“The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Naomi Bebo (Menominee/Ho-Chunk), “Woodland Child in Gas Mask” (2015)

Let’s let Indigenous artists and archivists tell us about nuclear colonialism. After all, they are in the best position to spot and resist its various effects, and they offer keen, interdisciplinary, impassioned and compressed seminars on all the relevant issues. The macrocosm of the world is reflected in the microcosm of their artwork, which is why, whenever we start to research, we should first look to the Indigenous American artists.

This work by The Death Convention Singers is not a representation but a presentation of toxic waste. Terrifying and beautiful, this piece recalls Duchamp/Man Ray readymades and Andres Serrano’s Piss Christ. We see a glass bottle full of water taken from the contaminated Animas/San Juan river after the Gold King Mine wastewater spill of 2015. Remember that one? Both beautiful and toxic, golden, the color of corn pollen, the color of the third world in the Diné creation story. It calls to mind the pictures of Flint residents in 2016 holding bottles full of their contaminated water in front of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee hearing in Washington, DC. One woman was also holding a clump of her hair, while another was holding a baby bottle full of the lead-contaminated water. “Would you drink it?”

Stained. Native artists Carl Beam and Jaune Quick-to-See Smith use paint to obscure settler colonial images and narratives. Quick-to-See Smith’s painting, The Browning of America, points to the spread of pollution, but also to the white-supremacist fear of ‘white genocide,’ aka “the browning of America.” And behind these, the title points to the problem with the blood quantum system, where all the “native” is removed after only a few generations. In her painting, like a palimpsest, patterns are built on top of each other, and boundaries disappear. The ascending drips betray that the image of the US could be upside-down.

Carl Beam likewise recycles images from our collective memory to see alternative narratives of history. In Columbus Chronicles, we see traffic lights (Beam’s “symbol of patterned behavior”), bees (his symbol of “scientific collection and display”), a portrait of Christopher Columbus, a Native American chief, a five-dollar bill, the aftermath of a nuclear bomb, and a stencil of the word HIROSHIMA in white paint in the top left corner mirrored by the words COLUMBUS CHRONICLES in the bottom left corner. All of these elements have been poured over with the same white paint, ‘white-out,’ to further connect the devastation of the atomic bomb with the devastation of European conquest and extractive capitalism. They drip into each other. Beam’s white painting uses Robert Rauschenberg’s photo-transfer technique and is also a response to the Christopher Columbus quincentennial in 1992.

Native American radiation poisoning is juxtaposed with Hiroshima. When the United States military decided to drop an atomic bomb on a city filled with hundreds of thousands of innocent people, something changed in us, and in the universe, forever. Genocide had been happening for centuries, but now the Euro-Americans had literally broken, cracked open, the world. Through those cracks, new darkness got in.

The uranium used in the Hiroshima bomb was mined and tested illegally on Navajo land, Dinétah. Some of the closed and abandoned nuclear sites are not regulated and leak toxic waste into the air, water and wildlife. Some are Superfund sites. In his series of oil paintings, Fuse, Blackfoot two-spirit artist Adrian Stimson brings the past of the buffalo holocaust and the present moment of nuclear colonialism together in the crumpled time and space of the painting. Both the buffalo and the bomb are the same gold color, seemingly out of place in the nostalgic, empty, black and white landscape. When we cross the bomb with the buffalo, the two superimposed stories generate a third, like a moiré pattern.

“While Native peoples have been massacred and fought, cheated, and robbed of their historical lands, today their lands are subject to some of most invasive industrial interventions imaginable…. nuclear waste dumps.”

Nuclear colonialism or “radioactive colonialism” refers to an ongoing history of nuclear tests, uranium mining and nuclear waste disposal on Indigenous lands across North America. Environmentalist, teacher, and activist Winona LaDuke reminds us in All Our Relations (1999) of the bombardment of recent proposals to dump toxic waste near Indian communities. She reminds us that the federal government is proposing to use Yucca Mountain, sacred to the Shoshone, as a dumpsite for the nation’s worst nuclear waste. Chief Johnnie Bobb: “There goes Yukka Mountain, and everything else.” It’s important to remember that radioactive colonialism is not limited to what is currently known as the United States. A significant proportion of the world’s uranium resources is exploited on land still retained by indigenous communities.

