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Fighting breast cancer; A Native woman's journal; LEGACY OF THE ATOMIC BOMB

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The remnants of the Midnite Mine on the Spokane Indian Reservation in
northeast Washington state are these: mountains of orange rock abandoned by
miners because their concentrations of uranium were small and unprofitable;
a pit filled with unnaturally blue water; and designation as a
government-monitored Superfund site.

"I should have brought a Geiger counter," Spokane tribal elder Clyde Lynn
said as we stepped out of my Chevy Blazer. Lynn is a prostate cancer
survivor, a disease he believes stems from the three years in which he
worked at another uranium mine on the reservation.

Deb Abrahamson, founder of the Shawl Society, an environmental nonprofit
organization based in Wellpinit, Wash., pointed out elk tracks on the
splinters of red rock that carpet acres of ground.

The rock is the pretty kind I'd normally pick up and put in my pocket. But
nothing of mine is touching these rocks except the soles of my shoes.

I'm the on the trail of cancer and its causes in Indian country. In the
early 20th century uranium mining and processing thrust communities across
Turtle Island toward high rates of certain cancers and the lowest long-term
survival rate of any community in America.

Eerily, my visit to the Midnite Mine occurred two days before the 60th
anniversary of when the Enola Gay dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The
bomb, witnesses recollected, looked like a second sun plummeting to the
ground. People melted into shadows on the cement. Temperatures at ground
zero reached 7,000 degrees Fahrenheit. More than 200,000 people died, as
did another 75,000 following the hydrogen bomb that was dropped two days
later on Nagasaki.

World War II ended as a result. But pictures of the mushroom cloud would
ingrain themselves in the world's collective conscience. The image would
feed the Cold War nightmares of children from my dad's generation, who were
taught to hide under their desks in case of nuclear attack; to mine, which
was told there was nowhere to hide.

The bomb's legacy began long before World War II in Native communities like
Great Bear Lake, home to the Dene of Canada's Northwest Territories. The
large freshwater lake was home in the 1930s to one of the world's first
uranium mines and one of the primary suppliers, along with mines near
Shiprock, N.M. on the Navajo Reservation, of uranium for the bombs dropped
on Japan.

The Dene community became known as the "village of widows," signaling the
high death rates from cancer among the First Nations miners who carried
bags of Geiger-rocking ore in bare hands, inhaled the yellow dust into
their lungs and slept atop piles of bagged uranium on barges carrying the
stuff to the U.S. government.

"When we go back to the 1940s and 1950s, the Atomic Energy Commission and
the Department of Defense said uranium was safe," said Bob Shimek, Ojibwe
and mining coordinator for the nonprofit Indigenous Environmental Network.
"They did not put in safety monitors. They didn't follow up with health
care monitoring 10 or 15 years after the mining ended. That's when people
started to get sick: 10, 15 or 25 years later."

The discovery of uranium on the Spokane Reservation fed the Cold War era's
lust for radioactive building blocks. Tribal women were hired, Abrahamson
said, to walk into newly blasted parts of the pits and visually search for
new veins. Men did the digging and handled the explosives. Everyone inhaled
the dust.

Excessive rates of cancer, respiratory diseases and kidney failure among
uranium miners are well documented from cases on the Navajo Reservation,
said Chris Shuey, an epidemiologist with the Albuquerque-based Southwest
Research and Information Center. But little documentation has been done in
other tribal communities across North America, and even less has been done
to record what happened to spouses and families of miners.

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Miners carried the contamination home to their wives, who would shake the
yellow dust off their husband's work clothes and unwittingly douse
themselves in radioactivity.

Even though most uranium mines in tribal communities closed by the middle
1980s, cancer is just beginning to be diagnosed in the last generation of

The mines, despite a few that have been cleaned to some degree, continue to
pollute through windblown particulates and drinking water contamination.

On the Spokane Reservation, an elk birthing ground is located near the
Midnite Mine site. Hunters break through the mine's fencing to reach deer
in season. Water from the site runs into Blue Creek, where the Spokane
Tribe built sweat lodges for a culture camp.

"The more we practice our life ways, the more we are exposed to the
contaminants left by mines," Abrahamson said.

But what worries Abrahamson the most is the prospect that the mines on her
reservation and others could reopen.

Worldwide uranium stockpiles are depleted. The energy bill that President
Bush recently signed calls for construction of three nuclear power plants.
Nations like China are developing nuclear power programs.

Tribal lands from New Mexico to the Northwest Territories, from aboriginal
land in Australia to tribal land in Africa, are likely targets for
multinational corporations that have bought the old mines.

The Navajo Nation's council is concerned enough about the possibility that
earlier this year it voted to ban uranium mining on its reservation and
nearby land.

Abrahamson's 26-year-old daughter, Twa-le, wants tribal mine workers to be
empowered, as she told a United Nations mining committee earlier this year.

She wants young Spokanes to pursue college degrees that will qualify them
for management jobs in companies that will clean up the mine sites, and she
teaches tribal peoples about how to stay healthy and safe should they ever
go back to work with this volatile substance.

"This," she said, "is the legacy left to my generation."

Kara Briggs is a Yakama journalist from Portland, Ore., where she is
currently on medical leave from her job at The Oregonian. She chronicles
her battle with breast cancer in this biweekly series. She is a former
president of the Native American Journalists Association and winner of the
2004 Award for Investigative Journalism. Contact her by e-mail at