As we jumped to the ground from the purple cab of the 18-wheel truck, the driver said “hang on there, you’re doing a good thing, let me give you something”. He then proceeded to open the back of the refridgerated trailer and handed us two small bags of baby carrots, and one 10 pound bag of full sized carrots. “Take this, share it, it’s all i can offer right now. Good luck.” Then we watched as he drove away into the shimmering heat of a 47 degree Celsius day.
We looked at each other, grabbed our packs and started walking to what we hoped was the office we had come to volunteer in.
A few streets later we arrived. A Canadian and an American, come to join the Five River Tribes to prevent the establishment of a nuclear waste dump. We didn’t know a lot about the place, didn’t know much about the tribes, just knew that somehow, this proposal was just plain wrong. We’d come to help stop it.
So, after asking our way around, we arrived at River Street, and walked into a small office. It was blissfully cool after the heat of the outdoors- though not air conditioned. The campaign couldn’t afford air conditioning, instead a clunking old swamp cooler provided a bit of moisture, and a bit of relief from the heat outside. When we’d asked for directions, a local emergency worker explained that it was so hot children were coming into the hospital for falling on the sidewalk- and getting second degree burns. How anyone could live in this heat was beyond us, but we pressed on. We had a mission.
We opened the door to the office, and walked in. The only thing brighter than the big bag of carrots in my arms was the hair of the fellow sitting behind the desk. He looked up from a computer screen, and somewhat gruffly, said “hey, what’s up?”.
“Is this the Save Ward Valley Office?” I asked. He nodded. “We’ve come to help”. He looked us up and down, with the eyes of experience, and asked who had sent us. “We were in San Francisco, we hitched down here because we heard there might be something we could do….” The office wasn’t that big, but it was filled with campaign equipment. Banners and posters were rolled up across the floors. Newsletters and return donation envelopes were atop the table ready to be put together and sent out. This was organising before the world wide web. This was paper mail, photocopied flyers, hand cut and paste graphics.
Perhaps our road dusty appearance made him more comfortable, perhaps it was the big bag of carrots, perhaps it was just the fact that we were bright eyed and innocent. Whatever it was, he relaxed a bit and welcomed us. Took the bag of carrots and put them down. Told us where to stash our stuff, and showed us around. Within a few hours we’d been brought to the camp, twenty miles away, in the middle of nothing.
As dusk settled, the temperature dropped rapidly, and we joined the campsite. There wasn’t much to see- a test well covered in concrete, a few old army tents to shelter under during the daytime heat, and food stored in big bins to keep out the kangaroo rats. Darkness soon crept over the sky and we spread our sleeping bags out under the stars. More stars than I’d ever seen in my life. The night was stunning, the starlight almost bright enough to read by. We looked at each other and wondered what exactly we’d gotten ourselves into…
Over the course of the next few days my traveling partner moved on. The heat was too much for him, and he wanted to help out at some other resistance actions at higher elevations- to get to where it was a bit cooler. I stayed, and found a place in the office. I was able to help redesign the database, enter addresses and get the newsletter out the door. It was a small contribution to the Save Ward Valley campaign, but even the smallest contributions can make a difference.
I saw my own contribution reflected back at me when a few months later it was time to Occupy. So many names that I’d entered into the database were brought to real life as people began to arrive at the camp. The Bureau of Land Management was going to close the area, and we were going to stay. As long as it took. That place was not going to be turned into a radioactive wasteland, and together with the Indigenous People of the area- the Five River Tribes- we were going to stop it.
Now, instead of banners and newsletters, all of the working spaces were filled with lock-boxes, digging equipment, and chains. We were ready to put our bodies on the line, to prevent anyone from entering the site without having to physically remove us. We were ready to form a human chain, bound by iron and steel, to keep people out.
