Fallout: First cancer, now delayed compensation for Indigenous downwinder communities

Bureaucratic roadblocks mean ‘apology’ payouts are hard to access for Indigenous communities exposed to nuclear tests.

Lena Cason grew up in Cove, Arizona, a valley of sandstone pillars and monuments shaped by water and wind in the Navajo Nation. As a kid, she loved to spend time outside. “I used to walk all the way to the top of the canyon, climb the highest one and sit up there,” she says. “I’d look through the valley and hear a bird squealing somewhere, the wind rushing by and whispering.”

She followed her grandfather, John Harvey, everywhere. One clear, hot day, they were walking together when a sudden flash of light from the north turned the horizon an apocalyptic red. Cason got scared.


Cason, who was born in 1953, grew up during the heyday of nuclear weapons testing at the Nevada Test Site. The U.S. government established the site in 1950, both as part of its Cold War arms race with the Soviet Union and to help develop new nuclear technologies. The test site, located in Nye, Nevada — about 65 miles north of Las Vegas — was built atop an old military base on the ancestral lands of the Western Shoshone and Southern Paiute tribes. Nearly 200 aboveground tests were conducted before testing ceased in 1963.

When Cason was a child, the federal government and private companies had dozens of uranium mines near her home. A workforce made up mostly of Navajo men worked to extract uranium ore for the nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site. But none of the dangers of uranium mining were communicated to the workers, let alone to the Navajo communities at large. Cason and her siblings played in the mine pits and ate the sweet blackberries that grew nearby. The mine tailings were piled outside her home like large mounds of sand, and she and the other kids played there. Her mom joined the fun, Cason remembers, even when she was pregnant. She had 16 children; only six survived past infancy.

Cason’s father, who worked at a mine owned by the energy company Kerr-McGee, would come home dirty from his day’s work. Today, she remembers the smell of the ore on his clothes — “like sour grapes.”

When Cason was a freshman in high school in Arizona, her father got sick. It wasn’t that bad at first — a persistent cough, but during Cason’s junior year, he began coughing up blood. In January 1973, months before Cason was about to graduate, he died.

About four decades later, Cason started feeling ill herself. In 2013, her doctors delivered the diagnosis: colon cancer. “The day my father died, I saw nothing but skin and bones,” she said. “When I got my cancer, I thought: Is that what’s going to happen to me?”

Lena Cason was born at home in the 1950s without a birth certificate. After tracking down paperwork to file downwinder claims for her and her family, she now keeps all her identifying and medical documents in a clear accordion file.
Wudan Yan

Because Cason, now in her late 60s, lived in a region that the government considers impacted by aboveground testing and developed a compensable cancer, she is entitled to a one-time payment of $50,000 from the U.S. Department of Justice — but only if she can successfully navigate a notoriously difficult system.

“The day my father died, I saw nothing but skin and bones. When I got my cancer, I thought: Is that what’s going to happen to me?”

To date, nearly 28,000 people have filed for downwinders’ claims through the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA), a federal program that provides the one-time payment as an “apology” to people exposed to radiation as a result of nuclear weapons development during the Cold War. However, even as cases like Cason’s continue to crop up, RECA is about to sunset in July 2022. That means that even if health-care providers flag people who could be eligible after 2022, they won’t be able to get compensated. And as the generation who would be eligible for compensation gets older, it becomes more likely that they will be diagnosed with cancer, says Shannon Williams, program manager for the Radiation Exposure Screening and Education Program in Flagstaff, Arizona.

Members of Indigenous nations constitute only about an eighth of all total downwinder claims. But to file a claim, there’s a lot of bureaucratic red tape, much of which is difficult for Native Americans — like Cason and her family — to navigate without guidance. 

Cason knew about the challenges. But last year, she filed her claim anyway.

WHEN THE NEVADA TEST SITE was first established, the government said that nuclear weapons testing could be done without much impact to the environment or humans. The test site was large and flat — nearly Martian in appearance — without much wildlife or major waterways nearby. At a meeting in Los Alamos in the 1950s, experts determined that it would be feasible for even the most powerful tests to be conducted; the meteorologists would simply have to pick the right days, those with no rain and a preferable wind direction.

But they were wrong about the impacts. Nuclear tests seem to have been conducted only when the wind was blowing east or north, rather than when it was blowing toward more populated regions, south towards Las Vegas or west into California. But after the tests, wind and sometimes rain sprinkled radioactive fallout across Nevada, Utah, Arizona and as far as Idaho. People in southern Utah or central Nevada remember waking up the morning after a test to “snow in summer” — a white veneer of radioactive fallout coating the earth on which they grew their crops and on which their cattle and sheep grazed. It was one of those tests that Cason and her grandfather witnessed.

There’s no record of how many downwinders were affected from the fallout from the Nevada tests. Indigenous people who were affected want to be compensated, but it is a long, bureaucratic slog to even obtain the necessary paperwork. At one point in the mid-2000s, Phil Harrison, a Navajo citizen who has helped uranium miners file for compensation under RECA, was told that Navajo downwinders made up only 2% of claims that were paid out. When I asked him what that meant, he said, “It means that we’re being denied.” 

