Catastrophic Effects of Nuclear Testing on Native American Lands: The ‘Downwind’ Documentary

The award-winning movie ‘Oppenheimer’ directed by Christopher Nolan won five Golden Globe awards. It deals with the historic atomic bomb attacks on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 in Japan. However, an important documentary ‘Downwind’ about nuclear devastation on Shoshone Nation land within the U.S. borders has not been given the same attention. Both were released around the same time.

The co-director, Mark Shapiro of ‘Downwind’ who lives in Portland, Oregon, spoke to Lillian Karabaic, host of OPB’s “Weekend Edition,” regarding the documentary. Ian Zabarte, who lives in Las Vegas, joined them for the discussion. Zabarte is from the Shoshone Nation of Indians. As the Principal Man of the Western Bands, he features prominently in the documentary. The discussion centered on the tragedy that was behind the documentary.


In a nutshell, ‘Downwind’ depicts the devastating health effects and deaths as a consequence of secret nuclear testing that was conducted near Las Vegas. Between 1951 and 1992, the U.S. government detonated more than 900 nuclear bombs in secret on tribal lands. It affected the Shoshone Nation of Indians, in particular, who lived downwind from the testing site. Zabarte is deeply invested in this documentary, as he lost several family members through radiation exposure. He also witnessed the health failures and deaths of others.

The directors of ‘Downwind’, Mark Shapiro and Douglas Brian Miller, discovered how the U.S. government used tribal land about an hour away from Las Vegas as a secret testing site for nuclear weapons. The testing of nuclear bombs was not only done in secret, but there was no regard for the consequences for the communities downwind, which were devastating. The film reflects on the government’s role in this unprecedented secret nuclear testing and its outcomes.

The fact that, for forty years, the U.S. government tested nuclear weapons that affected nearby communities was enough inspiration to make people aware through film. They were testing hundreds of nuclear weapons that were, in some cases, larger than the combined effects on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is a good enough reason to make ‘Downwind’ a priority watch.

One of the most important underpinnings of the film is that these tests were all done in secret. The government did this despite the treaties that were signed in 1863 between them and the Western Shoshone, or the Western bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians. Zabarte regards this as completely contrary to democracy.

The idea behind the treaties was to bring the country together during a difficult time. At the time, everyone worked together with the North and the Union to fight the South. In the current era, the Indian nation’s resources and territories still help to keep the country great. All the tribes, including the Shoshone people, and the treaties they signed bind the country together. This documentary, ‘Downwind’, can contribute to spreading the historical facts of the nation but also highlight the plight of the indigenous nations.

Even though the intentions of the treaties were meant to bind the country together, there are those who violate, abuse, and exploit the Native Americans. These violations, abuses, and exploitation cannot be ignored because they are inherently racist. It includes this devastating highlight of this incredible violation of tribal land through this secret nuclear testing.

There was no regard for the people of the land. Zabarte reiterated that it is tantamount to racism. Further, he said, “We can’t let it go. It is a serious matter because it is killing my people, my family, and my land. It is all done in secret, and killing my people will not stand.”

The Atomic Energy Commission picked this site specifically for racist reasons. Their reason for picking the site was that people living nearby were, as they put it, a “low-use segment of the population.” Besides this element of racism, it is also possible that one could, therefore, ascribe genocide to this secret testing. It did not matter how many people died as a result.

The government came into the land, built, and developed the nuclear facilities without the consent of the indigenous people. The Nevada Test Site, in particular, violated the rights of the Shoshone Nation of Indians. One thing that is evident is that even if they had treaty access to the land, they certainly did not have access for nuclear testing.

No one, especially the downwinders, was aware of what they were doing. Even though the Shoshone Nation of Indians was deeply affected, the downwind health consequences of the radioactive fallout can affect everyone. It is even worse if people are not aware of these tests, such as in the case of the Shoshone.

As an 18-year-old, Zabarte experienced the consequences of secret nuclear weapons testing firsthand. There were numerous unexplained deaths on the Great Basin reservation where he lived. Seeing the devastating impact on the health of his own people caused anger and confusion, especially if you found an overt reason for it. He describes the horrifying incident of how his grandfather’s skin just fell off. It slowly dawned on them that the health issues on the reserve were directly related to the secret nuclear tests in Nevada.

On top of the anger and confusion, the United States Bureau of Land Management, instead, blamed the Shoshone ranchers and their livestock for destroying the land. No remorse or willingness to stop the testing was evident. Rather, as compensation, the U.S. government initiated the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990 with benefits worth $50,000 for the ongoing health effects. Zabarte highlights the fact, though, that tragically, these secret tests not only affect the Shoshone Nation of Indians but everyone in their path.

It is further tragic that Darwin Morgan, the 1996–2021 Nevada Test Site public relations director, touts the “successes” of these tests in the form of winning the Cold War. He even went so far as to attribute it specifically to the Nevada Test Site. There was not even a hint of remorse. Winning the Cold War was far more important than the lives of a “low-use segment of the population.”

According to Shapiro, the tragedy lies in the irresponsible and unforgiving nature of the tests. It is also ironic that so many bombs were detonated (928 times) in order to deter other countries, such as Russia, from using nuclear weapons. In the documentary, Mary Dixon reflects on the matter of how many tests are too many. One test is already too many, but continuing to set off 928 cannot be overlooked.

According to Mark Shapiro, the matter is compounded as the government intends to end the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act by June this year. For its purpose, the $50,000 is helpful. Hopefully, Congress will extend it. The hope is also that ‘Downwind’ will draw attention to what is still going on at the Nevada Test Site.

The ‘Oppenheimer’ film draws attention to the consequences of nuclear fallout. The hope is that ‘Downwind’ will draw people’s attention to the ongoing activities at the Nevada Test Site on Shoshone Nation land. It impacts not only the Shoshone Nation but everyone. Ian Zabarte has stated that everyone is a downwinder.




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