By Nicole Yakashiro
“I thought the Hanford site was perfect the first time I saw it.”
In December 1942, Colonel Franklin Matthias, a civil engineer for the U.S. Army, flew over the Pacific Northwest in search of the ideal location for a classified government project. After evaluating sites in Oregon, Montana, and California, Matthias and his superiors decided on some 400,000 acres in southeastern Washington along the Columbia River.
Reflecting on the reasons he chose Hanford to be part of the Manhattan Project, Matthias remarked that not only did it have the climate and resources (plenty of water, electricity, and building materials), but that it was “[a]n area with almost no people, very undeveloped.”
To him, “[i]t had all the advantages.”
The way that experts like Matthias characterize place matters.
By classifying the region as an isolated wasteland with “almost no people,” tThe area that became the Hanford nuclear reservation – a facility that would house nine nuclear reactors and produce the plutonium that fuelled the Trinity test and the bomb that devastated Nagasaki – was not, before 1943, a nuclearized place.
It had to become one, reimagined as an “atomic frontier.” he government made it a tabula rasa, an empty yet fertile ground for national security, power, and nuclear progress. But this was a fiction. Hanford was no blank slate.
When officials decided that the Hanford area would be sacrificed for the Manhattan Project, they read the landscape through the lens of nuclear science. In The Tainted Desert: Environmental and Social Ruin in the American West (2016), Valerie Kuletz argues that it is often scientific discourse that “supports the pre-existing settler discourse about desert lands as barren wasteland by organizing bioregions within hierarchies of value according to productive capacity.”
In Hanford, this meant that the central value experts saw in the landscape was being able to exploit it for plutonium production. In their view, given the area’s lack of development, it was expendable for science and by extension, the Nation.
To historians of the American west, Matthias’ descriptions are familiar. Put simply, they are the logics of colonization. Long before the “discovery” of the Hanford site, settlers “discovered” the Americas using rationales governed by similar universalizing ideas.
If land was not being used “productively,” settlers could lay a claim to it. This narrative emboldened settler states like the U.S. to colonize Indigenous territory on the premise of what they named as its “unproductive” use.
It makes sense then, that the U.S. atomic frontier and the western frontier are one in the same. The processes of nuclearism and colonization have, together, disproportionately treated Indigenous lands, lives, and livelihoods as disposable—a pattern scholars have aptly named “nuclear colonialism.”
Nuclear colonialism is both a material and discursive phenomenon, and it occurs on both local and global scales. It can be found in the physical removal of Indigenous nations from their lands to make room for nuclear production, as well as in the heavy toll radioactive contamination plays on Indigenous territories and bodies in particular (via environmental degradation, targeted scientific experimentation, and governmental neglect).
It is also in the erasure of Indigenous sovereignty, experience, and expertise from the stories we tell about nuclear production and its impacts. That we know so much of the Three Mile Island nuclear accident in March 1979 and so little of the even larger Church Rock nuclear disaster on Navajo lands only four months later is just one example of this widespread erasure.
In Hanford, nuclear colonialism has been shaped by the government’s shallow understanding of the site when it was chosen for the project in 1942. Government experts sidelined or ignored the significance of the region to local Indigenous communities, specifically the Wanapum, Umatilla, Yakama, and Nez Perce who built their life and food-ways there since time immemorial.
As Kuletz suggests, for many Native American nations, “an alternative narrative exists” about nuclear landscapes like Hanford. “Rather than a no man’s land or wasteland, many Indians describe these deserts as […] sacred geographies.”
Indigenous communities have more than cultural connections with these places; their connections are social, historical, and political relationships that, along with Indigenous nations, have changed over time with – and in spite of – the increasing presence of outsiders like the Hanford nuclear reservation.
The selection of Hanford for the Manhattan Project in late 1942 meant another round of displacement and dispossession for Indigenous nations in the region.
Small settler communities too, were swiftly ordered to uproot their lives and relocate elsewhere. But while non-Indigenous residents were given some measure of compensation for their property, the Wanapum, Yakama, Nez Perce, and Umatilla received none. Instead, they were offered false promises of access to the lands (for their hunting, fishing, and other cultural practices) on which the Hanford site was built.
For the Yakama, Nez Perce, and Umatilla these promises were already guaranteed in treaty rights negotiated with the federal government in 1855. For the Wanapum, these assurances were made through other arrangements.
Yet in both cases, it wasn’t long before the federal government contradicted its promises and restricted Native American access to the Hanford site, undermining sovereign Indigenous rights in the name of a top-secret project that was supposed to be temporary.
But the thing about the nuclear industry is that it isn’t temporary—it can’t be. Even if nuclear production at Hanford had ended in 1945, environmental contamination would have persisted for tens of thousands of years.
