Deb Abrahamson Seeks Justice for Spokane Tribe, Even during Her Cancer Treatment

By McDermott, Ted | The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA), December 1, 2019 | Go to article overview

Deb Abrahamson Seeks Justice for Spokane Tribe, Even during Her Cancer Treatment


McDermott, Ted, The Spokesman-Review (Spokane, WA)


Even when Deb Abrahamson talks about herself - about being diagnosed with a cancerous, newborn-sized tumor in her uterus, about the misdiagnoses leading up to that, about the new tumor that now stretches from "hip bone to hip bone," about how there's no cure - she's thinking about her community.

"But the thing is," she said on a recent afternoon, "a lot of people on the reservation, they've experienced the same thing."

That common experience, Abrahamson said, is as brutal as it is undeserved and as alarming as it is unjust.

It's the experience of living near or working in the uranium mining and processing industry on and around the Spokane Indian Reservation and coming down with deadly and disabling illnesses.

While there is no definitive study of the health impacts of those mining and processing operations, questions and suspicions about those impacts have long swirled. And the limited assessments done on the reservation, as well as those examining links between the uranium industry and Native American populations more generally, suggest people's health may well have been compromised.

As the founder and longtime director of the SHAWL Society - the acronym stands for Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land - Abrahamson has worked on a variety of fronts to bring environmental justice to the Spokane reservation as it has dealt with the aftermath of decades of uranium mining at the Midnite and Sherman mines on the reservation, and of uranium processing at the Dawn Mining Co. mill site in Ford.

Perhaps her central fight with SHAWL has been working to make the cleanup process more responsive to the needs of her tribe and pushing her community to engage in that process. She has fought many campaigns in that war, including resisting the relocation of some 700,000 cubic yards of dirt from elsewhere on the reservation to cap mine waste, helping the tribe access funds from the federal government for former uranium workers suffering from occupational illnesses, and successfully working to stop a relaxation of cleanup standards at the Midnite Mine site earlier this year.

Carol Evans, chairwoman of the Spokane Tribal Business Council and Abrahamson's first cousin, said Abrahamson is "someone I've looked up to my whole life and admired.

"Because of her efforts and all of SHAWL's efforts, it pushed us to be a better clan," Evans said.

And now, after 25 years of fighting, the 64-year-old Abrahamson said she hopes to narrow her focus to a single issue, which she now views as her most urgent concern.

"With the cancer, my message at this point is that I would really hope to see community intervention on health," she said. "That is what I'd hope to see. And that's why I've been going to meetings, I've been doing work around town, staying involved."

Abrahamson said she's also eager for members of her community to begin asking questions themselves.

"To look at how many losses they've experienced in their family systems and identify the illnesses associated with those losses, because the impacts of the mine are ongoing," Abrahamson said. "It's not going to stop this generation. It continues. And now that we have another workforce in play (cleaning up the sites), the toxins are still being spread into the trading post and the post office and the tribal offices and the homes.

"And people need to take the precautions necessary to protect themselves, as well as the lands and the waters, and do what our ancestors taught us. We're obligated to the lands that we live on. And we're obligated to this earth to make things better for future generations. That's the main message.

"And don't give up, because we've had 500 years of oppression and genocide and diseases thrown at us, and hangings and children taken away and forced sterilization to our people. All these conditions. We are still here. And we have a right to a quality of life equal to our neighbors. That's the message. …

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