WARD VALLEY, CALIF. — Hundreds of butte-desert miles from any sizable town, a pro-test is building. A lone-Indian chant is punctuated by scuffling feet and shaking rattles, while demonstrators lift hand-held signs: "Low-level dump/High-level hazard" and "We can't pick up and move like others can."
The scene has played out in scores of settings across the West, ever since the United States government targeted Indian reservations in the late 1980s as favorable sites for nuclear and other waste disposal. But this protest, like many of the others, includes a new element that is tipping the balance in native Americans' favor: the spirit of collective empowerment nudged forward by modern technology.
"We are seeing the result of years of coalition-building coming together with the aid of new ways to communicate to very remote, rural populations," says Tom Goldtooth, founder of the Indigenous Environmental Network.
Leaning over the hood of a faded blue Chevy, Mr. Goldtooth works a bank of portable cell phones with the urgency of a lobby receptionist. He directs protesters at two base camps a mile away; he choreographs the arrival of tour-bus-size contingents of sympathizing tribes from
High-Tech Tools Nudge Indians Into a New Era of Activism
Texas to Oregon. He fields questions from the press about the protest in front of him, as well as one he just left in New Mexico.
Using cell phones, fax machines, and the Internet, a national native American movement is coalescing, helping disparate tribes communicate, educate, mobilize, and stand up for themselves.
From New York to Washington State and from Florida to California, coalitions made up from 552 federally recognized tribes are demanding enforcement of existing laws and the creation of new ones. Via phone or e-mail, they are asking far-flung tribes to show up at protests, write to local and national lawmakers, send money, appear at hearings, and visit Web sites to bone up on issues and strategy.
"This is a sea change in the way tribes see themselves as activists on issues ... from environment to health care," says John Dossett of the National Congress of American Indians in Washington.
Native Americans' connections with one another - and with the rest of the world - have grown exponentially in the past 25 years. Back then, Alaska tribes were not aware of major federal legislation affecting them until a year after Congress passed it, Mr. Dossett says. "Now they know what each other is doing and can lend support in dozens of ways," he says.
The trend toward intertribal solidarity and activism got a big push between 1990 and 1993, when the hazardous-waste-disposal industry began targeting Indian reservations as potential dump sites for high- and low-level radioactive waste. From the companies' perspective, reservations have the advantages of being exempt from many state and local environmental regulations, are often far from population centers, and need income. Nationally, unemployment is 37 percent on the 56 million acres of land held in trust by the US for Indian tribes.
In response to such efforts, 25 tribes met in 1990 at the first Protecting Mother Earth Conference in Dilkon, Ariz. The next year, Goldtooth founded the Indigenous Environmental Network with members from nearly 50 tribes, and other coalitions have followed.
Besides a string of victories in slowing or stopping illegal waste dumping at remote sites, native American coalitions have halted archaeological digs at sacred Chumash burial sites in California, blocked a highway abutting Seneca land in northeast New York over state taxation issues, and forced the shutdown of a coal-burning power plant and cyanide-leached gold-mining operations in Montana.
One of the most publicized victories for the Indians came in 1993, when 30 tribes used railroad ties, barrels, and fencing to block US efforts to dump sludge on the Torrez Martinez reservation just south of here.
The new tribal solidarity has also won greater attention from government officials. The US, for example, has appointed formal liaisons to interact with the tribes as the sovereign nations they are, much as it does in its dealings with state and county entities.
"The movement of native Americans to communicate among themselves and fight with a louder voice has really taken off in the last few years," says Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University.
The communication hurdles are high, he says. About two-thirds of the nation's 1.9 million native Americans live on rural reservations. Despite the economic gains from Indian gambling enterprises, the vast majority of tribes have fewer financial opportunities and a lower quality of life than does American society at large.
Here in isolated Ward Valley - where Nevada and Arizona meet California - more than 30 tribes from a dozen states are laying plans this week to stop test drilling by the US Interior Department. The department says the tests are needed to determine if Ward Valley is an appropriate site for a nuclear-waste dump.
