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Gabriel Bohnee’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Gabriel Bohnee is a Nez Perce tribal member and an environmental specialist at the Nez Perce Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Office. Bohnee became involved with the effort to clean up the Hanford site after learning about the site as an intern in 1993. Bohnee discusses his tribe’s connection with the land surrounding the Hanford site and the importance of the Columbia River and its resources for the Native Americans indigenous to the area. Bohnee also explains the importance of cleaning up the Hanford area so that future generations of Nez Perce can use the land and resources like they had in the past.

Date of Interview:
September 1, 2003
Location of the Interview:


[Interviewed by Cynthia Kelly, Tom Zannes, and Thomas E. Marceau.]

Gabriel Bohnee: My name is Gabriel Bohnee. I’m Nez Perce tribal member, work for the Nez Perce’s tribe Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Office as an environmental specialist.

How’d you first learn about the Hanford site?

Bohnee: I first learned about the Hanford site through—I was in intern through the ERWN program starting in ’93. I did a short stint for a couple years and then left the program and came back in 2000 as an intern and worked for two years, and then last year started working full-time as an environmental specialist after I graduated from college.

What have you done on the Hanford site?

Bohnee: Currently, I wrote a grant for the Nez Perce tribe to look at the canyon disposition initiative, which is looking at the remediation of the plutonium separation facilities on the Hanford site. There’s five of them. The U Plant is the first canyon that’s going to be looked at under the canyon disposition initiative. I wrote a grant for the Nez Perce tribe to get more involved in that effort.

How were you involved in that effort?

Bohnee: Right now it’s more public information, getting the information and coming up with brochures and informational packets for our tribal leaders and the general public for the tribe.

What stories have you heard about the Hanford site?

Bohnee: The first story I heard—the earliest in time period was of Chief Kamiakin, who was a chief of the Yakima when we came to the treaty of 1855, about his ancestor who was a Nez Perce tribal member. His grandfather, I believe, or his father, was from the Asotin band and escaping imminent death for reasons. Escaped the area of Nez Perce tribal land and came over to the Hanford site and met up with the Wanapums up at Priest Rapids, who for some reason helped him escape, and he moved more inland towards the coast into the Cascades. And then eventually he married a chief’s daughter and they had their son, Kamiakin, and then he came to be the chief of the Yakimas when it came to the time period for the treaties of 1855. That was the first I ever heard of Nez Perces, the first in the earliest time period, that I heard a Nez Perce come into the Hanford area.

But the other stories I’ve heard are just of trading, coming over to the area for trading. The Nez Perce band I’m from is Looking Glass, and he was a well-known buffalo hunter for the Nez Perce tribe. Our band would continually go to Montana for buffalo hunting purposes and bring back the robes, which were good trade items and we’d come back and bring them over to this area and trade for goods that came from the coast through the trade networks. So that was probably the stories I heard most about the Hanford site.

Did you hear about people fishing here, in the Columbia River?

Bohnee: I haven’t really heard too many stories, just the Hanford site in general in fishing. That’s why I guess I need to do more research of my elders, by listening to the Yakima men talk today on the tour that we went on and the sites that they traditionally visited. And hearing their stories that this was their wintering grounds that Yakimas continually came to around the Hanford area, up and down from Alula, upstream. Knowing the runs at different times of the year that they most likely would be fishing in these areas.

You mentioned earlier about “Coyote Tales.” Were there any Coyote Tales that you know of that take place on the Hanford site?

Bohnee: I have never any coyote stories that involve the Hanford site, but we’re always continually looking at trying to make a coyote story to explain the history of this area, being that it was such a rich, diverse area for the plateau people. This area generally fit the areas that we lived in for the wintering grounds, being that it’s got mild weather in the winter, river, and then in the summer months we’d be higher up in the mountains. But being that we used the vast amount of resources that the Hanford site produces and having lost such a pristine area for the Manhattan Project, it’s almost like Coyote tricked us—the plateau peoples—out of this area. Now we’re back and we want to try to bring this to light so that the oral history lives on.

Written history, the laws—they’re always either broken or they’re lost, but our oral traditions and our coyote stories have lived for a time immemorial. Who knows who made these stories. It was our ancestors and it goes word of mouth on to the next generation. I kind of notice that in how in Western civilization does their business and how the Nez Perce and the other tribes of the area do business.

Our laws are not written. We learn from our elders. If we do things wrong, the elders are there to correct us, to guide us, and lead us in that manner, and that’s how our culture functions. Whereas here in what we’re living in today, Western civilization, there’s a book and laws written that we’re supposed to follow, yet they’re continually broken. It’s just a different way. For us, it’s two different worlds colliding. I guess we need to look back to our old ways to hopefully get our message across to not only to our own Nez Perce children, but to come up with a story for the rest of the world so that maybe it’ll get passed on through word of mouth also, and that the story will live on.

Overall the Hanford site, it seems like there’s a big cloth that kind of hides the truth. Today it’s about remediation of the buildings and the soil on top, when I feel that the focus for the Nez Perce tribe is protection of the water and the water resources of the Hanford site, because that would be our biggest impact being that the contaminants are going to go through the soil, hit groundwater, travel to the Columbia River, get into the Columbia River system and affect the ecosystem that feeds down to the Pacific Ocean, where our fish come back through the Columbia into the Snake and into Nez Perce lands.

