The Manhattan Project

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Rex Buck's Interview

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Rex Buck

Rex Buck, a member of the Wanapum Indian tribe, grew up near the Manhattan Project site at Hanford along the Columbia River. When the government selected Hanford as a site for plutonium production, Buck and the rest of the Wanapum tribes were forced off their land. Buck discusses the impact of being forced off aboriginal lands and how the tribe coped with this event. He also discusses the Indians’ connection with the land and expresses his hope for future generations of Wanapum Indians.
Manhattan Project Location(s): 
Date of Interview: 
September 2003
Location of the Interview: 
Hanford
Transcript: 

[Interviewed by Cynthia Kelly, Tom Zannes, and Thomas E. Marceau.]

Tell us your name.

Rex Buck, Jr.: My name is Rex Buck, Jr. R-E-X B-U-C-K J-R.

What's your Wanapum Indian name?

Buck: My Wanapum Indian name is Puckhyahtoot.

Can you spell that?

Buck: P-U-C-K-H-Y-A-H-T-O-O-T.

What does that mean?

Buck: That means, like, a bunch of birds coming together.

Tell us about the history of your people and how it relates to this land here.

Buck: The Wanapum from this area here, the Wanapum aboriginal traditional land was all the way from present-day Wenatchee over to present-day Moses Lake, Washington, over to the Natchez area and down to the mouth of the Snake and Columbia River. That encountered all of the Wanapum aboriginal traditional areas that were part of the Wanapum's area that they took care of.

What can you tell me about when World War II came along and the government came to claim your land, your ancestral land, for the Manhattan Project?

Buck: Well, I can only tell you what I've been told by my elders, from my father who was here and my grandfather who was still living here and our people that were still living in the area here. And they had a visit by Colonel Matthias when the project was going to start, and he came to the camp up at Priest Rapids and talked to them. 

And it was—very—they didn't know what to think or what to feel, because they didn't understand why they were going to have to leave an area. And they were only given so much time that they were going to have to get the few things that they could take and get. And they had several camps and several storage places that they had stored personal belongings, and also caches that they had different kind of foods and medicines that they had stored in certain areas. And they also had some equipment that they used for fishing. That’s unique to the Hanford area here, that technique is unique to here that they had stored. And so, you know, they didn't know what to think and how to feel about that. And they just felt like they were losing something that they didn't know what they did or why they were going to not be able to continue to go to the places that they always had gone to.

Were they told that this would be temporary?

Buck: What they understood is that this would be just for the war, that in order to protect the United States of America that they were going to do something here that was going to help protect it. And that when the war was over, that they would be able to come back and that they would be able to reclaim and do some of the things that they had always done. So they felt good about that, but that never did happen that way as time went on.

Where did the tribe go during the War?

Buck: Up to Priest Rapids, which was a winter campsite. That was the only place then that was left for them to go to continue on with living because that was—that is an old place that was utilized for years and years and it's a very sacred place to the Wanapum people.

What happened after the war?

Buck: What happened is that—there was a project that came in to build Priest Rapids and Wanapum dams are the Priest Rapids project. And because that was going to inundate the islands and the village campsite there, they had nowhere else to go. Because they had their area, which is the Yakima Training Center, today's Yakima Training Center was cut off, the Hanford area was cut off, and they were right at the corner, they had nowhere else to go so—

[Pause for dust devil.]

Buck: I guess, back to your question, you know, really what happened is never—we never ever lost our tie and our belief of our ways, that these ways would take care of us. And we continue to do that as—strictly as it was said that we needed to do it. And that's what is taking care of us and that's what happened, is that our people strongly believed that they would be taken care of and they didn't let something come at them that was not from—that was going to divide them and lose something and change it for the benefit of change. We were going to stick strictly to the way things were supposed to be done and the way things had to be done. And they continued to live like that, even in the areas that were restricted, you know, they made pleas to come out to visit the sites in Hanford. Even though they were under heavy guard, during those times, military guard to visit sites, they visit sites, they did things that they had to do and carry on the best that they can. 

