Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights

August 30, 2022

Censored 'Trespassing' film reveals Natives targeted by nuclear industry

Ward Valley: Halting a Nuclear Dump on Sacred Land. Photos by Molly Johnson

Censored around the world, the film Trespassing tells the story of the successful protest and halt to a radioactive waste dump at Ward Valley, led by Mojave and Colorado River Indian Nations. It shows the impacts of the atomic bomb testing on Western Shoshone and shares the words of Laguna Pueblo uranium miner Dorothy Purely. She died from cancer as the film was being made. A Dineh uranium miner from Red Valley on the Navajo Nation says they were never told of the danger of the radioactive dust where they ate their lunch. We interviewed filmmaker Carlos Demenezes in Tucson, where the film won a prestigious award in 2006 while being rejected globally. At Ward Valley in the Mojave Desert, the protests spanned years, with AIM and the resistance facing off with the Bureau of Land Management  on the isolated dirt road into the camp, for the protection of the desert tortoise and sacred mountain. The radioactive dump could have poisoned the water of the Colorado River, a source of water for millions. This powerful film was rejected by Sundance Film Festival twice, and most of the leading film festivals in the world after its release. The horrors of uranium mining and the nuclear industry of the U.S. government and its corporate partners, continue in a trail of cancer and death.


Censored around the world, “Trespassing,” reveals Natives targeted by the nuclear industry

Legacies in Film Series

By Brenda Norrell
Censored News

TUCSON, Arizona (2006) – “Trespassing,” censored in more film festivals worldwide than it has been shown, reveals how the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Mojave, Western Shoshone, Navajo and Pueblo were targeted by the nuclear industry.

Trespassing documents the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Mojave, Chemehuevi, Cocopah, and Quechan, protecting sacred Spirit Mountain and the desert tortoise from the proposed nuclear dump at Ward Valley.

The successful protest and occupation at Ward Valley in the Mojave desert, which included facing off with the Bureau of Land Management, spanned the years from 1995 to 1999. The long struggle resulted in victory.

The film documents the ongoing Western Shoshone protest of nuclear testing at the Nevada Test Site and the proposed nuclear dump on ancestral lands at Yucca Mountain.

Western Shoshone Corbin Harney speaks on water and unity during the Sunrise Ceremony at Ward Valley during the resistance.

"It's very nice of you people to get together like this, working together. Holding hands together. Praying together is a very important part of our life."

"I hope that we are one people. We're not two, or three. We're just one, of one planet that we're on. One water we drink. Everything drinks that water. Everything breathes this air that we breathe. Everything uses mother earth. Let's all unite ourselves together and take care of it. Thank you for listening to me."

The film is a love story, too, of the Colorado River, which, Mojave say is for everybody. And it is a loving tribute to the desert tortoise that makes it home here and in the hearts of the Mojave.

"We're aboriginal to the area," said David Harper, Colorado Indian Tribe. "This is who we are. Nowhere in the world can we go but here. This is where we've lived for thousands of years. So, and we're not going anywhere."

Referring to studies of the desert tortoise, Harper says in the film, "One of the things that we talk about is these studies and going to Washington D.C. and all these things."

"Those are concepts that are created by the non-Indian. So those don't mean anything to us from the grassroots level. It's a formality that has to be gone through because this is what the dominant society said we have to do. We have to play that political game."

Steve Lopez, Coordinator, Colorado River Native Nations Alliance, describes the threats from the contamination.

"If it gets into the Colorado River, we'll be directly affected in that way."

Mojave tell the story of the relationship with the desert tortoise, it has been there for thousands and thousands of years. It's been there forever.

"And we all believe that we should protect what is down here. It was placed here for us to protect, and that's all it is to it."

"You hold it real deep in your heart. I always thought that there is a place within ourselves that's empty. And it is up to us to fill that. Fill it up, and you can do it."

Mojave women tell of the creosote bush that's related to the desert tortoise and their way of life.

