Land Grab: What Happened on the Wind River Reservation?
HOST: As we just heard, the uranium industry may have a long way to go in earning back the public’s trust, especially on the Wind River Reservation. In 2010, the Department of Energy released well monitoring data from the Wind River Reservation. What they found was that uranium levels in a number of their wells had spiked up to 100 times the legal limit. In early May the Department of Energy released tap test results showing uranium levels nearly twice the legal limit, but later said the results were anomalies. It’s generally believed these problems stem from nearly 1.8 million cubic yards of radioactive waste left behind by the Susquehanna Western uranium mill that operated from 1958 to 1963. After a nearly year-long investigation, Wyoming Public Radio's Tristan Ahtone brings us this story on how the Susquehanna Western uranium mill got on the reservation, and the people it's still affecting.
TRISTAN AHTONE: The first time I met Mark Soldier Wolf he was sitting at his breakfast table drinking a Dr. Pepper, staring out the window at the white, Chemtrade sulfuric acid plant water tower. This part of the Wind River Reservation is fairly flat, and the tallest structure you can see on the landscape is the water tower.
MARK SOLDIER WOLF: Where you see the white tower? That’s my land.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf's wife looked out the window at the tower too, with a look that should have knocked the thing over, but it didn't. Then, Soldier Wolf took me down to see the land.
SOLDIER WOLF: At the water tower is where we used to have a corral and barns for our cattle and horses for the winter time, in case snow got deep, that’s where we could put ‘em. Then we had 10 acres of oats and 10 acres of soft barley for our chickens and birds and whatever we had.
AHTONE: The area is now fenced off. One: because it's private property owned by Chemtrade, and two: because it’s radioactive and off limits to the public. So Soldier Wolf and I looked through the cyclone fence at the sparse, flat land where the water tower, some small, squat buildings, and a few trees now stand.
SOLDIER WOLF: Right over here, right where this white building is there was a cemetery. Nine old, old warriors. So that’s where they buried them, and that’s where they used to bring in the uranium, right through here from out there, right through here.
AHTONE: For around 50 years now, Mark Soldier Wolf has been telling people that the Susquehanna-Western uranium mill outright robbed him of his land. An employee with the current landowner, Chemtrade, angrily disputes this notion.
AHTONE: In the summer of 1954 or '55 officials from the Bureau of Indian Affairs started coming to Mark Soldier Wolfs home.
SOLDIER WOLF: Realty department, Lynn Jenkins and Franklin Boyd… there was four people from the agency at Fort Washakie, and the superintendent, Arnston – he came and told me that the white people want your land, he said, "they’re gonna improve your land,” but he said “they want you out of here."
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says there were some other visitors from Riverton too. Newspaper men.
SOLDIER WOLF: Pecks. Bob Peck and his brother Roy. And man, I tell you they wanted that land so bad, they’d even send out cakes and pies, you know, trying to coax us to sign and this and that and make it easier. I wouldn’t do it.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says the group showed up again, a while later, but he says the second visit was different. This time, they offered money.
SOLDIER WOLF: They said “they’re going to offer you $50,000 dollars,” I said “Hey, I live off this land, my whole family lives off this land, we got different grains of grass for cattle, and horses, plus wheat and oats,” “well,” he says, “that don’t mean anything,” he said “they want your land, and we’re here to see that they get this land.”
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says there was a third visit, with a slightly higher offer of money, then a fourth and final encounter. They offered money for the last time, but Soldier Wolf said no.
SOLDIER WOLF: And then they said “well, Mark we’ve got a decree for you to read,” they said “you know how to read?” I said “no, I don’t know how to read,” “well,” he said, “we’ll read it to you.” So they read it to me: this and that, this and that, this and that. Toward the end that’s when it said that “this land is now under ownership of eminent domain.” And he said “as of this today, we want you out of here within 30 days or you’re going to the penitentiary.”
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says they tried giving him the letter, but he swatted it to the ground, perhaps in some hope that what the men said wouldn't be true if he just didn't accept it. Either way, that night his father came home and found the letter.
