Native Sun News: Lakota grandmother debuts film about uranium

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health & Environment Editor. All content © Native Sun News.

Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume stands at Cameco Corp. uranium mine field 30 miles south of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, in Nebraska. Pollution from the site, which is located at the base of the sacred Crow Butte and named after it, inspired her film “Crying Earth Rise Up.” Photo courtesy Crying Earth Rise Up

'Crying Earth Rise Up’ premieres
By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
Health & Environment Editor

CRAWFORD, Neb. –– Lakota grandmother Debra White Plume didn’t set out to become a filmmaker. It never crossed her mind. She had no training in film school, yet she spent the past seven years of her life doggedly making a feature documentary that premiered just in time to serve its purpose.

“Crying Earth Rise Up,” a compelling case for preventing further uranium mining, showcased in Crawford, Neb., on Aug. 6 and 13, providing audiences with a panel of experts to discuss the issue immediately prior to the opening Aug. 24 of federal hearings on contested applications by Canadian mining giant Cameco Corp. for renewal and expansion of permits at nearby Crow Butte in situ leach operations.

“Making a documentary seemed the logical way to describe the issue, which is complicated and important,” said White Plume, founder and director of the non-profit Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way), which has raised money to help her intervene in the permit hearings of the Atomic Safety and Licensing Board (ASLB).

Owe Aku, a grassroots organization that seeks to protect “the coming generations' right to live as Lakota people,” is based at Manderson, on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, 30 miles north of the Crow Butte mine fields.

The Crow Butte Resources Inc. uranium mine in Nebraska, about 30 miles south of the border of the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo from Nuclear Street

In 2007, Owe Aku, as well as the Oglala Sioux Tribe, filed for “intervener” status in the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s ASLB license renewal process initiated by Cameco Corp., the largest uranium producer in the United States.

They also filed for and received intervener status in ASLB hearings on a permit for another Canadian company to open Dewey-Burdock uranium mine site 50 miles west of the reservation. The company was later bought by Azarga Uranium Corp., based in China.

Both projects involve mining uranium by dissolving it with acid in the underground water tables where ore is located – a process called in situ leach, or ISL, recovery. The dissolved solids are dried and processed into yellow cake at the mine field site, then shipped away for use in nuclear power plants.

“After talking about it for so many years, showing a film with experts explaining the impact to water was more thorough,” White Plume told the Native Sun News. She has been working to defend the water of the Lakota homeland from uranium mining for 27 years.

A call to action for the hearings on the Crow Butte uranium mine in Nebraska. Photo from Facebook

Uranium mining companies require exclusive rights to millions of gallons of water for decades. The groundwater in which they mine must be declared exempt from federal drinking water quality protection standards to allow the ISL process, the movie explains.

After mining is done, it notes, the water must be cleaned of toxic heavy metal byproducts released into it, then injected back under the surface or dumped on land.

However, it is not only the experts interviewed in the movie, or those who sat on the panel at the premiere, who convince viewers of the need to deny uranium mining permits.

It is the story portrayed of the poignant plight of one Lakota family who has reason to believe that water contaminated by uranium mining is the cause of serious birth defects suffered by its lovely 9-year-old daughter Laila.

Laila and Elisha Yellow Thunder appear in the film. Still image from Crying Earth Rise Up

The Yellow Thunder family’s search for answers about mining’s role represents that of many Lakota Territory families who find their age-old way of life under attack.

Mother Elisha Yellow Thunder recalls how, as a parent, she initially blamed herself for Laila’s missing kidney.

“I didn’t want to blame Mother Earth,” she says. But the fact is Elisha lived in Loneman, one of South Dakotas “hottest spots for radioactive water,” she says.

“That’s the water that I drank for the first six months of my pregnancy,” she says.

Vimeo: Crying Earth Rise Up Trailer

Arsenic, lead and radiation showed up in Pine Ridge Indian Reservation water tests.

