Sovereignty, Lands and Rhetoric: A Review of Danielle Edres’ Nuclear Decolonization: Indigenous Resistance to High-Level Nuclear Waste Siting

Jun 11, 2024

Justin G. Whitney, Tennessee State University


book cover

Endres, Danielle. Nuclear Decolonization Indigenous Resistance to High-Level Nuclear Waste Siting. The Ohio State University Press, 2023.

Nuclear Decolonization: Indigenous Resistance to High-Level Nuclear Waste Siting examines the decolonial rhetoric of the Newe (Western Shoshones and Skull Valley Goshutes) and the Nuwuvi (Southern Paiutes) who successfully resisted the location of nuclear waste on their Lands. The stories and analyses related in this book extend from author Danielle Edres’ more than 20 years of experience engaging with rhetorics of colonization and decolonization. Moving away from a unilateral focus on colonial harms inflicted on Indigenous peoples and nations, Endres focuses instead on the brilliance and agency of the rhetoric that the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes relied upon to successfully resist the settler-colonialism of nuclear waste siting on their Lands. Their resistance cuts against persistent stereotypes of native communities as belonging to the past or as wholly incapable of resisting the forces of colonization, nuclear or otherwise. The author hopes that their stories go beyond recognizing and promoting the decolonial successes of Great Basin Indigenous groups, but will also advance opportunities for additional decolonial successes in the future. The author stresses that readers should give the rhetors discussed in her book—and the theories derived from their efforts—the same respect as Western rhetors and theories and understand them as guidelines for decolonization in the future. This book shares and amplifies stories of how Indigenous Lands protectors enacted sovereignty through rhetorical decolonization, powerful acts from which we can all benefit.

Readers may appreciate how Endres weaves her personal experiences throughout the book yet centers Indigenous voices in her analyses and conclusions. All but one chapter opens with the author recounting key experiences that she uses to introduce more formal academic analyses. Her stories add nuance to the book, not only because readers can experience key interactions and influential events along with the author but also because her descriptions help connect readers to the Native Lands and Peoples the book is about. We learn about her witnessing an unsanctioned walk onto the Nevada Test Site in defiance of the US government “no trespassing” mandate. Readers learn about an influential interaction during which another non-native person channeled long held stereotypes of Native peoples into a dismissal of the quality and importance of the rhetoric that motivates this book. We learn about how her continued study and interactions with Indigenous activists shifted her perspective on the Great Basin Lands to a greater appreciation for the ecological diversity and sacredness of the area not always shared by non-natives. With each new story, readers can further constellate the numerous forces impacting nuclear decolonial rhetorics, including challenges that prevent wider appreciation and some of the benefits they bring to those who adopt them.

Nevertheless, these non-native autobiographical stories do not detract from a focus on the rhetoric of Indigenous Lands protectors. For example, Endres identifies nuclear decolonization and the agency realized through it as different from broader environmental movements. She explains that the negative impacts of nuclear colonization go far beyond ecological harm to include damage to people, culture, and religious practices that are inseparable from the land being harmed. Another example comes in the way Endres defines nuclear decolonization as necessarily an Indigenous struggle. Consequently, the author recognizes the necessity of grounding her theories of rhetorical nuclear decolonization in Indigenous rhetoric and calls upon future researchers to do the same. Endres helps readers merge the book’s conclusions with the author’s personal experiences but never loses focus on the decolonial struggles of the Great Basin peoples and the agency realized through them—agency we can all learn from.

In Chapter One, the author lays out the rhetorical and material landscape on nuclear decolonization and nuclear colonization. Defining “Nuclear Decolonization” as an “Indigenous theory of social change,” Endres recognizes the lengthy history of place-based struggles by Indigenous groups to maintain their sovereignty and guard against the impacts of nuclear production on their Lands (30). Nuclear Decolonization is deeply rhetorical: it necessarily emerges from and promotes long held Indigenous ways of knowing, doing, and being in and with the Lands on which they live and protect. Recognizing how nuclear Colonization converges the forces of nuclearism and settler colonialism, Endres reviews the origins of nuclear colonization from 1939 to present day and some of the ongoing decolonial responses by Indigenous groups. The author outlines how the production, use, and storage of nuclear technologies has a disproportionately negative impact on Native groups, their Lands, and Lifeways. However, moving away from unilateral focus on colonial efforts, Chapter One also highlights the rhetorical agency that Native groups maintain when defending their sovereignty through rhetorical practices grounded in Indigenous knowledges. These concepts serve as a theoretical framework for analyses throughout the book.

Chapter Two focuses on the close relationality Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes have with the Great Basin Region. Endres contrasts the settler-colonial narrative of Great Basin Indigenous peoples as monolithic and inferior with the oral histories of the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes themselves. Their oral histories speak to sophisticated relationships not only with other Indigenous groups but also with the Lands on which they live. Using the term “Lands” to describe the inseparability of their Lifeways from the land they protect, Chapter Two includes a historical account of how the American government set up reservations that significantly reduced the size of their Lands and were sometimes located outside of traditional ancestral territories in less “desirable” locations. Much of the chapter is dedicated to examining the specific relations and history the Western Shoshone and the Southern Paiute have with Yucca Mountain and that of the Skull Valley Goshutes with their Lands. The author speaks to how Yucca Mountain is a sacred mountain amongst other sacred mountains for the Western Shoshone and the Southern Paiute and is greatly important not just as a geographical landmark but also for enacting traditional Lifeways. The Skull Valley Goshutes share similarly deep connections to their Lands, so deep as to have successfully resisted numerous relocation efforts by the U.S. government. Chapter Two makes clear not only the significant and lasting connections the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes maintain with their Lands but also that any damage to these Lands necessarily damages the lives and Lifeways of its protectors.

