Atomic Heritage Foundation

In partnership with the National Museum of Nuclear Science & History National Museum of Nuclear Science & History

Native American Perspectives on Hanford

Native American Perspectives on Hanford

Wanapum tule. Photo courtesy of the University of Washington.

Living in Harmony

The Hanford Reach is the last free-flowing stretch of the Columbia River. Photo courtesy of PNNL.

Native Americans and Cancer Risks

  • Living in Harmony

    Living in Harmony

    Russell Jim of the Yakama Nation explains Hanford’s significance as his tribe’s wintering ground, before the U.S. Government requisitioned the area.

    Narrator: For hundreds of years, Native American tribes fished, hunted, and camped along the Columbia River. Then the U.S. Government stepped in, and in February 1943, declared fifty miles of river and land, half the size of Rhode Island, “off limits” to the tribes.

    Russell Jim, Rex Buck, and Veronica Taylor recall what those precious resources meant to the tribes at that time, and they share their concerns about the Hanford Site’s status today.

    Russell Jim: The Hanford area was our wintering ground, the Palm Springs of the area. The winters were milder here, and so therefore we moved here and dispersed to all other parts of the country when the spring came.

    We lived in harmony with the area, with the river, with all of the environment. All the natural foods and medicines were quite abundant here. As the snows receded, we followed back up clear into the Alpine areas, into the fall season. Then storing our food that we had gathered all spring and summer, we picked it up on the way back here to Hanford.

    There is a concerted effort now by the Yakama Nation to influence the clean-up of the site. We know that it will never be returned to pristine status in the next 500 years, but at least there should be an effort to set the stage for clean-up.

  • Native Americans and Cancer Risks

    Native Americans and Cancer Risks

    In 1943, the US government evicted Native American nations that lived in the Hanford area to build plutonium production facilities.  Veronica Taylor, a member of the Nez Perce Tribe, believes that their diet of foods grown near Hanford and fish from the Columbia River negatively affected the tribe’s health. In an interview in 2003, Russell Jim, Yakama Nation, says the high risk of cancer for Native Americans in the Columbia River valley should compel government action.

    Narrator: Veronica Taylor describes some of the health effects that she and other members of the Nez Perce Tribe suffered as a result of Hanford operations.

    Veronica Taylor:  I went through breast cancer. A lot of the people that I know of the different tribes that are my friends that are the same age that were here when I was a young girl, a lot of them have had cancer, their bouts with cancer, either be it prostate or be it with breast cancer, or cancer in the uterus.

    I think that a lot of it has happened because of the diet, and the things that happened here on the Columbia River. Because of the atomic bomb and the things that had happened here that have gotten built, all through the uranium and the plutonium, and the different things that has affected the water and the fish. And that we still ate and we still eat a lot of that.

    Narrator: In 2003, Russell Jim spoke about the impacts of Hanford on the Yakama and other Native American tribes, especially those who eat fish from the Columbia River.

    Russell Jim: The Columbia River is the lifeline of the Pacific Northwest. It has been such since the beginning of time. And now, for instance, you have a study by the Environmental Protection Agency that says, “The indigenous people have one chance in fifty of getting cancer from the chemicals if we continue to eat the fish from the Columbia, especially around the Hanford area,” as we have in the past.

    It makes you wonder: equity, fairness. When the national statistics and numbers are used, like ten to the minus six is one cancer in one million. Ten to the minus four is one cancer in one hundred thousand. Under the law, if there is one cancer in ten thousand, something must be done.

    But after this release, we asked the EPA what they were going to do about this. And they asked, “Well, what do you want us to do?” It's obvious: we would like to have it corrected. They said, “We don't have any money.” If this happened in the suburbs of New York or Cincinnati, it would have been cleaned up yesterday.


Quick Fact:
Native Americans have lived in the Hanford area for thousands of years. Their way of life has been severely affected by the U.S. government's takeover of the Hanford Site and its environmental contamination.