In 1951, the U.S. Public Health Service began testing the long term effects from radiation poisoning on Navajo miners. The miners didn’t know they were being poisoned or that they were part of any test. New Mexico, Utah, and Nevada have long been exploited as nuclear testing and dumping grounds. In his gorgeous watercolor painting, “The End” (1983), Western Shoshone and Washoe artist Jack Malotte envisions the nuclear apocalypse in a landscape that resembles his homeland, Nevada’s Great Basin. The three mushroom clouds in the painting might seem like science fiction, but they’re not. Almost one thousand nuclear tests have been conducted at the Nevada Test Site alone, in Western Shoshone land, making it one of the most toxic places in the world. Science fiction writer William Gibson was right:

“The future is already here–it’s just not very evenly distributed.”

Most of the nuclear apocalypse scenario is distributed across indigenous land and near communities of color. The twenty-year study Toxic Wastes and Race In the United States: A National Report on the Racial and Socio-Economic Characteristics of Communities with Hazardous Waste Sites, 1987–2007, concluded that race was the most significant among variables tested in association with the location of commercial hazardous waste facilities. We also know that in areas where uranium is mined, such as New Mexico, Utah, the Four Corners and the sacred Black Hills in South Dakota, Native people face skyrocketing rates of cancer, miscarriages, and birth defects. Men and women who grew up in the Four Corners develop ovarian and testicular cancers at 15 times the national average. Meanwhile, Indian women on Pine Ridge in the Black Hills experience a miscarriage rate six times higher than the national average. Andrea Smith: “Through the rape of the earth, Native women’s bodies are raped once again.” Smith’s book, Conquest, broadens our definition of sexual violence to include nuclear bombs and toxic waste. She reminds us of the horrible fate of women from the Marshall Islands, where the U.S. exploded 66 nuclear bombs after World War II. One of these bombs, “Bravo,” was 1,300 times more destructive than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Indigenous people were directly in the fallout and have continued to suffer cancer and major birth defects, including “jellyfish babies” — babies born eyeless and without bones.

Two Spirit, transdisciplinary artist Demian DinéYazhi’ also makes work that confronts the toxic ramifications of uranium mining and our “heteropatriachal colonial nightmare.” In the installation Hey Jolene, a poetic manifesto is presented in segments projected onto a screen, with reference to the huge uranium spill that occurred at Church Rock, New Mexico in 1979, (the largest and worst radioactive toxic spill in US history). The text is golden, and the red background is generated by the artist’s own body. “This is actually my finger pressing against the camera lens pointed toward the sun.” DinéYazhi´ is the founder of the Indigenous artist/activist initiative, R.I.S.E.: Radical Indigenous Survivance & Empowerment, and also serves as co-editor of the zine Locusts: A Post-Queer Nation Zine.

DinéYazhi´and a number of contemporary indigenous artists like to use neon, maybe because neon signs jump out at us, trigger nostalgia, and are read immediately before the viewer really knows what’s going on. Neon, from the Greek word for new, neo. Atomic number 10, atomic weight: 20.1797. Although neon gas is the fourth most abundant element in the universe, only 0.0018% of the earth’s atmosphere is neon, making it a rare, magical substance. It’s used to make helium-neon lasers, advertising signs, and anti-colonial pop art. Neon is also in plasma television screens. It is “highly inert and forms no known compounds.” Liquid neon is apparently a good refrigerant.

“Glass bending” and light bulb technology have been known since the early 19th century (just trap the strange gas in glass tubing and electrocute it), but it wasn't until Scottish scientists liquefied air in 1898 that they learned how to trap neon. This is the same year the Curies uncovered atomic energy. Morris M. Travers, a scientist who was involved in the discovery of neon, wrote:

“The blaze of crimson light from the tube told its own story and was a sight to dwell upon and never forget.”

Neon is a light meant to be seen in the dark. Buzzing, it’s not like the fire, lamp, or moonlight. Neon is unnaturally bright, focused, fluorescent, dangerous. Neon signs stand out because they don’t belong in the landscape, those colors look radioactive. We see it in science fiction, lightsabers, superhero suits, alien spacecraft, alien landscapes, alien animals that live at bottom of the ocean. The people bowed and prayed to the neon gods they made.

