Deb Abrahamson continues to educate on health needs, mine clean-up
During their vigil, the Faith Leaders and Leaders of Conscience (FLLC) presented Deb Abrahamson with its Leader of Conscience Award "for having the courage to speak with moral strength on the environmental devastation caused by uranium mining and milling on the Spokane Tribal lands, for founding and directing the SHAWL Society to protect Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water and Land, and for educating others to do the same."
Uranium, which was mined on the Spokane Tribal lands from 1955 to 1981 for nuclear weapons, created a toxic, radioactive environmental hazard that continues to devastate tribal people's health and culture.
After the FLLC honored her for her continued efforts, Deb shared new insights about her involvement.
"I am touched by this honoring and for the faith leaders hearing the story and understanding why it is vital for our people, lands and waterways," said Deb, telling that she started the SHAWL Society after going to a public hearing at the Ford mill site with her six-month old son.
"I felt it was necessary to listen, because I had lived on the reservation during the time and had not paid attention," she said. "The mining was so accepted by the government, schools and people who made decisions.
"I watched trucks with rocks go by, often dropping rocks that hit and broke windshields of our cars," she said. "Many people worked for the mines."
Her father, who died at the age of 63 of a heart attack, brought home misshapen balls that she and her nine siblings would throw against the barn wall to watch them bounce in crazy directions.
"Many who worked at the Midnite and Dawn Mines and the Ford Mill Site have died," Deb said. "We first noticed that our mothers and grandmothers, who cleaned the clothing, died. They would shake out the yellowcake uranium dust. Workers were not told—as they now would be—that they should not to wear their clothing home."
Women would turn over the mattresses and find yellowcake, because often men did not change their clothes when they slept between double shifts.
"The legacy of that continues to this generation," Deb said. "We have lost people, land, waterways and wildlife. Wildlife had access to the Midnite Mine site. Contamination on the land and in the water broke into the aquifer and is difficult to clean up.
"We understood something was not right. People sitting at tables in Denver and Washington, D.C., made decisions for us," she said. "We should have had a right to have a voice. Now we are dying. Beyond that, the lands that are special and sacred did not have voice at the tables."
Mine owners and the Environmental Protection Agency made decisions thinking that "what was right" meant "what was cost effective." They did not think about the people or land, about Deb's granddaughter, Nakaia, or the next seven generations.
"My daughter, Twa-le, went to the University of Washington and earned a degree in environmental science," Deb said. "She helped us go on the internet, where we found information and allies."
In 2000, they found out about efforts and information from Northern Arizona University programs.
"We learned that 68 percent of all uranium mined was on or adjacent to native lands, because of government control over those lands," she said. "We found allies through many networks, including Riverkeeper, which has helped us look at what we need to do and how to stand tall as the mining companies still try to make decisions for our people."
Today, when there are efforts to eliminate information about the environment and global warming on government websites, SHAWL and others worked to save that information held by government entities.
"The mining company thought it could lower the standards for cleanup. A year and a half ago, it asked the EPA to lower the standards," Deb said. "We began meeting again. If we do not keep a watchful eve, the company will try to do less.
"We need to be steadfast. We need to ask elected officials to be at the tables. Allies are important, because even our own people have a level of denial and apathy. We have to continue to push," she said.
Deb said that as a Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Navajo, she is obligated to protect the earth.
"In spite of what man does, the earth will rejuvenate. The message of hope is also important. In spite of all that has been done in the attempt to eradicate our people, we are still here," Deb said. "As humanity, there are so many devastating impacts to people and the world.
"Indigenous people who are protecting the rain forests in Brazil are being murdered," she pointed out. "We need to continue to pray and keep aware of what is happening elsewhere, too. We need to stay involved. The young people are pushing forward, too.
"I'm thankful I'm alive. I'm in stage five sarcoma with uterine cancer, struggling to continue to work," Deb said.
She sees three tasks now: 1) continue to clean up the mine, 2) work for community access to health statistics, and 3) improve health care access to help people live longer.
Deb's daughter, Twa-le Abrahamson Swan, expressed gratitude for community support, because at times "we have felt we were standing alone."
Twa-le said: "It's an honor to continue to stand up, speak out and learn, because we have to know about issues so we continue to fight. Our prayers in sweathouses have been disrupted, because we used contaminated rocks and water. There is more danger in inhaling the radiation. Also, our medicines from the land have been affected.
"Our family goes out and spends time every season on the land. It's time spent with my mother, relearning the sites, gathering berries and other medicines in the mountains," Twa-le said. "We respect and learn from the land and our elders. The land will take care of us if we take care of it."
The FLLC presented Twa-le with a photograph of an eagle flying over Lake Coeur d'Alene as a symbol of her strength.
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Copyright@ The Fig Tree, November, 2019