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Bridging Indigenous and Traditional Scientific Approaches:

The 1940's through the 1980's is recognized as the era of the nuclear age and national defense from World War II through the Cold War against the Soviet Union. With these efforts came the placement of military bases in strategic locations in Alaska, the hunt for uranium on the Colorado Plateau, and testing of nuclear weapons in the Aleutian Islands. Over the years, the legacy from these activities includes a number of environmental problems, among them, radioactive contaminants in the Bering Sea from sunken Soviet submarines, hazardous waste from abandoned military sites in Alaska, and abandoned uranium mines on Navajo lands.

In many cases, these military defense activities took place in remote areas populated by indigenous people, including Alaska Natives and the Navajo Indians. Due to the abundant uranium ores in certain rocks of the Colorado Plateau, many of the country's uranium mines are located in the Four Corners area of Arizona. More than 1,100 mine sites were prospected on Navajo lands, the ore extracted, processed and ultimately purchased by the Atomic Energy Commission. Thousands of Navajo workers were employed at the mines and mines and mills over several decades, often with significant exposure to radionuclides. Until the 1970's workers were not warned of the radiation hazards, provided with protective gear or advised to remove work clothing at the work site. Waste from the mines and mill sites remained unmitigated for years, without access barriers to nearby residents and livestock or posted warnings. In addition, some people used readily available mine waste materials to construct walls and foundations of their homes and other structures.

Alaska Native communities express concerns about the consequences of the Cold War between the Soviet Union and the United States. A quotation from discussions in Northwest Alaska states, "There are lots of things happening. The weather has gotten warmer. The taste of the plants has changed. The fur is coming off the seals like they are molting but it is not molting time. We're wondering if Chernobyl is responsible. They were wondering about the Russian military dumping toxic wastes and it is coming over to our side..."(1) Although these areas of Alaska are remote from the general population, Alaska Natives are concerned about the effects of radioactive and chemical contaminants on their food sources, traditional lifestyles, ecosystems, and ultimately their health.

The feelings of concern about environmental contamination are fueled by lack of information or by conflicting information. An Alaska Native expresses this by stating that "Anytime someone does a study, they say they will get back to us, but they never do." (2) A similar sentiment has been expressed by Navajos. Both of the projects discussed in this paper are designed to educate and empower Native communities to understand and make decisions to address environmental concerns that emerged during the lifetime of the elders and will continue to effect future generations.


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Last updated: April 4, 2002


“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestor, we borrow it from our children”
Native American Proverb