November 28, 2014

Stranger than fiction: Deep underground laboratory seeks Native American collaboration

South Dakota tribal enrollees Daryl “KC” Russell and Connie Giroux encourage Native American involvement in Sanford Laboratories.  Photo by Talli NaumanLEAD, S.D. — If the ancestors here were told that Black Hills gold would one day offer a way for their people to become recognized world leaders in knowledge of the universe, it has not been remembered.

But the forging of the former Homestake mine into a Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory (DUSEL) provides just that opportunity, according to members of DUSEL-Sanford Lab Cultural Advisory Committee.

“We’re giving encouragement for Native American students to access the project for internships and studies in science that is going to allow them to advance their education and occupations,” says DUSEL Cultural and Diversity Coordinator Daryl “KC” Russell, a member of the committee and the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe.

Nobel-Prize winning research about subatomic particles called neutrinos, based on astrophysics performed at the mine site in the Northern Black Hills, has changed the standard model scientists had of the universe, and proposals here for investigation into the suspected existence of so-called dark matter could change it even more.

“Our tribes’ history and knowledge – and the Native way of knowing – is validated by the science, especially when we’re talking about astrophysics and star people,” Russell notes. “Natives seem to have knowledge about what is really already there, and this science is actually compatible,” he adds.

Projects underway at the Sanford Underground Laboratory at Homestake assure a demand for personnel in research and development occupations for at least 30 years, according to South Dakota Science and Technology Authority Communications Director Bill Harlan, also a member of the Cultural Advisory Committee.

“We want to continue to build relationships with tribes and tribal elders so we can continue to – selfishly – have a pool of professionals for the two generations of careers we have the potential for,” he says.

The first full-time Native American scientist on board is Rosebud Sioux tribal member Connie Giroux. As the science liaison laboratory supervisor, Giroux helps Native American summer school students in the GEAR UP program with experiments involving the DUSEL-Sanford facilities, among other things.

“Overall, they’re very excited about the science that’s happening here,” she says.

In addition to furnishing incentives for science students, the committee seeks Native American input and guidance on conducting the DUSEL-Sanford project with respect for traditional values, according to Cultural Advisory Committee Chair George Campbell.

Scientific team leader Kevin Lesko is determined to take into account American Indian wisdom, Campbell adds. “Every time I’ve talked to him, it’s his concern that we’re doing things right and not going against tribal ways,” he says.

Naturally, not all Native Americans are boosters of the activities at the science lab and the proposed future expansion.

“There’s those that really want the project not to go on, just like there’s those that do support it,” says Campbell.

When Russell joined the staff late last year, he launched a concerted effort to talk to tribal leaders and elders about project intentions and gather their input about its connection to tribal culture.

“Some of the tribes have a close relationship to the Black Hills, so I’m explaining that it’s a positive and healing project that will benefit education and science,” Russell says. In turn, the tribal government, spiritual, traditional, and educational leaders express their concerns, he says.

Since the scoping process is just beginning, the talks are informal and the constituents have not been asked to go on record with their comments. The cultural outreach is an open-ended process and formal registration of observations would not occur until some time in the future, Harlan says.

“It’s really the first description they’ve had of the project,” he says. “We haven’t gone out and said, ‘Would you please support us?’ It wouldn’t be fair. We’re just trying to be as transparent as we can and listen to concerns.”

One of the delicate issues is that the Black Hills holds a place in history as a sacred hunting ground that was stolen from the Sioux Nation by treaty violations due to the very discovery of gold.  The U.S. government has acknowledged the transgression by agreeing the Sioux are legally entitled to compensation.

“That’s a big concern,” says Russell, “the fact that gold has been taken out and taken away.”

He says project personnel have been “extremely sensitive” to that and other cultural and environmental considerations.

“We are asking the tribes what they think and how they think things ought to be done, so we can incorporate it into the project progression,” he says.

Among findings of the scoping process to date, Russell notes: “The way people view it is that the land should be left alone or used at the level you need at the current time and not ruined for future generations.”

Like tribal opinion leaders, students place a high value on environmental protection in the DUSEL-Sanford project, Giroux says. “They are concerned about water, where it goes when it’s discharged, and land use, how we’re planning to help keep the environment in all the construction we do here,” she says.

