When a Dene lantern shone in Hiroshima

A 1998 Dene delegation to Japan thanked Hibakusha for “holding up a shining light” to peace

By Linda Pentz Gunter

Sometimes the best therapy for trauma, is to return to the scene and make amends. In more academic realms, this is referred to as ‘reparations.’ For the suffering individual, it is a proven antidote to post traumatic stress disorder, commonly known as PTSD.

Thus, American veterans of the war in Vietnam have returned there to engage in works of charity, care and rebuilding, assuaging both the pain of atrocities witnessed but also those they may have participated in. Trauma is also guilt, and guilt can be eased by forgiveness and by actions for good.

Reparations and apologies are built into some cultures, including that of the Indigenous Dene people of Canada, who believe that healing requires circles to be closed in order to allow for reconciliation. And so it came about that, in August 1998, a delegation of 10 Dene went to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, 53 years after the deadly atomic bombings, to attend the annual peace ceremonies there. And to make amends.

Decades after the Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the Dene learned that uranium mined from their land had been used in the atomic bombs dropped on those cities. It was necessary, therefore, to travel there in person. 

“It’s a justice issue for them,” explains Dene activist, Cindy Kenny-Gilday. “They have to make amends of some kind. So they have to go to the surviving relatives of the Japanese people and say ‘this is the way it happened.’ And in telling that story, heal themselves.”

The Dene went to Hiroshima to remember and atone. (Photo: Jepster/Creative Commons)

Yet the Dene were themselves victims. On their lands in Canada’s Northwest Territories — a region that had been home to the Sahtú Dene for millennia — rose the Eldorado uranium mine at Great Bear Lake, and Port Radium, a city built to ship out the ore to the US.

The Dene were quickly put to work in the mines, at the port and on the ships. They carried leaking sacks of uranium ore to barges and boats. When uranium ore spilled out of broken bags, the mess was shoveled overboard into the water.

Like their Indigenous brothers elsewhere, the Dene miners were not warned of the health risks, were not protected, and later, when cancers were rampant, were not compensated.

Back in their villages, the women made tents from old uranium ore sacks. Many of the men working at the mine and Port Radium perished too young. Some families lost half their children to cancer and other radiation exposure-related illnesses.

Cleanup efforts at Port Radium and Great Bear Lake have been on-going in the last several decades but are still viewed as insufficient.

“Generations later, we’re trying to do everything we can to try to retain the culture, language, our heritage,” Dene leader Danny Gaudet told CBC in March 2019.  “Every day we see Canada apologizing to other groups for things that it’s done … but Canada still doesn’t seem to recognize the fact that we participated in mining and transporting the ore that they used and sold to the Americans.”

In fact, the health impacts were so devastating around the village of Délı̨nę where most of the workforce came from, that it was dubbed the “Village of Widows”.

This was also the title of a documentary film made by Peter Blow in 1999, which tells the story of the miners and their suffering, and the delegation which went to Japan to apologize for their part in fueling Little Boy and Fat Man, dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki respectively in August 1945. 

Although the technical quality of the film has not held up well, the power of its messaging is overwhelming.

Village of Widows, 1999, directed by Peter Blow

A more recent film — A Moral Awakening — features interviews with those who worked the mines or at Port Radium and the effect this had on their own and their families’ health. The film “explores the heritage of service and sacrifice of the people of Délı̨nę in the making of the atom bomb during the Second World War. It is also a story of what is remembered, forgotten, and silenced in history,” according to the film’s website. It can be viewed here.

What began happening to the Dene starting in the 1930s is mirrored in a foretold Dene legend. As recounted by Claus Biegert in the Uranium Atlas, it goes like this:

“Long before Europeans arrived on their territory, a group of Indigenous hunters returned from hunting caribou and pitched camp for the night near the Great Bear Lake close to a rock they called ‘Somba Ke’. Among them was a Shaman, who sang and drummed until dawn. When the sun came up, he spoke to the hunters of his vision: men with white skin would arrive and tear up the earth in the very place they were camping. They would drill a hole and bring up something from the depths of the earth. They would make sticks from it and these would be flown to the other side of the globe by an iron bird. On the ground where the iron bird dropped the sticks, all life would be destroyed. The victims in his vision looked like the people of the tribe, but they were not. In the future, the medicine man warned, people should stay away from the rock.”

But it was a story that tradition forgot, until it was too late.

And so the Dene travel to meet those people who “looked like the people of the tribe but were not.” As they meet over dinner with Hibakusha, Kenny-Gilda tells them she and her people feel a “gratefulness to all of you for holding up a shining light on a global level, for all the rest of us to follow. I hope that this first visit will become a pilgrimage for peace from our people.”

And the Dene also find kindred spirit with a much forgotten group, at a hospital for Korean Hibakusha. 

The 20,000 Koreans killed during the bombing of Hiroshima are often forgotten, but memorialized. (Photo: Day Nell/Creative Commons)

There were 1000,000 Koreans living and working in Hiroshima at the time the atomic bomb was dropped, some of them forced laborers. An estimated 20,000 of them were killed. As Délı̨nę elder, George Blondin tells them, “I am part of you. Indian law goes like that. There’s no stranger in the world. Everybody is your brother and sister.” The group laughs when someone says he was at first mistaken for a Japanese. Then he goes on: “As an Indian we love each other. Therefore I love you people and I see you as my brother and sister.”

And then the weight of guilt and responsibility returns.

“I worked one day to load the uranium that was loaded on that plane to drop it here,” says Blondin in the film. “I did that one day, that’s all.” 

It’s enough to feel a deep sense of culpability.

Headline photo by Billie Bonsor/Shutterstock

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