"Throughout our histories we have not always seen eye to eye on everything with other tribes," says Gjrjle Dunlap, newly elected chairwoman of the Chemehuevi Indians, many of whom have come to protest at Ward Valley along with nearby tribes. "But we have seen that if we do not stand together for this issue, we all lose."
In another California case concerning Chumash burial grounds threatened by developers near San Simeon, Calif., members of several tribes have appeared at protests and hearings as far away as Ventura County. Such tribes include the Salanian Tribe, the Hollister Tribe, and Esalen Tribes of northern California.
"We did extensive research about our rights and customs and presented it in unison; it was very powerful," says Quili Coe, a spokeswoman for the Chumash Indians. "Our opponents have been much more willing to take us seriously and try to understand us as a network than as individual tribes."
Mobilization of multiple tribes on a wide range of issues includes activists once considered out on the fringe. Vernon Foster, executive director of the American Indian Movement's Arizona chapter, brought members of several tribes to Ward Valley to advise local tribes in the event of physical confrontation with local law officials.
"Now we are in the era of high-tech attack," says Mr. Foster, sitting in a Chevy Blazer at a support camp for the Ward Valley demonstration. For Foster, an earlier 15-day standoff with federal authorities on Torrez Martinez tribal land just miles south of here was a turning point in tribal solidarity.
Foster says the new solidarity has helped win public-relations and legal battles from Minnesota to Arizona over the term "squaw," often used to name geographical sites from parkways to mountain tops. In Minnesota, the term - which native Americans consider to be derogatory - is banned, and in Phoenix, officials are voluntarily changing the name of a nearby mountain as well as of a highway that cuts through the city.
Tribes have also united to stop archaeological digs on sacred burial grounds area, he says.
"In the 1970s and 1980s, Indians were protesting on the outside of courthouses and legislatures," Foster says. "Now we are being taken inside the courthouses all the way to Congress."
Some of this newfound networking includes Indian efforts to gain access to official corridors of power - via the controversial practice of using tribal dollars to make contributions to political parties and candidates. Indeed, Interior Department chief Bruce Babbitt is currently being investigated for his decision to disallow a tribal request for a gambling venue that was opposed by another, some say more politically connected, tribe.
Back at the grass roots, meanwhile, the fight over nuclear-waste disposal has been as much internal as external. Tribes have stood to gain hundreds of millions of dollars if they would agree to allow the US to bury nuclear waste on their land. But so far, all have resisted.
"Due to networking, among the more than 500 Indian nations that were approached, only a handful even considered [the proposal]," says Bryan Angel, executive director of Green Action, an environmental activist group. "Most of those who considered it voted it down after pressure from the coalitions that have been formed. Considering the lure of incredible sums of money for very poor tribes, that is amazing."
Not all native Americans, however, see greater unity among Indian nations. Carey Vicente, former chief judge of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe, says, "My impression, living on a reservation for the last several years, is that there is not much of an effective activist movement." He mentions a decade-long protest of uranium strip mining near the Grand Canyon.
Likewise, Shoshone Indians in Nevada have spent more than a decade enlisting the help of 25 Nevada tribes to protest the Yucca Mountain site as the burial grounds for spent nuclear fuel - without victory in stopping the project.
"It's been a nightmare dealing with the bureaucracy of the federal government," says Anita Collins of the Nevada Indian Environmental Council. "They really don't understand how to communicate with native Americans."
But that may be changing, according to Commanche leader LaDonna Harris, director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, one of several Indian coalitions in Albuquerque, N.M. The Pentagon, which has been the target of many Indian protests over abandoned munitions dumps and bombing areas, is creating a formal liaison to deal with tribal issues.
"The DOD has seen the light and is beginning to educate itself about what tribes are all about, what our rights are," says Ms. Harris. "That is a major turnaround - and it's indicative of what's possible in a whole new era for native Americans."