Baucus and Hill 57 Victims of 30 Year Chemical War

At 1:00 a.m. EST, December 21, 2009 -- The U.S. Senate passed a procedural vote on the chamber's health care legislation. The bill intends to generate a vast expansion of the health care coverage to 30 million Americans. The progressive wing of the Democratic party is not happy with this measure though suggesting it is a reform bill in need of massive reform before it should even signed by the President. It is the shallowest of victories. For us in Montana, we are used to being told, "It's better than nothing," by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), it's his credo.

The New York Times published the same day:

Buried in the deal-clinching health care package that Senate Democrats unveiled over the weekend is an inconspicuous proposal expanding Medicare to cover certain victims of 'environmental health hazards.' The intended beneficiaries are identified in a cryptic, mysterious way: individuals exposed to environmental health hazards recognized as a public health emergency in a declaration issued by the federal government on June 17. And who might those individuals be? It turns out they are people exposed to asbestos from a vermiculite mine in Libby, Mont. For a decade, Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, has been trying to get the government to help them. He is in a position to deliver now because he is chairman of the Finance Committee and a principal author of the health care bill.

Hill 57: America's Soweto Withstood 30 Years of Chemical Bombardment

Montana's ranking Senator's gusto to get something done, when he wants it done -- is breathtaking. The victim's of W.R. Grace's corporate negligence deserve help, they also deserve economic aid to recover their community and rebuild their lives. Our Senator's commitment to the white electorate in Montana is unshakable. I am drawing a sharp contrast to the Senator's concern of the Libby victims, and this is a good thing, and contrast that to the experience of the Hill 57 victims of chemical warfare that was inflicted on us throughout three decades. We have never had the federal ear to hear our story or to bring about credible efforts to help. Mansfield tried and failed. Deaf ears and blind eyes define Republican and Democratic response to Hill 57 in the entirety of the existence of "America's Soweto."

The Hill 57 Chippewa had been a super-minority, even within the Democratic Party. As a child on Hill 57; I can recall the low flying aerial flights in and around Hill 57, even our own Hill 57 community did not understand the danger of the aerial flights. "They are crop-dusting," they said, almost glibly. Some of my older cousins can remember playing with the handheld insecticide spray bottles, with a spray nozzle attached. " As small girls, we were playing with these cans," recalled Ernestine Gopher. "I remember spraying Sally in the face." Sally Gopher is Ernestine's sister. They were unaware of the danger in the bottle; they had no idea. Both women are my older cousins.

Summer of 1941: The Chemical War Begins on Hill 57 Chippewa

According to early Tribune reports of August, 1941; the county began an aggressive chemical assault on Hill 57 to eradicate fly-borne bacillary dysentery after the deaths of five infants on Hill 57 that year. Dysentery left many Hill 57 children sickened and malnourished. Local citizen activists, our own people, and Catholic clergy tried to get federal aid to our people. They tried to get badly needed federal aid; there were Hill 57 tours by Sen. Mansfield and then Representative Lee Metcalf. The Chippewas pulled out their historic colonial treaty flag during one such visit in 1955. My late father, Robert Gopher and my uncle Pete hosted one such visit and unfurled our family pride, a 13 star colonial treaty flag--this is the emblem of my campaign. This visit in 1955 resulted in Senate and House legislation intended to help Hill 57, but this legislation was killed by the Department of Interior, stating "Hill 57 was not a federal responsibility, but a local problem."

On a national level, the federal government had approved the use of DDT in 1939 after its insecticide properties were evident. The U.S. used DDT widely during WWII to control typhus and malaria overseas. On Hill 57, a 1941 news report states DDT was the lead component in a chemical cocktail mixed by the county and sprayed throughout the barren hillside Indian camp. This chemical treatment would ensue for many years, and it would intensify. The county sprayed the inside of their homes with this chemical cocktail, all of the windows and doors closed. This was not an approved use of DDT, it was never intended or safe for indoor use. The Hill 57 residents were never told what the chemical cocktail contained, today we still do not know. The fumes would be so bad, residents recall being unable to sleep in their homes for at least a couple of days afterward, but some people would sleep in the homes, even when the fumes were overpowering.

According to the EPA website, during the 30 years of DDT's approval as an industrial pesticide, 1,350,000,000 pounds were used. The Hill 57 chemical experience spans this entire 30 year period. The spraying only stopped around the time of the actual federal ban in 1972. Because of this timeline, we can assume--based on official conduct of Cascade County, that DDT was the product used even though there was ample evidence of its "environmental health hazard." The EPA website states:

Immediately following the DDT prohibition by EPA, the pesticides industry and EDF filed appeals contesting the June order with several U.S. courts. Industry filed suit to nullify the EPA ruling while EDF sought to extend the prohibition to those few uses not covered by the order. The appeals were consolidated in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. On December 13, 1973, the Court ruled that there was "substantial evidence" in the record to support the EPA Administrator's ban on DDT.

