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Desert Companion



Ian Zabarte
Photography by Brent Holmes

Ian Zabarte, Western Shoshone, secretary of Native Community Action Council

Last year, President Trump announced he would seek to restart the licensing process for the Yucca Mountain nuclear-waste repository. In the aftermath of the vicious battle over the Dakota Access Pipeline, the project took on new significance as opponents, including Democratic Representative Reuben Kihuen and Republican Senator Dean Heller, emphasized the environmental hazards to Nevada. But one voice was noticeably absent: that of the Native Americans for whom Yucca Mountain is home.

Yucca Mountain is part of the lands claimed by the Western Shoshone, which extend from northern Utah through Nevada and into Southern California. In 1993, members of the Western Shoshone and Paiute peoples founded the Native Community Action Council to commission Native-focused research on the adverse effects of nuclear fallout and to address those effects. Today, the NCAC is drawing on its communities’ experiences in the crosshairs of nuclear testing to fight Yucca Mountain. In 2014, it intervened in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s licensing of Yucca Mountain, using the 1863 Treaty of Ruby Valley, which recognized the Western Shoshone as an independent nation, to contest the Department of Energy’s claim over the land. Sure enough, that year the NRC found that the DOE did not have land or water rights in Yucca Mountain.

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Still, the fight is far from over for Ian Zabarte, spokesman for the Western Shoshone and secretary of the NCAC. Zabarte has conducted ethnographic and historical research in the area for years, and in 2015 contributed to a report developed by the governor’s office to the NRC. The report argued that the NRC and DOE’s impact assessment for Yucca Mountain was too narrow and failed to take into account the climate conditions and potential climate change in the area, and that, along with erosion and other factors, put the area’s groundwater at risk. Zabarte’s report represented an ethnographic study of the lifestyles, beliefs, and traditions of the Shoshone people of the area, arguing that even the slightest possibility of groundwater contamination poses an attack on their religious beliefs.

Zabarte has long sought to expand the education of Native Americans on the impact of nuclear radiation on themselves and their way of life. He spoke to Desert Companion about this struggle.


You argue that the impact of a nuclear waste repository will be much higher for Native Americans because of lifestyle differences the government has not researched. What are those differences, and how do they affect the Shoshone?

We brought researchers to study Shoshone exposure to radiation from nuclear weapons testing, in one of the first collaborative research projects assessing impacts based on Shoshone lifestyle. Researchers came hunting, and gathered pine nuts and medicine, as we demonstrated how each was prepared and used. … We identified the uses and practices that increased our risk of exposure, including consumption of foods that absorbed radiation during the time of full-scale nuclear weapons testing (1951-1994). Traditional foods, such as rabbit, antelope, deer, and ram, absorbed radiation, concentrated in the thyroid, that the Shoshone people then ate, resulting in a significantly higher exposure. Shoshone communities downwind, including my own, had no other food to eat after the fallout poisoned every garden.

We know radiation exposure is cumulative, and because of our past exposure to radioactive fallout, the Shoshone cannot endure any increased burden of risk from any source, including a transportation accident or mishandling of high-level nuclear waste at Yucca Mountain.


Your work discusses the effects of nuclear radiation on water in detail. How will radiation impact water supplies in the region?

Radiation released from Yucca Mountain will flow down into the groundwater, polluting the Death Valley regional groundwater along the 180-mile-long Amargosa River, increasing risk of exposure to the Shoshone people and making Shoshone country uninhabitable.


What are the broader implications of this on Native American customs and religious practices?

Pooha-Bah is a Shoshone word that means a place of pristine water and a vision or faith in its healing power along the Amargosa River. Our places of worship have diminished and are increasingly threatened by contamination. We need clean water to take care of the Shoshone people. Our spiritual belief is harmed when our land and water are tainted or contaminated by pollution, because the people must believe that the water is clean if it is to help them. Protecting water is who we are as a people.

The Creator put Shoshone here in the Great Basin with conservation lifeways, instructions of how to live in harmony with Mother Earth. When the government destroys our land, it is like tearing a page out of our bible — we don’t know what we were to learn from the land, or how it may touch, heal, or enlighten us.


This has been an ongoing issue between native peoples of the Yucca Mountain region and the government. What do you think is at the crux of the issue, and why has it been so difficult to resolve it?

Shoshone history at Yucca Mountain is 10,000 years old. The Shoshone were never conquered, and in 1863 won peace by treaty with the government. After spending $15 billion in taxpayer dollars, the government cannot prove ownership to Yucca Mountain because of ongoing treaty-reserved rights, title, and interests of the Shoshone people in the Yucca Mountain region. Legislation by Congress to designate Yucca Mountain as a nuclear waste repository is legislative malpractice and a treaty violation. … The Shoshone are vulnerable because we rely upon the strength of America’s promise to protect us. We prepared contentions and made our case without government funding. We are the only party asserting ownership of Yucca Mountain, a disqualifying condition. Supporting human dignity and protecting basic human rights is the right thing to do when confronting government oppression.


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