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updated 6/9/2005 5:47:36 PM ET 2005-06-09T21:47:36

The drive in the Cave Hills area along Highway 85 in northwestern South Dakota provides a sight of one of the unique qualities of the prairies. Popping up off the floor of the Plains are grass-covered cone structures looking like party hats discarded by giants in another time. A little further north and flat-topped tables are overlaid with grass, their sides rippling with multicolored layers of soil like the folds of a patterned tablecloth. Then the larger Cave Hills areas rise up on the horizon, their tops covered with lacy shawls of the dark vegetation of pine.

Ludlow is what many people call ''a blink of an eye'' on the highway, even though it appears on the map. Ludlow consists of a cafe with a bar whose cook could easily boast at making the best ''bachelor fries'' in the area. It would be easy to see how an old-fashioned country wedding dance could take place in the large room directly off the eating area. Pool tables, pinball machines and a small stage with a big dance floor have probably provided many a merry night for the locals.

Large earthen table
Directly across from the cafe is a fairly new school building and playground. The sounds of children's laughter could easily be imagined. How fortunate are the children able to attend such a school and play with a beautiful view all over except when you look directly north. The view there is of a large earthen table that has a dirt and gravel road leading up to it.

The wind seems to blow incessantly. Its dehydrating effect is probably the reason why there are no bushes or trees around the school. Little whirlwinds pick up the dust and sprinkle it around, stinging the eyes as the dust spirals out on its way back to the ground. Country kids don't notice things like that. They just close or squint their eyes and continue their games, wiping their noses on their sleeves to get out the dust, ignoring the grit between their teeth.

Standing in the parking lot of the cafe on the west side of the highway across from the school, one can easily see how the top of the table also slopes to the north.

At first glance, it appears natural. But for someone used to the Plains and seeing earthen tables and their consistent flat tops, suddenly the realization hits that the slope is not natural. The sedimentation flowing off the sides is not natural either. There is no vegetation on it and it has a gray color instead of the multi-layers of pinks, tans and browns.

This table is the remnant of an abandoned, exposed uranium mine whose dust has been covering the school for decades. Yet the children of this area of Harding County still attend classes and play in the playground, oblivious of the radioactive menace they breathe, rub in their eyes and kick up with their shoes.

‘Life givers’
Maka Unci Ina is the name of our Mother and Grandmother Earth. Women are like her. Women are called ''life givers.'' No, women do not create life, but they can give life. Life develops inside of them. Also, some women are mothers and grandmothers at the same time, raising grandchildren for many reasons.

Good mothers and grandmothers nourish their children physically, emotionally, mentally and spiritually. Maka Unci Ina does the same for all of her children: the trees, the birds, the animals, the insects - even the humans. This understanding, knowledge, thankfulness of how she does this is consistent with indigenous peoples throughout the world ... for those who journey out of colonized thinking.

Men are always wondering about women. They say they don't understand women. They say women are an enigma. And although some men may study women in colleges and universities as well as in life, women are still a question to most of them. The truly smart men just accept that women are different than men.

Yet, some men think they understand women and some think they understand Maka Unci Ina. They don't. Not Her (with a capitol H). And just like some men never ask for directions when traveling, these same men would not think of asking the old cultures how to live with Maka Unci Ina either. This creates situations like what is happening at Ludlow school.

Whoever cut off the top of the table just north of Ludlow school and threw it over the edge of the bluffs to reach the uranium ore was not thinking of the radioactive dust those children would be breathing: dust that creates lung and brain cancers. Yet archeologists say that the area has been used by indigenous peoples for more than 13,000 years - the Sioux, Mandan, Hidatsa and Cheyenne, among others. These ancient peoples consider the nearby Cave Hills sacred and that knowledge has carried down to today. But there are places in the Cave Hills that only certain beings should enter. This is also a part of the old understanding of Maka Unci Ina and spirituality.

Radioactivity is a part of Maka Unci Ina, a part that modern men did not, and still do not, understand. She is an enigma that some human beings will never understand. Just like oil and methane gas are also a part of Her and necessary for Her health, so too is the radiation. Yet in their elitist arrogance, there will be those who will try to dig for that ancient information.

There will also be those who will bombard more traditional, local, indigenous peoples with questions, looking with disdain upon the queried when they do not receive the answer they think they should. There is much more to Maka Unci Ina than human beings will ever understand. We just need to accept that.

Radioactive dust
Because of the shortsightedness of a few human beings in search of money to satisfy their greed, many innocent people have suffered and are today suffering. The radioactive dust from more than 87 mines in this sacred place has been carried across South Dakota for more than 40 years - and that doesn't include what has been and is being carried downstream in water runoff.

Logic dictates that those living closer to the mines receive more exposure to dust and radiation. These are mostly ranchers. So does this not also mean that cattle, buffalo and other wild game that eat the dust-covered grass and drink the contaminated water will also be more likely to ingest radioactive material? Will they carry cancerous tumors that are passed through the food chain to humans?

Are the deer and antelope that travel throughout the region, down to the Black Hills and across the Wyoming plains, also radioactive? What about the birds, butterflies and other winged insects that migrate through this area? Do they know how to read signs that say: ''Radioactive material. No camping. Do not be in this area more than 20 hours per year''?

Unfortunately, this problem is not found just in northwestern South Dakota. A map of uranium mines and prospects from the U.S. Forest Service shows hundreds of mines in northeastern Wyoming - mines whose dust is also carried by westerly winds directly to South Dakota. Of course, Nebraska also receives this same dust. These two states are a big part of what is called the ''breadbasket of the world.'' This is where the clout comes in.

Congress needs to allocate a couple of billion dollars - yes, billions - to the Superfund program to clean up all of these abandoned uranium sites, penalize and collect damages from whoever is responsible, and help those with health problems.

Congressional representatives from the Midwest need to raise strong voices, and their staff members must begin drafting legislation for emergency studies to clean up the water, vegetation and livestock, and address the health concerns of human beings. Iowa, Kansas and other states along the Missouri River that receive the dust had better wake up as well, as the runoff has been flowing down that river for a long time.

Or will more shortsightedness prevail? Will the enigma that is Maka Unci Ina cause arrogant men (and sometimes women) to bypass logic and continue to allow the radioactive pollution of the ''breadbasket'' of the world? Is it not time to stop the insanity? Who will rise to fight this giant mess that was left when shortsightedness ruled the world and nuclear energy was thought the panacea for all our needs?

Charmaine White Face is a freelance writer and member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, or the Oglala band of the Tetuwan Oceti Sakowin (Lakota speakers of the Great Sioux Nation). She may be contacted at cwhiteface@aol.com.

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