Daughter continues efforts for uranium cleanup and health clinic
Twa-le, with her late mother Deb Abrahamson created SHAWL (Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land), a grassroots organization on the Spokane Indian Reservation to provide education on environmental justice in the face of health risks from uranium mining in her community.
Twa-le, who studied the effects of radiation and heavy-metal exposure on her community as they used traditional, medicinal plants and subsistence foods, advocates for establishing a cancer treatment center for tribal members in the region.
For years, there were no fences to prevent Spokane tribal members from going on the uranium mining site. Not knowing about the radiation, people would dig and pick traditional foods and medicines there.
A graduate of the University of Washington in environmental studies and restoration ecology, she has advocated for social and environmental justice through her work in natural resource management with the tribe and community education. She previously conducted indoor air and water quality and radon testing on the reservation.
Now she works as a civil rights investigator for the Washington State Human Rights Commission.
"My mother and I also worked to restore the legacy of canoes on the river and our role as water protectors," Twa-le said. "It is important to hear our language and learn our history, so we make different decisions in the future."
"Only a handful of our people speak the language. If we do not know our language, we do not know our land or river," said Twa-le.
Now she connects people to the rivers—paddling, swimming and fishing—along with working to bring healing to the intergenerational impacts by asserting sovereignty, restoring traditional foods and relearning traditional words and ceremonies.
Showing a satellite photo of the Midnite Mine's location on the reservation above the river, she told of her Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Navajo families' relationships to water.
"Here, we are blessed with abundant water," Twa-le said. "Water is precious to the Navajo, who carried it to their homes that had no running water.
"Dams were built in our region about the time of uranium mining and when the impact of heavy metal mining was being felt on the Coeur d'Alene reservation," she said. "Environmental damage passes down in our DNA. We need to know the dangers we will face."
Historically, after epidemics and settlers taking land, government leaders promised health and land, but the Spokane, Coeur d'Alene and Yakama are left with toxic legacies.
"It's hard to see radiation in Tshimakain Creek across the street from the Dawn Mine, but fish hatchery workers have some of the highest levels of radiation on the reservation," said Twa-le.
While aware that some radiation there was natural, she knows much came from mining bringing it to the surface and from being downwind from Hanford processing uranium for power and weapons. Radiation in people and salmon changes their DNA, she said.
"Our communities need a voice at decision-making tables. We need to understand the complexity of issues," she said.
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