SOLDIER WOLF: Well he interpreted that letter to me and he said “you know what, Mark, I don’t want to tell you this, but you have to move out of here.” “What do you mean,” I said, “what about you?” He said “well I’m one of you guys,” he said, “we’re moving from this land, otherwise we all go to the federal penitentiary for not obeying this message.”
AHTONE: Winter was around the corner at that time, and moving by foot in a Wyoming winter would be considered nearly impossible by most. When the spring of 1957 came, the Soldier Wolf family packed up their belongings, and scattered across the reservation. Within the year the Susquehanna Western uranium mill had been built and was producing yellowcake, just a mile from where Soldier Wolf was forced to relocate to.
AHTONE: Mark Soldier Wolf was born in 1931. His birth name was Mark Duck Dewey, but was adopted at birth by his grandparents: the Little’s. Or Little Ants as they appear on some documents. His grandmother was known as Cassie, but in Arapaho was called Red Necklace, and his grandfather Charles was more commonly known as Soldier Wolf. Hence the name-change. Things were different on the reservation then. There were a few cars, Model-T's and Model-A's, but mostly wagons, horses and your feet for transportation. There were no houses or cabins of any sort, and the Arapaho lived along the rivers between generally what is now Riverton, all the way towards the Wind River Mountains. But life on the reservation was changing, and for Soldier Wolf, he noticed that change when he went to mission school.
SOLDIER WOLF: I was forced to go to school when I was 10 years old. We were forced to speak white and if we did speak Indian in these schools they’d take us away and they’d beat the hell out of us. And they’d take our clothes off and put us in certain rooms, and we’d stay there for about a day or two. Actually incarcerated in those little rooms.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolfs first language is Arapaho, but as he grew up, he learned what little English he could in school, and then, in the military. Soldier Wolf joined the Marines in 1948, completed basic training in California - then made his way through Japan, Guam, the Philippines and eventually, Korea, where he served directly under General Douglas MacArthur.
SOLDIER WOLF: Well I wasn’t just the only one, there was a lot of other Indian boys that was around him all the time ‘cause he considered the Indians the most fearless warriors.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf even crossed the 38th parallel into North Korea with MacArthur, fighting some of the bloodiest battles of the war with the General, before MacArthur was relieved of duty by President Truman. When Soldier Wolf returned to Wind River in 1952, he settled down and got married. He worked a number of odd jobs while he was home, ironically, one of those was helping prospectors search for uranium deposits - on the ground - with geiger counters and scintillators. Which became the first time he began to hear anything about a mill from one of the gangs he was working with.
SOLDIER WOLF: So they came over and asked me, he said “do you own this land on this land by the railroad track,” and I said “no, not really,” I said “I own land up to the corner. “Oh,” they said. “Yeah, yeah.”
AHTONE: As we now know, those conversations continued, and led to the acquisition of Soldier Wolfs land for uranium development.
AHTONE: Because land ownership is complicated business, especially in Indian Country, the only way to confirm Soldier Wolfs story is to recreate the story of the land. The Wind River Reservation is located in Fremont County and we were able to find some documents pertaining to Soldier Wolfs land in the County Clerks office: mortgages, leases, land patents… But two documents stuck out particularly: an irrigation repayment contract from 1957 selling four Indian allotments to Fremont Minerals, by Wind River Superintendent Arthur Arntson, so that the company would be responsible for irrigation costs. There was also a very official looking document granting a fee simple patent for those four same allotments to Fremont Minerals in 1958. Just in case you're not familiar with that terminology: a fee simple patent basically makes whoever holds the patent, the owner of the land and that owner can make decisions about what to do with the land without government oversight. An allotment, in this case, is a parcel of land assigned to individual Indians in the late 1800's and early 1900's, by the federal government, through something called the Dawes Act. Director of the Riverton Museum and historian Lauren Jost explains.
LAUREN JOST: Basically the idea was that Indian people could be assimilated into the greater culture if they functioned the way other people did, and one of the things that this Dawes act tried to do was provide Indians the opportunity to establish ownership of particular pieces of land.