And then as time went on, they always continued to develop those relationships with the Atomic Energy Commission and Department of Energy, so that they could be heard about the things that were important to them, the things that they wanted protected and the things that they wanted preserved and the sensitivity of those thing. And that's what they did, is they continued to work towards those kind of goals, to make sure that their presence was unbroken. It was never that there was a broken when they left they never came back, they continued to seek whatever alternatives there were to maintain what was important to them.

How has that worked over the last sixty years?

Buck: Well, you know, in some ways it's worked real well and then in other ways it might not have worked so well. So you know, it’s a balancing of the things that are important and trying to continue to help whoever takes care—whoever has the responsibility for taking care of this place, to deal with it and listen to the issues that are of concern so that native people can continue on with doing the things that they have to do. Because you look at it and you think we have control over something. And we think we're doing something that is—that we're the ones that's going to make something happen. But, you know, you look around the Pacific Northwest here and you look around this area here, and what place is the most richest in having the things—the way things were for hundreds if not thousands of years. And this is probably one of the prime, or one of the prime places, if not the prime place that has everything here.

And we believe that this land, through how it's interpreted, is—takes care of itself and takes care of us, the people that were put here. And it's not just—it’s just not a thing that we have control over, it's something that's bigger. And there's a lot of things out here that are still very sacred and very important to us and we never want to give those up to—for no reason, because we can't. We don't have the authority to do that. Because everything, how it was interpreted and how it was put here, that's how it has to remain. I can't change it and interpret it in another way. I have to interpret it the way it was from generation upon generation, orally and traditionally, so that it can perpetuate and live that way. So that's how it is.

And over these years you've had some access to the site for important religious ceremonies?

Buck: Very limited, you know, at first but as time is going on now here in the last probably, at least ten years if maybe a little bit not longer than—we’ve been granted a little more unrestrictive use of the areas, although it's not to where we would like it to be but it is—it’s a lot better than it was, you know, in the 40s.

How has the population of the tribe changed over the years?

Buck: You know, I think it's maintained its sense of, you know, we've increased a little bit but not very much. The ones that actually live here but, and still live on the boundary of this site, you know. But there, you know, I think it's across the board probably maintained pretty much the same.

Do you ever think about what could have been if there hadn’t been any government acquisition of the land for the war effort?

Buck: Well, you know, that's what I say, you know. I can think about what could have been, you know, if there was no acquisition of this land, but it would all be speculation and really wouldn't go nowhere, you know, because who knows what could have happened, you know. There's a lot of things that were going on here that were happening and you could only speculate with the way, and the prime things that the water provide—opportunities that water and electricity provides it, you know, it could have really went in an opposite direction, you know, but it's all speculation. You know, it's just—but I think it was heading that way in my personal opinion, you know.

So it might have developed in other ways?

Buck: Well, yeah, it's—and we believe that that was the sense of the land. That's how strong the things were being interpreted, and how long that those things had been and always has been interpreted is because some of the most—some of the more, I shouldn't say more—some of the areas that are very sensitive to us that we don't talk about are within the protected areas and the boundaries of the area here. Although the reactors and stuff and the contamination today is very of concern to us, not only to us but to probably to human race itself and that—but yet at the same time we feel that, you know, there has been protection and preservation here that wouldn't have been here with the Manhattan Project not have been selected to be here. 

Yes, we lost a lot. We lost a lot of people, lost a lot of personal things, a lot of people lost a lot of things. We lost because we didn't get to come here, but we were very—had an opportunity to still live in that type of an atmosphere where we were told about these things and we could identify with them when we got to come here. And so that's important to us, you know. We knew about them and we were still living here, and we still live next to the river and we never ever left so—and we always were concerned about this place. We never—broke no gap in there so—that’s how things are.

What's the importance of the Columbia River?

