Yucca Mountain


Yucca Mountain

Sacred Land or Toxic Wasteland

by Helen Wick

            The modern history of Yucca Mountain, the area of homeland for the Western Shoshone and Paiute Indian tribes, extends as far back as 1863 with the Treaty of Ruby Valley, which guaranteed the Western Shoshone tribe their continued rights over the land as it became incorporated into the United States, relinquishing only passage through the area.  Over the years, the United States has failed to recognize their constant disruption of this region as a violation of rights or treaty. Starting in 1951 and ending in 1962, the United States government preformed one hundred nuclear tests, causing countless cases of radiation poisoning and cancer of both the people and the land. Although the radiation caused effects for Nevadans in general, a disproportionate amount of them were Native American (Etchegaray 3). One could argue that this nuclear testing only numbers among the many misdeeds the Unites States has committed against disadvantaged people, socially and economically. Considering the isolation of the land and the extreme poverty of this Native American tribe, the Western Shoshone and the Paiute made an easy target. The United States still refused to recognize the cultural and historical value of this land, and have since continued plans to designate the land as a nuclear repository site

In 1987, Congress decided that Yucca Mountain would be one of three sites considered for the storage of nuclear waste for over a hundred nuclear power facilities across the country. This meant that if chosen, Yucca Mountain would be the site of thousands of pounds of nuclear waste for the foreseeable future. Over the next fourteen years, the United States government spent nearly 7 billion dollars researching Yucca Mountain’s potential as a nuclear waste repository designated to hold the radioactive waste for the next ten thousand years. Despite the treaty, The United States still refused to recognize the cultural and historical value of this land, and have since continued plans to designate the land as a nuclear dump, offering only monetary compensation for their actions, which the Western Shoshone people have refused.

The Western Shoshone people have regarded Yucca Mountain as their homeland for thousands of years. In these mountains, they see their culture, their history, and their traditions.  The land in this area remains to this day very isolated. Called mountains, Yucca more resembles a long, sharp crested snake spine, spanning a large area and bordering both the Mojave Desert and the Great Basin Desert. This desertous landscape holds meaning for multiple tribes, specifically the Western Shoshone and the Paiute, especially in their creation stories. They believe “the Creator gave them a special supernatural responsibility to protect and manage the land and its resources” (Yucca Mountain Expose 6). The Western Shoshone people, the tribe at the center of this conflict, call this land Newe Segobia meaning “the people… of Mother Earth” and call Yucca Mountain “The Serpent Swimming West”(Johansen 1). This land connects their people and, as a result, represents their struggle adapting to American ideology and the conflicts that arise in the combination of separate modes of thought. Similarly, the Paiute consider their homeland on Spring Mountain, located just twenty-five miles south of the proposed site for the nuclear waste.

The other non-native Nevadans living in this area have proved a support for the Native American tribes because of their shared opposition to this location for the nuclear waste.  Although they might not all understand the land ownership issue with this land, they do not want the waste to further contaminate their land, and possibly their groundwater. The Western Shoshone have awkwardly accepted allies from these people and environmental organizations, concerned with the effects that nuclear waste will have on the environment. Throughout this process, the issue of Yucca Mountain has strayed away from the indigenous religious aspect, and since has become more of an environmental issue using the Western Shoshone tribe as the “poster child” for oppression in the process. Political leaders in the state have disapproved of this project from the beginning, but the federal government, specifically congress, has the power to override any veto from the governor of the state with a simple majority vote. This waste site proves the most financially logical for the United States since they have already funneled billions of dollars into the project. To abandon now would mean to start from scratch. It seems the United States government, specifically the Department of Energy, has put all their nuclear waste “eggs” in one basket and now faces the consequences of their actions with extreme insistence that this site remains the only feasible option.

The Department of Energy claims to want to uphold certain Native American religious rights, but their constant funneling of money to tribes in order for them to accept waste on their land shows how little they understand sacredness and what the land means to the people proving again and again how “modern man has desacralized his world and assumed a profane existence” (Eliade 13). The United States continue to seek resolution by offering to preserve some of the Native American land for the Western Shoshone people, but the tribe refuses to let the land go. They worry that if they reveal the areas of land and their specific uses, the information will be misconstrued and the United States will continue to fail to understand that they regard all of this land as sacred and any action their with nuclear waste represents a disgusting misuse of this sacred space.

As the issue stands now, the project for the nuclear repository has long been in action since 2001 despite the immense opposition from the state and its citizens, the sovereign nation of the Western Shoshone, and environmental groups. Tunnels have been carved into this sacred mountain, and waste has been stored. Numerous politicians have attempted to shut down the project, including President Barack Obama who attempted to limit the budget of the project. However, the forces behind storing this waste, and all their money, persist.  The issue has strayed from a sovereignty case, proving that, at this time, the more powerful and effective course of actions relies on the environmental interest in the issue. Hopefully, sometime in the future, the sacred interests of the Western Shoshone and the Paiute tribes will enter into the conversation in a meaningful way.

             Work Cited

Eliade, Mircea. The Sacred and the Profane; the Nature of Religion. New York: Harcourt,

Brace, 1959. Print.

“Environmental Justice Case Study: The Yucca Mountain High-Level Nuclear Waste

Repository and the Western Shoshone.” University of Michigan. University of

Michigan, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Etchegaray, Julie. “The Atomic Frontier: Atmospheric Testing in Nevada, The Two Sides.”

The Atomic Frontier: Atmospheric Testing in Nevada, The Two Sides Summer 2001 

            Newsletter. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.

Harney, Corbin. “Yucca Mountain: No Place for Nuclear Waste.” Radioactive Waste Project.

Nuclear Information and Resource Project, Oct. 2001. Web. 3 Oct. 2014.

Johansen, Bruce E. “IPEIE–Yucca Mountain: Nuclear Storage at the “Serpent Swimming

West”, by Bruce E. Johansen.” Yucca Mountain: Nuclear Storage at the “Serpent 

            Swimming West” Greenwod Press, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014.


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