AHTONE: On top of that, negotiated land cessions and homesteading became allowed in the early 1900's, which meant large numbers of non-native settlers flooded the area, and is why one can see checkerboard areas of Indian and non-Indian owned parcels of land on the Wind River Reservation and others around the nation today. To add another wrinkle, the Dawes act had a provision that would allow Native people the opportunity to establish ownership of their allotments.
JOST: The problem with the Dawes act was that people took advantage of it. I’ve heard many stories over the years where non-Indian people would go to a tribal member who had an allotment and try to make a deal for that Indians allotment and I’ve heard of people trading a bottle of whiskey for a piece of land.
AHTONE: In the documents we found in the Fremont County Clerk’s office, four, specific allotments established through the Dawes Act were transferred to Fremont Minerals: allotments 1611, 1613, 1558, and 1610. That meant we would need to establish original ownership of the allotments Fremont Minerals obtained, which meant a dig through the National Archives in Denver: about 50-thousand cubic feet of historical documents.
MARENE BAKER: I always think of it as that scene from the end of Indiana Jones and the Raider of the Lost Ark you know where they push the Ark into the library of congress where it’s just rows and rows of just boxes and boxes and boxes and boxes. I mean it’s a warehouse. It’s a warehouse of boxes.
AHTONE: Meet Marene Baker, an archivist at the National Archives in Denver.
BAKER: We hold the records for the majority of federal agencies in the Rocky Mountain region so that would be North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Colorado, Utah and New Mexico.
AHTONE: In the National Archives, we could trace the origin of those four allotments mentioned in Fremont County's records to what is essentially the beginning of paperwork in Indian country. Allotment 1611 was registered to Charles Little; Allotment 1613 went to Inez Little; Allotment 1610 became the property of Gabriel Hendricks; and allotment 1558 was given to George B. Wolf. Two of those people were Soldier Wolfs ancestors: Charles and Inez Little of allotment 1611 and 1613. Charles was also known as Soldier Wolf: Marks grandfather who adopted him, and who could be considered step-father of Scott Dewey, Marks biological father. There were a few other interesting documents we dug up too: On December 17, 1957, Wind River Superintendent Arthur Arntson wrote a lengthy letter to the Bureau of Indian Affairs area director in Billings about a negotiated sale between two Arapaho's on Wind River.
“Mark Dewey is one of the families forced to relocate as a result of the uranium mill at St. Stephens. His loan which has been approved, provides for the purchase of livestock and this 40 acres is very necessary in his operation”
AHTONE: Another letter addressed to Fremont Minerals from Wind River Superintendent Arntson in 1958 discusses a business lease that will need to be completed by company land owners and that may be living in the area.
“We suggest that you get some Arapaho boy to go with you, and very likely you can secure most of the signatures in a very short time, at any rate secure all the signatures of those residing on this Reservation. If any of the Lessors are off the Reservation and not available, please indicate opposite their names where they are, I.E., Oklahoma, Texas, Utah, Etc.”
AHTONE: Two other key points we learned were that Fremont Minerals changed their name to Susquehanna Western shortly after acquiring the four allotments, and that well-kept Tribal Council minutes showed that both the Shoshone and Arapaho tribes had at least discussed the possibility of a uranium mill as early as 1955 - albeit through a different company than Fremont Minerals - at the behest of Superintendent Arntson while Lynn Jenkins dealt with uranium prospecting and leasing on the reservation. If you recall, Soldier Wolf told us that both Arntson and Jenkins had come to his land in order to acquire it. However, the peculiar documents we found, really didn't tell us what we needed to know. How did Susquehanna Western get the land? Was there a smoking gun? Who actually sold or stole the land, and for how much and to whom? We had established that the Soldier Wolf family were the original owners, but even the National Archives' Marene Baker seemed at a loss.
BAKER: I know where to look and I know where to point you, and I’ve been looking and pointing in those directions and they’re just not there.