Buck: You know, the river is very important to us and the fishery that—one of the main fisheries that we had in the fall time was here at the White Bluffs area and that type of fishery was—there was two types of fisheries that we did there. One of—they were both off the canoe but one of them was we—they speared the fish at night and the other one was that they drifted a gill net at night to catch the fish. And there was lots of technique that was developed through generations on that type of a fishery in this area and it provided a rich amount of food for us to survive in the wintertime. But also it provided us the connection with something that we had to have because it was important to us.

What was the main kind of fish that you were fishing for?

Buck: These were the fall Chinook. Summer hogs, and more some summer and then in the fall time, you know, we were getting a lot of them and Steelheads, and also they were getting other kind of fish that they were catching, too, you know, Suckers and stuff like that. And even eels, you know, they would get some eels, too, you know.

How did the closing of the site effect transmission of knowledge to future generations?

Buck: Well, you know, it didn't provide an atmosphere of where you could actually be on the site and you could identify with how important that those things are to us. It didn’t—when they closed the site, they took away—just like you would say, they took away a part of you, that's how our people felt, they took something away from us that was a part of us. And when they took that away, we didn't know how to feel about it because we never had that done to us. Our people never had that done to us and when they took that away it was really not good, you know. And they couldn't transfer that knowledge because that knowledge couldn’t be transferred because it was hard to transfer it, you know. I don't know how to put it, you know.

What was it like when you first got to come back to the site?

Buck: I felt like I was walking in somewhere that was important to who I was, you know, and I wanted to know about it. I wanted to—I could feel it, but I wanted to understand it more. That's how I felt. I could feel something. I came with a bunch of elders, and they were talking in the native language. And I—my body could feel it, but I didn't really get the understanding of it because, I mean, I didn't know something was—I wanted to—I wanted them to talk more because they were telling stories about different things, people, things that they did, where they lived, who lived where, where the camp was at, you know, and it was just like a book, you know, but it was living, you know.

Are there any places you haven't been able to get to?

Buck: Recently?

Yeah.

Buck: No, uh uh. Not recently. There's no place that we haven't been able to get to. But, you know, the relationship that we've developed with the Department of Energy and some of their people that are helping them do the work here, has permitted us to identify—and things that are—that were real so today, you know, as we’re talking about these things, it brought things back, too, you know, by being a part of the process it brought things back that might have not been brought back because some of that knowledge, oral knowledge, was generations upon generations so what we could see on the surface, we couldn't identify with what was underneath. 

And it—you know, how—when the land was—when the things were taking place, and what was happening, we couldn't—didn't have no feeling to it because our—or we couldn't get it in our minds but as we were working with the process here with cleanup and some of the things that weren't identified, it showed then—it helped understanding what those oral things we're talking about, that they were real, you know. I'm not saying we doubted them or I doubted them, but I'm saying that you could parallel it then with geological events that were recorded, you know, or could be looked at so—you know, that's okay.

How important is it for kids to have access to the site?

Buck: It's really important. You know, I think that's something that the elders have always says is we've got to get our kids on the site but at the same time they were afraid for the kids because they don't—we don't understand where—what might be good or not good, you know, so. But I think as much as we can we want to try to get our kids on the site because we have to get them on the site. That's the only way they're going to know, you know, is by getting them on the site.

You know, they have to be able to be out here. They have to be able to stand on this land and they have to be able to look and identify things from what their mind is so they can see it and know and really get a connection with those things. Otherwise there's too much influences today by what goes on, you know, with TVs and other things that—they go too fast, they don't take the time to sit down and think so, you know. I'd like to see them get out here, too, as soon as we can get kids out here, you know. 

We can have tours, you know, that are provided opportunity tours but they're so—they’re not where you can really be something, you know. It's not—there’s something missing. The tours—it’s always a tour, you know. It's not like going out there and sitting along the river and listening to the elements and identifying those things that are important to us. And really realizing what is there.

How is your attitude towards the site?

