set up nuclear free-zones
by Keith Rogers
Las Vegas Review-Journal, April 8,1996

Thorpe battles nuclear waste


The daughter of a legendary athlete tries to persuade American Indians to set up nuclear-free zones.

Like her father, the legendary athlete and Olympic champion Jim Thorpe, Grace Thorpe is on a mission, but it's not to win the decathlon or become president of the National Football League.

Instead, Grace Thorpe, 74, of Oklahoma's Sack and Fox tribes, came to Las Vegas last week to make a pitch for nuclear-free zones and spread the word among American Indians that selling out to the Department of Energy to study nuclear waste disposal contradicts native peoples principles on land stewardship.

"It doesn't make sense that we produce something that we can't safely dispose of," she said, sitting in the shade of the Department of Energy's office building on Highland Drive, where 80 anti-nuclear activists had rallied for a protest.

"In the last 50 years, we've tried everything. There's nothing, no way to dispose of it," she said.

Thorpe, a former aide to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, launched her anti-nuclear crusade four years ago "when my tribe put in for a (nuclear waste) study grant."

"I really feel if people don't agree with something they should do something about it," she said.

So, through her organization, the National Environmental Coalition of Native-Americans, Thorpe has tried to persuade other tribes to set up nuclear-free zones.

She said she views nuclear waste and weapons testing as a cancer that American Indians must constantly grapple with even though the United States has extended its testing moratorium indefinitely. The last, below-ground nuclear detonation at the Nevada Test Site was Sept. 23, 1992.

"People need to take a stand and tell the powers to be, 'This is it. We don't want it anymore.'"

Thorpe said she hasn't always been a rebel toward the government's ways. She was a corporal with the Women's Army Corps in World War II and was in New Guinea when the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshime and Nagasaki in Japan.

"We were all delighted. We blew jeep horns and whistles. We were told it stopped the war," she said.

But her mind changed, "after I got in Japan and saw the rubble and the people. This is too horrible for anybody to do. Then I had a guilt complex. My country? We did this?"

During the Nuclear Abolition Summit last week at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Thorpe reflected on her famous father. She passed around a gold medal he won in the 1912 Olympic Games in STockholmd, Sweden.

Besides becoming the first athlete to win both the decathlon and pentathlon, Jim Thorpe was a major-league outfielder from 1913 to 1919 and played on seven professional football teams during a career that began in 1915. Thorpe, in 1920, was the first president of what later became the National Football League and was enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1951, two years before his death.

At the summit, Grace Thorpe said the government's nuclear business, especially its plans to transport and store high-level nuclear waste on traditional Indian lands, is stirring controversy within tribes.

"It is pitting the young against the elders," she said. "It is also causing a rift between traditionalists and elected (tribal) officials."

She also spoke about problems facing Colorado River tribes because of plans for a low-level radioactive waste facility near Needles, California.

"The talk of bringing nuclear waste 20 miles away in Ward Valley is scaring them to death," she said.

She claimed that some of the "very finest Indian organizations have been usurped by the Department of Energy."

She was referring to the $289,000 that Energy Department headquarters spokeswoman Joanne Johnson confirmed was transferred to the National Congress of American Indians for sharing information on nuclear waste issues that might affect American Indians.

This year, Johnson said, $178,000 was appropriated for the National Congress on American Indians and the same amount has been proposed for this year. The national congress represents 180 tribal governments.

Johnson said the money goes to Robert Holden, who runs the American Indians waste issues office. The total does not include more than $1 million that was allotted between 1991 and 1992 to 10 tribes to study hosting temporary, above-ground waste sites where high-level nuclear waste would be stored until a repository is built. Scientists are studying Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to determine if it can safely entomb 77,000 tons of the waste, potentially the most deadly material on Earth. It is the only U.S. site being studied for a repository.

Thorpe said, "The National Congress of American Indians say they would be out of business without that money. I say it would be better to be out of business."