AHTONE: So did the records exist? Were they ever created? And if they did, who had them? According to Baker, sometimes no documents and no records is actually an answer.
BAKER: It’s not the answer you want, and the thing that you have to address is that you have to raise the question are the records there because they weren’t created? Or are the records there because they were lost? And those are two different questions with two different answers.
AHTONE: According to Baker, our likely last chance to find the documents we were looking for was the Bureau of Indian Affairs. So we called, faxed, emailed, sent official letters, harassed officials on a daily basis, made trips to BIA offices in both Billings, Montana and Fort Washakie on Wind River, and the verdict: hurry up and wait. So we waited. And waited some more. And when the Freedom of Information Act kicked in, we had to wait again. So in the meantime, we had to find another way to confirm Soldier Wolfs story in case we got a pile of paperwork that had been redacted, was unreadable or ultimately, unusable, or a strong possibility: no documents at all.
AHTONE: If there's a crime, there's a motive. To anyone driving around the Wind River Reservation where the Riverton site sits, there's nothing particularly special about the land. Mark Soldier Wolf, his relatives and ancestors, had farmed their allotments before Susquehanna Western built there. But why would the uranium millers pick that spot out of all other places on the reservation or in Wyoming, for that matter? For answers, I turned to Robert Gregory, a uranium geologist with the Wyoming State Geological Survery.
ROBERT GREGORY: From what I understand, it was chosen primarily because it was close to some ore deposits, primarily the gas hills, they were recently discovered at that time in the early ‘50’s. There were also deposits in Northern Wyoming.
AHTONE: According to Gregory, the Soldier Wolfs land also offered a number of valued items: an available workforce, access to highways and railways, and water. In other words, it's an ideal piece of land for a mill that was feeding the rapidly expanding uranium industry at the time.
GREGORY: It was originally started as a buying station where the A.E.C – the Atomic Energy Commission – would buy ore, and then they would take it elsewhere to process it into yellowcake, and then it eventually became a processing mill where they produced yellowcake as well.
AHTONE: In 1958, Wyoming had three authorized uranium mills, one of which was operating and two - including Susquehanna Western - were getting ready to start producing. With places like Susquehanna starting off as buying stations, Gregory says it was likely that operators at the Riverton site realized it would be more profitable for the company to produce yellowcake instead of just selling unprocessed ore.
GREGORY: If you have to ship ore itself, it’s costly to move the ore, but if you can dig it up – for example – move it from the gas hills to the Riverton site, and then leave all the tailings there, it’s just cheaper: you can produce the yellowcake and it’s got a higher value.
AHTONE: On top of that, the mill filled an economic need the state was desperately trying to fill at the time. In 1958, Roy Peck - one of the visitors Soldier Wolf claims approached him for his land - testified before congress on the need for additional government help to produce uranium for the nation’s growing atomic weapons arsenal. Introduced as "Mr. Uranium" by Wyoming Senator Frank Barrett, Peck told congress that public and private capital had been invested in exploring and developing ore, and that the industry had been encouraged to reach its present state of development at the behest of the Atomic Energy Commission. He also said:
“Our proven reserves in central Wyoming exceed 11 million tons. To mill this measured reserve in 10 years would require about 3,500 daily tons of capacity, or an additional 2,000 tons of milling capacity. This uranium reserve had been drilled out prior to November 1, 1957, and as has already been indicated, present proven reserve figures are greater than this and still growing.”
AHTONE: His takeaway message: without congressional support and action, the states uranium industry could collapse unless more milling capacity was granted by the Atomic Energy Commission, which had instituted caps for how much uranium could be milled in the state. As a result of pressure from industry, over a dozen mills operated around the state at different times, in order to feed the nation’s nuclear need. Again, Robert Gregory.
GREGORY: Nuclear power for electricity wasn’t so much the factor as was military purposes, you know, building atomic bombs. But they also knew that the power that could be gained from nuclear energy could be put to civilian use as well. But initially, like in the late 40’s, early 50’s, it was all about the nuclear weapons program.