"It's a little house that, that's what the Mojaves lived in a long time ago. That's our first home. This little mud house and that's the shed. And the house, that's where we sleep, and we do everything else in there too. You know, a long time ago we only used axes so they had to go and find the trees and know if they're straight. It didn't matter, as long as the house was built. So, that's the way it was."

Western Shoshone Land -- The Nuclear Test Site

The film goes just beyond the red ridge, behind the city of Mercury, Nevada to Frenchman Flats where the United States conducted early atmospheric tests.

It is where atomic veterans were exposed to atmospheric testing.

During the Cleansing Ceremony for the Nevada Test Site, U.S. atomic veterans met with Hiroshima Nagasaki survivors and relatives.

An atomic veteran says, "The blast shock passes in a matter of seconds, and the heat and blast effects, you can see and feel. You cannot sense the presence of nuclear radiation effects. Alpha and beta particles, because of their low penetrating power, are stopped by most surfaces, even a soldier's skin. They are a hazard only when materials emitting these particles get into the body through breaks in the skin. Or through the nose or mouth."

When asked, "Did you keep your mouth shut, or did you get a mouthful of dirt?" he said, "I got a mouthful and a face full of dirt."

Western Shoshone Willie Fragosa said, "This side is the line that we're allowed to be on. This is open, public land. On the other side of it, while it's Western Shoshone land, it's land that the Department Of Energy claims control over and will take legal action against people who go onto it."

The film delves deeper and exposes the Cold War machinations of the nuclear industry, resulting in widespread cancer and respiratory diseases for Pueblos and Navajos working without protective clothing in uranium mines.

Trespassing Rejected at Festivals around the World

“Trespassing,” captured the Trustee Award at the 15th Arizona International Film Festival on April 28, 2006, an award based on merit which is not given out annually.

In the United States and worldwide, however, the film has been rejected more times by film festivals than it has been accepted.

“There are two kinds of film festivals, truly independent film festivals and those who sell their souls to the studios and corporations,” Trespassing filmmaker Carlos DeMenezes said after the screening at the Arizona International Film Festival.

“If people don’t think, then it is very easy to manipulate them.”

Trespassing was rejected at every film festival in Canada, France, Germany, Denmark, Portugal, Australia, Brazil, and Argentina before being accepted in Tucson in 2006.

The Barcelona Human Rights Film Festival in Spain was the only festival in Europe to accept the film. It received a standing ovation.

“Sundance Film Festival rejected it twice," DeMenezes said.

The list of rejections is too long to publish, but it was rejected at the Los Angeles International Film Festival, Tribeca Film Festival, HotDocs, Margaret Meade Film Festival, and New York Film Festival, to mention a few.

“Florida? I can’t even go to that state,” Filmmaker DeMenezes said, joking about the reaction in the largely conservative state.

Although DeMenezes is Brazilian, he prefers to be known as a world citizen. He grew up in Brazil and lived with an aunt after his mother died, where his world opened up with experimental theater.

With both indigenous Tapuia of Brazil and Jewish ancestry, he said he can identify with victims of massacres and the Holocaust.

“If it happened to them yesterday, it could happen to me tomorrow, we all have that responsibility toward one another. Injustice doesn’t discriminate and nuclear poisons don’t discriminate.”

In 1982, he came to Los Angeles to study film.

“I did not want to only make money. I wanted to make something that means something.”

He began researching the nuclear industry in books and film and soon found his way to Ward Valley, where American Indians and environmentalists joined together to fight a proposed nuclear waste dump.

Not only did they win the fight, but the struggle is now documented on film and serves as a model for others.

Steve Lopez and David Harper of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, Western Shoshone Spiritual Leader Corbin Harney, Mojave elders and the Arizona Chapter of the American Indian Movement are among those who risked arrest and continued the ceremonies at Ward Valley to protect the Mojave Desert, tribal sacred places and home of the desert tortoise.

Tribal members united with environmental groups and lobbied in Washington and won the protection of their sacred land.

Ward Valley served a greater purpose for the filmmaker, revealing far more than just the transportation of nuclear waste to ancestral Indian lands.

