Fissile Cultures

From a land of rivers once full of fish and hills rich with wildlife – now a site with a couple stable nuclear reactors – Rex Buck, Jr., with an aged brown face trimmed with braided strands of hair, clad in plaid and blue jeans, stands before a standing crowd of pale faces. His hands are upraised, and he calls out a prayer that fills the hall. He is glad to be here, he is proud of the exhibit he is christening, and he is glad they built a nuclear facility atop his ancestral lands.

On the wall behind Rex is a projected image of the logo for the exhibit Particles on the Wall, an atomic symbol with an origami paper crane at its center. The exhibit is sponsored by the Museum of Culture and Environment located inside Dean Hall on the northeast side of the Central Washington University campus in Ellensburg, Washington. It tells the story of how the Manhattan Project – a momentous scientific project to develop fission and the nuclear bomb – shaped the culture, industry and history of the lower Columbia River. Rex is a representative of the Wanapum Indians, a tribe who willingly gave up their home to a site that would contribute directly to the bombing of Nagasaki.

In 1942, the United States was embroiled in World War II, the largest war in human history. While supporting its allies in Europe, the US was also fighting a war against the Empire of Japan in the Pacific Ocean. American leaders were worried about the research being done in Germany to exploit the energies of the atom. In splitting the atoms of a fissile material like plutonium or uranium, huge amounts of energy were released. Science conceived it as an energy source. Governments conceived it as a weapon.

That same year, a group that had been researching development of nuclear fission since 1939 was placed under the command of the United States Army Corps of Engineers. Over the next year, dozens of sites were prepared to support the project, but most of the land fell within sites named Oak Ridge, Los Alamos and Hanford. Between these three sites, the US government had acquired over 150,000 acres for research, development and testing. Much of the design and testing took place around Los Alamos, but enrichment took place at the other sites. The uranium for the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was enriched at Oak Ridge and the plutonium for the bomb dropped on Nagasaki came from Hanford.

Hanford is located in the southeast corner of Washington state, outside a town named Richland. Prior to 1943, Richland was a small farm town of little note. When the US Army acquired an area nearby approximately half the size of the state of Rhode Island, evicting 300 residents of Richland and the entire towns of White Bluffs and Hanford in the process, Richland was transformed into a bedroom community for the Hanford Site overnight. Between 1943 and 1945, Richland’s population rose from 300 to 25,000.

Township evictions aside, the bulk of the land the Army acquired for Hanford largely belonged to the Wanapum Indians, a tribe that had occupied the territory as far back as history records. The Wanapum tribe once occupied the banks of the Columbia River from atop the Priest Rapids to the confluence of the Snake and Columbia Rivers. Their name means “river people” in the Sahaptin language – the primary language spoken by the tribes of the Columbia Basin in modern-day Washington, Oregon and Idaho.



White water sprays over the tip of the canoe, a tree trunk hallowed out, shaped and smoothed by hands and stones. The Snake River is swift and rocks obstruct the path.

“They’re caught back there, William,” Meriwether Lewis, a dignified and slender man with hair the color of aged wood, calls to his companion. In a nearby canoe, William Clark – a slightly older man – turns to look, his short light-brown hair resisting the pull of the stiff winds cutting across the water. His eyes settle on one of the expedition canoes, full of supplies and manned by a pair of Nez Perce Indians, stuck on a rock. The canoe rocked violently as the river relentlessly followed its course.

“We’ll have to retrieve them,” Clark responded.

Much of the morning was spent retrieving the canoe, and its crew and cargo. Once all were safe on land, the Lewis and Clark Expedition re-loaded the canoes and traveled much of the afternoon down more such rapids, though more carefully now than before. For one part of the river, the expedition was forced to exit the canoes once more and march across land for about a mile before settling back into the river.