AHTONE: In Wyoming, the uranium boom began when significant discoveries were found in the Powder River Basin in 1951, followed by finds in the Gas Hills, Shirley Basin and a number of other places around the state. At the time, uranium prices were set by the Atomic Energy Commission, primarily because the agencies nuclear weapons program didn't have enough ore, so prices were guaranteed to encourage people to go out and find deposits. Of course once the ore was found, it had to be processed. From earth to enrichment, uranium ore had to be dug up, turned to yellowcake, and enriched to weapons or fuel grade. Less than 1-percent of useable material naturally occurs in uranium deposits and for it to be used, it had to be purified up to 85-percent before it was weapons grade - which is known as U-235.
GREGORY: So you’re getting a little material out of a lot of rock, and then from that you have to enrich it down to weapons grade material, so it’s a lot of ore itself, to produce enough U-235 for a nuclear weapon.
That made Susquehanna Western the second stop in a long process from a rock, to a bomb that could level a city... and ironically, the mills construction offers another twist to Mark Soldier Wolfs story: Because jobs were and are scarce on the Wind River Reservation, Soldier Wolf eventually worked at Susquehanna Western moving the mills tailings onto the land it would eventually contaminate.
SOLDIER WOLF: They had four rows of tailings all the way from one, two, three, four different grades. Four different grades. And that’s why I used to work on the outside with a front-end loader, they were great big K7’s, caterpillar type.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf seems healthy today and shows none of the health impacts other uranium miners and millers have experienced around the country. Because he worked outside, he says he may have lucked out by only being exposed to the dust that came off the ore when it was brought in on trucks, to the plant, uncovered.
SOLDIER WOLF: My brothers and cousins and all those other guys, Indian boys from the local area, worked there, they had good money. Later on I learned that they were quitting because they were getting bad health.
AHTONE: Soldier Wolf says he remembers 12 Arapaho's who worked in the mill that later got sick and died.
SOLDIER WOLF: And one of them was my brother, his name was Eli. Elizar. And he died, for no reason at all. He just went to bed and didn’t wake up.
AHTONE: That was nearly 40 years ago. What we now know is what Soldier Wolf was seeing was radiation poisoning. Here's Doug Brugge, a professor at Tufts University School of Medicine.
DOUG BRUGGE: The fact that they were in danger was known, by the late 1940’s, it was clear that radon was the primary risk factor for developing lung cancer in underground uranium miners.
AHTONE: But, the difference between dangers for miners and millers is that there's not as much research on mill workers as those working underground digging the ore out of the earth. Even today, Brugge says there's nothing really conclusive.
BRUGGE: I still think that a reasonable person in that time frame would have said ‘these are substances that are hazardous in some other contexts, we should probably be concerned about them with regard to a mill as well.’
AHTONE: And because the U.S. Government was the only entity that could buy uranium, Brugge says when it comes to health, things could have gone differently.
BRUGGE: There is some substantial culpability that resides with the U.S. Government in my opinion because they ran the whole show and all they had to do was say “we’re willing to pay a little more and we expect you to do these extra safety precautions.”
AHTONE: Beyond that, Susquehanna Western may not have been operating at even a reasonable level of safety standards. Former High Country News reporter Marjane Ambler:
MARJANE AMBLER: It was pretty scary, the Atomic Energy Commission back as early as 1959 was telling the mill operators not to provide evidence of health problems or accidents or overexposure to radiation, for whatever reason.
AHTONE: In the 1980's, Ambler was working as a reporter for High Country News covering energy issues in Indian Country and specifically, health problems in Navajo uranium workers, and millers at Susquehanna Western on Wind River, when she was approached by a whistle blower.
AMBLER: I found a mill worker who had worked at Susquehanna Western by the name of Bob Haddenham, and Bob knew all along that something wasn’t right about the way the mill was being run. And so he saved all kinds of documents.
AHTONE: Things like a memo prepared by a consulting engineer for Susquehanna: Dr. G.V. Beard telling mill operators not to give employees copies of their radiation tests. When Ambler was approached, Haddenham was in bad health. His hair was falling out. He blacked out in the middle of sentences. And he had seen nearly everyone he had worked with at Susquehanna die.