I always am in good support of the work that’s being done on the Hanford site, that there is cleanup going on, but it’s just the visible surface that we see being cleaned. It’s not the actual contamination that’s going to exist and continue to harm the people of the Northwest.

If you could talk to Keith Klein and ask him to do something for the Nez Perce people, what would you ask him to do?

Bohnee: I guess I’d ask Mr. Klein to—I guess I wouldn’t go for the assurance that, you know, that the groundwater will be clean to a maximum, to the max that is available through science of today. I would ask that they always have an open mind to research and development for cleanup of the vadose zone that is highly contaminated here underneath the Hanford site.

I know there’s lately with accelerated cleanup, there’s a push to limit those amount of dollars going into the office of science and the research and development part, so the budgetary process kind of puts a stall to the advancement of cleanup. “We’ve hit the point where we’ve done all the research that we could possibly do up to this point, and none of it seemed to help, so we’re going to reduce those dollars.”

Yet the nuclear game has just begun. Since the early 40’s, it’s still relatively in its births. I believe we haven’t explored all the options on how to effectively do a cleanup at some point, if not in the near future, that there will be a mess that would be feasible at all.

It comes down to cost. I know how the federal government operates. The federal government operates on a yearly basis and that you’re only appropriated so many dollars, but when you look at the vast amount of water that’s going to be lost, we’re expending a big resource for saving dollars.

As a Nez Perce, what would you bring to the Hanford site to help clean it up? From your point of view, from your culture, how would you help work this site and ensure the next generation that it’s clean, that you can use resources here?

Bohnee: The biggest way I can see that I could help from the Nez Perce tribe would be the oral history and teaching our children about this area, and let them know the truth about what really happened at this site. That we were in a major war that got turned into a political war that went on for many years. Many contaminants were produced for this effort, and that the underlying factor was that the environment was sacrificed in name of global power.

And through those stories, hopefully once they know the truth and they get the baseline down on the facts, then the Nez Perce children that hopefully I teach will have a better understanding that they can too become scientists and come out here and bring not only their Western knowledge that they learn through their formal education, but the education about the history of the area that we look to preserve in how we used to live on this site and in these deserts and valleys that the Hanford site consists of, and bringing those two sets of knowledge together to hopefully give a good definition for cleanup and what is an effective cleanup.

I believe Western culture places a value on how much an area can produce or how is this land of value to me when the basic fact is that this area has not been utilized by the United States in the way that most other land areas have been used, so it’s basically a big preserve as it is right now. We have to respect the animals, the plants, the dirt and their space. This is one of the last natural habitats being that humans were excluded, and hopefully we can preserve this area.

Several years from now, when your grandchildren come up to you, what would you like to tell them that you did to help clean up the Hanford site?

Bohnee: I would just like to tell them that I did the best that I could. We’re a small tribe compared in our staff. We have five ERWN staff who directly work on the technical side of the Hanford cleanup, yet we get thousands of documents a year. How can we be effective in that being so small?

So I go forth as my best effort to pass down the value that this site has to the Nez Perce tribe, that the water, the plants, the resources are of great importance to the tribe. To lose those would just be another travesty over again for the Nez Perce people. Our lands are continually dwindling down to where we have to search for areas to dig our roots, to fish. We’re always in a continual battle to preserve our lands and the resources that make us, that define our culture, that we utilize on a daily basis.

So being that the Hanford is, like I said, a big preserve for many of the resources that we value, I would like to let the children know that I worked my best to protect those resources for their future and for their grandchildren also.

Let’s talk about what the younger tribal members think about the Hanford Site. What’s the importance to them, and then to the tribe in general?

Bohnee: The way that I see our young people looking at the Hanford site is, they haven’t really explored the Hanford site because it’s not visible to them, being that our reservation is so far away.

I see that through our interns. We hire interns that go through our program, so that we can hopefully recruit our young people to work towards our efforts on the Hanford site and hopefully they’ll get the message out to their friends also. It seems like the knowledge about the Hanford site is minimal.

I usually try to start out with a brief history about the Manhattan Project and a few of the things that went on here in. They know about plutonium production and that they may a bomb here. I let them know the whole picture of, you know, it was a whole nation effort, that there was a nation involved. Many sites were involved in building this bomb and here at the Hanford site it was just the plutonium production part, being that it was for the resources. The water was the main draw for the site, being that Columbia has a vast amount of water for production. Then from there, when you can start connecting the values of water or the resources that we utilize, in getting that type of connection in their mind, then hopefully I can build on expanding their knowledge.

But overall, the rest of the children that we see, I guess they would learn their history about the Hanford site through the formal education, if they’re not getting it from the elders and the adults who should be teaching it at home also.

But history books tend to leave out other perspectives besides the perspective of the victor, who won in the end. The United States government has a good grasp on that aspect in saying that it was all for a good cause, that we won the war. People put that at the back of their minds and they don’t think about the issue that is in front of us today that, well, now that the war’s over, now we have to do the cleanup part, and that’s going to be the most expensive part of the whole production of the bomb.