Chapter Three focuses on what the author refers to as Indigenous Lands Rhetorics (ILR). Indigenous Lands Rhetorics are rhetorical appeals by Indigenous groups in which Lands are far more than just subject matter but are understood as a being with its own rhetorical agency. Endres writes that ILR not only highlight but also enact the interconnectivity Indigenous groups maintain with their Lands. IRL also promote the ability to be in good relations with Lands. It is through ILR that Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes have successfully resisted radioactive contamination and settler encroachment. Endres classifies ILR into three main categories, including appeals to home Lands, sacred Lands, and Lands as relations. Home Lands rhetorics are those that evoke Lands relations created by calling a place home for generations. Because the Indigenous peoples of the Great Basin Region were generally not forced to relocate outside the region, home Lands rhetorics work against the U.S. federal government’s territorial claims by animating long-standing relationships Indigenous groups maintain with the places they have long called home. Home Lands rhetorics necessarily also highlight the threat of nuclear waste rendering those home Lands unlivable. Appeals to sacred Lands emphasize connections with the spirituality of particular places maintained by Indigenous groups and religions. Because Indigenous religious practices are rooted in particular local landmarks or historical sites, a threat to their Lands is necessarily also a threat to their religion and associated Lifeways. Furthermore, the affirmation of the sacredness ascribed to Indigenous Lands transcends mere economic valuation. Sacred Lands based rhetorics defy the colonial perspective that conceptualizes land primarily as a resource for exploitation. Lands as relations rhetorics resist colonial threat by identifying the ways in which Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes maintain unique connectivity with their Lands, in particular their communication with and responsibility to them. Rooted in ways of knowing that are radically different from dominant Western thought about ecological responsibility, Lands as relations rhetorics articulate the inseparability between Lands and Indigenous peoples. These appeals identify any threat to their Lands as necessarily also threats to the Indigenous people themselves.

In addition to Lands based rhetoric, Chapter Four addresses an additional tactic for nuclear decolonization: appeals to Indigenous sovereignty or national interest. Endres outlines how the Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes rhetors enact sovereignty over their Lands and themselves by strategically moving between Indigenous and US national interests and indigenous and US citizenship. Endres explains that dominant narratives in the US identify nuclear waste storage on native Lands as a sacrifice needed for maintaining national security, a perspective that subsumes Indigenous authority within that of the US. These efforts, however, also create opportunities for opponents to not only raise arguments that go beyond scientific and technical suitability but also do so in spaces that would be otherwise unavailable. Western Shoshone, Southern Paiute, and Skull Valley Goshutes advocated for government-to-government relations, continually highlighted the disconnect between US and Indigenous national interests and engaged in Indigenous government practices to oppose nuclear waste storage on their Lands. But, when their calls were ignored, they leveraged their recognized status as US citizens to attend public hearings that not only made their voices heard but thwarted any attempt to erase Indigenous peoples from decisions made about their Lands.

The work discussed here offers significant opportunities for scholars of Rhetoric and Composition. Fitting with Aja Y. Martinez’ Cultural Rhetorics Methodological Philosophy, Endres not only values the Indigenous stories related in her book as “valid and important rhetorical artifacts” but interprets Indigenous stories “on their own terms” (195). The result of Endres’ work are methodologies, analyses and conclusions that honor the Indigenous peoples from which they are derived. But also, her work serves as an example for future cultural rhetorical research. Scholars of such fields as Cultural Rhetorics, Second Language Writing, Translingual Writing, and others can build upon the conclusions Endres provides as well as rely on the methodologies and analyses in their own research. Such additions to the field of Rhetoric and Composition offer significant opportunities for diversifying our voices and the ideas we value and share.

The book ends on a positive note, urging us to create a future where the sovereignty, Lands, and rhetoric of the Great Basin peoples and all Indigenous groups are acknowledged and respected. Endres stresses the need for changes to nuclear waste siting policy in the US to include the recognition of inherent sovereignty of Indigenous peoples over their Lands. Also, Endres calls for rhetorical studies to open new pathways and possibilities by engaging with an analysis of Indigeneity. Recognizing the silenced voices of Indigenous peoples across the centuries of rhetorical study by non-Indigenous people means also recognizing the lack of their due influence. Suggesting an engagement with an analysis of Indigeneity means not only honoring their past efforts but fostering a better appreciation of their future efforts as well. The stories, analyses, and conclusions drawn in this book are an important part of making this better future, a better future the author invites all to make together.

Works Cited

Martinez, Aja Y. “What We Thought We Knew: Snapshots Along the Development of a Cultural Rhetorics Methodological Philosophy.” Learning from the Mess: Method/Ological Praxis in Rhetoric and Writing Studies, edited by Ashley J Holmes and Elise Verzosa Hurley, WAC Clearinghouse, 2024, pp. 185–196.

About the Author

In August of 2000, Justin G. Whitney transferred from San Antonio College to the University of Texas, Austin. After graduation in 2004, he moved to South Korea where he lived and taught English for two years. He was awarded a Masters in Rhetoric and Composition in 2012 and a PhD in Education, Culture & Society with a focus in Writing & Rhetoric Studies in 2018. Today, he teaches writing classes and studies Writing Education, Culture, and Knowledge Transfer.

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