Late in the afternoon, one of the Nez Perce guides turned to Lewis and spoke in a tongue none of the white men could understand. Immediately, he followed the words with signs to indicate that the rapids were ending. The canoes lurched forward and sped through section after section of river, though less obstructed now by the rocky obstacles. As the sun sat low against the western horizon, a wide space opened before the expedition. A larger river, deep blue from edge to edge and water moving swiftly at the surface, joined the Snake.

“We had better make camp before it gets too dark,” Lewis shouted to the canoes behind him and with the help of his guides, pushed the canoe to the side of the massive river. A village sat at the fork of the two rivers. As the canoes were pulled up on the banks of the river and unloaded, Clark sought out his superior.

“There must be 200 savages in that encampment at the fork.”

“We should see if they have anything to trade,” Lewis responded. “First, we’ll make camp.”


The surrounding country was smooth and level with not a tree to be seen as far as vision allowed. There were a few willows scattered along the shores of the river, and at the base of the fork, sat a large settlement of Yakama and Wanapum Indians. The dwellings were primarily teepees – long thin sticks lashed together at their zenith with crude rope and sides covered in hide. The Indians welcomed the expedition and were happy to trade. A sergeant in the expedition, John Ordway, recorded the event in his journal:

They Sold us eight fat dogs and Some fresh sammon. In the evening the whole band came Singing in their way to our Camp around our fires and Smoaked with us, and appeared verry friendly. They have pleanty of beeds Copper & brass trinkets, about them which they Sign to us that they got them from Some tradors on a River to the North of this place.




Just twelve miles north along the Columbia, where this important meeting of cultures occurred, a stone slab is supported by a column of brick on either side. There is a large “R” etched into the stone, with a mushroom cloud ascending over it. Above the image it reads, “Richland High School” – to the side, “Home of the Bombers”.

The school is a series of blocky buildings, mostly red brick. On the walls of the school gym, a mural is painted depicting a B-17 Bomber, also famously known as the Flying Fortress. In the wake of the D-Day operation, in which thousands of Allied forces stormed the beaches of Normandy to begin the reclamation of Europe from Hitler’s Germany, the workers of Hanford were so moved by the sacrifice that over 50,000 of them donated a full day’s pay to a collection effort. The resulting sum was nearly $300,000.

The workers donated the money to the Army Air Force, which was put directly to the building of a B-17 Bomber by the Boeing Company in Seattle, Washington. On July 23, 1944, in a ceremony at Hanford Airport, the plane was christened “Day’s Pay”. It quickly became a symbol of the community. Though Day’s Pay was assigned to the European Theater (where it flew nearly 70 missions before the end of the war), this was not the only contribution the workers of Hanford made to the effort.

In May of 1945, the defeat of Germany set all eyes on the Pacific Theater. Japan remained at war with the Allies, though it had ceded nearly all of its Pacific territories to Allied forces and had largely retreated to the mainland. President Harry S. Truman was faced with the difficult task of subduing the Empire of Japan. An invasion of the mainland would be a costly campaign, sure to result in massive casualties for both sides. The Japanese had been extremely resilient in giving up the outer islands they had colonized. They would surely defend their homeland with an unimaginable ferocity. Truman sought other options.

For the past year, both Oak Ridge and Hanford had been enriching large quantities of fissile materials in their reactors for testing and eventual deployment of the atomic bomb. By the summer of 1945, the materials were not only abundant, but ready to be deployed. The uranium from Oak Ridge was incorporated into the bomb codenamed “Little Boy”, and the plutonium from Hanford was incorporated into “Fat Man”.

After extensive deliberation with his advisors, Truman ordered the bombs to be delivered by the Army Air Force to the Pacific Fleet. On August 7, 1945, a B-29 Superfortress bomber named “Enola Gay” departed from the island Tinian with Little Boy in its hold. The bomb was released over the downtown area of Hiroshima in the southwest of Japan. The resulting blast and fireball instantly killed over 70,000 Japanese citizens, approximately a third of the city’s population. Another 70,000 were injured by the detonation. Over 90 percent of the city’s medical staff were killed or injured. Over the next five years, deaths directly resulting from the detonation of Little Boy would climb to over 200,000 – mostly from cancer and other effects of radiation.

