By: Ruth Rodriguez, Communications Intern
Pam Kingfisher, an experienced community organizer and advocate for Indigenous Peoples’ rights shared her experience for CHEJ’s Living Room Leadership series. Pam has over 30 years of experience in organizing and policy work, and has led the fight in shutting down 23% of the world’s uranium supply and fighting off unwanted poultry CAFO in her community.
Her father had a similar experience while working on a bomb in Hanford, Washington. In 1943, her father had the decision of going to war or helping build a bomb. He saw this as an opportunity to get out of Oklahoma and receive a better paying job for his family. Her mother and siblings made their way to Washington thereafter. The working conditions her father endured were harsh. As a child Kingfisher realized this and began questioning her world. One question she had was why she, a Cherokee Native, was always surrounded by white people. The other question was the reasoning and implications of the bomb her father was helping to build.
“Asking questions…that is the key of organizing…nobody wants to be an activist, you know, but we are questioning, and we are very curious, and we want to know why, and we keep pulling those threads and pulling that string.”
In 1985 she moved to her grandmother’s allotment land in Oklahoma. There she got involved with the community talking about the uranium facility that was going to deep well inject their waste. Jesse Deerinwater created Native Americans for a Clean Environment (NACE) and stopped the injection well. After, many in the community came to aid her in any way they could. Later, Deerinwater moved on and Kingfisher became the board chair for NACE.
The Sequoyah Fuels Nuclear Plant in Gore, Oklahoma was responsible for bringing in yellowcake uranium from New Mexico and turning it into uranium hexafluoride, used for fuel, and uranium tetrafluoride, used for the shelling of army tanks and bullets. Instead of dealing with toxic waste, known as raffinate and partnering with Monsanto, the facility created fertilizer that was spread onto 10,000 acres. As a result, a “happy cow operation” came about. New cows would need to be brought in every 3 months to replace those who had died. People were also becoming ill. Because of this, Thelma Moton, a local member of the community, created a cancer map of Gore, Oklahoma by going door to door and asking questions.
Because the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), who conducts facility inspections, had already been sued, Kingfisher and/or her associates were allowed to be on site when the NRC came to inspect the uranium plant. They had standing. Kingfisher said, “Even if you don’t win and it cost a whole lot of money it got us in rooms we never would’ve gotten in to.” During one of the inspections it was noticed that 3-month contract workers with no insurance or tracking were standing in and cleaning uranium tanks. On a Saturday night, an explosion occurred and the plant was not immediately evacuated. Later that same night, 350 people were fired and the plant was closed.
Although the plant was closed, the Cherokee Nation continued to have interest. Their eyes were now on the company conducting the cleanup. The company did not know where to put the waste and tried to get the state to allow them to leave the waste on site. The Cherokee Nation did not allow that and won a case forcing the company to move the waste to Utah.
“This is human health, this is public health. I don’t care what stripe you are. I do care that we all live in this place, and what are we passing on.”
After the plant was shut down and the case was won, Kingfisher knew she had to do something new. She felt exhausted and out of balance. She started working on Native women’s reproductive rights and health, food and agriculture. Kingfisher explained how food, farming, environment, and health were all the same category to her.
In 2017 her community noticed construction near the highway. Then in 2018 they realized the Simmons company out of Arkansas had a sort of poultry monopoly system going on. Workers received all their feed, propane, etc from Simmons. The poultry application was only $10 and they barely had to pay for water. 260 new houses on mega-barns were being created with 20 thousand more chickens in each barn. That is 400 tons of waste per day. The first study over the quantity of water in the local aquifer is currently being conducted. In a win, a megahouse next to an organic farm was shut down and taken off the market in 13 days after the Cherokee Nation bought it for $380 thousand.
Kingfisher cites how important gatherings like conferences are. From conferences, people are able to learn from each other, about different tactics that worked in other places, and network with people and groups like CHEJ. Additionally, garnering attention to the impacted people from her community was important in her fight. People affected by the uranium facility and poultry operation would be put on TV to speak on their negative experiences. Whether it was the family of the little girl that almost died from E.coli that came from a chicken house, or the grandfather talking about how his family was not able to have a birthday party due to too many feathers being in the pool. Cultivating your press and showing things that everyone “gets” and can relate to is important.
“The community can lead it even if there’s not a community when you begin, you create that community by being very inclusive and listening.”