By Laura Paskus
Thursday, October 4, 2007
Marking the start of autumn, women from six native communities gathered near Los Alamos National Laboratory to discuss their concerns about nuclear contamination, type-II Diabetes and the near extinction of traditional midwifery.
POJOAQUE, N.M. (WOMENSENEWS)--Along the edges of the low, earthen wall that sets off the dancing grounds, vendors and activists assembled their tables.
Children ran back and forth through the grass and yellow-blooming chamisa while tribal elders, Anglo teens with dreadlocks and mothers of all ages and hues mingled.
This was the most recent Gathering for Mother Earth, which last month marked the first day of autumn for the 11th year in a row in the shadows of the U.S. facility that makes triggers for nuclear warheads.
Sponsored by Tewa Women United, an inter-tribal, inter-generational group of native women, the event took place off a winding, sandy road in the juniper-studded hills in the shadow of Los Alamos National Laboratory, the U.S. maker of nuclear warhead triggers.
"Tewa" refers to the common language spoken by members of six native communities in northern New Mexico, including Nambe Pueblo, Pojoaque Pueblo, San Ildefonso Pueblo, Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo and Tesuque Pueblo.
At one table, Shannya Sollitt, told Women's eNews about her highest hopes for the Los Alamos Peace Project, the name she gives her own personal efforts--such as designing and distributing postcards for voters to send to elected officials. Sollitt said she dreams of persuading the federal government to reallocate the billions of dollars it spends on its nuclear weapons arsenal toward the development of renewable and sustainable technologies.
Then she grinned. "I know that I won't get this done, but we really won't unless we ask for what we want. I'm an artist and a community organizer, and I believe in peace and love, and I believe we need to keep putting our stuff out there; it puts out the intention for a bigger reality."
The purpose of gatherings like this, said Kathy Sanchez, director of Tewa Women United--just before getting from her chair to embrace a friend--is "connecting to mother earth, so women have that strength of energy no matter where they are."
From its promontory on New Mexico's Pajarito Plateau, Los Alamos has since 1943 overlooked a vista of valleys that are home to six Native American tribes.
One tribe, San Ildefonso Pueblo, is directly downstream of the nuclear weapons laboratory. A handful of other native communities lie further downstream, as the Rio Grande winds toward the city of Albuquerque.
Trying to sneak a few minutes in the shade while eating lunch, Sanchez, who is from San Ildefonso Pueblo, said Tewa Women United works on issues ranging from domestic and sexual abuse of native women to how living downstream of a nuclear weapons laboratory affects native communities.
Despite community concerns about radioactive and toxic contamination of the nearby air and water, laboratory officials maintain that the facility is safe. And after three years of battles with the state of New Mexico, the lab in 2005 agreed to a timetable for cleanup of "legacy" waste, some of which dates to the birth of the Manhattan Project, the World War II initiative to build a nuclear bomb.
While activists applaud the proposed cleanup, they remain concerned about current activities at the lab, which include not only nuclear weapons production, but also open-air burning of depleted uranium and plans to build along a public road three new generators for classified experiments.
In July, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that past airborne releases of contaminants, including Plutonium, are higher than first believed.
At one table, two women dispensed information concerning groundwater contamination from Los Alamos. Beginning in the 1940s, the lab disposed of radioactive waste in the canyons and streams draining off Pajarito Plateau. Some of the waste has been moved off-site, to an underground storage facility in the southern part of the state, but millions of cubic feet of radioactive and chemical waste still remain on the lab's property.
Joni Arends, director of the Santa Fe-based group Concerned Citizens for Nuclear Safety and Sheri Kotowski, an Embudo Valley Environmental Monitoring Group organizer, talked about their efforts to pressure the lab to clean up its contamination and protect local communities, as well as the Rio Grande, the state's largest river, which will soon be providing drinking water to the downstream cities of Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
Working in cooperation with seven other groups, including Tewa Women United, Arends and Kotowski outlined a "shared values statement" asserting the rights of communities, wildlife and ecosystems downstream from the laboratory to have clean water, whether for drinking, celebrating sacred ceremonies, raising crops and livestock or enjoying recreation.
Kotowski laughed and said it took six months for the multi-cultural group, which includes Anglo environmental activists, native community activists and Spanish water users groups, to forge the language of their shared statement. But members of the various groups, she said, got closer in the process.
Sanchez said Tewa Women United also addresses the spiritual, emotional and lifestyle effects of living just below a nuclear bomb factory.
One of the ways the scientists and government bureaucrats at the lab have most affected women, said Sanchez, was by beginning, during the 1950s, to discourage home birthing practices and advising women to deliver in the Indian Hospital.
"Here, we were forced out of it, we were shamed out of it," Sanchez said, referring to home birthing and midwifery. But about three years ago, she said, Tewa Women United began partnering with Mexican groups through the Tewa Birthing Project, which educates native mothers to embrace the practice and encourages young women to study midwifery, then practice their skills at home in northern New Mexico.
The gathering also offered open-air discussion of combating diabetes through a return to traditional diets.
Native Americans under the age of 35 with diabetes increased by 71 percent between 1990 and 1998, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. One-third of all native women over 45 have diabetes, and on some reservations in the Southwest, the disease can affect up to half a tribe's population.
Both public health officials and native activists blame the influence of western diets high in fat, sugar and processed foods.
The problem has continued to worsen, and to affect younger and younger people, as well as increasing numbers of women. Today, 11 in every 1,000 women under 35 have diabetes (compared with eight in every 1,000 men under 35.)
That can lead to miscarriages, birth defects and what the CDC calls a "cycle of disease" that causes subsequent generations to develop diabetes at an ever earlier age.
Laura Paskus is a writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
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