The devastation of Hiroshima not enough to cause immediate surrender of the Japanese, the American administration decided to continue with a second bombing. Just two days later, another B-29 nicknamed “Bockscar”, departed from the same island carrying Fat Man. This time the target was Nagasaki, 200 miles south and west of Hiroshima. This time, the target was a district of factories producing war materials – primarily the Mitsubishi-Urakami Ordnance Works, which produced the torpedoes that were used in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Despite the Nagasaki target being less civilian than Hiroshima, the detonation over Nagasaki resulted in the immediate deaths of as many as 75,000 people. The fireball reached a temperature of 3900 degrees Celsius, over half the temperature of the Sun. Winds of over 600mph blew outward from ground zero. The immediate devastation stretched a mile across, and fires burned throughout the city. The bombing resulted in an immediate and total surrender by the Empire of Japan. The United States had ended the most devastating war in human history with a brutal display of modern technology. Regarding the method by which he ended the war, Truman had this to say:

I realize the tragic significance of the atomic bomb… It is an awful responsibility which has come to us… We thank God that it has come to us, instead of to our enemies; and we pray that He may guide us to use it in His ways and for His purposes.

A photograph of Sumiteru Taniguchi’s back injuries taken Nagasaki in January 1946

After the end of the Second World War, the former Columbia High of Richland, Washington was renamed to Richland High School, and the mascot was changed from the Beavers to the Bombers. It was only natural, considering the end they had helped to bring to the war in the Pacific Theater, that an atomic mushroom cloud should become the school logo. At the time, no one considered it distasteful or inappropriate to memorialize the masses of dead Japanese citizens with such a prominent display of hubris – as long as the attribution of power and victory fell to God. This still appears to be the prevailing notion among residents of Richland. Or else, how might this symbol remain a representative of the high school? How else might a paper crane at the center of an atomic symbol adequately represent the sacrifice the Japanese made in an exhibit dedicated nearly 70 years after the bombings?

Comparison of Nagasaki before and after detonation of Fat Man


For all the contributions the workers of Hanford made, a still greater contribution stands as the lynchpin holding this entire series of events together. Had it not been for the small tribe Lewis and Clark discovered along the Columbia, all of this might not have happened. One of the notable Columbia Basin tribes that did not participate in the bloody Yakima War between the United States Army and the Yakama and allied tribes was the Wanapum. The diminutive tribe, sparsely populated and occupying a relatively small territory, was overlooked. White settlers had already built up communities around the land the Wanapum occupied and as they were not considered a threat, they became one of the few Native American tribes in U.S. history to not sign a treaty and be forcibly relocated to a reservation.

The Wanapum culture permeated the Native American societies of the Columbia Basin. They followed the Waashat Religion, or Washani (meaning “Dreamer Religion”). One of their most famous leaders during the 19th century was Smohalla, a dreamer-prophet who advocated a revitalization of traditional Indian culture. He promoted a return to Washani rituals, claiming divine influence through visions. Smohalla exhorted his followers to reject the beliefs and goods of the white settlers and re-established ceremonial music and dancing. His charismatic “Shouting Mountain” speech inspired the tribes of the Columbia Basin and gained adherents throughout the region, among them Chief Joseph of the Nez Perce and Kotiakan, a prophet of the Yakama. They believed that following traditional rituals, nature would return to its original state and the white settlers would disappear. Instead of violent conflict, they advocated prayer.

Following the Yakima War, the United States Army eventually forced the Nez Perce to leave their home. Not wanting to be relocated to a reservation, over 800 Nez Perce and Palouse, led by Chief Joseph, fled eastward toward Montana seeking refuge with the Crow and the Lakota tribes. They were harried by the Army along the path, with multiple battles resulting in relatively equal casualties for both sides. The Army troops outnumbered the Nez Perce warriors six to one, and possessed full provisions and equipment. The Nez Perce warriors numbered 250 and protected nearly 600 women and children. Chief Joseph seeking always to avoid the fighting, stuck true to the Washani teachings, and eventually surrendered. A statement that has been attributed to Joseph following the surrender echoes in history: “From where the sun now stands, I will fight no more forever.”

