Cell phone tower to be built near sweat lodge

Published in Indian Country Today in 2007. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Porcupine, N.D. — The tribal council of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe voted on Monday, July 2, not to relocate a 197-foot-tall cell phone tower planned for a site in the watershed of the Cannonball River, west of the village of Porcupine. The tower is one of 29 to be installed around the reservation by 2009.

Tribal members had objected to its placement near a sweat lodge, shown above right, and a bald-eagle nesting ground and within the boundaries of a botanical sanctuary that shelters traditional medicine plants. “Progress has taken us back, and it’s causing self-destruction. I’m scared for the kids,” said elder Kenny Painte, Sr., Lakota, from Solen, North Dakota.

The vote was four in favor of moving the tower to a less sensitive spot and six against, the tribal chairman’s office confirmed on July 3. One council member abstained. Chairman Ron His Horse Is Thunder, Hunkpapa Lakota, would not comment further. Jesse Taken Alive, Hunkpapa Lakota, tribal council member-at-large and resident of McLaughlin, South Dakota, called the vote “a disappointing outcome.”

The project was approved in 2005 as a way to upgrade communications — particularly for police and other emergency services — throughout the nation’s 2.3 million rural acres in North and South Dakota. The towers, along with outbuildings and access roads, will be built by Turtle Island Telecommunications, a Native-owned firm, and eventually owned by the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.

            The botanical sanctuary in question is part of United Plant Savers’ continent-wide network and is the only one in the United States on tribal land. “From the get-go, I told the company building the towers that there are many important plants there, including some not found, or not found in the same form, elsewhere on the reservation, possibly in the region,” said Linda Jones, Catawba, an ethnobotanist and faculty member at Sitting Bull College, in Fort Yates. These include groves of an important heart medicine, hawthorne, that are so old and so large they may have been planted by Lakotas in generations past, said Jones. And, she added, “Radiation changes cell structure, so these plants will change. Can people continue to use them as medicine?”

Kenny Painte, Sr., said he had gone on vision quests in the botanical sanctuary, which he called “a place of cultural and spiritual significance.” He also described people coming from around the country to be healed in the sweat lodge. In his opinion, construction of the nearby tower meant “cultural genocide of the seven sacred rites of my people.”

Taken Alive expressed similar sentiments: “I am a practitioner of our traditional Lakota ways, and I think it’s a terrible precedent.”

Effects of cell-phone radiation on human health have also been causing increasing apprehension, as tribal members have become aware of studies linking the microwaves with brain damage, cancer, diabetes and other illnesses and have heard about calls for more research by several international consortia of scientists and doctors. “I’ve informed myself about these issues, and I’m worried about my children, my father who’s battling cancer and everyone who visits us,” said Lynelle Bahm, Lakota, whose home is about 500 feet from the Porcupine tower site.

In May 2007, Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, shown above, filed an unsuccessful injunction to stop construction. “People need to make an informed choice,” said Skye, a Porcupine resident. “In initial discussions with tribal members, better telephone service was stressed, not potential harm. What do we do when we get cancer? Use our great cell phone service to call an ambulance? Who here can afford cell phones anyway? People are living two and three families to a house. We need housing.” Other residents criticized the environmental assessment completed for the project. “It wasn’t a full environmental impact statement, as you would expect for a project of this magnitude,” one said. “When they came to the botanical sanctuary, they just drove through, squashing medicine plants.”

Arthur Firstenberg, an expert on wireless technology, noted that he didn’t see the word “radiation” in the document: “On a project whose only purpose is to produce microwave radiation [how can you] not mention the expected environmental effects of microwave radiation?”

Other experts familiar with the project expressed related concerns, including Dr. Chellis Glendinning, a psychologist who studies the side effects of technology; activist Charmaine White Face, Oglala, coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills; Libby Kelley, a specialist on Native health issues; and Nancy Scarzello and Lynda LeMole, officials of United Plant Savers.

Tribal member Dennis Painte was an official of Porcupine District when it — along with the nation’s other seven districts — approved the towers in 2005. The tribal council then ratified these endorsements. At the time, said Painte, “We had no information about the possible ill effects of the towers. We simply thought they were a wonderful step forward technologically — no discussion. Now some districts would like to rescind their consent.”

Prior to the July 2 council meeting, Taken Alive had hoped the tribe would hold public-information meetings and reconsider its options. “Back in 2005, we were unaware of potential harm,” he said. “Better communication is a huge need here, but we have to consider all the alternatives, including more landlines, fiber optics and so on.”

“We honored the politicians by going to them,” said Kenny Painte, Sr. “Now we have to turn to the people. We’re preparing a referendum to take to enrolled members. This is their land, but they never had a say-so.”

Photo at top courtesy of Aubrey Skye; additional photo and text c. Stephanie Woodard.

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