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Deb Abrahamson, powerful advocate for environmental justice on Spokane reservation, dies at 65

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 3, 2021

Deb Abrahamson, a longtime activist on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is seen at her home in this October 2019 photo. Abrahamson died on Jan. 1. She was 65.  (TYLER TJOMSLAND)
Deb Abrahamson, a longtime activist on the Spokane Indian Reservation, is seen at her home in this October 2019 photo. Abrahamson died on Jan. 1. She was 65. (TYLER TJOMSLAND)

Deb Abrahamson, whose fight for environmental justice made her a major figure in the push to clean up the legacy of uranium mining on the Spokane Indian Reservation, died at sunrise on New Year’s Day. She was 65.

The cause of Abrahamson’s death was cancer that she attributed to the very pollution she devoted so much of her life to fighting.

Abrahamson was born in Nespelem, on the Colville Indian Reservation, on March 15, 1955, but she spent much of her upbringing on the nearby Spokane reservation, where Dawn Mining Co. had opened the Midnite uranium mine a year before her birth.

As a girl, she recalled in a 2019 interview with The Spokesman-Review, she and her siblings would play with what they referred to as “crazy balls” – misshapen, softball-sized rubber and steel balls that “would just ricochet all crooked” when the kids threw them against the side of a barn.

“Later, I learned those were for crushing the ore,” Abrahamson said. “They were used for crushing the ore, so they were probably radioactive.”

For a brief period in the 1970s, at a time when she was using drugs and drinking, Abrahamson worked at Dawn Mining Company’s nearby uranium-processing mill in Ford, Washington, where she said she witnessed what she described as “shoddy” handling of the radioactive material.

After gaining her own sobriety, Abrahamson spent years working as a substance-abuse counselor in Indigenous communities around the Inland Northwest.

Her owns struggles informed her work, said her daughter, Twa-le Abrahamson-Swan .

“It wasn’t that she came into it thinking she was better than anybody or anything like that,” Abrahamson-Swan said. By using the story of her own recovery, Abrahamson “helped a lot of people with their sobriety over many years,” her daughter said.

“So there’s many people in our community who attribute their basic getting clean to her.”

The focus of Abrahamson’s activism shifted in 1994, when she was working at a Spokane homeless clinic and saw a notice about an upcoming meeting discussing a plan to ship more radioactive waste to the shuttered Dawn mill site.

After that meeting, she joined Dawn Watch and helped stop the plan to add to the ecological disaster on the border of the Spokane reservation.

That victory, however, proved only to be the beginning of what would become a 25-year campaign.

Abrahamson established and led both Community Uranium Radiation Education and the SHAWL Society – the acronym stands for Sovereignty, Health, Air, Water, Land – to foment grassroots activism that would hold state and federal agencies, tribal officials and Dawn Mining accountable for dealing with a reservation-based uranium industry. That industry processed some 58 million cubic feet of ore and produced 13 million pounds of “yellowcake,” a concentrated form of uranium that can be enriched and used in nuclear reactors and weapons.

While her efforts were focused on the Spokane reservation, Abrahamson also became involved in the global effort to advocate against nuclear technology, and for Indigenous and other marginalized groups that have often borne the brunt of the consequences that came from its development and application.

When Abrahamson was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2016, she attributed her illness to the radioactive toxins she had pushed to have remediated.

Though she nearly died after her initial surgery, Abrahamson-Swan said, Abrahamson continued her environmental activism, even as she battled her cancer.

Soon after completing an early round of chemotherapy, Abrahamson traveled to North Dakota to take part in protests against an oil pipeline near the Standing Rock Indian Reservation. When Dawn Mining asked for less-stringent cleanup standards at the Dawn mill site in 2019, Abrahamson pushed back, and the Environmental Protection Agency rejected the company’s request. And earlier this year, before the COVID-19 pandemic began, she and Abrahamson-Swan were working with Washington State University to create a regional cancer center for tribal members.

Even COVID-19 did not stop Abrahamson from her activism. Despite being immunocompromised, she has helped in the effort to bring food to tribal members in quarantine, according to Spokane tribal Chairwoman Carol Evans.

“She was a strong woman warrior that did everything she could to protect the environment and to serve people,” Evans said. “So up to her final days, she was out there, serving people.”

Evans, who was Abrahamson’s first cousin, said Abrahamson was “always someone I looked up to.”

Though she was “very kind,” Evans said, Abrahamson didn’t hesitate to speak her mind on behalf of her community, whether the cause was environmental justice, civil rights or the high rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women.

“She was just there when people needed her to stand up and do the talking for the ones that couldn’t talk,” Evans said. “And she could do it so well.”

While the pandemic has complicated plans for the traditional funeral services of her culture, Abrahamson-Swan has improvised.

Instead of bringing community members together to have “an open floor for people to share with the family what that person meant,” Abrahamson-Swan has set up a Facebook group where friends, relatives and admirers can share photos and memories.

The “theme” of many of those reminiscences, according to Abrahamson-Swan, has been that “she gave people hope,” whether they were struggling with addiction or with health effects they, too, attributed to the toxic legacy of nuclear production.

Meanwhile, Abrahamson- Swan said her mother’s immediate family is coming together, albeit in a limited way due to the pandemic.

Abrahamson is survived by three children, Abrahamson-Swan, Yvonne Abrahamson-Andrews and Xavier Abrahamson; four grandchildren; and five brothers. A sister and two other brothers preceded her in death.

Abrahamson-Swan, who is an activist in her own right, said the work her mother did will not be forgotten – and will continue.

“People have so much respect for her being everywhere and active,” Abrahamson-Swan said of her mother’s efforts even after her diagnosis.

“If she could be there in her condition, why couldn’t they? What was their excuse? I think she’s left a path and she’s made her requests known, and now we just have to continue to honor her by continuing the fight and don’t make excuses.”

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