Spirit Walk for Mother Earth

Is sustainable agriculture compatible with the nuclear industry? In New Mexico, many of our watersheds are contaminated by radioactive waste from military sites such as Los Alamos National Laboratories, Kirtland Air Force Base, and Sandia National Laboratories. If Albuquerque seceded from the United States, this municipality would still be one of the world's largest nuclear powers! We must question the ways in which nuclear energy and weapons threaten our sustainable future, and organize collectively for the well-being of future generations. This article was written after the author participated in the "Family Spirit Walk for Mother Earth," a 800-mile spiritual action walking through the sovereign lands of a dozen Native nations across the Southwestern US, for collective healing and purification from America's nuclear insanity.

by Tree Walker

Walking the Road of Nuclear Resistance

Published in Earth First! Journal, Autumn 2002

Good morning, relatives.

I give thanks once again for this new day. I ask that the ancestors of this land be with us today and bless us with permission to pass through in a good way.

I pray for the healing of the abuse and neglect that this land has suffered. I pray for all the people who have been damaged by the terrible nuclear cycle, for the uranium miners and their families, for the people living downwind. I pray for all those whose communities are dumped on and who are faced with sickness and death due to radiation and contamination. I pray for the natives of this land who are still strong despite centuries of genocide and colonization, for the soldiers whose lives are endangered every day and for the military scientists who created and perpetuate this nightmare. I ask that our prayers and actions today open their eyes and change their hearts in a good way. I pray for the healing of this land, and I have a song …

With words of prayer like these, shared quietly around a sacred fire in the desert chill just before dawn, 30 activists from around the world began each day of our 800-mile Family Spirit Walk. Guided by natives of the land, through four states and the sovereign territory of nearly a dozen indigenous nations, our family of walkers sought to raise awareness of the perils of nuclear radiation. We acted to encourage the healing of the land and to put an end to the industrial and military practices that Native American activists and writers Winona LaDuke and Ward Churchill have called "radioactive colonialism".

Our walk, sponsored by the Las Vegas-based Shundahai Network, began on native land in New Mexico beside the Los Alamos National Laboratory, the scientific factory that produced the first atomic bomb. Taking up land indigenous to the Tewa people from the Santa Clara and San Ildefonso pueblos, the laboratory cuts off the Tewa from their traditional shrines, which are fenced off or contaminated, and produces radiation that contaminates local groundwater.

Today, the "war on terrorism" has been a boon for Los Alamos: The US military has asked the laboratory to design a new "bunker-busting" nuclear bomb, and roughly 1,000 new employees were hired in 2002. Yet justice for the Tewa nation has been denied. Los Alamos scientists refuse to admit the connection between their nuclear experimentation and the elevated rates of cancer and birth defects found among the neighboring Tewa.

After our trek was blessed by Tewa spiritual leaders and community activists, and we received the sacred staff that we would carry for the duration of our journey, we began to walk.

The Nuclear Death Cycle

Since the start of the Manhattan Project in 1942, native communities in the Southwest have borne a disproportionate share of the social and ecological fallout from the deadly addiction to nuclear power and weapons in the US. From uranium mining and nuclear testing to the transport and storage of radioactive waste, the original inhabitants of the geographic regions known as the Great Basin and Colorado Plateau have been negatively impacted by every stage of the nuclear cycle.

In the US, two-thirds of all known reserves of uranium lie underneath Native American reservations. The bulk of uranium mining has occurred around the Colorado Plateau in a vast swath of land stretching from nearly Albuquerque in the east to Las Vegas in the west and encompassing the Grand Canyon. This area is home to the greatest concentration of indigenous populations remaining in North America. More than 1,000 abandoned uranium mines lie on the Navajo reservation alone, largely with no attempt to cover or restrain the toxic waste. Our route took us by much of this land.

At our roadside camp north of Tuba City, a Dine man described how, as a child, he would play atop piles of leftover uranium tailings. Sadly, his story is not unique. It is indicative of a history of racist and criminal negligence that has exposed the Dine, and others, to extreme health risks. Enlisted to aid military and industrial production of nuclear materials during "World War II" and "the Cold War", Dine uranium miners lacked access to uncontaminated drinking water a nd labored without protection in air thick with dust that was, even by 1950 standards, 750 times more radioactive than accepted limits. By 1990. out of 3,500 individuals who mined uranium in New Mexico, 450 had died of cancer, more than 10 times the average rate in unexposed populations.