“We were just speechless when we saw the test results of our water,” says tribal elder Alex White Plume. “Why did this happen to our water? When we water our vegetables in the garden are we poisoning ourselves?”

The White River flows through the Cameco mine site before entering the reservation. One year, Cameco Corp. was fined more than $1 million for environmental violations.

“There was one leak that went on for two years before it was reported,” says Bruce Ellison, attorney for interveners in the ASLB hearings over Crow Butte and Dewey-Burdock applications. “We estimated that over a million gallons of mine waste went onto the surface.”

Attendees of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing on the uranium mine near the Pine Ridge Reservation. Photo from Facebook

It’s nigh onto impossible to link an affliction such as a birth defect or cancer to a source, even if the source is present and known to cause these things.

“One of the insidious things about low-level radiation is you can drink that water. You’re not gonna fall over dead; you’re not just gonna start changing colors; your hair isn’t just gonna fall out -- because the gestation period is about `15 years,” Ellison notes.

However, you can ask a medicine man’s viewpoint, and that is exactly what the crew of “Crying Earth Rise Up” did.

“We die every year, in high numbers, of cancer. My father died of cancer, my mother-in-law, my father in law. It is because of the water. We know it,” says Oglala Medicine Man Rick Two Dogs.

Naturally, people in the Crawford area who value Crow Butte’s 45 mine-related jobs, its spinoffs and friendships, tell the film crew just the opposite.

“You know, people say, ‘Oh, what if uranium causes cancer? It doesn’t. We’re all fine,” says Olivia Hunsperger, Whitney, Nebraska 2010 Old West Trail rodeo queen. Cameco Corp. provides “a big source of opportunities for jobs. They also provide scholarships. I know a couple of my friends got a scholarship from Cameco, and it’s really a big deal out here, that mine is, and they kind of keep this town running,” she continues.

Leading the movie crew to the finish line was Chicago-based producer-director Suree Towfighnia, an award-winning filmmaker and co-founder of Prairie Dust Films. She joined the panel of experts for the Crawford showings.

Between the dates of the two showings, the Crawford City Council slated local Sisterhood Water Watch members on the agenda of the on Aug. 11 meeting. Representative Nancy Kile informed the mayor and councilors that peaceful demonstrations for water protection were set to take place daily during the week of the ASLB evidentiary hearings on Crow Butte’s license renewal.

Starting at 8 a.m. demonstrators were expected to march the eight blocks from the corner of Main and Second streets to the hearing venue, she said.

Interveners, including the Western Nebraska Resources Council, are asking members of the public to attend the hearings and submit written comments. Although the public cannot testify in the hearings, members may send letters and comments until Aug. 28.

If the ASLB panel upholds the 2014 license renewal at issue in Crow Butte, Cameco Corp. will be authorized to operate at least until Nov. 5, 2024.

The panel was set to hear evidence on nine contentions challenging the adequacy of the evaluation and protection of historical resources at the site, as well as the NRC staff’s analysis of the facility’s impacts on surface water, groundwater, and the ecosystem.

The hearings were set to run from 9:30 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. at the Crawford Community Center, at 1005 1st St., from Aug. 24 until all evidence is heard.

Written statements from the public may be submitted by mail to: Administrative Judge Michael M. Gibson, c/o Nicholas Sciretta and Sachin Desai, Atomic Safety and Licensing Board Panel, Mail Stop T-3F23, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001; by fax to 301-415-5599; or by email to and

The NRC said that a copy of the written statement should also be sent by mail to: Office of the Secretary, Rulemakings and Adjudications Staff, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Washington, D.C. 20555-0001; by fax to 301-415-1101; or by e-mail to

Documents related to the Crow Butte license renewal application are available on the NRC website. Documents regarding this ASLB proceeding are available on the NRC’s Electronic Hearing Docket by clicking on the folder entitled “Crow_Butte_Rsrces_40-8943-OLA” on the left side of the page. More information about the role of the ASLB in the licensing process also is available at

(Contact Talli Nauman at

Copyright permission Native Sun News

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