Los Alamos National Laboratory/Wikimedia Commons
Trinity Site explosion, 0.016 second after explosion, July 16, 1945. Note that the viewed hemisphere's highest point in this image is about 200 meters high.

H-Bomb Guinea Pigs! Natives Suffering Decades After New Mexico Tests

Tanya H. Lee

Much has been made of the dropping of the first atomic bomb on two now-infamous cities, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the health-nightmare aftermath.

But only now is the spotlight being put onto those who had the actual first atomic bomb dropped in their vicinity—it was the Americans’ own people, Turtle Island’s original inhabitants, the Indigenous Peoples of the southwest. The world's first atomic bomb was detonated on July 16, 1945, in New Mexico—home to 19 American Indian pueblos, two Apache tribes and some chapters of the Navajo Nation. Manhattan Project scientists exploded the device containing six kilograms of plutonium 239 on a 100-foot tower at the Trinity Site in the Jornada del Muerto (Journey of Death) Valley at what is now the U.S. Army's White Sands Missile Range. The blast was the equivalent of 21 kilotons of TNT. At the time an estimated 19,000 people lived within a 50-mile radius.

It has taken nearly 70 years, but the National Cancer Institute is launching a study to determine how much radiation the residents of New Mexico were exposed to that fateful day, and what effect it could have on their lives.

What people reported seeing at 5:30 that morning was a flash more brilliant than daylight followed by a green (or red or violet or blue, depending on who is recounting the story) glow in the sky. No one knew what had happened, no one knew how to protect themselves from the effects of this new technology, and no one knew that it would be almost 70 years before the government would investigate what those effects were.

"No one was told, everything was top secret, and that's the mistake,” said Marian Naranjo, Santa Clara Pueblo, director of Honor Our Pueblo Existence, an area community group. “Because when you look at what people here in New Mexico were doing during 1945, they were farmers. And in July you get up at the crack of dawn to go out and do your work."

The Trinity test was conducted to determine whether the plutonium bomb intended for Nagasaki would act according to theory. It did. But the Department of Defense changed the design of the bomb anyway.

"From the Trinity test they determined that they were going to have to drop the bomb from a higher altitude or detonate the bomb at a higher altitude than they did at Trinity,” said Tina Cordova, Santa Clara Pueblo, head of the Tularosa Basin Downwinders’ Consortium, an activist group that has been pushing for just such a study for more than 10 years. “At Trinity they put it on a platform 100 feet in the air, and at Nagasaki they detonated it much higher in the atmosphere because at Trinity what happened was that they didn't create a very large blast field but created a very expansive radiation field. At Nagasaki they wanted a different effect; they wanted to create a large blast field, and they weren't necessarily interested in creating a radiation field."


You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page



Michael Madrid's picture
Michael Madrid
Submitted by Michael Madrid on
As a New Mexican resident I've always wondered about this. The fact that I attended the funeral of my 19 year old niece yesterday drives home the possibility that NM is unsafe. She died of brain cancer. I'm also working with two teachers who have cancer. I did have one problem with the article: "So they detonate the bomb at Trinity and they leave,” said Cordova, a cancer survivor. “They never come back and tell the people to take care of how they live, what they consume, what they eat, drink. Nothing." To be fair, the Manhattan Project Scientists didn't know about the potential dangers of radiation fallout. This can be proven by the simple fact that Oppenheimer and everyone concerned walked out to Ground Zero immediately after the detonation. That said, you might ask why the government didn't notify NM residents of the potential dangers. Well, you might also ask why the U.S. Government has never admitted any wrong-doing against Native Americans. If you think about it, there were still NDN Boarding Schools in 1944, land was still actively being taken from Native Americans and Wounded Knee II was still 30 years away. Expecting the American Government to act with Indian welfare in mind is a dream we're STILL waiting to come true in 2014.

seanglenn47's picture
Submitted by seanglenn47 on
If the "downwinders" near the Nevada Test Site and the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific are covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, so should all of the people who live downwind of White Sands, Native Americans and everybody else. Anything less, is a crime against those people suffering from the ill effects of the Trinity Test. Glenn in the Bronx, NY.