In 1979, the worlds largest radioactive spill occurred on the Navajo reservation in Church Rock, New Mexico, contaminating Dine land and the Rio Puerco River. Since then, the land has not been cleaned up, yet the Bureau of Indian Affairs had chosen it as an official site to where Dine people are to be relocated from their ancestral homes.

Walking Intimately

For some of the walkers, a high point of our journey was traveling through the backcountry on rugged, unpaved roads near Big Mountain in norther Arizona. Trudging through torrents of rain and ankle-deep mud, we hiked to the homes of traditional Dine elders who are resisting the attempts of Hopi and federal government officials to relocate them from their land, in order to expand the Peabody coal mine.

The incredible courage, kindness and simplicity of these beautiful people touched our hearts. We were welcomed by Dine-speaking grandmothers who live alone on their land, hauling their own water and chopping their own firewood. If people from the cities of the Southwest could meet with the grandmothers and share their way of life for a day or two, as we did, would our society's allegiance to the vicious "civilization" that is draining the life from this land weaken?

As we walked, we gained an intimacy with the land that can never be attainable from within the manufactured glass and steel of a speeding car. We witnessed ecosystems change around us, from desert to forest and back to desert again. We waved to passersby in their vehicles and shared words of explanation and encouragement with curious travelers who stopped to see why we were snaking single-file along the local highway. We spoke with people in the communities we passed through. And, always, we prayed to the ancestors of the land for safe passage along our way.

The Spirit Walk Circle

Our walk was long and excruciating, but ultimately an invigorating and healing process of becoming a collective that moved forward together in a true spirit of solidarity and love. Through two months of cooking, eating, camping, playing music, talking, joking and - most of all - walking and praying together, our group of disparate walkers fused into a tightly knit community that came to function, more or less, as one single family.

As with any family, arguments broke out, nerves frayed and controversies erupted. Yet our basic commitment to each other, and to our common purpose, never wavered. Many of us came to believe that this was due to the conscious and focused way in which we integrated spiritual activity into our daily experience together. Collectively, through the sacred objects we carried and the sacred ceremonies we performed, we put spiritual intent into the physically and emotionally arduous direct action we were doing together.

And how did it feel to walk hundreds of miles? For Marieke, one of three on the walk from Belgium, the entire walk was enriching because everything that happened "contained a lesson that I had to learn on my spiritual path or provided some confirmation for that path. Every walk feels healing to me because it seems that walking is the right rhythm for a human being, and the more I am aware of every step I take, the more I get reconnected to Mother Earth."

Marc, a walker from Gallup, New Mexico, who organized many of the practical details of the walk, echoed this sentiment: "The more we walk, the more we come into harmony with the ways of our ancestors who knew how to honor and love the Earth as second-nature. Double rainbows, hummingbirds and other signs were regular gifts accompanying our journey. As we approached our destination, the Nevada Test Site, with hundreds of peopole all standing up for life and against the nuclear tide, we were accompanied by the spirits of the creatures who have suffered from nuclear violence."

When we arrived at the anti-nuclear peace camp next to the Nevada Test Site, many walkers felt as if our journey together had not yet been completed. Further steps, literally, would have to be taken. An affinity group of walkers decided to prolong our action by walking to Mercury, the restricted-access military town inside the test site. From Los Alamos to Mercury, from one place that for decades has been the ground zero for acting out the brutal dreams of absolute power and destruction to another, our walk came full circle.

I pray for the healing of this land, and I have a song:

I hear the voices of the Grandmothers calling me. I hear the voices of the Grandfathers calling me.
They say: "Wake up, wake up." They say: "Wake up, wake up. Listen, listen. Listen, listen:
May the rivers all run clear. May the mountains be unspoiled.
May the air be pure. May the trees stand tall.
May the Earth be loved by all … May the Earth be shared by all."

Tree Walker is a grassroots activist for the Earth and human rights who journeyed with the Family Spirit Walk from Gallup, New Mexico to the Nevada Test Site.

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