“We went to Ward Valley and realized that this was just the tip of the iceberg. It wasn’t about transportation anymore. It was about all the consequences of the Cold War and its impacts on Indian people," DeMenezes said.

With footage of Japanese peace advocates at the Nevada Test Site, the film distinguishes itself. The Alliance for Atomic Veterans and Japanese radiation survivors from the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki speak of forgiveness.

The Nevada Test Site and Yucca Mountain are aboriginal Western Shoshone land. The film shows in chilling detail the Cold War atomic bombs, Western Shoshone protests and arrests.

It was the arrest of Western Shoshone that brought tears to the audience in Tucson.

“I cry all the time,” DeMenezes said after the screening.

In the film, Udall points out that the United States is the only country that has used the atomic bomb on civilians, innocent women and children.

It is a film whose message is to be silenced, according to the long list of film festival rejections.

There is another fact to be silenced.

Few have explained it better than Dorothy Purley of Laguna Pueblo in New Mexico. Dorothy is a uranium mining victim who died from lymphatic cancer during the making of the film. She drove a truck for ten years at Jackpile open-pit uranium mine on Laguna Pueblo.


Dorothy said, "When they used to blast, all that yellow stuff would come towards the village. You know, we Native Indians have things like drying food out in the sun, and our meats."

They were never told about the radioactive contamination.

"We breathed it and ate it, you know, we weren't aware of it. I feel betrayed because we weren't really told. We weren't really made aware of what we were getting ourselves into. I think if the mine hadn't opened, I don't think any of our lives would have been in jeopardy at all."

"They've destroyed enough of our land," Dorothy said.

To the west of the Pueblos, in Red Valley on the Navajo Nation, Navajos tell how they worked in the uranium mines and were covered with radioactive dust each day without protective clothing.

It was long after the nuclear industry knew of the high rate of lung cancer, a fact finally exposed in a U.S. Senate hearing.

“It was inhumane.”

By outsourcing, and contracting out the work of mining uranium, the United States government was able to insulate itself from much of the blame for what happened to Pueblos, Navajos and the Navajos’ sister communities of Dineh in Canada. In the north and south, Native people were victims at a time when the majority did not speak English. They were never told of the dangers.

Outsourcing is what the United States government was doing in Iraq as the film was shown in Tucson in 2006.

Besides the obvious politics, DeMenezes says there are reasons that Trespassing is being rejected at film festivals in the United States and around the world.

“Restitution is an issue,” he says of the possibility of financial compensation for victims.

“Guilt,” he adds, questioning why non-tribal members have not spoken out against the injustice.

Finally, he adds, the censorship of critical thinking.

“They don’t want people to think. They do not want critical thinking.”

DeMenezes waited one and one-half years to film the craters left by atomic bomb testing at the Nevada Test Site. Finally, flanked by Special Forces, he filmed the aerial footage of the pot marked Mother Earth, with its mammoth recessions from atom bombs.

DeMenezes points out that “Variety trashed the film,” but the response from American Indians has been very good.

In Tucson, Navajos praised the film for its honesty and strength.

At a private screening in Los Angeles, Mojave tribal members praised the film. Corbin Harney praised the film at the Pan African Film Festival in Los Angeles.

Trespassing also won acclaim from one important reviewer.

“The grandson of Steve Lopez of the Colorado River Indian Tribes said, “Thank you for making a movie about my papa."

Dineh uranium miner Paul Belin of Red Valley, on the Navajo Nation, said, "When they're blasting in the mine, you get it on your hands, on your clothes. Then we have lunch break there, and we eat without washing our hands and we drink water in there."

"We didn't even know that this was dangerous."

"They never told us. They just let us work in it," Belin said.

Dedicated to Dorothy Purley and activist Stormy William, who both died while the film was being made, the film points out that the passionate struggle for the land, air and water is for all living things, but especially for the children and those yet to come.

Article copyright Brenda Norrell, Censored News

Read more:

The Mojave Project: History of Ward Valley Resistance

Spanish and French introductions on the Trespassing website:

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