“Americans transformed neon into a popular icon. In its first years in Paris, neon lights were luxurious, decorative objects or flourishes of techno-artistry, which the Futurists used from the early days. However, in my view, the United States in the 20th century was about the standardization of everything, including the standardization of the mind.” ~Luis de Miranda, Author of Being and Neonness.

Portuguese-French philosopher Luis de Miranda says neon unsettles us because, in a sense, we too are glass and gas, electrocuted chaos held in place by man-made shapes. “Artists reveal mystic truths.” DinéYazhi´’s sculpture recalls the neon masterpieces of Iván Navarr, Joseph Kosuth, Dan Flavin, Bruce Nauman, Gran Fury (SILENCE=DEATH), Tracy Emin, the truisms of Jenny Holzer, and the anti-colonial poetry signage of Edgar Heap-of-birds. Yellowcake yellow, the neon light might also indicate a spiritual dimension–the numinous yellow corn pollen and yellow clouds of the third world in the Diné creation story. The Yellow World was home to six mountains, where the holy people lived. Within the Tibetan Buddhist tradition, after the “white light” of death, the next dreamworld we humans encounter is yellow, like firelight, “like fireflies.” In DinéYazhi´’s sculpture, we get all this context and also a text reminder that the American flag means devastation. The reflection in the floor creates the illusion of a yellow disk, a sun, pollen boy, a puck of yellowcake, and, for an instant, a nuclear bomb explosion; images of people baking in ovens; the beginning of Pam Colorado’s poem:

What Every Indian Knows

Auschwitz ovens

burn bright

in America

John Feodorov“Desecrations” #3 The Yellow Radiation House. Paint ‘desecrating’ a white, hand-woven rug by Navaho master weaver Tyra Preston.

The Diné word for uranium, leetso, means “yellow dirt.” The significance of corn pollen in Diné culture becomes even more complex. Leetso is tádídíín’s evil doppelganger. Foreshadowing, Spider Woman taught a song to the twins before they set off to fight some monsters, a song that describes the power of pollen to bring peace and harmony: “Rub your feet with pollen and rest them… All of you is as pollen is. And what pollen is, that is what peace is” (Zolbrod, 199). Also according to the Diné Bahané, in the Third World, yellow “grasshopper people” live in yellow holes in the yellow landscape. Is it past, or is it future?

“No one knew it was radioactive fallout. The children played in the ‘snow.’ They ate it.” In her futuristic, beaded children’s regalia, Naomi Bebbo offers an example of what Berlo and Phillips call the traditional Indigenous American “aesthetic of excess,” where the finest Venetian glass beads cover everything, even the soles of the moccasins. Even the gas masks must glitter and be beautiful. Always walk in beauty. Moreover, the floral patterns point to ways indigenous people use Euro-American symbols in a way that reinforces indigeneity (see Homi Bhabha’s notion of “strategic failure,” or Gerald Vizenor’s “aesthetics of survivance.”)

Will Wilson, Auto Immune Response. The Grand Canyon lies within Dinétah, and is part of this imperialist need to “preserve” the landscape. In Savage Dreams, Rebecca Solnit writes of the violence that accompanied the path to “preserving” Yosemite Valley, including the forced removal of the Awahneechee Miwak.

As we follow the sightline of the Indigenous man in profile across the horizon, we encounter fence posts, power lines, an atom bomb or a ghost/memory of an atom bomb, and his faint doppelganger wearing a gas mask. Will Willson’s series Auto Immune Response is set in a postapocalyptic future, not unlike the predicted horrors of climate change and nuclear apocalypse. What sci-fi movies use nuclear holocaust tropes?

Auto Immune Response is the body attacking itself. “The series is about this guy, who is played by me, who is this post-apocalyptic Navajo man just trying to figure out what happened, why the world is so toxic, so uninhabitable.” Wilson’s photography is often in dialogue with Edward Curtis photographs to create a deliberate counter-narrative to Curtis’s romantic visions of Native people living in an unchanging past. Here we see a native man of the future, witnessing, responding, organizing, and building.

“Native American populations are disproportionately affected by auto-immune diseases, diabetes being the best known. It’s also associated with sudden cultural economic and environmental changes, transitions. But my work is also about a response — how we work to survive through that process.”

In his journey, the post-apocalyptic person builds two hogan greenhouses in which Indigenous food plants are grown. Breaking into our world, the greenhouses were then be exhibited at the Denver Botanical Gardens and at the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“…The series is an allegorical investigation of the extraordinarily rapid transformation of Indigenous lifeways, the dis-ease it has caused, and strategies of response that enable cultural survival.”

