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First lady’s visit, 1940s accident at Los Alamos spur commentary

First lady Michelle Obama receives a traditional Pendleton blanket after giving the commencement address at Santa Fe Indian School last month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

First lady Michelle Obama receives a traditional Pendleton blanket after giving the commencement address at Santa Fe Indian School last month. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE, N.M. — Events in New Mexico recently served as opportunities for Time magazine and The New Yorker to provide some historical perspective.

Time used first lady Michelle Obama’s commencement speech at Santa Fe Indian School on May 26 to remind readers about the disturbing past of Indian education. The article, published the day of the first lady’s visit, was headlined “The Sad History Behind Michelle Obama’s Commencement Speech in Santa Fe” and, in smaller print, “The Santa Fe Indian School has a sad and disturbing past.”

“When Michelle Obama speaks on Thursday at the Santa Fe Indian School as this year’s commencement speaker, the First Lady will surely speak of the usual hopeful graduation-day themes, and about the White House Generation Indigenous Initiative that brought her there. Optimism about the future will have an extra layer of meaning in that particular location, as the school is part of a long and ignominious story from American history.”

The piece by Lily Rothman goes on to describe the start of Indian boarding schools as an alternative to exterminating the indigenous population, including the founding of the Carlisle School in Pennsylvania by Gen. Richard Henry Pratt.

“Carlisle inspired many other schools around the country, many of which were boarding institutions far from reservations, where children were sent to be purposefully removed from their families,” writes Rothman. “The Santa Fe Indian School was built on the Carlisle model, as explained by the New Mexico Office of the State Historian, with a military model and a ‘jail’ for those who misbehaved.”

Citing James Wilson’s history of Native America, “The Earth Shall Weep,” the article says Pratt was considered a reformer at the time “as he believed that Native Americans were inferior to white people because of their nurture, not nature – in other words, that they could be made acceptable to society if they were taken from their homes, separated from their cultures, and encouraged to forget their language and religion.

“Graduation was not the end of the damage, as young men and women would return home having been taught that their families were savage.”

It was a 1969 Senate-authorized report that finally declared Indian education “a national tragedy.” The authors said the statistics in their report “mark a stain on our national conscience” and lead to the conclusion that “our national policies for educating American Indians are a failure of major proportions.”

Rothman concludes her article: “Today, however, the Santa Fe Indian School represents pretty much the exact opposite of what such institutions once did. The school and the land on which it sits is now operated by the 19 Pueblo Governors of the state, with a goal of helping students maintain a link to their culture while thriving in the careers of their choice.”

The article is on the internet at time.com.

Los Alamos accident of 1946 remembered

May 21 marked the 60th anniversary of a sad event at Los Alamos, as noted by The New Yorker.

Louis Slotin’s Manhattan Project badge photo.

Louis Slotin’s Manhattan Project badge photo.

On that date in 1946, Canadian physicist Louis Slotin received a fatal dose of radiation while trying to show colleagues how to bring the exposed core of an atom bomb nearly to the point of criticality, otherwise known as “tickling the dragon’s tail.” Slotin had helped build the first bomb and the plutonium-laden core he was using had been intended for another attack on Japan after Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

The details of the accident are remarkable from today’s perspective. “Back then, the bomb was a handmade, artisanal product,” says the article by Alex Wellerstein, a science historian and an assistant professor at the Stevens Institute of Technology in New Jersey.

Slotin intended to use a mere screwdriver to separate a beryllium tamper from the plutonium while lowering the tamper close enough to the core to set off a “weak and short-lived nuclear chain reaction” for study.

But the screwdriver slipped, producing a blue flash and releasing a significant amount of radioactivity. Slotin’s whole-body dose was around 2,100 rem of neutrons, gamma rays and X rays, the article says, while 500 rem is usually fatal for humans. He died nine days later.

After Slotin’s accident, Los Alamos halted criticality work to develop new protocols. “It was always known to be dangerous – Enrico Fermi himself had warned Slotin that he would be ‘dead within a year’ if he continued – but the exigencies of the Second World War had privileged expediency over safety,” Wellerstein writes. “Handcrafted critical masses could be modified quickly and on the fly. But, by the time Slotin died, such speed was no longer necessary. The Cold War, in spite of its many anxieties, could be taken at a more steady pace.”

The piece ends with a footnote about the core that killed Slotin and also had provided a fatal dose of radioactivity to a co-worker who’d used it in a different experiment months before. The plutonium pit had originally been nicknamed Rufus, “but after the accidents it came to be called the demon core.”

“Prior to the accident,” wrote Wellerstein, “officials at Los Alamos expected to send the core to Bikini Atoll, in the Marshall Islands, where it would be detonated in front of thousands of observers as part of Operation Crossroads, the first postwar series of nuclear tests. … After the accident, though, the core was still radioactive enough that it needed time to cool off. It was slated for use in the third test at Crossroads, but the test was cancelled. Records from Los Alamos indicate that the core ultimately met with an anticlimactic fate: in the summer of 1946, it was melted down and recast into a new weapon.”

Look for the article on newyorker.com.

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