MESCALERO, N.M. - On a wind-whipped spring afternoon, tears streamed down the face of anti-nuclear activist Rufina Laws as she stood in the tribal parking lot. Leda Bob, a former tribal secretary, had just hurled a bagful of campaign literature at Laws and cursed her.
The scene symbolized the
nastiness that overtook this southern New Mexico reservation as
Mescalero Apaches voted to support a high-level nuclear waste
storage scheme that they had rejected only six weeks
The reversal was the tribal equivalent
of a steamroller. As leaders barraged the tribe's 3,300 members
with letters, the divisive campaign split both families and
friends, leaving bitterness that could take months or years to
heal. The plan that members approved calls for the tribe to store
40,000 tons of lead-shielded, spent fuel rods from nuclear power
plants owned by 33 electric utilities.
Supporters of the storage had been dumbfounded
by a 490-361 "no" vote at a Jan. 31 referendum (HCN, 2/20/95).
Until then, few Mescaleros had spoken openly against 30-year
president Wendell Chino, one of the country's most powerful Indian
leaders. Suddenly, Laws, who had gone door-to-door to round up
opposition, became an international celebrity in the anti-nuclear
movement. She drew interviews from British and German newspapers
and planned a national speaking tour.
tribal housing director Fred Kaydahzinne garnered 200 signatures in
a petition drive to hold a second referendum. He said
"misinformation" about safety issues threatened a project promising
300 to 500 jobs and $250 million in benefits.
biggest sparks flew over charges that petition-gatherers had
promised $2,000 dividends if the referendum passed. Five Mescaleros
told the Albuquerque Tribune that they'd personally heard such
promises. Tribal leaders strongly denied that charge and blasted
critics as dupes of Greenpeace and other Anglo environmental
They accused Laws of mismanaging the
tribe's Head Start program when she was director three years ago,
although federal documents show that the program was already out of
compliance with federal rules when Laws took
In letters, leaders promised that the
radioactive rods would not leak and that their lead storage casks
would never be opened on the reservation.
honestly think your council whom you have elected would consider
something that could be harmful to themselves and their own
people?" asked one tribal letter. "Some of the council may be
related to some of you. The council, vice president and president
have family, relatives and friends who care a great deal about them
and feel badly when they are accused so falsely."
As they left the polls in early March, many
"yes' voters said they were moved by the promise of better schools.
Currently, the reservation has only an elementary school, and many
Mescaleros say their children are victims of prejudice in
"For the first time the
Mescaleros have the upper hand," said Zachary Begay, a patroller at
the tribe's ski resort. "It's been a long time since Indian people
have had a leverage against surrounding communities."
Most New Mexico leaders opposed the project, but
several bills that would have banned or regulated it died in the
legislature. Although Mescaleros say Indian sovereignty would stop
enforcement of a ban, state Attorney General Tom Udall has vowed to
watchdog the project's push for federal
"I think this idea of moving this kind
of waste all across the country to only a so-called temporary
facility is ill-conceived," Udall said.
said she felt the fight was worth it, because it publicly exposed
the tribal leadership's iron grip. But she says she'll retreat from
the battle lines, set up a nuclear information center and let
others do the organizing.
"The only thing I can
do now is raising consciousness on this issue," Laws said, "not
only for New Mexicans but for as many people as possible."
The writer works in
Albuquerque, New Mexico