“My hope is that this project will serve as a pollinator, creating formats for exchange and production that question and challenge the social, cultural and environmental systems that surround us.”

In her essay Indigenous Artists Against the Anthropocene (2015) Jenny Horton brings attention to Wilson’s work and to the work of Anishinaabe/Ojibwe artist Bonnie Devine. For the 2015's exhibition Rocks, Stones, and Dust, Devine created an installation consisting of 92 hardwood stakes draped in white muslin, a nice chunk of gneiss, and a sample of uranium secured in a can. The gneiss is from Serpent River First Nation in Ontario, near the site of a demolished sulphuric acid plant, where raw ore from nearby uranium mines was smelted in the 1950s and 1960s.

Juxtaposing the two minerals, Devine may be pointing to that ancient belief that stones are alive, have agency, and that invisible forces are at work within and behind all things. She is also pointing to the vulnerability and porosity of our bodies. The uranium sample is in a state of active decay, and as the title, Phenomenology, suggests, the artist may be using the psychological effects of uranium to affect us, to shift us into an embodied awareness, to help us feel, understand and respect that which can’t be seen. “To internalize the external,” Divine’s work reaches deep into the psyche because it reaches it not through abstract knowledge, but through sensorimotor experience.

The 92 (atomic number of uranium) hardwood stakes were pulled from radioactive land near the Humber River, where they were part of an earlier installation by the artist. What do the clothed stakes remind you of?

Death Convention Singers also brought radioactive substances into the gallery. With these artworks and others, we get a taste of what it feels like to live close to radioactive toxic waste. This raises awareness, and awareness is curative.

“To internalize the external.”

Post-apocalyptic visions of native people surviving catastrophes offer visions of hope, survivance, and even of post-human transcendence.

Alongside scholars and scientists, Naomi Bebo, The Death Convention Singers, Jaune Quick-to-See Smith, Carl Beam, Adrien Stimpson, T. C. Cannon, Jack Malotte, Demian DinéYazhi´, John Feodorov, Will Willson, and Bonnie Devine contribute to our awareness of nuclear colonialism. These artists are archivists, journalists, tricksters, world-makers, and they are particularly good at communicating big pictures through artistic ceremony. This may be because artists, in general, are so used to stepping back, synthesizing, getting perspective, spotting patterns, and as poets, they are sensitive to myths, languages, materials, and deep time.

Selected References

Alan C. Braddock et al., A Keener Perception: Ecocritical Studies in American Art History, University of Alabama Press, 2009

Ed Komenda, It will poison everything.’ Native Americans protest Yucca Mountain Nuclear Waste Site. Reno Gazette Journal, 2019.

Judy Pasternak, Yellow Dirt: A Poisoned Land and the Betrayal of the Navajos, Free Press, 2010.

V.B. Price, The Orphaned Land. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2011.

Eva Maria Räpple, The Environmental Crisis and Art: Thoughtlessness, Responsibility, and Imagination. Lexington Books, 2019.

Michaela Rife, Will Wilson and Jetsonorama: Confronting Resource Extraction in the Navajo Nation, Seismopolite Journal of Art and Politics, 2016.

Andrea Smith, Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Duke University Press, 2014.

Rebecca Solnit, Savage Dreams: A Journey into the Landscape Wars of the American West, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Kim TallBear, “An Indigenous Reflection on Working Beyond the Human/Not Human,GLQ: A Journal of Lesbian and Gay Studies 21, 2015.

Anita Moore-Nall, The Legacy of Uranium Development on or Near Indian Reservations and Health Implications Rekindling Public Awareness, Geosciences 2015

Nancy B. Collins and Andrea Hall, Nuclear Waste in Indian Country: A Paradoxical Trade. Law & Inequality: A Journal of Theory and Practice, 2017.

Traci Brynne Voyles, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2015), 4–6; 139–140.

Wallo, William and John Pickard. 1990. T.C. Cannon — Native American. A New View of the West. Oklahoma City, OK: National Cowboy Hall of Fame.

Paul G. Zolbrod, Dine Bahané: The Navajo Creation Story. University of New Mexico Press. 1984.

Painter and Professor of Art