But the Manhattan project was only the beginning. Plutonium production at Hanford continued throughout the Cold War period, creating an exponential amount of nuclear waste -- so much so that contamination is effectively permanent (Thank you to Sarah Fox for language around this).
In recent years, Hanford has been named the “most toxic place in America” and “an underground Chernobyl waiting to happen.” Radioactive contamination has leaked into the Columbia Basin’s soil, rivers, and atmosphere since plutonium production began in the 1940s. The nature of nuclear waste means there is no clear path to containment.
For Indigenous communities who continue to practice treaty rights and live on the land and waterways around the Hanford site, the contamination problem is particularly acute. As new kinds of experts have taken over the cleanup task at Hanford, nuclear colonialism has taken on new forms, notably in the form of public health.
In 1982, the Nuclear Waste Policy Act ushered in a new type of relationship between the Department of Energy and local Indigenous nations. The federal government acknowledged a massive radioactive cleanup was imminent in the U.S. and as part of that process, it renewed its attention toward Indigenous people as unique stakeholders.
At Hanford, the government formally categorized the Nez Perce, Umatilla, and Yakama nations as “affected tribes.” But even as “affected” groups, they would not be considered “official parties” in the Hanford cleanup agreement of 1989. Rather, they were “advisors” to the project. This distinction reflected both the inclusion of Indigenous knowledge and the limitations of that inclusion over the course of the post-Cold War era in Hanford.
A core part of the cleanup project was the task of determining the actual health effects and extent of Hanford’s nuclear contamination. The Department of Energy (later, the Centre for Disease Control) hired epidemiologists to calculate the dose of radiation that locals and those known as Downwinders were exposed to (i.e. Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction study) and to uncover whether Hanford was indeed the cause of increased thyroid disease and cancer in the area (i.e. Hanford Thyroid Disease Study).
From the start, these studies were highly scrutinized by Indigenous leaders and other Downwinder communities. A Native American Working Group formed in the early 1990s to address how the studies were not “sensitive enough to distinctive tribal traditions that may have led to elevated radiation exposures for the region’s Indian people.”
As scholar Shannon Cram has articulated, public health experts have too often assumed a “universal human template” for their studies and remediation planning—a template that is young, western, white, and male.
This assumption has ignored the specificities of Indigenous communities in their calculations, namely the amount of time Indigenous people spend outside (and how they spend it), and the types and amounts of food they consume, such as fish from the heavily contaminated Columbia River.
Not only have epidemiologists overlooked Indigenous differences in their studies, but often, they haven’t studied exposure among Indigenous populations at all. Early on, epidemiologists argued that Indigenous communities were simply not “statistically meaningful” enough to be worthy of study.
When different nations have attempted to facilitate their own studies or carry out medical screening for their communities, they have run into funding-related or other logistical problems. Furthermore, that only the Yakama, Nez Perce, and Umatilla were officially recognized as “affected,” has meant that other Indigenous communities downwind of Hanford, or communities with less formal associations with the Department of Energy, have been even more susceptible to exclusion in these studies.
These failings have ultimately led to little data on how Hanford has impacted Indigenous people. As anthropologist Edward Liebow has argued, the scant information and awareness of Indigenous experience with nuclear radiation is largely because “the issue didn’t matter much to those who controlled the science at the time, and no funds are available to produce new data.”
In short, the work of experts has seemed less and less capable of addressing the needs of nuclear-impacted Indigenous communities.
At the same time, expertise does matter—especially how we choose to define it. As historian Sarah Fox suggests in Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (2014), local, experiential knowledge constitutes crucial forms of expertise in nuclear settings-- expertise that exceeds the limits of state-sanctioned studies.
In Hanford, Indigenous knowledge about the environment – the plants, the water, the soil – has served a critical role in sustaining the health of communities, physical and otherwise, even as that knowledge has been relegated to the margins.
This knowledge is historical, but it isn’t static. Nations in the region continue to highlight contradictions in government research initiatives and advocate for scientific studies that more fully reflect Nation to Nation collaboration.
Knowledge of the land around Hanford continues to be taught to future generations of Indigenous youth in spite of the many barriers erected by nuclearism and colonialism.
That Indigenous people and knowledge endure in the face of the persistent and insidious violence of nuclear colonialism is a testament to Indigenous resilience, adaptation, and the power of Indigenous expertise.
The expertise that has undergirded nuclear colonialism, then, comes in many forms, both overt and insidious. The removal of Indigenous people from the Hanford site and stripping them of their right to access their lands was one way. Seeing the region as unpeopled and expendable was another.