What does prolonged DDT exposure do to the body? There are a variety of autoimmune responses to DDT exposure; from nerve damage, liver and kidney damage, arthritis, diabetes, and of course cancer. This exposure also has neo-natal effects, spanning from attention deficit disorder, learning disabilities, infertility to deformities. Forward to the second week of December, 2009. I receive a call from my brother, Glenn in Great Falls, he is worried. Our older cousin, Della Gopher Ahenakew, is awaiting a liver transplant in Spokane, Washington. We are all worried, she has been fighting a losing battle of liver disease for several years. A transplant may save her, she is very weak. Her transplant surgery will take place later this week. We will have to wait and see. We pray in our traditional custom for her to live.

Not all have been so lucky, I recall hopping a ride with my late cousin Raymond Bacon about a year before he died. He confided in me he would vomit something akin to coffee grounds. He died the following year in 2001; of intestinal cancer. There are a great deal of deaths of the Gopher family--the extended Chippewa clan of Hill 57, of cancers of the intestine. Our grandfather and clan patriarch, Jim Loud Thunder Gopher died of colon cancer in 1946 in his mid 50s, five years after the chemical assault began. His widow, the niece of Chief Rocky Boy, died of cancer in the fall of 1965. The average lifespan of the extended Jim Gopher clan is 44-45 years, almost half of the national average.

The Baucus Response: Sloppy, Cold, Brutal, Haphazard, Disinterested

Our people are now scattered, Hill 57 became unlivable, the land lost--all that remains is a memory and the three to four gatherings held yearly to attempt to keep our traditions alive. There are many unanswered questions, just like the situation in Libby, MT. Although W.R. Grace was found to be not guilty of criminal negligence, there is no doubt as to the health effects of the vermiculite mine. Justice is beginning to flow to these long suffering people. Today, I am asking the American people to hold Senator Baucus accountable on the Hill 57 issue.

All we asked from the Senator is to be heard. This was early June of 2002 -- a re-election year for Baucus. We, the un-enrolled descendants of the Rocky Boy band, met with the Senator after he ignored us for an interminable amount of time. This meeting came about on the heels of a picket line we had thrown together to protest the Senator. We picketed a Cascade County Democratic Party fund-raiser at the Black Eagle community center, just on the other side of the river in Great Falls. We literally had to drag him out of a fund-raiser to gain his attention. He reluctantly agreed to meet with us. His assurance at the time is if our complaints were founded, he would look into it.

At this meeting, several Chippewa elderly women were present. They had waited all their lives to express their voice to someone in a position of power. They had a sliver of hope now, that the entirety of their experience would be in the hands of a caring person; their long nightmare coming to an end. We again, as our people had done in 1955; brought our historic and now famous treaty flag. Baucus was clearly irritated with us. He was visibly angry. We asked for the honor of taking a picture with the senator with our beautiful Old Glory, he refused. "This is not a photo session!" he snapped. Our hearts fell on the ground. The meeting fell apart, our women elders left the meeting crying.

He never has gotten back to us to evaluate whether our complaints were well founded. I have released at least a partial record of resources documenting Hill 57 to Huffington Post, accompanying this post. This record was compiled by Chippewa historian, Mike Gopher. This record would more than support our claim time and again, but, it's just not convincing enough for the Senator. Perhaps Max Baucus will deny Hill 57 ever existed, this is akin to Holocaust denial for us. We have no contact with the Senator, we are not his favorite people. He is not beholden to us. I want America to see a clearer portrait of President Obama's point man and top health care reformer. You can evaluate if he is the moral leader fit to end the reality that an American dies every ten minutes from lack of health care.

Hill 57 was our last stand, but it is also our holocaust. Hill 57 was a symbol of the federal termination policies' devastating effects on a tribe. These policies were in place post New Deal to 1973. Hill 57 was a strong argument to honor tribal sovereignty, but we as a people were swept under the carpet where we have always been. Homeless, poverty stricken, sickly Indians, even ones who vote--are not the stuff winning campaigns are made of. Baucus affixed his political fortunes to the "recognized" treaty tribes in Montana; this ensures electoral victory every election season. He does not want to be bothered with Hill 57. He has made that clear; a choice dictated by lack of electoral advantage and largely by race. His priorities are dictated by skin color.

Notation: Hill 57 largely resulted from the Chippewa being run off their own reservation by Cree and Metis bands. Although from Canada, the Cree/Metis bands were granted asylum by the U.S. government and placed on the Rocky Boy Indian Reservation. This is not consistent with federal doctrine, or case precedent. In spite of this, the Hill 57 Indians have tried to have their recognition clarified, draft legislation submitted to Montana's delegation (Baucus, Tester, Rehberg) have gone unanswered. The MT delegation has responded favorably to the Little Shell Band's efforts to gain recognition, they are perceived to be larger in numbers but are also more assimilated than the Hill 57 group. We can only question if the political goals of MT's delegation determines their commitment? The Hill 57 group consists of the original Rocky Boy and Migisew, or Bald Eagle Bands of Chippewa, plans are to restore federal recognition, this effort is underway. The question remains, how will the Obama administration act to restore our band's recognition?

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