‘Doctor Atomic’ & Nuclear Colonialism in Northern New Mexico: A Tewa Perspective

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By Jennifer Marley & Kayleigh Warren

This summer, the Santa Fe Opera will be featuring the contemporary opera Doctor Atomic, which is a story that depicts the experiences of scientists and engineers who worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos National Labs (LANL).  Like most of the rhetoric about the construction of nuclear weapons in the United States, Doctor Atomic centers the personal conflicts and triumphs of the scientists that constructed the world’s most deadly weapon–the atomic bomb. 

However, the story has one glaring absence: the atrocious and ongoing impacts of LANL and the nuclear weapons industry on Pueblo lands and communities. 

To be fair, Doctor Atomic does include Pueblo people in the story through the reproduction of tired tropes that romanticize our culture and existence for entertainment and consumption by the Anglo elite of Santa Fe. In the opera, Pueblo people have a silent role and presence on stage adjacent to “the gadget,” which represents the bomb itself. Pueblo existence is also referenced through a traditional song sung by Oppenheimer’s Tewa nanny, Pasqualita, which is stripped of its original language and rhythm. The opera includes a traditional corn dance, interpreted by the producers of Doctor Atomic as an ode to inclusion and multicultural harmony–two myths of New Mexico’s self-described history that whitewash the state’s ongoing colonial violence against Indigenous peoples. These representations of Pueblo culture and existence trivialize and erase the reality of Pueblo people’s lived experiences within nuclear development in New Mexico. Since it was built in the heart of unceded Tewa territory during World War II, LANL has treated Tewa lands and bodies as a sacrifice zone. The opera glorifies and celebrates this reality that for nearly 80 years, Pueblo lands and bodies are treated as expendable.

The depiction of a mushroom cloud on a traditional Pueblo headdress perfectly encapsulates the twisted message of Doctor Atomic. The opera couples the depiction of Tewa ceremonial practices and imagery with the celebration of the nuclear weapons industry to sanctify the presence of LANL and the so-called benefits of nuclear development. The message is that the atomic bomb holds a position of sanctity on par with the holy lifeways of Tewa people. The kinds of moves that celebrate Native culture in tandem with that which actively kills Indigenous people and other racialized populations is not new–they have been the selling points of New Mexico’s tourist industry for generations.

Dr.Atomic headdress

Since the inception of the Manhattan Project in 1939 and its success in creating the world’s first atomic weapons, Tewa villages have been implicated in New Mexico’s nuclear chain as sacrifice zones. The establishment of LANL at the center of Tewa farmlands, ancestral sites, and critical hunting and gathering grounds forever altered Tewa lifeways. In the years since, the reckless dumping and production habits of LANL’s research have introduced deadly toxins and radiation into the land, water, air, and wildlife in Tewa territories. Tewa communities face cumulative and multiple exposures over long periods of time. For communities who lead land-based lifeways that depend on cultural and natural resources for sustenance, exposure to these toxins is  catastrophic.

Despite this reality, Tewa people have never been consulted or considered by LANL in addressing the fatal impacts that nuclear research and weapons manufacturing have on Tewa lands and lives, not only now but for thousands of years, since it is impossible to ever truly “clean up” nuclear waste. Because of this, current protections and remediation efforts that exist are simply superficial. Federal radiation exposure standards do not serve to protect families who engage in land-based lifeways, since those standards are calibrated with the Reference Man model, a set of physical and lifestyle attributes based off the average Manhattan Project worker that determine “safe levels” of exposure to workers, some clean up standards, and environmental releases. The use of Reference Man in radiation dose calculations is discriminatory against communities of color, and severely underestimates doses to children and women in particular. This underestimation of dose results in an miscalculation of cancer risk. If a woman, a child, and a Reference Man are standing in line, the Reference Man will be least at risk. In areas surrounding nuclear weapons production, Indigenous families are at a constant and extreme risk—especially with the consideration of studies that determine low-level exposure to ionizing radiation cause as much damage as high-level exposure. The cell response to ionizing radioactive exposure is repair, death, or damage. Rapidly dividing cells are more likely to suffer damage or die before repairing themselves, which puts developing fetuses and children at an elevated risk of suffering defects, damage, or death from exposure at any level, as well as an increased chance of harm to the digestive system, bones, and immune system of humans at all ages. In the early 1990s, a report conducted by the US Department of Energy identified over 2100 waste dump sites surrounding LANL, which were revealed to be emitting harmful toxins, including:

    • Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs)
      • Industrial chemicals, which were banned in 1977 after being proved to cause cancer, birth defects, and damage to immune and reproductive systems.
      • PCBs have been detected in LANL stormwater at 40,000 times over the Environmental Protection Agency’s water quality standard (Communities for Clean Water)
    • Gross Alpha Radiation
    • Industrial chemicals, such as
      • 1,4-dioxane
      • Benzo-a-pyrene
      • Perchlorate
    • Heavy metals and radionuclides, such as
      • Plutonium
      • Tritium
      • Chromium-6 (Detected in the regional aquifer supplying Los Alamos County at 24 times the New Mexico groundwater protection standard (Communities for Clean Water)
      • Mercury
      • Arsenic
      • Copper
      • Silver
      • Uranium
      • Zinc

contamination sites

These toxins are known to cause cancer and damage to human anatomy, particularly immune systems, reproductive systems, and the thyroid, liver, and stomach. LANL’s protocol for monitoring groundwater pollution has been identified by the National Academy of Sciences in a 2007 report as unable to provide adequate data on the status of toxic pollution. The report also found that LANL is unable to identify the migration of contamination at an early stage due to the complexity of the watershed pathways that intersect with dump sites and production locations. This same report also found that LANL’s current program is “compromised in their ability to produce water samples that are representative of ambient groundwater for the purpose of monitoring.”

