Ward Valley Celebration
by Philip M. Klasky

On February 17, hundreds of Native American and environmental activists gathered at a wide, tilting valley in the Mojave desert to celebrate the historic victory over the proposed Ward Valley nuclear waste dump. As international anti-nuclear weapons activist and Western Shoshone spiritual leader Corbin Harney led the diverse group in sunrise ceremonies, the golden rays illuminated the desert, now at peace after a decade-long struggle. For years, the nuclear power industry and its allies in state and federal governments attempted to open a nuclear dump in critical habitat for an endangered species and on sacred Indian land. Plans were to bury long-lived and highly dangerous waste from nuclear power plants in shallow, unlined trenches above an aquifer only 18 miles from the Colorado River. The battle to save Ward Valley brought environmental and social justice groups, scientists and anti-nuclear activists and Native American tribes together.

Quechan spiritual activist Wally Antone introduced the many tribes and environmental groups present who contributed to the victory including: the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, Chemehuevi Indian Tribe, Colorado River Indian Tribes and the Mohave Elders Standing Committee, the Bay Area Nuclear Waste Coalition, Greenaction, Shundahai Network, Desert Citizens Against Pollution, California Communities Against Toxics, Physicians for Social Responsibility and a number of individuals who contributed their time, effort, resources and hearts to the struggle. Greetings and congratulations were also offered by the Indigenous Environmental Network and the International Indian Treaty Council.

There were two focal points. First, we celebrated the victory against overwhelming odds embodied by California Governor Pete Wilson, Senator Frank Murkowski, former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt and the nuclear power industry. Second, we spread the message that the broad network of activists is still engaged and positioned to oppose any shallow grave for nuclear waste. The gathering also promised to oppose any plans to revive nuclear power as a solution to the recently created "energy crisis" in California.

The sunset at Ward Valley was spectacular as the sun shone its golden light on the tops of the wild mountains surrounding the desert valley, and Mojave Bird Singers and dancers gave voice to the ancient songs. Llewellyn Barackman, vice-chair of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, told those gathered that the tribe wanted to rename Ward Valley after Stormy Williams, a long-time toxics and environmental justice activist and beloved mentor whose ashes are buried at Ward Valley.

It is rare when we can celebrate a clear victory, and this celebration acknowledged the challenges ahead with the new federal administration. Still, the gathering felt like a close and diverse family meeting to recognize each other with appreciation and solidarity.

© Earth First! Journal, March-April 2001