Paul Denetdeal, a citizen of Navajo Nation that has filed a downwinder claim, with a water pump he made himself near his home in Tuba City, Arizona, far from the uranium mines.
Wudan Yan

SHORTLY AFTER HER DIAGNOSIS, Cason received treatment for her colon cancer. Fortunately, the tumor had not metastasized. Surgery was the best option, so the surgeon excised the growth. Cason has been cancer-free for seven years. Doctors continued to monitor her, but she had a difficult recovery. “It hurt everywhere,” she said. Cason couldn’t lift anything — couldn’t even lie down comfortably on a bed. She had to resort to the recliner chair in the living room.

Five years after Cason’s surgery, in the summer of 2018, her younger brother, Thomas, passed away due to health issues he believes to be caused by uranium mining. When I met Cason at her home in Farmington, New Mexico, she pushed back her thin-rimmed, rectangular glasses as she stood up to retrieve a framed photo of Thomas from the bookshelf. Thomas was the second-eldest child, so he and Lena were close, and he worked in some of the uranium mines with their father. He suffered from kidney and heart issues but did not qualify for compensation because only uranium miners with lung disease or cancer are eligible.

Because she felt that this was unjust, Cason decided to file a RECA claim. The legacy of nuclear weapons development had gotten too personal, and she thought it was time for the government to step up and pay out what she felt she was owed. “I went through hell and back to get well,” she said. “I deserve something.”

Cason needed to prove that she lived in Cove during the time periods that qualified her for compensation, so she decided to get a copy of her old school records to prove she attended day school there. She drove a half hour from her home in Farmington to the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Shiprock, New Mexico. There were no physical records there, and an office administrator told her that the records she wanted were scattered all over the United States. Cason nevertheless put in a request, then went home and waited.

A few weeks later, she received a letter from the Department of Justice, stating that record databases and the national archives had been searched, but the information she had requested was not found.

“It felt like nobody cared where my records were. I just let it go.” 

Her request for records was closed. Cason was frustrated. “I don’t know if anybody even looked,” she said. If she went to high school in Arizona, wouldn’t the documents have been in Phoenix? “It felt like nobody cared where my records were. I just let it go.” 

Still, she remained determined to file a claim. Cason made an appointment with Harrison — whom she knew through family members — and went to his office a short drive west of Farmington. She brought the files she had: her birth certificate, the trading post address that her father used when she was a child, and her medical records.

At the end of September, Cason dropped her application in the mail, hoping that the documentation she submitted would be enough for compensation. She was relieved that the bureaucratic legwork was over, but she still wasn’t counting on getting compensation. “I had mixed feelings about it,” she said.

ULTIMATELY, THE STRINGENT REQUIREMENTS for RECA and the paperwork often deter Indigenous people from filing claims. Some of those who are eligible are so discouraged by the prospect of paperwork that they won’t apply for it at all. Many Indigenous people do not keep documents at home, and in the mid-20th century — when nuclear testing was active — many Navajo Nation citizens were born at home, with no birth certificates immediately available. Marriages were ceremonial and had witnesses, but didn’t involve getting an official piece of paper from a courthouse. Some citizens of Indigenous nations who have filed claims have had to get creative and use documents like grazing permits to prove their residency.

“If you close the door on us now, there are consequences in the making.”

Others who grew up in downwind territory might want to file a claim, but are not eligible because they have not yet developed a compensable disease. Genny Atene, a shopkeeper and Navajo Nation citizen, had a pancreatitis scare a few years back and worries that more health issues will emerge as she gets older. “It would be nice to have that money in the bank,” she says. “If you close the door on us now, there are consequences in the making.” Still other people grew up in communities that didn’t formally recognize cancer as a disease and lacked proof that they had developed a compensable illness.

Currently, an amendment to RECA is under review in both the U.S. House and Senate. Should it pass, a letter from a tribal council member would suffice to prove residency, so that people don’t end up on a haphazard pursuit for documents that may or may not exist. As RECA stands, however, the government has put the burden of proof on those who want to file for the claims.

“The testing solidified the fact that, to the federal government, we were expendable,” said Virginia Sanchez of the Duckwater Shoshone Tribe in Nevada. The fact that her tribe and many others are downwinders is tied to the long history of erasure that Native Americans have faced in this country. And the long road to getting compensated as a downwinder, some say, feels like salt on that open wound. 

The Western Shoshone’s Duckwater Reservation is tucked in a remote valley in central Nevada.
Wudan Yan

ON A BLUEBIRD DAY last October, when I met Cason at her home, I asked her what it would mean to receive compensation. She told me it was a matter of justice. The money won’t bring back the family members she’s lost to cancer, but “there’s things that can be done for somebody’s mistakes.” Receiving her downwinders claim would mean accepting the government’s apology.

About three weeks after my visit, Cason walked out of her one-story home and down the driveway to get her mail. In the pile was a nondescript white envelope from the Department of Justice. Her heart sank with doubt, but when she tore open the letter she saw that her claim had been approved. “I was happy and stunned,” she said. “I didn’t know what to think.” A second letter came shortly thereafter, which informed her that she would get a check within a month. It arrived in a couple of days.

For Cason, the compensation comes with mixed feelings. On one hand, she feels like the government has helped take care of her, and now she can start paying off some of her debts. But no amount of money can replace the pain that the legacy of nuclear weapons development and testing has caused for her and her family. When she got the money, she thought of her father. “But that’s the past,” she says. “I have to look forward to better things, and enjoy my life as much as possible.”

Reporting for this story was in part supported by a grant from the Institute of Journalism and Natural Resources.

Wudan Yan is an independent journalist based in Seattle, Washington.  Read more about her work at www.wudanyan.comEmail High Country News at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor.