Home » The untold story of New Mexico’s Indigenous people after the nuclear tests and Oppenheimer

The untold story of New Mexico’s Indigenous people after the nuclear tests and Oppenheimer

Mushroom cloud from a government nuclear test in 1952

Initially, the radioactive cloud drifted away from the Hispanic villages and Indigenous communities. However, the unpredictable winds of New Mexico brought it back, blanketing these communities with radioactive debris.

The aftermath of the Trinity Test had devastating health repercussions, with families in New Mexico enduring the legacy of cancer spanning multiple generations since 1945. Henry Herrera had to undergo jaw reconstruction as a result of mouth cancer. All of the families suddenly had to grapple with a massive financial burden of medical treatment, completely unaware of the root cause of their affliction.

Even more tragically, New Mexicans exposed to Trinity’s radioactive fallout weren’t eligible for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), the federal law that provided billions of dollars to individuals exposed during subsequent tests or those exposed during uranium mining. After the atomic bomb went off, children unknowingly played in contaminated water, and livestock drank from radioactive aquifers. Residents suffered from cancer, miscarriages, and many unexplained illnesses. Yet those impacted by the initial test were exempted from compensation. Tina Cordova, a cancer survivor and co-founder of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders, said the exclusion was based on racism: “This is a social justice issue. We want acknowledgment that the federal government did this without our consent then forgot about us and left us to fend for ourselves.”

Beyond the Trinity Test, the Manhattan Project’s dark legacy extends to the Navajo Nation, where uranium mining became a huge industry for nuclear weapons and energy. Navajo workers were kept in the dark about the dangers, and suddenly suffered high rates of health issues like various cancers and kidney failure. To this day, abandoned uranium mines still contaminate Navajo waterways with toxic metals.

For those lucky enough to get RECA compensation, there is a wide range of conditions that weren’t covered, such as kidney tissue injury and nephritis, because of the lack of data connecting those diseases to radiation. RECA also refused to cover Navajo miners after December 1971, when the United States government was no longer the sole purchaser of uranium ore and the mines were opened to commercial interests. Today, the RECA program is as relevant and utilized as it ever was, with over 53,000 claims being filed as of August of last year. A good portion of those claims are Indigenous people like the Navajo.

Hollywood had no trouble celebrating the Navajo code talkers during World War II, but although the Oppenheimer movie provided a chance to showcase another part of their history that was just as patriotic and dangerous, it was passed over. I can’t help but wonder if one of the reasons was that it really didn’t paint our government in the best light.

RECA was set to expire July 10, 2022, but Democratic Sen. Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico was able to secure a two-year extension, which President Joe Biden signed into law. Luján has been pushing RECA legislation and amendments every term he’s served in office. His new amendment would update the RECA program to cover more people, to include those impacted by the Trinity Test 78 years ago. It would expand eligibility to people beyond Arizona, Nevada, and Utah, and would finally compensate former industry workers, most of whom are members of the Navajo Nation.

Thankfully, his amendment passed the Senate in a bipartisan fashion this past August. Unfortunately, it is not a part of any House bill, as the current House majority doesn’t seem at all interested in actually legislating. Hopefully, the House and Senate Armed Services Committees will work out the RECA language in their reconciliation for the upcoming budget fight. My fear is that this will become a casualty of the Freedom Caucus’ budget war—especially since it’s about spending money to help minority victims.

Let your elected officials know that you are watching. You can do your part in encouraging your representative to sign on to expand the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act.

White Mesa Concerned Community protests White Mesa mill in Utah
Protest at White Mesa Uranium Mill

The Navajo Nation, Hispanos, and other Indigenous communities have suffered long enough. Native American communities have routinely suffered the brunt of environmental pollution, from the dumping of toxic waste on their land to being forced to fight multiple tar sand pipelines through sensitive areas regardless of treaties promising their sovereignty.

Just last year, citizens of multiple tribal nations traveled to White Mesa, Utah, to protest a corporate uranium mill’s sprawling waste pits that have polluted the local tribe’s water supply. The mill has had a long history of discarding waste that has contaminated the local Indigenous lands.

The least our leaders can do is acknowledge the severe health conditions and the suffering that is still happening as the result of purposely exposing people to dangerous levels of radiation. Being left out of the latest Hollywood summer blockbuster is one thing, but I can’t excuse them being ignored any longer by our government. 

RELATED STORY: A prominent museum obtained items from a massacre of Native Americans. Descendants want them back


November 2023