UNTIL three years ago Grace Thorpe, the daughter of legendary Olympic athlete Jim Thorpe, enjoyed a pleasant, low-key retirement, doing what she calls ``typical grandmother stuff.'' She went to the senior center for lunch. She played bingo. She spent time painting and making pots.
Then she read an alarming newspaper story. It explained that 17 American Indian tribes - including her own, Oklahoma's Sac and Fox Nation - had applied for $100,000 grants from the Department of Energy to consider their reservations as sites for nuclear-waste storage. Ms. Thorpe was appalled.
Sac and Fox leaders told her that their tribe ``could use the money.'' But Thorpe, a longtime activist on behalf of native Americans, feared exploitation. Radioactive waste, she explains, ``is the most lethal poison known in the history of man.'' The prospect of a ``monitored retrievable storage'' (MRS) facility on what little remains of her ancestral land seemed unthinkable.
After going door to door with petitions, she and other tribal members brought the issue to a vote. Members defeated the plan, even though it could bring millions of dollars a year to any reservation chosen as an MRS site.
That victory marked the end of Thorpe's leisurely retirement. When other groups heard about her tribe's withdrawal from consideration as an MRS site, she quickly became a sought-after speaker and tireless activist. As president of the National Environmental Coalition of Native Americans, she led successful efforts to get other tribes to withdraw as well. Today only three tribes remain contenders for nuclear-waste storage.
``Environmental racism'' has become a popular term to describe an egregious form of exploitation - the placement of everything from garbage and sludge to high-level and low-level toxic waste in the backyards of people who are perceived as too poor, too weak, or too passive to protest and resist. The attempt to use Indian reservations as MRS sites has also been called ``radioactive colonialism'' and ``economic blackmail.'' Thorpe adds another phrase to the lexicon of discrimination: ``environmental injustice.''
Stopping the practice will require activists like Thorpe who refuse to accept the attitude that ``you can't fight City Hall.''
Thorpe, visiting Boston to speak at Brandeis University, is a sturdy woman with short dark hair, a strong voice, a broad smile, and a sense of humor that she freely turns on herself. When she explains that her Indian name is Wind Woman, for example, she adds with a laugh, ``My brothers call me Big Windy Woman.''
By her example she refutes the typical excuses - such as a lack of money, resources, or knowledge - that often keep ordinary citizens from supporting (or opposing) a particular cause. Thorpe lives modestly on Social Security, sharing a house in Prague, Okla., with her daughter and granddaughter. Her few pieces of office equipment - an answering machine, a fax, a computer - have all been donated. She has no assistant to answer the stacks of mail she receives. And until she began researching nuclear issues, she knew nothing about the subject.
No matter. Her knowledge now is considerable. Her goal for radioactive waste is three-pronged: ``Leave it where it is. Secure it. And stop producing it. It doesn't make sense to produce something you can't safely dispose of.'' Instead, she proposes putting money in alternative energy sources - hydroelectricity, solar power, and, appropriately enough for someone named Wind Woman, wind power.
Calling herself a catalyst, Thorpe says, ``Unless tribes had someone like me out there to organize against MRS, they might have gone through with it. Fortunately in cases like this, there is some old Indian lady like me who's pretty tough.''
At a time when Americans reportedly feel angry at government and helpless about seemingly insoluble national problems, people like Grace Thorpe illustrate the ability of a single individual to effect change. Her brand of grass-roots lobbying points up the need for more ``big windy women'' (and men) of all ages who are willing to be ``pretty tough'' in giving voice to the voiceless and power to the powerless. They can make all the difference.