Culture

Documentary ‘Downwind’ shows deadly consequences of nuclear testing on tribal lands

By Lillian Karabaic (OPB) and Winston Szeto (OPB)
Jan. 21, 2024 2 p.m.

Western Shoshone Principal Man Ian Zabarte, who lost his family members to diseases caused by radiation exposure, says it amounts to racism against Native Americans that the U.S. government detonated more than 900 atomic bombs on his ancestors’ land in secret from 1951 to 1992.

Ian Zabarte, who has black hair in a ponytail, wears a blue shirt against a desert backdrop

"This is a very serious issue and that's why I can't let it go. I can't move on. People say, 'oh, why don't you just let it go?' Because it's killing my family. It's killing my land. It's killing my people. And that will not stand. It's being done in secret. And killing Indians in secret will not stand," said Ian Zabarte, Principal Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians, who is pictured in a still from the documentary 'Downwind' about radiation poisoning from U.S. nuclear tests.

Douglas Brian Miller/Downwind

On Jan. 7, the film “Oppenheimer” snagged five Golden Globe awards. It’s a blockbuster directed by Christopher Nolan about the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in Japan in 1945.

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But flying under the radar is a documentary called “Downwind,” another movie about nuclear weapons.

Mark Shapiro is the co-director of “Downwind,” he lives in Portland.

Ian Zabarte from Las Vegas is the Principal Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation of Indians, and is featured in the documentary.

They joined OPB’s “Weekend Edition” host, Lillian Karabaic, to discuss “Downwind” and the tragedy that inspired the documentary.

The following transcript has been edited for clarity and length.


Mark Shapiro: So we came across a pretty remarkable story. We found out that during the Cold War and into the nineties, from 1951 to 1992, the United States detonated 928 nuclear weapons at the Nevada Test Site, which is about an hour from Las Vegas. And we found that to be remarkable, and the radiation from all those tests impacted communities downwind.

Lillian Karabaic: You co-produced this documentary with Douglas Brian Miller. The documentary came out last summer around the same time as “Oppenheimer.” Can you tell me how you both came up with the idea to make the film and explore that connection?

Shapiro: Both of our families had cancer in our families and were impacted deeply by cancer. And, we felt like this shouldn’t be breaking news, that people should really know that for 40 years in one location, they tested a hundred nuclear weapons larger than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined in some cases, and then over 800 underground weapons tests that also vent into the communities. And I think the biggest thing that surprised us, too, was this giant swath of land the size of Rhode Island, 1,350 square miles, is deeded Shoshone land. So that was another topic that we thought the government really took part in an unforgivable era, and we wanted to expose that.

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'Downwind' documentary by Portland director Mark Shapiro is now streaming. Mark Shapiro made the decision to create the documentary "Downwind," because he wanted to shed light on the genocide inflicted upon the Western Shoshone tribes by the U.S. government through more than 900 nuclear tests conducted on their land spanning from 1951 to 1992.

'Downwind' documentary by Portland director Mark Shapiro is now streaming. Mark Shapiro made the decision to create the documentary "Downwind," because he wanted to shed light on the genocide inflicted upon the Western Shoshone tribes by the U.S. government through more than 900 nuclear tests conducted on their land spanning from 1951 to 1992.

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Karabaic: Ian, one of the things that Mark just mentioned was that the Nevada Test Site sits right on your ancestors’ land, and the U.S. government launched more than 900 tests there. How could that happen?

Ian Zabarte: Well, the United States entered into treaty relationships with the Western Shoshone, the Western bands of Shoshone Nation of Indians in 1863. And that was a time when America’s need was great. So we all ourselves with the union, with the North, to help prosecute the war against the South, our lands, and our resources continue to make this nation the great land it is. Our lands bind this nation together, not just Shoshone, but all tribes and the treaties we entered into.

So, what happened was the United States came into our country in secret. They developed the US nuclear facilities, and they came to our country to test the bombs that they built, and they did this in secret. They didn’t ask our consent. They didn’t tell us what was happening, and we didn’t know the problem. That secrecy is counter to democracy, and we’re all not just the Shoshone; we’re all downwinders, and we’re all living with the burden of the adverse health effects that are known to be plausible from exposure to radiation, in this case, from radioactive fallout.

Karabaic: So one of the things you mentioned is that it’s so secretive. They didn’t tell you they were doing these tests, even if they had treaty access to the land, they certainly didn’t for doing nuclear tests. When did you start to realize the impact of the nuclear tests on your community?

