Lakota oppose expansion of uranium operations

The proposed 2,100-acre expansion of Canada-based Cameco’s Crow Butte Resources uranium mine near Crawford in western Nebraska is meeting opposition from members of the Oglala Sioux (Lakota) Tribe, including proponents of commercial hemp cultivation as an economic alternative for the impoverished Pine Ridge Reservation, which lies just across the South Dakota line.

A panel of three administrative law judges from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) have heard arguments concerning whether the Lakota petitioners have standing to contest the mine expansion plan. Leading the opposition are Tom Cook of Chadron, Neb., the Slim Buttes Agricultural Development Project, the Western Nebraska Resources Council and the Lakota NGO Owe Aku.

Owe Aku, dedicated to the preservation of the Lakota way on life on the Pine Ridge, fears that the expansion of the Crown Butte leach mine will require too much water, and could endanger water quality on the reservation. Attorney Dave Frankel, representing the opponents, told the NRC that Pine Ridge residents rely on underground water supplies.

Among those who testified against the project were Joe American Horse, a former president of the 0glala Sioux Tribe, and former traditional chief Oliver Red Cloud. American Horse and Cook are leading advocates of industrial hemp cultivation on the Pine Ridge reservation. While federal laws don’t distinguish between industrial hemp and illegal marijuana, Oglala Sioux tribal law recognizes hemp as a legal crop. Reservation residents have created bricks, stucco and shingles from hemp to build homes.

Deborah White Plume, who represents Owe Aku in seeking legal standing before the NRC, is, like Cook, a member of American Horse’s family. The NRC panel is to announce a decision in the coming months.

Tyson Smith, attorney for Crown Butte Resources, argues that the mine is certified under the International Organization for Standardization‘s ISO 14001 guidelines, and that adequate safeguards are in place to protect water resources.

Earlier this month, a group of seven individuals and organizations filed impeachment proceeding against Oglala Sioux Tribe President John Yellow Bird Steele, claiming he helped promote uranium exploration on the Pine Ridge Reservation. The tribal council exonerated Steele, who maintains he opposes any uranium mining or exploration. The tribal council also recently passed OST Resolution 07-0154, a resolution prohibiting any uranium operations on the reservation.

The Oglala Band of the Black Hills Sioux Treaty Council has also opposed any mining or exploration within the original boundaries created by the 1851 and 1868 Fort Laramie treaties, including much what are now the states of South Dakota, North Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana. (MineWeb, Jan. 21; Indian Country Today, Jan. 7)

The controversy comes weeks after high-profile Lakota activist Russell Means briefly grabbed headlines with his announcement that the Lakota are declaring independence from the United States in recognition that treaties with Washington have been “repeatedly violated in order to steal our culture, our land and our ability to maintain our way of life.” Joined by a delegation from the Bolivian embassy, Means told a press conference at a church in a run-down district of Washington DC: “We are no longer citizens of the United States of America and all those who live in the five-state area that encompasses our country are free to join us.” Although Means invoked the “Declaration of Continuing Independence” adopted by the International Indian Treaty Council in 1974, news reports (e.g. AFP, Dec. 19) failed to ntoe that he holds no elected position in the Lakota tribal government—inaccurately portraying the declaration of secession as having official sanction of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

Nonetheless, as we have noted, concerns over the environmental and social impacts of uranium mining have recently led indigenous peoples to take up arms against the government in struggles for autonomy or secession in the African nations of Niger and Chad.

See our last posts on Native America, and the politics of secession.