AMBLER: The drinking fountains sometimes wouldn’t work, and when they took it apart they would discover that it was clogged with yellowcake.
AHTONE: Amblers reporting also found workers were given cloth respirators, but sometimes weren't cleaned and would still be caked with residue the next day they came to work. As well, some millers wouldn't wear them at all when working with the product.
AMBLER: One worker said he’d take a mandatory shower at work, but then when he got home, he’d take another shower and the whole base of the shower was yellow. So obviously the water they were taking a shower with at the mill was dirty.
AHTONE: Eventually, Mark Soldier Wolf quit working at Susquehanna Western, and after only five years in operation, so did the plant. They closed in 1963. When Susquehanna closed, those tailings - the crushed up rock that had gone through the chemical processing - was left behind on the land for nearly 30 years, out in the open, then dug up and reburied in the Gas Hills in 1988 when the Department of Energy deemed them to be hazardous. As he looks out over his old homeland from behind the cyclone fence, Soldier Wolf remembers moving those tailings around on his land with a front end loader before they got moved. But he also remembers something else that got moved when the DOE sent the 1.8 million cubic yards of tailings to its secure location 60 miles away: his relatives cemetery.
SOLDIER WOLF: I think there was about five families that were buried there and they dug those out too and put ‘em in the semi’s and took ‘em out to the Gas Hills on semi-trucks.
AHTONE: We were still waiting on documents from the Bureau of Indian Affairs, and still no closer to the truth about how Susquehanna Western got on Mark Soldier Wolfs land. If there was a crime, we had a motive: the land was an ideal place for a processing plant - but what we really needed was another eye-witness in lieu of documentation. Soldier Wolf claimed that Wind River Superintendent Arthur Arntson, Realty Department representatives Lynn Jenkins and Franklin Boyd, and Bob and Roy "Mr. Uranium" Peck came to see him, and after a lot of searching we found that everyone was dead. Except for one, and he politely introduced himself the moment I walked into his nursing room apartment.
LYNN JENKINS: My name is Lynn W. Jenkins. I am retired. I have been retired since ’83.
AHTONE: Lynn Jenkins is 92 years old. He lives in Lander, suffers from severe neuropathy, and according to Jenkins, in his lifetime he spent 20 years working for the post office, nearly a decade in the uranium industry, worked several years for the realty department on the Wind River reservation handling oil and gas leases and buying and selling Indian land, and when he quit his job with the tribes, served as foreman at the Susquehanna Western mill. As Jenkins recalls it, he remembers Scott Dewey, Mark Soldier Wolfs father, as the primary seller when Susquehanna, originally Fremont Minerals, came to Wind River to purchase the land in 1957. But in order to sell it, Jenkins says they had to get deeds to the land signed by all the heirs to the allotments.
JENKINS: That deed might have been circulating for three or four months before we get all the people. They were all over.
AHTONE: And did Jenkins go to that piece of land like Soldier Wolf claims?
JENKINS: Yeah, oh yeah! I went down to appraise it and they paid for it.
AHTONE: According to Jenkins, at the time, Indian allotments could not be sold by a Native person to a non-native person accept under a special provision: if an Indian came to Jenkins and could prove he was “competent” – in other words, prove he or she could pay taxes on the allotment and maintain it – Jenkins would issue that individual a fee-simple patent, meaning the holder of the patent owned the land without having to deal with government oversight. As Jenkins recalls, this process was used regularly to get people off of their land.
JENKINS: You know, the Indians weren't very much thought of back then, and get 'em off, and one thing another where we get the land under taxation. And that's how come you find white man and white land spotted all over the reservation. Those Indians got fee patents to their land.
AHTONE: In case you didn’t catch that, Jenkins said to get Native people off their land, the Bureau of Indian Affairs would issue fee patents, and then acquire the land to sell to non-natives when taxes weren’t paid. According to Jenkins, during his time working for the tribes realty department, his office found approximately 85-percent of the reservation "competent," which raises the question: how many of those competent Indians actually held onto their allotments?
