NoTen O Quah
(Woman of the Power of the Wind that blows Up Before a Storm)
Christian Science Monitor
Until 1991 Grace
Thorpe, the daughter of legendary Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe,
enjoyed a pleasant, low-key retirement, doing what she calls "typical grandmother
Then she read as alarming newspaper story. It explained that 17 American Indian tribes - including her own, Oklahoma's Sac and Fox nation - had applied for $100,000 grants from the Department of Energy to consider their reservations as sites for nuclear-waste storage.
Sac and Fox leaders told her that their tribes "could use the money." But Thorpe, a longtime activist on behalf of Native Americans, feared exploitation. Radioactive waste, she explains, "is the most lethal poison known in the history of man." The prospect of a "monitored retrievable storage" (MRS) facility on what little remains of her ancestral land seemed unthinkable.
After going door to door with petitions, she and other tribal members brought the issue to a vote. Members defeated the plan, even though it could bring millions of dollars a year to any reservation chosen as an MRS site.
When other groups heard about her tribe's withdrawal from consideration as an MRS site, she quickly became a sought-after speaker and tireless activist.
"Environmentalist racism" has become a term to describe an egregious form of exploitation - the placement of everything from garbage and sludge to high-level and low-level toxic waste in the backyards of people who are perceived as too poor, too weak, or too passive to protest and resist. The attempt to use Indian reservations as MRS sites has also been called "radioactive colonialism" and "economic blackmail." Thorpe adds
another phrase to the lexicon of discrimination: "environmental injustice."
By her example she refutes the typical excuses - such as a lack of money, resources, or knowledge - that often keep ordinary citizens from supporting (or opposing) a particular cause. She lives modestly on Social security, sharing a house with her daughter. Her office equipment was donated. And until she began researching nuclear issues she knew nothing about the subject.
Her knowledge in now considerable. Her goal for radioactive waste is three-pronged: "Leave it where it is. Secure it. Stop producing it. It doesn't make sense to produce something you can't safely dispose of." Instead, she proposes putting money in alternative energy sources - hydroelectricity, solar power, and wind power.
Calling herself a catalyst, Thorpe says, Unless tribes had someone like me out there to organize against MRS, they might have gone through with it. Fortunately, in cases like this, there is some old Indian lady like me who's pretty tough.
At a time when Americans reportedly feel angry at government and helpless about seemingly insoluble national problems, people like Grace Thorpe illustrate the ability of a single individual to effect change. Her brand
of grass-roots lobbying points up the need for more "big windy women" (and men) of all ages who are willing to be "pretty tough" in giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. They can make a difference. The Christian Science Monitor
Grace Thorpe's life experiences include:
WAC in WWII
National Congress of American Indians and the
U.S. Sub-Committee on Indians Affairs
Health Commissioner: Sac and Fox Nation
Tribal Court Judge: Sac and Fox Nation
Member of the Board of Directors of Nuclear Information
and Resource Service
Greenpeace American Indian Advisory Committee
member of Military Production Network
Presidential Delegate to the 1995 White House Conference on Aging
President and founder of NECONA
Lecturer: "Jim Thorpe-World's Greatest Athlete"
and "No Nuclear Waste On Indian Lands."
Her publications include: "The Jim Thorpe Family History" 1981
Chronicles of Oklahoma, Oklahoma Historical Society
GRACE THORPE RESISTANCE AWARD
When Washington targeted Native American lands as ideal sites for the
storage of toxic and radioactive wastes, they didn't realize they were up
against the Woman of the Power of the Wind that blows Up Before a Storm (No
Ten O Quah, Grace's Sac & Fox Nation name.) At her urging, in less than a
decade a good thirty tribes from over seventy reservations ranging from the
Mojave in the West to the Onondaga in the East - have created Nuclear Free
Circle Magazine, September 1, 1996:
"Women Who Make a Difference"
by Michelle Sheldone
Not since the Black
Hawk War of 1832, when the Sac and Fox Indians nation fought for its land, had the
Oklahoma tribe battles. But in 1992, 75-year-old tribe member Grace Thorpe launched a new
fight. The enemy: the Department of Energy, which had persuaded tribal leaders to allow
construction on tribal land of a storage site for highly radioactive material. The
Government was offering a carrot that could be worth $2.8 million . "They knew we
needed money," says Thorpe.