And even in the aftermath of nuclear science’s prime, it is a form of expertise that relentlessly rears its ugly head.
Epidemiological research for example, even when it has accounted for Native American health, has been “narrow in scope, piecemeal, and poorly funded.” Importantly, though, Hanford was no blank slate. Alternative modes of expertise remain.
The Hanford area was, among other things, an Indigenous place.
It was a treaty place. And it continues to be. It also continues to be a place of Indigenous expertise—expertise that proves exceedingly critical as we make sense of a landscape contaminated by nuclear colonialism.
Kate Brown, Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013), 15-19; 32-36
Shannon Cram, “Becoming Jane: The making and unmaking of Hanford’s nuclear body,” Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 33, no. 5 (2015): 796-812.
Michael D’Antonio, Atomic Harvest: Hanford and the Lethal Toll of America’s Nuclear Arsenal (New York: Crown Publishers, Inc., 1993), 13-14.
Karen Dorn Steele, “Hanford’s Bitter Legacy,” Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists 44, no. 1 (1988): 17-23.
Nelta Edwards, “Nuclear Colonialism and the Social Construction of Landscape in Alaska,” Environmental Justice 4, no. 2 (2011): 109-114
Danielle Endres, “The Rhetoric of Nuclear Colonialism: Rhetorical Exclusion of American Indian Arguments in the Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Siting Decision,” Communication and Critical/Cultural Studies 6 (2009): 39-60.
Ronan Farrow and Rich McHugh, “Welcome to ‘the Most Toxic Place in America,’” NBC News, 29 November 2016.
John M. Findlay and Bruce William Hevly, Atomic Frontier Days: Hanford and the American West (Seattle: Center for the Study of the Pacific Northwest in association with University of Washington Press, 2011).
Sarah Alisabeth Fox, Downwind: A People’s History of the Nuclear West (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2014), 223-224.
Roy E. Gephart, “A short history of waste management at the Hanford Site,” Physics and Chemistry of the Earth 35 (2010): 298-306.
Donald A. Grinde and Bruce E. Johansen, Ecocide of Native America: Environmental Destruction of Indian Lands and Peoples (Sante Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1995)
Barbara Harper, Anna Harding, Stuart Harris, and Patricia Berger, “Subsistence Exposure Scenarios for Tribal Applications,” Human Ecological Risk Assessment 18, no. 4 (2012): 810-831.
Ryan Holifield, “Environmental Justice as Recognition and Participation in Risk Assessment Negotiating and Translating Health Risk at a Superfund Site in Indian Country,” Annals of the Association of American Geographers 102, no. 3 (2012): 593.
Eugene S. Hunn, NCH’I WANA, the Big River: Mid-Columbia People and Their Land (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1991),
Robert Jacobs, "Nuclear Conquistadors: Military Colonialism in Nuclear Test Site Selection during the Cold War," Asian Journal of Peacebuilding 1, no. 2 (2013): 157-177.
Barbara Rose Johnston, ed., Half-Lives & Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War (Sante Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2007).
William J. Kinsella, “Nuclear Boundaries: Material and Discursive Containment at the Hanford Nuclear Reservation,” Science as Culture 10, no. 2 (2001): 163-194
Valerie L. Kuletz, The Tainted Desert: Environmental and Social Ruin in the American West (New York: Routledge, 2016), 13, 14.
Winona LaDuke, All Our Relations: Native Struggles for Land and Life (Boston: South End Press, 1999);
Edward Liebow, “Hanford, Tribal Risks, and Public Health in an Era of Forced Federalism,” in Half-Lives & Half-Truths: Confronting the Radioactive Legacies of the Cold War, edited by Barbara Rose Johnston (Sante Fe, NM: School for Advanced Research Press, 2007), 148-160
James Pasley, “Inside America's most toxic nuclear waste dump, where 56 million gallons of buried radioactive sludge are leaking into the earth,” Business Insider, 23 September 2019
Lynn A. Robbins, “The Participation of Sahaptin-Speaking Native Americans in the Hanford Site Cultural Resource Management Plan,” Environmental History Review, 14, no. 1/2 (1990): 120-122.
Voices of the Manhattan Project: Oral histories from Russell Jim (Yakama), Veronica Taylor (Nez Perce), Rex Buck (Wanapum), and Gabriel Bohnee (Nez Perce) and an interview with Colonel Franklin Matthias’s Interview (1986).
Deward E. Walker Jr. and Lawrence W. Pritchard, “Estimated Radiation Doses to Yakama Tribal Fishermen: A Test Application of the Columbia River Dosimetry Model Developed for the Hanford Environmental Dose Reconstruction Project” (Boulder, CO: Walker Research Group, Ltd., 1999)