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Russell Jim’s Interview

Manhattan Project Locations:

Russell Jim is a member of the Yakama Nation near the Hanford site and serves as the head of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Indian Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Program. Jim discusses the impact of the Manhattan Project on the Yakama Nation people and the environmental impact of the radioisotopes that were released into the areas surrounding the B Reactor and the Columbia River. Jim explains the history and importance of the land and natural resources to the Yakama people. He expresses concern for the health of future generations and advocates the need for a cooperative effort between the United States government and the Yakama Nation to study the impact of radiation and nuclear waste on the environment.

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


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

Russell Jim: My name is Russell Jim, R-U-S-S-E-L-L, J-I-M.

Can you tell us what the land at Hanford has meant to the Yakama people?

Jim: Most definitely. The Hanford area was our wintering ground, the Palm Springs of the area. And the winters were milder here, and so therefore we moved here and dispersed to all other parts of the country when the spring came. And our usual custom places involve Canada, western Montana, northern Arizona, northern California, and the Pacific coast. So consequently in the Treaty of 1855, we included such language as accepted by the United States of America, in a contract called a treaty. And as a consequence, we thought that we would forever have the right to utilize the natural foods and medicines and to hunt and fish and all use of our custom places. 

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

With the coming of the Manhattan Project, it was simplified eventually, by them putting in writing, that the area had the abundant water—cold water, clean water—that they needed to cool their reactors. The abundance of electricity was provided by Grand Coulee Dam and Bonneville Dam. The area was an isolated wasteland, and the people were expendable. And that was in writing. And therefore the Manhattan Project was justified here, and everyone was moved out, including the Yakama Nation people. The non-Indian community was compensated for their removal. Of course there were a few that refused, but their land was condemned, and they were paid a dollar. 

But the Yakama Nation refused any compensation eventually, because the words in the treaty meant more to them, to be able to utilize the land as it was intended in the beginning. And so as time went on, we participated in the war effort. There were many Yakama people that went to the Second World War; we lost many people there. Matter of fact, statistics on a national basis show that the indigenous people of this country—in comparison to the population status percentage-wise—provided more bodies to war efforts and police actions than any other race. 

And so as the consistent, mass public deception continued on until 1986 that, “Don’t worry, everything’s fine,” there was a forced release of 19,000 reclassified documents. And in those documents showed that there were tremendous releases of radioisotopes to the environment, primarily iodine-131, and some intentionally, in what they call the “Green Run,” an intentional release to test on the people and the environment. And I think as a result of all this the Yakama people and many others are suffering the consequences, health-wise. 

So, your question regarding, “What does the land mean?” It means that our health being affected also as a result of the environment being affected. The health of the Yakama Nation people depend upon the environment yet through today and it will be through tomorrow. 

And so 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. And there is yet a new and innovative technology that could be utilized. Instead, there is a lot of activity out here, but hardly any clean-up. 

And so, what are the consequences of our health issues? We need to have some scientific studies done, some diligent efforts of coursed-funding, to determine what has happened to the health of the Yakama. What may happen to the gene pool of the Yakama in the future? And I think my question of fifteen years ago was: when is the time the mutations are going to show up? When are immune deficiencies going to be as a result of some of the effects on the gene pool? The gene damage? The DNA damage? The chromosome damage? I think it’s now. There is evidence of a vast amount of cancers and related illnesses now in the Yakama people. 

And so we have attempted in our work to be of assistance to the Department of Energy and others to influence this clean-up. We have some good ideas. We have a mandate to preserve and protect our land and resources for the future generations. And we do not look out just for the Yakama people; we look out for all people. The Yakama Nation has taken the stance that—since 1978, our position is that we are neither pro-nuclear nor anti-nuclear. We are pro-safety for all people. And so we are going to continue in our efforts as best as possible until people begin to understand what needs to be done here, not just for the Yakama people, but for all people of the future. 

And the treaty is alive and well. There are many people that truly misunderstand what the treaty means to us. To us it is as long as a mountain stands, the river flows, the grass shall grow, the sun shall shine, etc. For good reason is that we do not wish to assimilate to the mainstream of society. We can live side by side. We can utilize modern technology and help preserve and protect the culture of the Yakama. 

