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Making Visible: Hanford Sturgeon and Indigenous Nuclear Art

In his June 2018 letter, MSU Museum Director Mark Auslander reflects on a remarkable Native American basket in the Museum’s collection, by artist Pat Courtney Gold, evoking radioactive contamination along the Columbia River. The work may highlight both environmental dangers and the striking resilience of animals and persons in the face of long-term crisis.

The artist Paul Klee long ago remarked, “Art does not show what is visible. Instead it makes visible.” Klee’s rather cryptic insight is beautifully illustrated by one of the most remarkable works in the Museum’s collections, a ‘sally bag” woven basket by the Wasco (Warm Springs) Native American artist Pat Courtney Gold, who lives in mid-Oregon. In this work, the artist signals the long-term dangers posed by radioactive exposure from the Hanford nuclear facility, a massive plutonium production complex along the Columbia River, which remains the most environmentally contaminated site in our entire hemisphere.

Science and Societybasket woven by Pat Courtney Gold

Gold’s basket will be showcased this summer, when the Museum partners with the MSU Asian Studies Center to host a group of Michigan and Japanese high school students studying science and society in the nuclear age. The students will initially gather on the MSU campus for workshops on the history of nuclear science, nuclear weapons, and anti-nuclear social movements. They will then travel together to Hiroshima and to Fukushima, to explore the complex legacies of nuclear weapons and radioactive contamination in the modern world.

During their time in the MSU Museum, the students will contemplate and write about Gold’s striking basket. Gold’s ancestors lived for millennia along the Columbia River, a magnificent 1,200 mile-long river that long provided abundant fish and other resources for indigenous peoples. In recent decades, Columbia river fish populations have been dangerously impacted by run-off from toxic chemicals used in large farms, and, it is widely believed in many local communities, by radioactive contamination from Hanford, which was the site of the nation’s pre-eminent plutonium production facility during World War II and the Cold War.

Producing plutonium, the core component of modern strategic nuclear weapons, generates many radioactive byproducts and other toxic chemicals. Although plutonium production at Hanford ceased in 1988, at least 160 million gallons of nuclear waste are stored in large tanks, many of which are leaking their contents. (By some estimates, Hanford has leached four times more radioactive contaminants into the surrounding ecosystem than Chernobyl.) The US Department of Energy spends over two billion dollars each year in continuing efforts to remediate nuclear waste risks at Hanford, risks which many scientists and activists fear may be intractable.

Seeing the Unseen

Building on her background in Mathematics and Physics, as well as indigenous aesthetic traditions, Gold ingeniously confronts a challenge that many contemporary artists have grappled with: how to signal the presence of ionizing radiation, which human beings cannot detect along the visible spectrum?

Gold, who has played an important role in reviving the ancient sally bag weaving tradition, often integrates classical and contemporary dynamics in her art. In keeping with Wasco conventions, the basket is framed by a ground line and a sky line, and draws on abstracted design features used in ancient sacred petroglyphs created by indigenous peoples along the Columbia. We see the repeated design of five sturgeons, fish honored by the Native peoples of the Pacific Northwest for their strength, size and longevity. The fish bear small eruptions along their sides, evoking deformities causes by environmental pollution. The bottom-most sturgeon’s deformities are laced with iridescent synthetic threads, which, the artist explains, signals the radioactive isotopes that have gradually seeped into the Columbia River system over the past seven decades. Sturgeon, as apex predators in the river, are likely to accumulate higher levels of irradiating contaminants within their bodies, and may run higher risks of genetic damage than other organisms in the river.

An indigenous spiritual leader who lives along the Columbia River near the Hanford facility once explained to me that normally the sun activates positive energy inside of all of us— in persons, animals and plants—binding us into productive circles of exchange and co-existence, so that we all radiate a life-sustaining inner light. Radiation from nuclear weapons production, he explained, has a different impact, since the creation of these weapons is driven by fear and anger. Rather than stimulating positive energy, this kind of ionizing radiation, to his mind, catalyzes negative organic activity, turning bodies against themselves in the form of cancer and related illnesses.

A Captivating Basket

Speculatively, Gold may be evoking a comparable view of things. The deformities on each sturgeon are created by the weave of the basket poking through, as it were, the stylized body of each fish. Is she subtly signaling that the prodigious energies of the Columbia River, which normally should be giving life and nutrients to these magnificent beings, are instead corrupting and penetrating their very bodies? The shimmering quality of the river surface, which is in normal times hypnotically beautiful, here becomes, through iridescent threads, a violating energy, radiating out from within the fish feeding along the river bottom, increasingly laden with heavy metals.

Detail of basket woven by Pat Courtney GoldBetween each row of swimming fish, Gold has woven geometric designs evoking sturgeon roe, delicious source of caviar celebrated around the world. At one level, the fish egg motif reminds us of the dangers of consuming contaminated river products. At the same time, I suspect that Gold, who takes the long view of human and natural history, may be expressing a degree of hope. Each egg, after all, signals an investment in the future, and Gold may be expressing faith that, amidst all the challenges that face us and our animal brothers and sisters, life will in time prevail.

I am especially fascinated by the base of the basket, which contains three concentric circles of red, white, and blue. Gold explains that through these colors she honors those serving in the armed services in the undeclared wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wonder if, in addition, she is hinting at a double message about the national project. Hanford was long celebrated as critical to the national security mission; it produced the plutonium used in the Nagasaki atomic bomb near the end of World War II, and produced most of the plutonium in the US strategic nuclear reserve, which played such an important role in the Cold War. Is the artist reminding us of the long-term costs of military victory, in terms of hidden histories of mass violence and the legacies of unresolved environmental contamination at innumerable nuclear weapons testing and production sites? Hanford itself is labeled, in some government documents, as a “national sacrifice zone,” that may never be rendered entirely fit for human habitation. The sturgeon of the lower Columbia river, and by extension all of us who drink water, breathe air, and eat natural products, may long bear the invisible scars of our atomic age.

Thus, Pat Courtney Gold accomplishes what Paul Klee considered the essence of art—making visible that which was beyond conventional sight. In her captivating basket we see, with new eyes, our shared national, and global predicament. Gazing upon her shimmering glowing threads, we learn to see long-hidden energies that lurk just below the surface of our perceptions, flowing beneath an ancient life-giving river of memory.

Pat Courtney Gold discusses the “Hanford Sturgeon” basket in this video edited by Penelope Phillips: https://vimeo.com/228218542