JENKINS: I never knew of one success story the whole time I was out there for 10 years. We issued a lot of fee patents. I never found one success story. I used to say that it all sold for a bottle of booze.
AHTONE: Jenkins adds that that assessment isn't entirely true. He says sometimes individuals would get up to 15 to 20 thousand dollars for their allotment. In the case of Mark Soldier Wolf, his father, Scott Dewey, was a tribal council member, which meant that to the Realty Office, Dewey was seen as more than competent, and Jenkins says he worked with the BIA office in Billings and the Wind River Superintendent to secure his land.
JENKINS: We didn't have to go through that process because this sale had been approved all the way up, see? So all we had to do is to go from Scott directly to Susquehanna. We could by-pass the signing of a deed, and a fee-patent. And that's what we did.
AHTONE: In other words, Jenkins helped to negotiate a sale of the land between land owners and Fremont minerals. So did Scott Dewey actually ask Jenkins for a fee patent?
JENKINS: In essence he did, but in this particular case, the Peck boys and the superintendent and he were all in the same boat. There was no problem with him. He was very agreeable to it because he got a lot more money and he realized that.
AHTONE: As for the Pecks, Jenkins never made it very clear about their level of involvement. He had worked extensively with them searching for uranium during the boom, and as noted, they were heavily involved in the states growing industry. However, when it comes to Susquehanna, we're left only with conjecture. Again, Lauren Jost of the Riverton Museum.
JOST: Wouldn’t surprise me if they tried to buy it. Bob and Roy Peck were partners in the Riverton Ranger Newspaper and they were both avidly pro-development and their names became closely involved with the uranium industry. I know that Roy Peck spoke at the dedication of the Susquehanna mill when it was opened.
AHTONE: So what about the documents that we had found? The one that reads: “Mark Dewey is one of the families forced to relocate as a result of the uranium mill at St. Stephens.” I showed Jenkins the document and he read it back to me.
JENKINS: “Mark Dewey is one of the families forced…” Now who wrote this letter? J-E-N-K-I-N-S. Well what do you know? I wrote the letter. Why would I get away something like this? Is one of the families forced. Forced. Well, the families forced, that indicates that they went against their will, doesn't it?
AHTONE: I would think so.
JENKINS: That's exactly what it means, get the hell off of there. Forced, I would say vacate. He and his family had to vacate. Why? Because the land had been sold. They had sold the land. That's all there is to it.
AHTONE: Then if it was sold, where did the money go? Soldier Wolf says no one in his family ever saw a penny.
JENKINS: I've got a strong suspicion that if you follow the money trail, you'll find it leads right to Mark. My suspicion is strong. What has he to gain from it? He had no legacy, he hadn't a damn thing!
AHTONE: If you didn't think so before, this is where things get murky.
AHTONE: Jenkins' admitted role in the acquisition of land for the Susquehanna Western uranium mill ranks him as a definite person of interest. But we have to give the same amount of scrutiny to the Soldier Wolf family in this story. Indeed, Jenkins' signature shows up on nearly every single document we found, including the Freedom of Information Act documents the Bureau of Indian Affairs finally sent us. But in the documents, we also found Scott Dewey's signature - Mark Soldier Wolfs father - right next to Jenkins, as well as consents to sale from everyone in the family, including Mark Soldier Wolf. Meet Deb Donahue, professor of Indian law at the University of Wyoming.
Jenkins, and apparently Scott Dewey, talked to the owners of these parcels and got their agreement that they wanted to sell, and got them to fill out the forms, and the superintendent sent that information, all those documents, along with documentation that was required, to the area director, and then from the area director to the commissioner, and requested that BLM issue a patent to Fremont Minerals.
