Oppenheimer Overlooks Native Americans

Native Americans have been on the frontline of U.S. history from the beginning. This country is so intertwined with Native issues that stories can hardly be told without a thread of impact to Indian Country. But “Oppenheimer” missed the opportunity.

Native American thought leader on "Oppenheimer"

I like Cillian Murphy as an actor and am sure he helped “Oppenheimer” become one of the top grossing WWII biopic films domestically. It’s a boost the film industry needs amid their writer and actor strikes. Unfortunately, the film leaves out some greater truths, the American legacy of developing the first atomic weapon and the role of Native Americans.

The impact of mining for enough uranium to create the atomic bomb is well documented. In fact, the movie was released just five days after the 44th anniversary of the Church Rock uranium spill. That one spill poured 94 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Pureco River. Radioactivity was 7,000 times above the level deemed safe for drinking water. This substantially impacted Arizona, New Mexico and 14 areas around Church Rock – a chapter of the Navajo Nation – and is still poisoning Navajo lands 44 years later.

Uranium Mining on Native American Lands

Few people realize just how much uranium mining has been done on Indian lands. Even today, tribal citizens have a high incidence of radioactive exposure, health/birth defects, and cancer correlated to mining site contamination. Since the 1940’s, the mining companies and Federal government have done little to clean up, protect or compensate Tribal communities from exposure to the tailings left behind.

The Yakima, Colville, Nez Perce, Coeur d’Alene, Spokane, Kalispell, Umatilla, Klickitat, Havasupai, Paiute, Navajo, Hopi, Western Shoshone, Oglala Lakota and Cherokee all have been harmed by mining. It has a long-lasting impact on the environment, the ecosystem and Native families.

Every Native Family Has a Story

It’s rare to find a Native family that mining hasn’t impacted. For my family, it’s my wife’s second cousin, Bobby McKelvey (Cherokee). He was in Utah during the original atomic bomb testing by J. Robert Oppenheimer. After having served our country in the Navy, Bobby developed brain cancer. He received the limited medical treatment available and was sent home to die. Bobby was only 23.

When sharing their Hollywood story, my hope is that the makers of “Oppenheimer” can find space for some Native American context and help America become more Native Aware™.

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