Native People, Environmental Harm and Uranium Mining in the Upper Western US

By Michael J. Lynch, University of South Florida, FL

The problems faced by Native American populations exposed to uranium mining and waste has not been well explored in the academic literature and has been more likely to be explored by Native American peoples who form environmental justice organizations (see below) or by the progressive media:

To be sure, it is important to consider these kinds of documents and details when examining the problems Native Americans face since they provide the Native people’s own views of these subjects.

Upper Western Native American peoples, those living in South and
North Dakota, Wyoming and Montana, have been subjected to the negative effects of uranium mining and uranium waste since the 1950s. Native American lands in these locations have a significant number of abandon and active nuclear mine sites, and significant deposits of radioactive mine tailings (see for example, the post “America’s Secret Chernobyl,” by Defenders of the Black Hills, ; see also, the Indian Country Media presentation on this issue).

In recent years, Native American groups in the Upper Western US have struggled to make their plight over radioactive waste known. In Cave Hill, South Dakota, the Grand River is affected by mine run-off from 89 abandoned mines. At one mine, the radioactivity level is 120,000 times above regional background levels. Mine run-off also impacts the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation, the Morreau River, and several Pine Ridge Indian Reservation water sources. Drag net studies of the Cheyenne River confirm the effects of radiation on local wildlife, and lead to the posting of radioactivity warming signs along the river near Hermosa, South Dakota. According to the South Dakota Cancer Report (2003), Pine Ridge residents have a “significantly higher rate of cancer, diabetes, and infant mortality than the SD state average . . . ” and that cancers have been declining for White residents but increasing for Native Americans (Uranium mining, Oglala Lakota and Mni Wakan ; Heakin, 1999). Native Americans suggest that President Nixon’s 1972 secret Executive Order declaring this four four-state area a “National Sacrifice Area” is responsible for the problems (Destroying Indigenous Populations,

While there are few academic studies on the specific health problems Native Americans in the Upper West face from radiation exposure, relevant reviews of the general health problems of radiation exposure that also address Native American issues are available (see, Brugge and Buchner, 2011).


Brugge, Doug, and Virginia Buchner. 2011. Health effects of uranium: new research findings. Reviews on Environmental Health 26, 4: 231-249.

Heakin, Allen. 1999. Water Quality of Selected Springs and Public-Supply Wells, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 1992-1997. U.S. Geological Survey. Water-Resources Investigations Report 99- 4063. [accessed February 7, 2014].

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