AHTONE: We gave the documents we found to Donahue to review, and her final analysis: nothing seems to be out of order or illegal about the entire sale. I'll repeat that: nothing in the documentation points to anything illegal about the sale of allotments to Fremont Minerals. However, Donahue adds that the sale does raise certain moral and ethical questions even if it doesn't raise legal issues. For instance, the issue of time-frame in which consent to sales were filled out: the time allowed for talking and negotiating with the land owners and getting them to sign away their allotments all happened in a matter of about two months. Donahue questions what kind of informed consent the Soldier Wolf family could have had given the circumstances.
DONAHUE: They didn't have attorneys, the time was so short, I saw one female her who had a high school education, one who had two years of high school education, and all the others had an eighth grade education.
AHTONE: As well, two heirs under the age of 18 signed consent forms to Fremont Minerals. So if we take Jenkins advice and follow the money? The BIA made no indication that that money was paid: no check stubs, and no trail to follow except for what the land was appraised for: 17-thousand dollars for 200 acres, and statements from the land owners about what they would use the money for.
DONAHUE: You know, to purchase a new home, purchasing machinery, household furnishings and that sort of thing. I mean, they get one lump sum from Fremont Minerals: a check for the total amount owed, and so BIA would have been responsible for divvying it up.
AHTONE: In other words, money may have been paid, but again, there’s no indication of it. So did people get checks? Or did they go to trust accounts? One thing is clear: over the years, the government did not keep very good track of money it paid to Native people. So who knows? On top of that, the amounts involved for the land in question weren't very much. Then there's one more issue with getting consent from the owners that's still at play today.
DONAHUE: They did not have full information because even the BIA didn't have full information. For instance: the potential for water pollution.
AHTONE: On review of the documents - for the sale to be approved, the Bureau of Indian Affairs had to be able to say there would be no water pollution. But what Donahue found is they weren’t sure.
DONAHUE: So the only thing they knew about the potential for water pollution was the companies statement that they didn't think there would be any.
AHTONE: Why is this? Because they never got a U.S. Geological Survey report about the potential for water pollution. So the BIA did not have the very documents and evidence that they needed to justify the purchase and building of Fremont Minerals -slash- Susquehanna Western – and moved ahead. Its unclear if that report ever showed up or was even authored since it wasn't included in the documents the BIA sent us.
DONAHUE: And yet at the same time, well actually before that on July 17th, Superintendent Arntson said that "we feel this conveyance will be in the best interest of the Indian land owners and the Indian people as a whole in the community and on the reservation." Well, what's happened since then puts that in a different light.
AHTONE: And what's happened since then is groundwater that's been rendered undrinkable due to uranium contamination, uranium showing up in tap water, spikes in contaminants being monitored by the Department of Energy, and a lot of reports of increased rates of cancer, thyroid disorders and birth defects in people and animals. However, in the case of Mark Soldier Wolf and his story of how the land went from his hands to Susquehanna Western, we're left with more questions than answers.
DONAHUE: It's an unsatisfying ending, I suppose for us, but probably not nearly as unsatisfying for the people who are directly involved. But it's probably not an atypical story in the history of Federal Indian law. Federal Indian law is not known for its certainty of predictability, or for that matter, the fairness of the results that it produces.
AHTONE: According to Donahue, nearly two-thirds of Indian allotees in the United States lost their land to non-natives, and even Jenkins said he had found about 85-percent of Wind River "competent" to own and sell their land, but never found one success story with the land they owned. There is one more thing: Mark Soldier Wolf. Did he and his family get compensated for their land? He continues to say no, and has offered to provide us with all information on his Trust Account to see if money was ever dropped in, and will initiate an additional request to the BIA to prove that he was paid, leaving the burden on the government to show that a check was cut to the family. In the meantime, we will see if we can track down the missing USGS report from 1957 on the potential for water pollution, and additional documents that may help us make sense of the problems Soldier Wolf and his community faces now that the mill is gone. For residents around the former Susquehanna Western uranium mill site, the events that brought the mill to the reservation may never be fully understood, and its leftover waste and contamination won't go away in their lifetime or perhaps even the next generation. For the rest of us, this event is over as soon as we forget about it, and look forward to the future development of uranium reserves around the state.