All 50 states had
turned down the proposal. "I thought about all that has happened to our people over the years," says Thorpe, daughter of legendary Olympian Jim Thorpe> "Every treaty we have made has been broken. I couldn't let this happen." To bolster her cause, Thorpe used research that indicated exposure to radiation raises the risk of cancer and genetic deformities. She learned that the hundreds of radioactive rods to be stored had the destructive power of 200 nuclear bombs. Armed with this information, she began a petition drive against the facility. In February 1993 the Sac and
Fox nation bowed to her pressure and voted against the site. Word of Thorpe's success moved quickly through the informal network known as the Moccasin Grapevine. In 1993, she founded NECONA (National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans) to fight nuclear dumping on Indian lands. Thanks to her efforts, 20 nuclear-free zones have been established on reservations and 14 of 17 tribes that had sought nuclear waste zoning have withdrawn their applications. "She's done an excellent job," says Oklahoma state senator Enoch Kelly Haney. Know as Notenoquah, or Wind Woman,
Thorpe also convinced
the International Olympic Committee to return the two gold medals that her father won in
1912, which were stripped from him because he had played semi-professional baseball. This
year she convinced the Olympic Torch Run to stop at the Oklahoma site where her father was born. Thorpe arrived for the
event in her car, with a license plate that reads, NO NUKES.
Las Vegas Review Journal, April 8, 1996
"Thorpe Battles Nuclear Waste"
by Keith Rogers
The daughter of a
legendary athlete tries to persuade American Indians to set up nuclear-free zones.
Like her father, the legendary athlete and Olympic champion Jim Thorpe, Grace Thorpe is on
a mission, but it's not to win the decathlon or become president of the National Football
League. Instead, Grace Thorpe, 74, of Oklahoma's Sack and Fox tribes, came to Las
Vegas last week to make a pitch for nuclear-free zones and spread the word among American
Indians that selling out to the Department of Energy to study nuclear waste disposal
contradicts native peoples principles on land stewardship.
"It doesn't make
sense that we produce something that we can't safely dispose of," she said, sitting
in the shade of the Department of Energy's office building on Highland Drive, where 80
anti-nuclear activists had rallied for a protest. "In the last 50 years, we've
tried everything. There's nothing, no way to dispose of it," she said.
Thorpe, a former aide
to the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, launched
her anti-nuclear crusade four years ago "when my tribe put in for a (nuclear waste) study grant." "I really feel if people don't agree with something they should do something about it," she said. So, through her organization,
the National Environmental Coalition of Native-Americans, Thorpe has tried to persuade other tribes to set up nuclear-free zones. She said she views nuclear waste and weapons testing as a cancer that American Indians must constantly grapple with even though the United States has extended its testing moratorium indefinitely. The last, below-ground nuclear detonation at the Nevada Test Site was Sept. 23, 1992. "People need to take a stand and tell the powers to be, 'This is it. We don't want it anymore.'"
Thorpe said she hasn't
always been a rebel toward the government's ways. She was a corporal with the Women's Army
Corps in World War II and was in New Guinea when the United States dropped atomic bombs on
Hiroshime and Nagasaki in Japan. "We were all delighted. We blew jeep horns and
whistles. We were told it stopped the war," she said. But her mind changed,
"after I got in
Japan and saw the rubble and the people. This is too horrible for anybody to do. Then I had a guilt complex. My country? We did this?"
During the Nuclear
Abolition Summit last week at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Thorpe reflected on her
famous father. She passed around a gold medal he won in the 1912 Olympic Games in
Stockholm, Sweden. Besides becoming the first athlete to win both the decathlon and
pentathlon, Jim Thorpe was a major-league outfielder from 1913 to 1919 and played on seven
professional football teams during a career that began in 1915.
Thorpe, in 1920, was
the first president of what later became the National Football League and was enshrined in
the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1951, two years before his death. At the summit,
Grace Thorpe said the government's nuclear business, especially its plans to transport and
store high-level nuclear waste on traditional Indian lands, is stirring controversy within
tribes. "It is pitting the young against the elders," she said. "It is also causing a rift
between traditionalists and elected (tribal) officials."
She also spoke about
problems facing Colorado River tribes because of plans for a low-level radioactive waste
facility near Needles, California. "The talk of bringing nuclear waste 20 miles
away in Ward Valley is scaring them to death," she said. She claimed that some
of the "very finest Indian organizations have been usurped by the Department of
Energy." She was referring to the $289,000 that Energy Department headquarters
spokeswoman Joanne Johnson confirmed was transferred to the National Congress of American
Indians for sharing information on nuclear waste issues that might affect American
This year, Johnson
said, $178,000 was appropriated for the National Congress on American Indians and the same
amount has been proposed for this year. The national congress represents 180 tribal
governments. Johnson said the money goes to Robert Holden, who runs the American Indians
waste issues office. The total does not include more than $1 million that was allotted
between 1991 and 1992 to 10 tribes to study hosting temporary, above-ground waste sites
where high-level nuclear waste would be stored until a repository is built. Scientists are
studying Yucca Mountain, 100 miles northwest of Las Vegas, to determine if it can safely
entomb 77,000 tons of the waste, potentially the most deadly material on Earth. It is the
only U.S. site being studied for a repository.
Thorpe said, "The
National Congress of American Indians say they would be out of business without that
money. I say it would be better to be out of business."