Just prior to the flight of the Nez Perce in May 1877, General Howard, the man that would eventually force the surrender of Chief Joseph, met with Smohalla and Chief Moses near the mouth of the Snake River. He accused Smohalla of preaching a religion that was “calculated to appeal to the Indians and stir them up against the whites.” Smohalla assured him that they only wanted peace and the right to occupy their ancestral lands. He met with General Howard again two months later at Fort Simcoe and agreed to relocate his people to the Yakama Reservation. During the Nez Perce War, the Wanapum relocated as Smohalla had promised, but afterward returned to their home at P’na Village, along the Priest Rapids of the Columbia River.

Smohalla passed away in 1895 after teaching his beliefs to his son Yoyouoni, nicknamed Little Smohalla, and his nephew Puck Hyah Toot. After his death, his position was passed on to Yoyouoni, but in 1917, Yoyouoni died while hunting in the Colockum Mountains, southwest of Wenatchee. The position fell to Puck Hyah Toot who married Yoyouoni’s widow. Puck Hyah Toot later became known to the white settlers of Priest Rapids as Johnny Buck. Johnny Buck would go on to become an advocate for Wanapum fishing rights and the right to remain at Priest Rapids. He would also become a grandfather to Rex Buck, Jr.




The hall listens quietly as Rex chants out a long song with shifting melodies and repeating themes. Occasionally a familiar word or two reclaims the wandering attention of the audience: Wanapum, Hanford. The curator nods solemnly from the sideline, certain he appreciates the meaning of the prayer. In truth, there is probably no other person in the hall that understands the Sahaptin tongue reverberating over their heads. There is only a handful in the entirety of Ellensburg that do. Still, for these few minutes, gratitude of the audience knows no bounds.


The audience might imagine a scene in which Rex stands atop a mountain beside the Columbia River, shouting the peaceful philosophies of Smohalla over the valley. He looks out across the housing developments that would surely occupy the Hanford Site by now had the Wanapum not ceded their land to the US Army Corps of Engineers. As if guided by the chant, a backhoe cuts the foundation of another house into the banks of the river, uncovering the faceless remains of a Wanapum ancestor – a skeleton added to the pile bones of Kennewick Men unearthed in the manifested destiny of American expansion.

Buried dumps of expended nuclear fuel and waste absorb into the ether instead of the aquifer. The radiation clouds from Hanford and the plumes over Nagasaki and Hiroshima retreat, as though in a film moving backward, shrinking so as to never exist. The thousands of victims of cancer in Richland and the victims of the blasts in Japan are suddenly resurrected in a reverse stop-motion massacre.

The Empire of Japan surrenders, under threat of invasion and starvation of resources, to the superior power of the Allies. Under pressure from the coalition, Japan is reformed as a democracy. Russia never finds significant threat in American technological power and never seeks to rival it at an ever-increasing rate of armament. The Red Threat of Communism never chokes the Western World and the resultant proxy wars never occur. The world knows peace for a time.


Instead, the audience thanks its stars that President Truman made the right call. The Japanese thank the Allies for their swift and merciful end to a long, trying, bloody war. The Wanapum thank the US Government for allowing them to contribute to the war effort in such a tangible way. To most in the room, the logo of a paper crane and atomic symbol is certainly a clever and touching devotion to the victims of the bombings, and the museum dedicated to the creation of the bombs a tribute to American ingenuity.

The prayer ends. Rex lowers his arms and says, “We are proud of this museum. We are proud of our contribution to America.” The crowd is eager to applaud the old Indian, relieved that the long chant is over, but remaining respectfully silent in their boredom. A smattering of applause begins, but Rex interrupts, “We are all Americans.” The roar of clapping hands now fills the hall, a river of sound expressing thanks for the river of fish that was traded for the atomic bomb.