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Zabarte: When I was about 18 years old, I returned to the reservation, which is centrally located in the Great Basin, and I saw my family dying, and I didn’t understand why they were dying. My grandfather’s skin fell off. And as we began to understand that the nuclear weapons testing and the fallout came through our communities, I was angry and confused about how this could happen just like everyone else’s. How could this happen?

At the same time, the United States Bureau of Land Management was blaming Shoshone livestock [and] Shoshone ranchers for destruction of the land that was caused by nuclear weapons testing, blaming our livestock, blaming the Indians for destroying the land for the destruction caused by the fallout.

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Karabaic: That’s really terrible. One of the things that I saw in the documentary was that the Atomic Energy Commission picked this Nevada Test Site to detonate more than 900 atomic bombs because they said the people living near the site were a “low-use segment of the population.” What came to your mind when you learned about that?

Zabarte: Well, what came to my mind when I learned about that and you start looking further into what they do, they also talked about how they had all of the names for all of the tests selected and picked so that they were not offensive, but 20 of the tests were named for Native American tribes, just like American helicopters are named for the battles wars with Indians that they fought. As I said, we made this nation the great nation it is. We were not conquered. We have five peace treaties with the United States. Our lands bind this nation together.

And what we’re really dealing with is other Americans who think it’s OK to violate, abuse, and exploit Native Americans, and that is racism. This is a very serious issue and that’s why I can’t let it go. I can’t move on. People say, “Why don’t you just let it go?” I said, “Because it’s killing my family. It’s killing my land. It’s killing my people. And that will not stand. It’s being done in secret. And killing Indians in secret will not stand.”

Karabaic: The ongoing effects of suffering, the health effects and dying from this, the U.S. government said, “oh, OK.” And implemented this Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990, and the amount they said was worth compensation for all the health effects was $50,000. Do you think that $50,000 is enough compensation for those who are downwind?

Zabarte: No, it is not. And as I said, we’re all downwinders, and you just don’t know it.

Karabaic: I’d like to play a snippet from the documentary. Here’s Darwin Morgan. He served as the public relations director for the Nevada Test Site from 1996 till 2021. Take a listen.

Darwin Morgan [clip]: We were able to win the Cold War with what we did at the site. It contributed greatly to the winning of the Cold War. You saw that Russia wasn’t able to match what we were doing. And so when it all came to the end, what we did at the Nevada Test Site helped win the Cold War helped assure the security of the United States, the people of the United States. And so nuclear testing contributed to that.

Karabaic: Mark and Ian, what would you take from what Darwin Morgan said?

Shapiro: I think it’s interesting because we talk about the challenges of war and how you handle war, what you’re going to do to prevent war, and I think that Mr. Morgan was talking about the idea that it was served as a deterrent for other countries, not to detonate nuclear weapons. I just think as I look back and Mary Dixon in our film talks about how many nuclear tests are too many. A lot of people think, obviously even the first test in New Mexico was too many. But to continue to do that 928 times when the United States can serve as a model for the rest of the world, it’s irresponsible and unforgivable in my opinion.

Karabaic: Given the popularity of a movie like “Oppenheimer,” what kind of impact do you want to see “Downwind” have on society?

Shapiro: I think there are some things that need to be addressed immediately, including, you mentioned the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. It’s scheduled to sunset in June of this year. So the $50,000 compensation, those amounts won’t be available after June this year unless Congress, they extend the bill, which we hope will happen. As Ian mentioned, is $50,000 enough? I don’t think so. Most people don’t think so, but it’s a start.

The Nevada Test Site is still operational and doing research. They’re still doing things at the Nevada Test Site. So that’s something that I think is unforgivable, given the fact that it’s not American land; it’s Shoshone Nation land, so that needs to be addressed. But we look at our film as the people impacted in the wake of “Oppenheimer,” and as Ian mentioned, we’re all downwinders.

Karabaic: Yeah. Thank you both for joining us. There are a lot of people who have been kept in the dark for a really long time about the impact on Indigenous communities and all of us. I hope that more folks know this history.

Mark Shapiro is the co-director of the documentary “Downwind.” Ian Zabarte is the Principal Man of the Western Bands of Shoshone Nation of Indians. The documentary is streaming online on Peacock, Prime Video, Apple TV, and other streaming services. Thanks for joining us today.

Shapiro: Thank you, Lillian. We really appreciate you having us here.

Zabarte: Thanks again. I appreciate your time.

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