And that’s the efforts that we have influenced some of many of the younger generation to get the education. We have four interns every year in our program. And those interns are very interested in the environmental issues. And we hope that they can eventually replace the PhDs and the Master’s degrees people that we depend upon that are non-Indian. But many of the non-Indians that assist us have been a tremendous help. We are in deep debt to these people. Their conscience has allowed them to come work for us and try to influence, under the holistic approach of environmental management, the eventual return of the integrities of the environment here, so that people can again live in harmony with the resources and with the land and the environment. 

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 finished last August and released 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. 

And so 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?” Well, it’s obvious: we would like to have it corrected. They said, “We don’t have any money.” If this had happened in the suburbs of New York or Cincinnati, it would have been cleaned up yesterday. 

And so there is this seeming unfairness, along with the attempts in a paranoiac way that many of us have, that, you know, there is this consistency to assimilate us into the mainstream of society. 

But we cling to our ways; we will continue to do so. The fish is going to continue to be the leading food among our people, and behind that will be the deer and the elk and the foods out of the ground and the berries. And there are tremendous amounts of food out there—at least 70 different types—and equal amount of medicines that have sustained us for centuries. 

And now all this is affected. And I think there should be funds provided by the government to investigate all of this. Instead there are piecemeal efforts and no real concerted effort to involve the Yakama Nation on a true government to government basis on the situation. We are a sovereign nation. We out-rank the state of Washington in sovereignty, and yet we are treated like third-class people. And all this is related to your basic question: “What does the land mean to us?” All of this is tied together to our sovereignty, our government, our culture, our religion—all tied to the foods and medicines, our language, our way of life.

The land, because of the Manhattan Project and the boundary that encircles what is now the Hanford Nuclear Reservation, has provided some protection to the archeological sites and some of the gravesites. But there had been a lot of looting, especially by the workers on weekends, throughout the years past. Much of the graves around here have been disturbed. There were pot-hunters galore—it used to be a weekend past-time. And so although there has been sort of a protection, because of the creation of the reservation here, there is the other side of the coin, where there is a tremendous amount of releases into the environment. There was twelve million curies of radioisotopes going into the river for years. And there are something to the tune of eleven billion cubic yards of material out there that need to be administered to, enough to fill up 300 Empire State buildings. 

And so as the fire of 2000—for instance, an occurrence of that nature—someone said, “There’s plutonium in the soil.” 

And we said, “My God, what does that mean? How much?” 

He says, “Well, it could be at safe levels.” 

But I learned a long time ago that one-millionth of a gram of plutonium that you would ingest into your lung, and you have problems. And there has not yet been a true answer to us, a good answer, as to how much plutonium is in the soil. We know there are contaminants in the soil, in the vegetation. It was admitted by the Department of Energy many years back. And so consequently, in the 1980 fire, for instance, carried away much of those radioisotopes, especially to the east, to the down-winders. And so the effect on the land has been horrendous, but to what extent we do not know. And even though some may feel it’s not been harmed, there is no proof that it hasn’t or has. We would like to have answers. 

And there has been studies, but there has been contrasts also. Battelle says they have scientific studies on the river and they say everything’s fine. If so, then how come the EPA came out with this study that says there is one chance in fifty of getting cancer from very contaminated salmon and fish? And so what we would like to see in the future would be a true coordinated effort with the Yakama Nation. Now the federal government and each administration in the last few administrations said, “We must work with these indigenous people on a government to government basis,” but there have been different definitions of that. And we need truly to sit down at the front end of any major project and discuss, so that we don’t run into problems after the decisions are made. 

And to rectify or to resolve those problems, a lot of times there are court cases, like the one recently where the Department of Energy wanted to reclassify the waste. And the judge says, “No, you must go by what the definition of the Nuclear Waste Policy Act says.” Relative to that to us, that means you have to start have characterize some land, some soil, some vegetation, to determine what is clean and what is not clean. And they do ask the question, how clean is clean? 

Now we’re back to this relativeness of, you know, some people are trying to imply the Yakama Nation wants it pristine. We know that’s not a possibility in the near future. But we want it at least to a point where eventually in the near future, as the NRC, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, has in their rules and regulations after one hundred years, there will be unrestricted use.

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