The drive in the Cave Hills area along Highway 85 in northwestern South
Dakota provides a sight of one of the unique qualities of the prairies.
Popping up off the floor of the Plains are grass-covered cone structures
looking like party hats discarded by giants in another time. A little
further north and flat-topped tables are overlaid with grass, their sides
rippling with multicolored layers of soil like the folds of a patterned
tablecloth. Then the larger Cave Hills areas rise up on the horizon, their
tops covered with lacy shawls of the dark vegetation of pine.
Ludlow is what many people call "a blink of an eye" on the highway, even
though it appears on the map. Ludlow consists of a cafe with a bar whose
cook could easily boast at making the best "bachelor fries" in the area. It
would be easy to see how an old-fashioned country wedding dance could take
place in the large room directly off the eating area. Pool tables, pinball
machines and a small stage with a big dance floor have probably provided
many a merry night for the locals.
Directly across from the cafe is a fairly new school building and
playground. The sounds of children's laughter could easily be imagined. How
fortunate are the children able to attend such a school and play with a
beautiful view all over except when you look directly north. The view there
is of a large earthen table that has a dirt and gravel road leading up to
The wind seems to blow incessantly. Its dehydrating effect is probably the
reason why there are no bushes or trees around the school. Little
whirlwinds pick up the dust and sprinkle it around, stinging the eyes as
the dust spirals out on its way back to the ground. Country kids don't
notice things like that. They just close or squint their eyes and continue
their games, wiping their noses on their sleeves to get out the dust,
ignoring the grit between their teeth.
Standing in the parking lot of the cafe on the west side of the highway
across from the school, one can easily see how the top of the table also
slopes to the north.
At first glance, it appears natural. But for someone used to the Plains and
seeing earthen tables and their consistent flat tops, suddenly the
realization hits that the slope is not natural. The sedimentation flowing
off the sides is not natural either. There is no vegetation on it and it
has a gray color instead of the multi-layers of pinks, tans and browns.
This table is the remnant of an abandoned, exposed uranium mine whose dust
has been covering the school for decades. Yet the children of this area of
Harding County still attend classes and play in the playground, oblivious
of the radioactive menace they breathe, rub in their eyes and kick up with
Maka Unci Ina is the name of our Mother and Grandmother Earth. Women are
like her. Women are called "life givers." No, women do not create life, but
they can give life. Life develops inside of them. Also, some women are
mothers and grandmothers at the same time, raising grandchildren for many
Good mothers and grandmothers nourish their children physically,
emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Maka Unci Ina does the same for all
of her children: the trees, the birds, the animals, the insects - even the
humans. This understanding, knowledge, thankfulness of how she does this is
consistent with indigenous peoples throughout the world ... for those who
journey out of colonized thinking.
Men are always wondering about women. They say they don't understand women.
They say women are an enigma. And although some men may study women in
colleges and universities as well as in life, women are still a question to
most of them. The truly smart men just accept that women are different than
Yet, some men think they understand women and some think they understand
Maka Unci Ina. They don't. Not Her (with a capitol H). And just like some
men never ask for directions when traveling, these same men would not think
of asking the old cultures how to live with Maka Unci Ina either. This
creates situations like what is happening at Ludlow school.
Whoever cut off the top of the table just north of Ludlow school and threw
it over the edge of the bluffs to reach the uranium ore was not thinking of
the radioactive dust those children would be breathing: dust that creates
lung and brain cancers. Yet archeologists say that the area has been used
by indigenous peoples for more than 13,000 years - the Sioux, Mandan,
Hidatsa and Cheyenne, among others. These ancient peoples consider the
nearby Cave Hills sacred and that knowledge has carried down to today. But
there are places in the Cave Hills that only certain beings should enter.
This is also a part of the old understanding of Maka Unci Ina and
Radioactivity is a part of Maka Unci Ina, a part that modern men did not,
and still do not, understand. She is an enigma that some human beings will
never understand. Just like oil and methane gas are also a part of Her and
necessary for Her health, so too is the radiation. Yet in their elitist
arrogance, there will be those who will try to dig for that ancient
There will also be those who will bombard more traditional, local,
indigenous peoples with questions, looking with disdain upon the queried
when they do not receive the answer they think they should. There is much
more to Maka Unci Ina than human beings will ever understand. We just need
to accept that.
Because of the shortsightedness of a few human beings in search of money to
satisfy their greed, many innocent people have suffered and are today
suffering. The radioactive dust from more than 87 mines in this sacred
place has been carried across South Dakota for more than 40 years - and
that doesn't include what has been and is being carried downstream in water
Logic dictates that those living closer to the mines receive more exposure
to dust and radiation. These are mostly ranchers. So does this not also
mean that cattle, buffalo and other wild game that eat the dust-covered
grass and drink the contaminated water will also be more likely to ingest
radioactive material? Will they carry cancerous tumors that are passed
through the food chain to humans?
Are the deer and antelope that travel throughout the region, down to the
Black Hills and across the Wyoming plains, also radioactive? What about the
birds, butterflies and other winged insects that migrate through this area?
Do they know how to read signs that say: "Radioactive material. No camping.
Do not be in this area more than 20 hours per year"?
Unfortunately, this problem is not found just in northwestern South Dakota.
A map of uranium mines and prospects from the U.S. Forest Service shows
hundreds of mines in northeastern Wyoming - mines whose dust is also
carried by westerly winds directly to South Dakota. Of course, Nebraska
also receives this same dust. These two states are a big part of what is
called the "breadbasket of the world." This is where the clout comes in.
Congress needs to allocate a couple of billion dollars-yes, billions - to
the Superfund program to clean up all of these abandoned uranium sites,
penalize and collect damages from whoever is responsible, and help those
with health problems.
Congressional representatives from the Midwest need to raise strong voices,
and their staff members must begin drafting legislation for emergency
studies to clean up the water, vegetation and livestock, and address the
health concerns of human beings. Iowa, Kansas and other states along the
Missouri River that receive the dust had better wake up as well, as the
runoff has been flowing down that river for a long time.
Or will more shortsightedness prevail? Will the enigma that is Maka Unci
Ina cause arrogant men (and sometimes women) to bypass logic and continue
to allow the radioactive pollution of the "breadbasket" of the world? Is it
not time to stop the insanity? Who will rise to fight this giant mess that
was left when shortsightedness ruled the world and nuclear energy was
thought the panacea for all our needs?
Charmaine White Face is a freelance writer and member of the Oglala Sioux
Tribe, or the Oglala band of the Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin (Lakota speakers of
the Great Sioux Nation). She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.