By Sister Marlene Perrotte
The advent of the nuclear age in World War II was the first step in turning much of New Mexico into a sacrifice area, the latest in a long line of injustices suffered by the Native peoples in the region. But you don’t hear their story in the blockbuster film “Oppenheimer.” They are, as is so often the case, overlooked, ignored.
The movie tells the story of the Manhattan Project, in which some of the brightest scientific minds of their time created the first nuclear bomb, a key event in the timeline of human and environmental destruction.
On July 16, 1945, the first nuclear weapon in human history was detonated at the Trinity Site, in central New Mexico.
President Harry Truman approved the dropping of the first atomic bombs on Hiroshima, Japan on August 6, 1945, and the second on Nagasaki three days later. The public justification for the use of the bomb was to end World War II, although some believe it was to send a message to the Soviet Union.
Project leader J. Robert Oppenheimer chose Los Alamos, New Mexico as the site of the top secret project because he had a ranch near there. But New Mexico was more than a just place where he loved to ride his horse. The state, which was colonized in the late 1500s by Spanish conquistadores and their imperial Catholic faith, is home to 23 Federally recognized tribes.
The movie is told from an exclusively white male perspective, and mentions the indigenous people just twice, when Oppenheimer dismissively says the Los Alamos area is vacant except for a few Indians who use the site for burials, and later when he suggests the government return the land to the natives.
The nuclear lab was built on lands sacred to local Tewa-speaking Pueblo people, and the area was home to descendants of Hispano and white homesteaders.
Tewa Women United, an organization of women from various Pueblos surrounding Los Alamos, urges people to “take time to learn the other side of the story and what unfolded at the Tewa Sacred Mountain, Tsankawi (also known as Los Alamos) and the Pajarito Plateau 80 years ago — the story that centers the voices of Indigenous and land-based peoples who were displaced from our homelands, the poisoning and contamination of sacred lands and waters that continues to this day, and the ongoing devastating impact of nuclear colonization on our lives and livelihoods.”
Residents were not warned about the Trinity nuclear test, nor have they received an apology or financial recompense for the health effects of due to the exposure, including cancer and heart disease. The Trinity site downwinders, were the first of tens of thousands of people, creatures and lands impacted. .
Thousands of Navajo and Pueblo men and women worked in uranium mines in the Grants Mineral Belt, and New Mexico has become a dumping ground for radioactive waste, with multiple facilities in the nuclear corridor in the southeastern part of the state. Nuclear testing and contamination have caused generational health issues and endangered a way of life that included farming and raising sheep, cattle and horses.
Most people do not know that on July 16, 1979, the Church Rock mill uranium tailings dam collapsed, releasing over 90 million gallons of liquid radioactive waste into the Puerco River, washing it downstream onto Navajo lands. It was the third worst nuclear disaster after Chernobyl and Fukushima, larger than the Three Mile Island incident just four months earlier, which was national news. The Navajo people were not alerted about the spill until days later.
The story is not over. The U.S. government is moving ahead with plans to spend $1.7 trillion dollars – and potentially much more — over the next three decades to maintain and modernize the nuclear arsenal, and the Los Alamos National Laboratory is currently undergoing a nearly $2billion-dollar expansion to create plutonium pits on an industrial scale.
The actual threats we face like catastrophic climate change and future global health pandemics, will not be addressed with more powerful nuclear weapons, which have the potential to make us less safe.
Remember the forgotten people.
Sister Marlene is leading a group on a pilgrimage through New Mexico’s extractivism sacrifice zone September 16-23. You can follow along on Sisters of Mercy social media accounts.