Discussions ranged through the windy, rainy night. Do we blockade? Do we escalate tomorrow’s confrontation by shutting down the highway? Should we make the road impassable with steel bars strategically placed to flatten any tires? Many were willing to risk jail or prison to protect the land. Many who had come were already veterans in the fight to protect land from the destructive powers of corporations, of government, of misguided short-sighted policies. The discussion was intense and finally as the sky lightened towards dawn, as the rain- blustering through the night abated, as the lightening, crackling sideways through the sky as none of us had seen it before ceased, we were told no, this was going to be a spiritual occupation. A prayer fire was lit.
The Bureau of Land Management, and their armed officers arrived a few hours after dawn. They looked around at this scraggly bunch of activists, and at the gathering of leaders from the Five River Tribes, and hands went onto holsters. The moment had arrived, the confrontation was upon is.
My own heart was torn- was this the right move? Should we have spiked the road preventing their vehicles from entering the area? Should we have shut down the highway exit, locking ourselves together as we’d practiced and preparing for high-powered saws and arrest? We were completely unarmed, practiced in non-violent civil resistance, but what if they just opened fire? Who would hear our cries from the middle of the desert? What was going to happen?
The leader of one of the tribes spoke with the district ranger. He said “You’ve come to clear us out of our ancestral home, to take away and poison our land. Look around. The Old Woman mountains will not allow this. The desert tortoise will not lose its home. We have lit a sacred fire. ” He walked up to the ranger, now just inches from his face. He reached out and put his hand on top of the ranger’s holster. “Only by killing me will you take this place.”
The ranger stumbled back. He looked around at the tribal members. He looked at the activists, covered in dust and hope. He muttered, “no one will die here”, turned and left. The other rangers followed. The confrontation was over, but the occupation had only begun.
113 days later, after struggling to make sure there was food, there was wood, there was protection from the heat and cold, a pickup truck raced into camp. The occupation was over. The land was won. The dump was cancelled.
Now, fifteen years later, the Five River Nations still gather annually on the land to remember how they came together to protect themselves, to protect each other, and to prevent a nuclear nightmare from encroaching on their home.
It is not often that one can celebrate success in the anti-nuclear movement. This annual gathering at Ward Valley is a way to do so, and if you’re in Southern California, you can join this reunion and be inspired by this success. I look back on those days in the hot sun, those cold windy nights, and it continues to inspire me. I may be thousands of miles away but I will always carry that victory as inspiration for future success.
On behalf of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, we would like to extend an invitation for the pleasure of your audience at the 15th Anniversary Ward Valley Spiritual Gathering Sunday, February 10th, 2013 at 10:00 AM Arizona Time, to take place at “Ground Zero” Ward Valley I-40 West to Water Road exit.
As you may recall, in 1998, a historic 113-day occupation of the proposed dumpsite by the Five River Tribes (Fort Mojave, Chemehuevi, Quechan, Cocopah, and Colorado River Indian Tribes) along with environmental activist were assembled at the site to fight and stop the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump. The 113-day occupation prevented federal police from entering the site as well as prevented the test drilling for the dump that would have desecrated the sacred land of Ward Valley. The occupation ended in victory when the U.S. Department of the Interior rescinded the eviction notice and cancelled test drilling. On November 2, 1999, the Interior Department terminated all actions regarding the Ward Valley dump proposal, which officially ended the extensive conflict.
The proposed dump, which would have been in the center of eight wilderness areas, amidst of critical habitat for the threatened desert tortoise, enclosed by the pristine golden canyons and cave paintings of the Old Woman Mountains, and east of the foothills of the Stepladder Mountains that remain covered in a forest of cholla cacti was utterly eliminated by the coordinated effort of dedicated citizens of our Nations. It is for this reason, we humbly ask for your presence as a representative of your Nation while we honor the achievements of your people.
Please see the attached copy of the gathering itinerary, as you will find we have set aside time to honor each of the Great Nations of the Five River Tribes for their many efforts throughout this successful endeavor. Again, we look forward to your presence.
If you should require further information, please feel free to contact the Fort Mojave Tribe Public Relations Department at the Tribal Administration (760) 629-4591 ext.106 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.