Steve Russell

The Half-Life of Indians

Half-life refers to how long it takes for radioactive material to lose half of its radioactivity. In spite of extensive blood quantum research and years of containment, social science has not yet determined the half-life of Indians. My cousin Ray Sixkiller is a living example of the problem.

Ray came over to watch March Madness on my flat screen, which to him means basketball. I personally got the roundball wind knocked out of my sails when the Butler Bulldogs put the bite on my beloved Indiana Hoosiers. Butler used to be a pre-season tune up game for us. So my March Madness was coming from Japan, courtesy of CNN. Ray did not appreciate my negative opinions about nuclear power.

“Why do you hate freedom?” This has been one of Ray’s stock lines since he fell in with the Tea Party.

“OK, Ray, I’ll bite. Why do I hate freedom? What does nuclear power have to do with freedom?”

“Do you intend to quit watching basketball on the big screen?”

“Only until IU starts beating Butler again.”

“So where do you get off complaining about nuclear electricity? It’s the most democratic source of power in the world!”

“I never looked at electrons as having much politics, Ray. They just march in step through those little wires and always do what they’re told. Those electrons brewed that tea you are drinking. They make Oklahoma cool in the summer and warm in the winter. Electrons work hard and they just follow orders.”

“Well Steve, let’s look at the downside of those disciplined electrons. Are they safe?”

Figuring he really wanted to talk about radiation, I replied: “Nuclear power is perfectly safe…until it isn’t. More people have been killed in coal mining accidents than nuclear accidents. And that’s not even counting the people made sick from air pollution.

“Then there’s oil and gas. If you lived by the refinery in Bristow, where I grew up, you needed to trade cars every couple of years because the air would eat the paint. It’s that way near the refineries on the Gulf Coast now. Can you imagine what that air does to people’s lungs? And there’s that new method of producing natural gas from shale where you can light your tap water on fire just like that guy in the documentary.

“Of course, here in Oklahoma we get a lot of our juice from hydropower. No problem with that, right?”

I quickly realized my blunder. Ray played the traditionalist card, giving me a long lecture about the effects of dam-building, wagging his finger in my face because I forgot about tribal people who have lost their salmon runs just like the Plains tribes lost the buffalo and with a similar impact on their culture. Then he delivered the knockout blow by reminding me that the Tennessee Valley Authority put Cherokee sacred sites in places where they can only be reached with scuba gear. By the time his peroration was done, I was ready to turn off the lights.

“Steve,” Ray pressed his advantage, “you are always saying tribes should get involved with solar and wind power, but you know that won’t work. The sun does not always shine and the wind does not always blow.”

“You’re right, Ray, but it doesn’t have to be that way. That’s the reason for the smart grid. You’ll say there’s no chemical battery or capacitor that will store that much power, but there are flywheels, compressed air, water and gravity systems…”

“Pipe dreams, Steve. The government would have to get involved to make that happen. You can’t have the government picking the winners in a fair competition.”

“Fair competition? Are you out of your gourd? There’s never been a nuclear power plant without government guarantees. No private company would ever insure a nuke. The profits are private and the risks are public. The taxpayers even guarantee the loans to build the things—two just this year, one in Georgia and one in Texas.”

“That’s democracy! When coal goes bad, people die in West Virginia. When oil goes bad, people die in Louisiana. But nukes go bad in Japan and the radiation already showed up in California. When that nuke went bad in the Soviet Union, there was radiation in dairy products all over Europe. Nukes hurt a lot more people than a few Navajo uranium miners, and all the nuke waste will never stay on the Goshute Rez or that Nevada land the feds stole off the Shoshones. We are all in this nuke thing together. Which reminds me, I have another business idea.”

“Now what?”

“I’ve had my eye on a building up on Lake Tenkiller. We could put a sushi restaurant in the front. Supply it with fish from Japan. Candlelight dinners for the tourists with no candles. And in the back, a bait shop for the locals. Live bait that glows!”

“Selling sushi and bait in the same building? Oh man, one of your crackpot ideas finally convinced me.”

“You want to invest?”

“No. I want to switch the channel back to basketball. Go Bulldogs.”

Steve Russell, Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, is a Texas trial court judge by assignment and associate professor emeritus of criminal justice at Indiana University-Bloomington. He is a columnist for Indian Country Today. He lives in Georgetown, Texas, and can be reached at


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The Half-Life of Indians