The Black Hills and the Lakota: Cursed by Gold and Uranium

The Lakota believe that First Man was tricked into coming to the surface of the world by Iktomi the Spider.  Legend has it that the gods were bored, and like any good trickster, Iktomi could assume different forms to make mischief.  Thus, upon discovering a small nation of People below ground, he turned himself into a wolf, and told tales of the wonders they would find above.  Tohake, unable to resist, followed Iktomi through the vast Wind Cave to the surface, where he marveled at the blue sky, green grass, tipis, and buffalo; Iktomi even served him a bowl of delicious tatanka soup.

He hastened back to his subterranean village and convinced six other men and their families to follow him up into the promised land. But as they emerged from the cave, they found terrible weather, few buffalo, and a scarcity of edible plants.  Unable to return home, but armed with their knowledge of the world, they learned to survive, and became the founders of the Seven Fireplaces of the Lakota Oyate.

That ‘knowledge of the world’ would be thrust upon them again and again over time, causing them to be resolute in many different ways…

A bit of history on the Black Hills (Pahá Sápa), once ‘given’ to the Lakota People (Titunwan)

In 1868 the Federal government signed the Treaty of Fort Laramie with the tribes banded together in Red Cloud’s War, fought over the encroachment of their historical hunting and fishing grounds by hordes of ‘settlers’ and gold prospectors on the recently built Bozeman trail in Powderhorn country.  In the treaty, the Lakota were granted the Black Hills in perpetuity, along with many sad and sick provisions ‘for the good of their civilization’.  But when rich veins of gold were discovered, a constant stream of prospectors crossed their reservation borders, causing what was later called ‘the Black Hills War’.  In response, the Federal government stole back their sacred Black Hills in 1877.  As an aside, there were so many broken First American treaties and promises over the century that I’ve long wondered if that understanding may have been the original source of the term ‘Indian Giver’.

Now in 1980, the Supreme Court agreed that the Sioux had been robbed of their Sacred Black Hills, and granted them about $120 million in reparations.  The Lakota refused; the money is purported to be in a trust whose value is about a billion dollars to date.  This principled stand the tribe took, while their reservations are rife with poverty, unemployment, hunger, alcoholism and misery, and yes, there have been fierce arguments over taking the money.  But there it sits, or so we hope, as a silent testament to the pride and honor of the seven Lakota bands.  For there lie the bones of their ancestors, their ceremonial and sacred sites, now ravaged by gold mines and more recently, over a thousand open cast uranium mines and tailings piles.

More Uranium Miners are beating down their doors

Ben Whitford, writing for the Ecologist, advises us of the most recent threat to the foothills of the Black Hills, and among others, the Lakota tribes: the permitting of In- Situ uranium leaching and processing.  The NRC is a breath or two away from giving the official okey-dokey for Canadian Powertech Uranium Corporation for a 17,800-acre facility known as Dewey-Burdock in the southern foothills of the Black Hills.  The NRC completed their final environmental assessment (EIS), with regulators saying they see no reason to block the project.

In a process akin to fracking, holes are bored through rock down to the uranium deposits, pipes put in place, and chemical-laced water is forced into the ore.  The ore becomes liquid, and is then pumped out through other pipe-lined boreholes, stored in tanks and sent or further processing into…yellow cake.   An industry propaganda video explanation of ISL is here.

Apparently six or seven other companies are waiting in the wings to ‘help the local economy with this safe mining technique’.  That fact is giving local activists the heebie-jeebies, as they imagine their Sacred Black Hills ringed with life-killing heavy metals leaching into the single most important medicine on earth: water.

Powertech estimates that they can extract over 8 million pounds of uranium worth over half a billion bucks, and in the process will pump about 9,000 gallons of water per minute into the ore, which Whitford says is more than nearby Rapid City, population 77,000 uses.  Their city council has ‘grave concerns’ about the project. Powertech claims that ‘a mild acid’ would melt the uranium ore, and has revised its Preliminary Economic Assessment because: ‘The Company has also obtained revised and much more favourable property tax incentives from the applicable tax authorities.’  Ben Whitford didn’t mention what that might mean.  Nor does he seem to have known that in February, Powertech announced an all-but-finalized merger with Hong Kong-based Azarga Mining, infusing many needed millions into the new entity ‘Azarga Uranium Corp.’.  Mr. Market is bullish on the new venture; over the next to days, 11 million shares were traded.  My guess is that the cash infusion is one of the last boxes that the NRC needed to check before issuing the permit, even though the EPA and state regulators will have a say.  As will state legislators, but, whoa Nellie:

‘Activists say that Powertech is already working to minimise oversight of its operations. The company’s three lobbyists have proven adept at courting South Dakota lawmakers and dominating legislative committee meetings, says Jerry Wilson, political action chair for the South Dakota chapter of the Sierra Club.

That’s led to a number of recent victories for the company. In 2011, Powertech secured the passage of legislation effectively barring South Dakota’s Department of Environment and Natural Resources from regulating ISL projects, leaving the state with direct oversight only of water-use and waste-disposal issues.

