This module is tied to Dan O’Neil’s excellent text, The Firecracker Boys, which provides a lot of insight into the dynamics of the situation and the Role taken by Indigenous peoples.
Slide 2: It is crucial that people be able to think through issues and analyze what is being told to them. This is especially true with Indigenous peoples, because they have been lied to so regularly over the last 500 years. Another issue that emerges from this story is the issue of whether we should simply trust anything someone says is “Science.” There has been bias in Science since Aristotle claimed that men had more teeth than women and then refused to count his wife’s teeth to check his assertion.
Slide 3: Native Alaskans have an interesting history, and this case takes place around the time that Alaska became the 49th State in 1959. This meant that there were no treaties in place. To make matters more complicated, termination was the solution being enacted by the BIA and the federal government with tribes in the lower 48. This was a time when racism was still solidly entrenched in the south and Indigenous issues were being almost completely ignored. In this environment it was possible for the US to assume that northern Alaska was basically “uninhabited.”
Image shows State of Alaska with boroughs (counties) outlined in yellow and the area regarded as a homeland by the Tikigaq people outlined in red.
Slide 4: Point Hope, Alaska, more accurately known as Tikigaq, is the oldest continuously occupied human settlement in North America, going back a minimum of 1500 years, but is much more likely to be thousands of years older than that. The land points into the sea, towards Siberia, which is a part of geological North America separated by a shallow sea that used to be a wide cold prairie across which both humans and nonhumans wandered in both directions. As the northwesternmost part of Alaska, and thus of North America, Tikigaq was a landmark to the first Americans.
Slide 5: Tikigaq was also the site of one of the first obvious cases of Environmental (in)Justice, where Edward Teller and the US Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) decided that they were going to use nuclear explosions for “peaceful purposes” ostensibly to create a new harbor in NW Alaska about 30 miles SE of Tikigaq. This ignored the long history of this area and showed that at least in the 1950’s that the US scientific establishment ignored the existence of Indigenous peoples.
Slide 6: As in other cases we have presented the land itself is an important player in the situation and the Indigenous people speak for the land. In 1957, the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission [AEC] established the 'Plowshare Program' to "investigate and develop peaceful uses for nuclear explosives." In early 1958, the AEC selected a site at the mouth of the Ogotoruk Creek near Cape Thompson, approximately 30 miles southeast of the Inupiat Eskimo village of Point Hope. Shortly thereafter, they developed plans for an experimental harbor excavation to be called Project Chariot.
Of greater long range concern was the withdrawal of 4500 acres of land for a military reserve - an area encompassing the entire surface of Barter Island including the village and cemetery. As one Tikigaq villager described the event later on: "No one knew what this was about, or why. We were just told to move. "If I had known English then, as I do now, I would have fought to keep the village. We got nothing for having to move. It was not fair of them to do this."
Image shows the village of Tikigaq as seen from the air.
Slide 7: The harpoon line is the long thin beach that connects Tikigaq to the mainland. This the location of the community functions as a metaphor at several levels. Plans for Project Chariot basically ignored these people and their residence on the land
Slide 8: The Inuit claim that there are at least two species of Bowhead, such as this smaller greyish Inutuq, which does not have the pronounced bow of the larger forms. There are also a number of age, sex, and size classes of the large Bowhead. Inutuqs migrate by Tikigaq in April and early May, whereas Bowheads come in two waves, with non-breeders coming through in mid-May and larger males and breeding females in late May and early June.
Slide 9: This is important in comparing Indigenous Knowledge with Western Science. In the 1980’s, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) argued that Bowheads were endangered, but they missed most of the early migrations because they did not begin their counts until late May, when conditions were good for onshore observation and counting. Biologists working with the IWC claimed that there were only a few Bowheads and that they were endangered, but they did not start their counts until late May so they missed the first wave, which the local Yupiaq people were fully aware of. The Yupiaq protested that the biologists did not know enough and eventually their counts were accepted and the take was relaxed. It was later found that Bowheads are probably the oldest mammals on the planet, with some reaching an age of more than 200 years.
A good discussion topic can be whether people who live in an area and know everything about it have better knowledge than do scientists who only visit for short periods, but collect lots of “data”
Slide 10: Partly in response to broad popular opposition to the hazards of above ground testing of atomic weapons by both the U.S. and the USSR, the AEC had decided it could improve its public image by establishing a new program called `Operation Plowshare' - drawing on the biblical narrative in which swords were beaten into plowshares. From this "peaceful use of the atom" suggested the AEC, would come "a new age of atomic progress." Local people called these AEC scientists the Firecracker Boys because they reminded them of young boys playing with explosives.
Slide 11: In the 1950’s America was paranoid about the Russians and the idea that they might move ahead of us in science, especially in what was called the “space race.” This was the height of the Cold War and Americans were not even being taught science in schools, a phenomenon that many Christian academies have brought back. The AEC and Lawrence Livermore Laboratories wanted to come up with a big idea that would show American know how, and that Americans were still tops in the ability to employ nuclear technology. In all this pressure, Indigenous people and their rights simply got ignored.
Slide 12: Edward Teller, the Head of Lawrence Livermore Labs, and a member of the AEC, was the model for Dr. Strangelove, one of the characters played by Peter Sellers in Stanley Kubrick’s film of “How I stopped worrying and learned to Love the Bomb”, a “comedy” about nuclear war.
Teller told people in Alaska that "The blast will not be performed until it can be economically justified.” Gaining support of the press, Teller and his associates were less successful in getting a positive endorsement by the state's financial leaders. Some were doubtful of the commercial viability of mineral deposits thought to be available along the coast.