Would you like to get more Nez Perce people out here to see the Hanford site for themselves?

Bohnee: Yes, once they can put a face to the name, then they’ll appreciate more the resources in the area that is out here and all. One gentleman today on the tour that we took mentioned that if we can get involved in the cleanup of the Hanford site, we could control land that the US Fish and Wildlife Service is getting. That would be a major plus for the tribes because the Hanford site—the gentleman mentioned—was twice the size of the Umatilla Indian Reservation.

So being that there is a nuclear reservation just for the protection of the bomb that’s twice the size as the reservation that was built for this tribe, for all their people to live on, and all the resources. They’re not all located at one location being that the plateau tribes, we’re very nomadic. We’re called nomadic people, which we don’t like to be called. Where the resources were, we had a schedule that we followed and visited the same camps. So to expand our use areas would be a major plus for any tribal nation to manage a larger area, tract of land, than what we manage on our own reservations.

If you were the guide and you have new people, what would you show them? Where would you take them?

Bohnee: Well, the first place today we went up Rattlesnake Mountain and this was the first time I had been up Rattlesnake Mountain and to appreciate what the Nez Perce people were excluded from for years. It was beautiful up there. You can see the mountains of the Cascades. I thought I could even see far over into Nez Perce country. Seeing that far over, recognizing little bumps here and there that represent the mountains that I see on a daily basis over in Idaho.

I was kind of taken back and just had to visualize going back to the old times, being that this was a place to get your [inaudible], what a type of powerful place this was to be able to see as far as you can see and know the resources that were out there. To see the huckleberries in the mountains where we go and pick huckleberries, to see the rivers that supply the fish that feeds our diet, to see the deer that provide meat, to see the plants. It looks like a desert to most people, but to us there’s a lot of foods out there that we traditionally used. To see that all from one view, it was really amazing.

If there was an opportunity for you to come to Hanford and hunt elk or deer, would you do that?

Bohnee: That’s been a question that’s been posed before. I guess looking at it, to not hunt or fish this area would be the non-use of my treaty right, my right to go and get the game that is on the Hanford site, if we were allowed to come out and hunt the Hanford site. When you don’t practice or utilize your rights, there’s going to be somebody there to try to take that right away from you.

We deal with the same problem with the fish. They said the fish were contaminated. People were going to stop eating the fish. Well, the catch-22 of that whole scenario is, if you don’t utilize that right, then that right is going to slowly be taken away from you.

So I would come over and hunt for the elk and deer on the Hanford site to practice that treaty right that was reserved for, not only myself, but for the generations that are going to come after me, so that I can teach them and that right would live on in perpetuity.

For myself, I’ve been around some tribal hunter men and fishermen that whenever it’s called upon them to go out and explore further out, because our reservation is—we have our 1863 reservation that bounds us today. Then there’s the 1855 reservation, and there’s the ICC lines for Nez Perce ancestral lands. Then there’s the usual inter-custom areas, which was written into the treaty. The further out we can explore out and use our usual custom areas that we visited on a continual basis throughout history, before the coming of white men. Then we’re getting back to where we were when Lewis and Clark came over the pass to our traditional ways that we live.

There’s no definite answer to why, if it is a generational question. It’s more of getting back to the resources in the wide expanse that our tribal members used ancestrally. We need to go out and maintain those rights. Like I said, they’ll be taken away if we don’t use them. Maybe it’s the younger generation that I’ve heard this from, so I guess it would be kind of generational. But we need the elders there to show us the areas so that we can keep on pushing the bounds out further and protecting our resources, not only in Idaho where the Nez Perce live, but also for the Hanford site.

The repatriation of all of our Nez Perce ancestral lands is important for our future generations. We’ve been institutionally bound to smaller and smaller areas. Our younger generations aren’t learning the areas that we traditionally inhabited and used. I guess to untie that knot, that was built for us that we have to stick to this area.

The Hanford site was the traditional spot for the Nez Perces to come trade and visit with our sister tribes, the Umatillas, the Yakimas, the Colvilles. The Columbia River was a mecca for Northwest tribes. It supplied the fish and the resources that brought the people together. The repatriation of the Hanford site is the beginning of our younger generations going back to the older ways.

To have the use of the site, which we help in trying to do the cleanup effort, we work with the Umatillas and the Yakimas. I believe there’s no other site quite like the Hanford site where you get three separate tribal nations like this together, trying to work together to come up with a way for cleanup of a major environmental catastrophe that happened here. Yet if we do a good job together and are given back part of this land for our use, it would be important for our ties that we have. We’re all related, all three tribes, through family members. But to get back on an overall basis on a place where we could meet on an annual basis and utilize the same areas, it would be very powerful.

I guess reflecting on the past being that we had areas like the Hanford site, the Dells in the Great Plains, where we traded with the vast amount of cultures. The Hanford site was important culturally because we made bonds with our sister reservations and marriages occurred. Those type of bonds are made and continued on throughout those individual’s lives. Getting back to that type of situation where we would utilize the Hanford site.

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