace had flown two of us out to Las Vegas where we would meet our guide, get familiar with the situation and prepare our hike to the desert test site. Another woman from Britain would arrive the next day. Then the four of us would set out for 'ground zero', the point directly above where the underground explosion was to take place.

But first we had to meet Bill Posse Senior of the Western Shoshone National Council. He was the first Native American I had ever met - and apart from his Stetson and beaded necklace he looked pretty much like anyone else to me. We met in an empty classroom at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and he filled in permits from the Western Shoshone National Council giving us permission to go onto their land.

Our plan was to hike to 'ground zero', find somewhere nearby to hide for the night, then rush to the site just before the explosion was due and halt the test that way. But some of us were still jet-lagged and exhausted and the hike took longer than we expected. Shortly after nightfall our guide accidentally led us into a dead-end canyon and it was several hours before we realized our mistake. We had to retrace our steps and find the right canyon in the morning.

Meanwhile the US and UK nuclear-testing authorities had decided that reports from Greenpeace that protesters were in the vicinity should be treated as hoax. They would go ahead with the explosion anyway.

Dawn was breaking as we neared the danger area, a stream of traffic indicating that it had already been evacuated. But we were still two miles away! We threw down our packs and ran for it, arriving six minutes before the bomb was to be detonated.

Well, our protest worked - temporarily. The nuclear test was halted and we, of course, were arrested. We gave our Western Shoshone permits to the security guards as identification. Two months later, when our equipment was handed back, I found my permit screwed up into a tiny ball at the bottom of my rucksack.

Since then the US and the UK Governments have exploded another 15 nuclear bombs on Western Shoshone land. Two were detonated just days before President George Bush signed a eight-month moratorium at the end of September 1992. It means that there should be no more nuclear explosions in the area before June 11993 - the UN declared Year of the Indigenous Peoples.

Underground nuclear 'testing' in Western Shoshone has a far greater impact than the authorities would have us believe. Rock is liquefied, huge craters are formed and land is contaminated for ever. Radiation is released into the air and seeps into ground water.

These nuclear tests are carried out when the wind is blowing away from the major population centres of California and Las Vegas. Western Shoshone tribal lands and reservations lie directly in the path of the fall-out.

All nuclear-weapon states explode their bombs on unconsenting nations. Americans don't set off nuclear weapons in Santa Barbara or Washington; they bomb the Western Shoshone nation. Russians bomb Kazakhstan, Han Chinese bomb Uygur territory, the French bomb Tuamoto Island peoples. Britain has bombed both Australian Aboriginal nations and the Western Shoshone.

When we went to court in Las Vegas - unlike most 'trespassers' on the Nevada test site we did get charged - we presented a case based on the Western Shoshone 'right to decide' the use of their land. As the rightful landowners they had every right to give us permission to walk on the land and effectively delay a nuclear test. Predictably the magistrate turned down our defence, claiming that we had offered no proof of the National Council's authority to issue such permits.

Actions such as ours may seem reckless, attention-seeking. Four white Greenpeace activists coming within inches of death grab the limelight. But for how long? A few hours? A few days?

Longer and less glamorous is the struggle for land rights of the Western Shoshone National Council. Pauline Esteves, one of their representatives, explains: 'We want to be recognized as a nation according to the Treaty of Ruby Valley signed in 1863. The Treaty does not state that we gave up lands to the United States. We just gave a right of way, a passage in peace and friendship to benefit the immigrants. The land is not for sale. We see the earth as our mother. If we were to sell the land we would be selling ourselves.'

Now the Western Shoshone have given up trying to get justice through the US courts and are engaged in direct negotiations with the Government instead. The goals of the Western Shoshone people and those of their friends in the peace and environment movements may not be exactly the same - but they are similar enough for us to work together.

And what will happen in June year when the moratorium on nuclear testing in Newe Segobia comes to an end? Will we wait until then and leave it to the Western Shoshone people to make all the fuss?

The Western Shoshone National Council can be contacted via P0 Box 68, Duckwater NV 89314. Juley Howard is an anti-nuclear and land-rights activist,who works at the Bristol Women's Centre in the UK.

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