In the image Teller is the individual pointing at the Map.
Slide 13: It wasn't until the spring of 1959, after watching a local movie, that Point Hope residents were called to an impromptu meeting by a visiting missionary from Kotzebue and told that the rumor about the blast was true.
Although AEC officials excluded villagers from early discussions about Project Chariot, they did continue to promote it before Alaska's financial community and state legislature - knowing their support was essential to its successful implementation.
Slide 14: Teller and the AEC ran into problems concerning the “economic benefits” of the project. John A. McCone, the AEC's newly appointed chairman testified before the U.S. Congress Joint Committee on Atomic Energy, "We are seeking an alternative to the harbor in Alaska because, as I said to the committee once before, we couldn't find a customer for the harbor."
The image shows the proposed layout of 5 nuclear blasts: three smaller to create a channel and two larger to create the harbor itself
Slide 15: The Point Hope people were told that the fish in and around the Pacific Proving Grounds where the AEC had tested nuclear explosions, were not made radioactive by nuclear weapons tests and [there would not be]... any danger to anyone if the fish were utilized; that the effects of nuclear weapons testing never injured any people, anywhere; that once the severely exposed Japanese people recovered from radiation sickness...there were no side effects; that the residents of Point Hope would not feel any seismic shock at all from Project Chariot; and that copies of the Environmental Program studies would be made immediately available to the Point Hope council upon the return of the AEC officials to California.
The image shows a test in Nevada that was much larger in its effects than the AEC had predicted.
Slide 16: Some of the scientists working under contract with the AEC, strongly opposed Project Chariot and pointed out to the residents of Tikigaq how they were being misled by the AEC public relations people and the AEC’s “environmental committee” headed by an Ecologist, John Wolfe. One of the most effective of the AEC scholars with real integrity was Don Foote, the person who coined the phrase The Firecracker Boys after seeing a presentation in Alaska by the AEC. Don Foote was a young geographer who lived in Tikigaq for several years and worked closely with the villagers.
Slide 17: Not surprisingly, assurances that Chariot would not be a hazard to the subsistence way of life of the Point Hope people were sharply rejected by the village council. Immediately following the close of the meeting, the council voted unanimously to oppose detonation of the bomb.
This can lead to an interesting discussion of the role of village or tribal councils and how they represent their people.
Slide 18: William Pruitt was a wildlife biologist and an expert on Caribou, employed at the University of Alaska. He lived out on the tundra for months at a time and appreciated the lives of other beings who also lived out there, including humans. He was probably the toughest and most determined scientific opponent of Project Chariot and identified many misleading statements and outright falsehoods in AEC Environmental Committee reports and public statements. These actions cost Pruitt his job, but he stood up for Indigenous people and their non-human neighbors. 35 years later the University of Alaska invited Pruitt back to receive an honorary degree and an apology.
The roles taken by Don Foote, William Pruitt, and others can be seen as an example of how non-Indigenous people can stand with their indigenous relatives, even when it costs them in white society. A discussion can be held over the roles of non-Indigenous people in working with tribes. This can also be contrasted against the case of Conservation Refugees, which is also part of this curriculum
Slide 19: This idea about snowfall was a typical naïve assumption about the Arctic. People who have not been to the tundar assume that it is covered with heavy snow most of the year (after all it is cold up there). Snowfall (and rainfall) are quite low in the Arctic where weather is dominated by high pressure. The image shows an iglu built near Tikigaq. Notice that it is built of whalebone, wood, and earth, because there is not enough snow at Point Hope for a classic snow iglu
Slide 20: Dr. Brina Kessel and University President Hood claimed that the US Government “owned the data” from any work that they contracted for. This led to major controversy and ended up involving the ACLU, the AAUP. This image shows Kessel (in the center and the only woman present) doing a photo op with military personnel visiting Alaska.
This can be used as an opportunity to discuss the role of women in science and how difficult it was for women in the 1950’s. Dr. Kessel was not only the chair of Biology at the University of Alaska, but its only female faculty member. As such she was subject to considerable pressure from an all-male administration and an all-male AEC.
Slide 21: The Actions by Foote, Pruitt and Leslie Vierick, a forestry professor, of the University of Alaska informed the village council and their critiques grew more sophisticated from a scientific perspective. In fact their arguments were more substantive that the material presented by the AEC Environmental Committee. This is what Kessel and Hood were trying to suppress because they worried that federal funding would be cut off if they opposed the AEC.
Finally in 1961, the village appealed directly to President Kennedy to save them.
Slide 22: The People of Point Hope and other North Alaskan villages all feared that the successful detonation of a large nuclear "device" at Cape Thompson would cause serious health hazards, immediately making the region and their way of life untenable. Fortunately their appeal to President Kennedy and Secretary of the Interior Stuart Udall was successful.
Slide 23: Notice that the only nuclear test in Alaska was on Amchitka at the end of the Aleutian archipelago. Project Chariot was stopped, but what is interesting is that nuclear tests are an important EJ issue because virtually all tests take place in areas where human populations are sparse, which usually means they are inhabited by Indigenous peoples.
This relates directly to the issues of nuclear waste storage as well, which is also addressed in our modules on Yucca Mountain and the Mescalero Apaches. Students might want to use this map to look at other indigenous peoples who live in areas subject to nuclear testing, especially in Siberia, which is discussed in our course on Siberia
Slide 24: This entire module can be used to discuss Indigenous sovereignty and autonomy issues and also the political and social influences that Indigenous people can demonstrate.