Intergenerational exposure to these toxins is creating a legacy of unnamed sickness on Tewa lands—a non-consensual surrender of ecological wellness and community health to the nuclear activities on the Hill. A non-consensual surrender to existing as a sacrifice people dwelling in a sacrifice zone. This ongoing injustice is looked over in Doctor Atomic, whose producers pride themselves on their “inclusion” of the “real story”- yet refuse to include imagery of the detonation of the atomic bombs in Japan because “art cannot reflect atrocity.” This reflects the ethics of LANL: Tewa people are expendable. Their destruction and misery is the price of progress- but not a true atrocity.

Doctor Atomic reproduces the ideology and practice of nuclear colonialism, which is an extension of the ongoing settler colonial project that seeks to acquire Native land whilst replacing Native peoples with settler populations. The onset of global nuclear colonialism began in some of the most sacred parts of the Tewa world. Over 18,000 acres of Pueblo lands were lost in U.S courts at the start of the Manhattan Project, which signifies the transition into what scholar Joseph P. Masco calls the “plutonium economy” (2013). The emergent plutonium economy rendered Tewa communities unable to sustain basic needs due to the loss of farmlands and traditional hunting and gathering access. The new plutonium economy extended throughout the entire Southwest, prompting other Pueblos and the Navajo Nation to sacrifice lands and labor needed by LANL for continued nuclear production. Following this shift in material conditions, the participation in capitalist economic and social modes beame framed as a step towards “civility” for Pueblo individuals and tribal governments. The result is that Indigenous peoples throughout the region were forced to relinquish their economic independence–one of the pillars of political self-determination–by becoming dependent on the goods produced in nearby bordertowns.

The Manhattan Project served not only as a tool for economic assimilation but also as a tool for cultural assimilation. The settlements (comprised mostly of scientists and engineers) that formed in the Pajarito Plateau took interest in the culture of Tewa communities. As a “tribute” to Tewa people, LANL weapons scientists began referencing Tewa religion in their work. Examples of romantic references to Pueblo beliefs include the naming of the “Tewa Reactor” and the naming of critical research laboratories as “Kivas.” Scientists went as far as building laboratories in the ruins of actual kivas and ancestral sites and disposing of toxic waste in unlined underground structures within the greater Bandelier Historic Site (Masco 2013). Such ruins serve as spiritually active points of connection for Pueblo people.

It is also disturbing that the nuclear industry in New Mexico employs the language of violent patriarchy to glorify their role in “birthing” the atomic bomb (“Birthing Little Boy” and “New Mexico as the birthplace of the atomic bomb” are two key examples), especially at a time when Indigenous peoples and birthworkers are actively reclaiming childbirth as a sacred ceremony premised on matriarchal values and beliefs. The production of Doctor Atomic and its depiction of Tewa people and ceremony is no more than a contemporary rendition of this glorification and mockery that LANL has been using to justify its operations for decades, seeing Tewa people as mythic props while materially sacrificing our bodies and lands.

How then do we make sense of the fact that Pueblo people have enthusiastically participated in Doctor Atomic? We must begin at examining how the capitalist art and tourism industry of Santa Fe has siphoned Native labor and aesthetics to accumulate massive amounts of capital for the Anglo elite. The way in which Indigenous authenticity has become imposed by outsiders as something unchanging, primitive, or ancient has been one of the primary reasons people are forced to perform identity in such a way that de-politicizes Indigenous identity. When talking about the distinct way that capitalism operates in northern New Mexico, it is crucial to discuss how it has operated historically. Santa Fe was one of the first hubs of capitalist expansion in the western hemisphere, and the primary industry that upheld this foreign economic system was a massive slavery network that fed the growth of settlements throughout northern New Mexico up to the 1800s (Correia 2013). The present day art industry still exploits Native artists for their craftsmanship, and obviously ties the labor of the art to the people themselves, as if to buy not only an object but to objectify the people and culture from which art and artifacts come. It is apparent why the two main industries that have kept northern New Mexico afloat–tourism and nuclear development–depend on the objectification and dehumanization of Native people and lands.

Jake Viarrial, former governor of Pojoaque, once stated that, “Nuclear radiation contamination is just a modern version of the polio blanket” (Kosek 2006). At every stage in nuclear production, sacrifice is required. People (but only certain people) and their lands must be sacrificed for the security and power of others. In the case of Los Alamos National Labs, the Manhattan Project, and nuclear weapons manufacturing in northern New Mexico, Tewa lands and bodies have been deemed expendable. By fabricating economic crisis and removing the ability of Native people to live sustainably off their homeland, federal policies that gave rise to nuclear development forever changed the material conditions of Pueblo peoples. From here we see a flagrant construction of Pueblo cultural imagery that is rooted in mysticism, yet romanticized as yet another conquest or a metaphorical siphoning of spiritual power from sacred places. Not only does Tewa identity become something novel in the process of dissociating us from our land and resources, the scientific endeavors of creating the deadliest weapons in the world do as well.



Correia, D (2013). Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico. Athens: University of Georgia Press.

Kosek. J (2006). Understories: The Political Life of Forests in Northern New Mexico. Durham: Duke University Press.

Masco. J (2013). The Nuclear Borderlands: The Manhattan Project in Post-Cold War New Mexico. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

National Research Council. 2007. Plans and Practices for Groundwater Protection at the Los Alamos National Laboratory: Final Report. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press. https://doi.org/10.17226/11883.

The Evidence. (n.d.). Retrieved July 23, 2018 from Communities for Clean Water website: http://ccwnewmexico.org/the-evidence/.