The company has also defeated several measures aimed at increasing oversight, including, this year, a bill that would have required Powertech to demonstrate its ability to restore groundwater quality before opening the new mine.

Powertech’s lobbying has sidelined state regulators, and there’s little hope that federal regulators will step up to fill the gap, Wilson says. America’s nuclear watchdogs have deep ties to the industry they oversee, Wilson says, and have accepted Powertech’s own studies as evidence that Dewey-Burdock can be operated safely.

“We’re not in a position to protect our water in South Dakota”, Wilson says. “And depending on the EPA and the NRC to look out for us, it’s not going to happen.”

So, even though the underlying rock formations are questionable, the area is full of over 4,000 previous bore holes, and that one can find folks who agree that ‘theoretically, the underlying aquifer could be restored if all holes were plugged, yada, yada (‘We will!  We will! Screech Powertech officials), we have this statement via linking to a nightmare of a page on the decommissioning of ISL sites:

The U.S. Geological Survey in 2009 found that to date, no remediation of an ISR operation has successfully returned the aquifer to baseline conditions.’

Whitford does a great job chronicling the many devastating uranium mining disasters over the past few decades, and the utter failure of protecting the Greatest Medicine: water, both underground and in waterways.  He quotes uber-activist Lakota Debra White Plume as saying the creeks that flow through Lakota Land and the wild horse preserve flow through the Dewey-Burdock site, and then into the great Missouri and Cheyenne Rivers.

A personal note

On Sunday, May 25, 1986, Mr. wd and I got a large group together to make part of the transcontinental human chain protesting homelessness and hunger.  The folks at Hands Across America asked us to stand at a particular mile-marker west of Gallup, NM on the Rio Puerco River.  You may or may not know that the largest single uranium spills in the US: Church Rock.  In 1979, 1,100 tons of uranium-mill waste and 94 million gallons of contaminated wastewater dumped into New Mexico’s Puerco River, releasing more than three times as much radioactivity as the Three Miles Island disaster.

Of course Navajo communities were hard-hit, but officials refused to formally declare a state of emergency, preventing federal agencies from offering assistance, Whitford remembers.  The human chain just to the west of us was a large group of Zunis in full white, green and black dance regalia, their presence making us even more mindful of the wailing of the Rio Puerco behind our backs.  You can bet that their community was impacted as well.

But I digress.  Debra White Plume may be daunted, and rues the fact that their sacred sites are being marginalized by the Powertech Money Junkies as ‘a cookstove here, a campsite there’, and ‘If all land is sacred and all water is sacred then we can’t do anything.”  Well, yes, we see…

‘Third-worlders see it first:
The dynamite, the dozers, the cancer and the acid rain
The corporate caterpillars come into our backyards
And turn the world to pocket change
Reservations are the nuclear frontline;
Uranium poisoning kills
We’re starving in a handful of gluttons
We’re drowning in their gravy spills…

But White Plume is unbowed, due to the knowledge that Lakota activists Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) stopped a similar mining project in 2007, and they are determined to stop this one.

“We’re all standing together. This ain’t just a handful of little Indians out on the prairies that you can run over … this is a broad array of resistance to uranium mining.”

That spirit of resistance won’t end even if, as appears likely, regulators approve the Dewey-Burdock mine, White Plume says:

“If they close every door to us, then the only door open to us is direct action. You’ve got to walk through that door if you’re serious about protecting yourself and Mother Earth.”

Will they stake themselves out like Crazy Horse as they’ve sworn to do over the XL pipeline?  I would not doubt their resoluteness for a minute.  They know his blood is in their veins, and his spirit is theirs as well.

We will see what happens.  But for now, even though it seems lame in a way, they are asking us to sign this Petition to South Dakota Tourism Secretary James Hagen demanding that he take a stand against the mine and protect the Black Hills’ reputation as a tourist destination.  Apparently we shouldn’t worry about the Jan. 2014 date.  Tourism is one of the state’s greatest sources of revenue.  ‘If you come to South Dakota, bring your own water!’ is a good sound bite, no?

As always, Buffy says it right:

The centrality of uranium mining to the wars at Pine Ridge having led to Leonard Peltier’s decades-long incarceration for the murder of to FBI agents, although totally unsupported by the facts, you might want to watch the documentary ‘Incident at Oglala’ or ‘Thunderheart’.

(cross-posted at

2 responses to “The Black Hills and the Lakota: Cursed by Gold and Uranium

  1. Well, the EPA/Corps’ Clean Water Act 1985 DEADLINE for the ELIMINATION of pollutants’ discharge to the nation’s waters applies here, too; and anyone who believes any “restorative” promise of multi-national corp.s is dead witkotkoke.

  2. well, given this page i’d linked to, i’m guessing the epa really doesn’t give a damn, bruce. just tweak the standards, and presto…it’s all good. well, for the mining industry, not us or the planet.

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