Residents of northern New Mexico appear quite cheery about living in the vicinity of Los Alamos National Laboratory, US's primo nuclear facility, where the first atomic bombs were created. A young woman in an Albuquerque beauty salon says cheerfully, "Well, the nuclear industry provides a lot of jobs for people." But Native Americans who live downstream are not so complacent. And San Ildefonso Pueblo - a reservation for the Tewa people - is less than 10 miles from Los Alamos. The Spanish had named this pueblo after a seventh century archbishop from Toledo, Spain; more relevant is the native Tewa name, Po-Woh-Ge-Oweenge or 'Where the Water Cuts Down Through'.
Standing guard over this land is Black Mesa, a formidable outcropping of rock that is sacred to the Tewa. It is a beautiful property that faces the Pajarito Plateau where, in 1943, the government requisitioned acres of sacred Tewa land for the massive installation that was to house the Manhattan Project - producing, far from the eyes of the world, the two deadly atomic bombs that leveled Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Although the government had promised to return the land, the Tewa people say most of it is now part of Los Alamos County.
For 61 years, the Los Alamos lab has continued to research and test nuclear weapons, dumping its nuclear and chemical waste into unlined pits. Some of that material washes down with rainwater into streams to the Tewa lands and probably further.
Protesting against the nuclear laboratory is the latest in Tewa Women United's (TWU) struggle to protect the interests of Native American women. Kathy Sanchez, President and Founder, TWU, believes that Los Alamos has contaminated the water and soil of the land on which her people have lived for centuries. Native American women are concerned about the environmental and health impacts of a facility with 14,000 sites laden with nuclear wastes. Women are, they believe, the most affected. "We give birth. We have different hormones. If we don't speak up for ourselves, no one does."
TWU began in 1989 as a support group for women when a nurse at the Santa Fe Indian Hospital noticed "that a lot of women didn't have much support when they got home". A few women of the pueblo got together to provide these women with support. Josephine Natseway, who manages TWU office, says, "I had been going through a difficult time after my husband died and also was trying to sober myself up. TWU supported me to make a change."
The organization, now run by 15 women, has established programs to help women and girls deal with health issues, teen pregnancy, domestic violence and the dilemma of entering the 'Anglo' world while maintaining solid roots in their own culture.
Sanchez and others at San Ildefonso believe the contaminants have already compromised the health of the tribe. Cancers have increased; lots of people have thyroid disease; and 78 per cent of the children have asthma, she says. Many of the women over 50 have back trouble. "When our moms were carrying us, that is when the radioactive plumes started coming over our area. But again, because we're women, the men pay no attention to our complaints. The men say, 'Oh, you're ok. They're giving us money. We don't want to rock the boat.'" Some of the men are employed by the lab.
What evidence does Sanchez have that the land is contaminated?
"None!" she exclaims with some frustration. All the environmental tests are performed by the lab itself, and the results are never conclusive. The Indians have tried to get independent testing done but the two labs they were working with "mysteriously went under". Efforts to get their medical records have also failed. "The Indian Hospital in Santa Fe is a training ground for the Air Force. Their oath of allegiance is to the government, not to the Hippocratic Oath."
She adds, "Native Americans are not like other people. We do not move to another place. This land is where we came out of the womb of Mother Earth. We are not going to leave." A heavy feeling enters the room, somber as the Black Mesa.
The San Ildefonso Pueblo, like all American reservations, is a sovereign nation with its own rules and governing body. But sovereignty is a catch-22 situation for the native people. It grants them certain independent rights, but it means that when they are in trouble, they cannot appeal to the US government.
This concept of sovereignty is also central to TWU's other main focus area - domestic violence. A report released in 1999 by the US Department of Justice, 'American Indians and Crime', found that Native American women suffer violent crime at a rate three-and-a-half times greater than the national average. The system of tribal courts, which are outside the mainstream US justice system, does not adequately address the problem. This is why TWU has launched the programme 'Valuing Our Integrity with Courage, Empowerment and Support' (VOICES) to combat domestic violence within the community.
Yet the Tewa people, like many Native American tribes, have long traditions of honoring women. "Everything in our society is mother-based," says Sanchez. "But we have about 600 years of oppression. All the traditional systems went under. The men know it's there, the women know it's there, but women are far from regaining the power of decision-making. Everything today is patriarchal." Years of poverty, isolation, and demoralization resulting from the breakdown of traditional structures, combined with alcohol and now the use of drugs, create the conditions that foster abuse.
Is TWU having an impact?
"In the Indian community things are really slow," says Sanchez. "Things are put out, you wait, you let it sit, and if nothing happens, that's a good thing!" The all-male tribal council, for example, could have excommunicated them. "Although they didn't come right out and support us, some individuals would tell us, you are doing the right thing. Finally, this year, the men asked us to help them with the codes for handling domestic violence in the tribal courts, to help strengthen victims' rights."
Every year, TWU holds a 'Gathering for Mother Earth', now in its tenth year, where women come together to find "holistic ways to secure a healthy future for our generations to come". Visitors have come from as far away as Chernobyl. But the purpose of the gathering is to be inspired. "You don't want to be bumping heads against a negative force," says Sanchez. "You want to hope that the spiritual force of Mother Earth will carry us through."