Buck: You know, my attitude, because I've been out here for so long, I don't feel threatened, you know. I know there's areas that I can't go to, and because I've been—somewhat told that, you know, those are areas that you guys—different people are working on until—and they have to have special suits and stuff like that. Well, I don't feel that that bothers me, but I feel comfortable. You know, I feel comfortable about being out here. You know, I even come out here myself, you know, with an elder or even sometimes myself that I come out here and go to places and do things that I need to do, you know, to take care of this place, you know.

Is that different in the last few years?

Buck: Oh, yes. Definitely. Yeah, in the last few years it's really made some strides in our accessibility, yeah. Yeah.

Can you tell us about the future?

Buck: Well, you know, you ask and something there that is prophecy, has been through the generations, have been told about the changes that were coming. Some of those changes have come to pass and some of them we're seeing today. And all of those have been interpreted and we know that the time is going to come when that—we’re going to have to make sure that we're ready and we're in the place that we need to be where we were put. That's why our people would never leave this place because we have to continue to live here, we have to continue to do our part to this land. And we have to identify with those messages that are coming and interpret that.

And what that means is you can't interpret something by going it—archivable and educated and you going interpret something. These things that are around us and how the message comes down certain time of the year, certain time you have to be in a certain place when everything lines up just right. And when that light changes, that message will come and you have to be there to receive that message that's going to tell you what that prophecy is interpreted as. And that's what will happen. 

So these things are real to us and that thing—that’s how we live. We live by that generation upon generation, and that's how we're going to continue to live. The crystal ball that you're talking about is something that is a theory that we can only theorize about what's going to happen. But our people know because they’ve seen these things because they had the strong belief, you know, we have that strong belief in—and you know, I could interpret something for you—but it's not going to go nowhere, because you're not going to understand what I'm telling you. 

Only the sound will identify itself. And that's what—that’s why everything in this land here—water. It interprets certain things. This land, the way the land is set up. It interprets other things. The words are kept in a certain place and when all the things line up just right, you have to be there. if you're late, you're there at the wrong time, you didn't listen. You didn't understand. You're going to miss it. You're not going to hear when the message comes, so you have to be observant. So that's the only way I can answer you on that question. And maybe I didn't answer your question, so.

[Tape switch.]

Can you talk about the land in the physical form?

Buck: Yes, I think your—you know, like I say, the land is going to protect us but we got to echo those—we got to echo those things that are important. We can't live one way and then do something else another way. We have to do it the way it was supposed to be done and the way it was put here and continued to live that way. That way the land will be able to help itself. If we don't, the land can't help itself because we are part of the land.

Don't hit the mic please.

Buck:The Indian is part of the land, you know. The Indian is the land. And that's just the way it is. There's no difference about it. You know, that's just how it is. That's how the connection is the—we are part of this land. Our people are here, generations upon generations were put here and we're always going to be here.

Is there anything you want others to know?

Buck: Well, I think, you know, there's—people want something. People want to understand something because people might not know who they are. People might not understand why they are or where they come from. They're just here. That's it. Us, we were put here. We've always been here. We didn't come from nowhere. Someone has theory about us coming from somewhere. We weren't—we didn't come from nowhere. We were put here and we're still here. And that's how it is. 

And all of these resources that we take care of were put here to provide for us. We don't have to do things to go out and disturb something that we shouldn't disturb so that we can have our subsistence. It's all provided for us right here. But we have responsibilities to those things and somebody wants to understand that because the resources are getting less. They're looking around seeking something because things are getting bad. Too many things going on. And they don't know what to do. So that's what I think. That's what, you know, I feel that people want to know something but this be—don’t belong to me. It belongs to our children and it belongs to our grandchildren and those that aren't born. Belongs to them. We're just here to take care of it. And pass it on to them. 

The rest, I don't know what's going to happen. Somebody's going to come and, you know, I hear they're getting the moon ready, you know. They're probably all going to move up there maybe, I don't know. Who knows. A lot of things going on. Maybe they landed in Mars and they found ocean up there, I think, so maybe they getting ready for that. So there's a lot of things that they might do, I don't know, but that's if you want to say what they—I want them to know that's what I want them to know. We were put here and we're not going nowhere.

[End.]