Russell welcomes the opportunity to explain to tribal leaders that the new administration of the mine site is “not continuing to rape and pillage,” he says. “I’m trying to convey the care the project is taking in treatment of environment and water, discharging only water that is purer than before, building with material not being stolen from the Black Hills but being left here,” he says.

“The tribes are concerned any time there’s building and cutting into a mountain,” he notes, adding that they also “are very concerned about their children and what they learn, and very close to the earth and environment.”

Giroux has helped get Native American students at her old alma mater to see what’s available at Dusel-Sanford. She worked with summer school participants from the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology’s GEAR UP session in 2009 and 2010.

“I thought it was a wonderful experience not only for us but for them,” Giroux said. “Overall, it was very positive.”

GEAR UP means Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs. A federally funded elective program for college-track junior and senior high school students, it has been serving 3,000 mostly Native American students statewide since 2008.

Giroux and other DUSEL-Sanford staff are meeting in the months ahead to plan the 2011 summer program coordination with GEAR UP at SDSM&T. In their first summer’s collaboration, the lab provided water filtering supplies for student experiments. This past summer the staff continued to contribute to the learning experience through physics lectures and more hands-on research. “They were very interested in the way we treat the water,” Giroux mentioned.

Giroux had little science education in high school, other than biology. But her imminent qualifications to shape the early science at the DUSEL-Sanford project in Lead were bolstered by a NASA space grant providing a fellowship at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, in 1998.

Her first exposure to other science studies was as an undergraduate at SDSM&T, where she was immediately employed doing research that supported GEAR UP. She received her Bachelor in Science and Chemistry in 2002, and her Master in Science and Technology Management in 2007. Now she is in charge of the scientists’ needs and facilities control at both the surface and subsurface operations of the DUSEL-Sanford project.

Native American and other students and scientists in South Dakota, like Giroux, “have the inside track on the cutting edge of science in the world,” Campbell says, because, “There are things you can do underground you can’t do anywhere else,” he says, adding, “There’s no substitute for depth.”

Underground laboratories shield experiments from the interference of cosmic radiation. Physicists worldwide use deep labs to research some of the most compelling questions of 21st Century science. Several countries, including Canada, Italy, and Japan, already have extensive deep science programs. But laboratory space is limited, especially in the United States.

The proposal to convert the hemisphere’s largest gold mine into the world’s deepest underground laboratory has been evolving since 2000, when Homestake Mining Co. announced it was through with operations.

The National Science Board in December 2010 rejected a proposal for $10 million of early design money to make the site into a national laboratory. But millions of federal, state and private dollars already have poured into the project, making experiments, construction and maintenance a reality. Lobbyists are scurrying to secure substitute support, with hopes set on the U.S. Department of Energy.

All the plans depend on the funding, Harlan told the Native Sun News. Money from state sources currently lasts through this spring. So in the meantime, business goes on as usual.

The Cultural Advisory Committee continues to meet quarterly as it has since its inception in 2008. Half of its membership is Native American.

The committee advises the DUSEL scientific collaboration, which has attracted about 1,000 scientists from around the world; the state government’s South Dakota Science and Technology Authority (SDSTA), and the privately funded Sanford Underground Laboratory.

The roles and responsibilities of the committee are to encourage policies and initiatives that support the project's commitment to integrate South Dakota's diverse culture into its operation. Its tasks are to:

• Formulate and submit cultural management strategies and to recommend objectives for recruitment and retention of American Indians and members of other under-represented groups.

• Promote and encourage SDSTA and DUSEL management to actively integrate regional cultures into their designs, procedures and operations.

• Review the program planning for DUSEL and SDSTA and advise on the effectiveness and prioritization of the laboratory's cultural policies and initiatives.

In addition to Campbell, Russell, Harlan and Giroux, committee membership has included: Kay Jorgensen, KSJ Enterprises; Ural Marcus, director of the Center for American Indian Studies,   Black Hills State University; retired professor Lowell Amiotte; SDSM&T professor Carter Kerk; Jeff Henderson, President & CEO, Black Hills Center for American Indian Health; and Sanford Lab Deputy Director Peggy Norris. 

“This gives us a complete mix and a lot of perspective about how to interact with people here,” Campbell says. “I think we have great support from most of the community, especially state legislators,” he adds. “The state of South Dakota has been a powerful ally in our success in carrying on cultural outreach.”

The South Dakota legislature created the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority, committing $14.3 million to the underground laboratory project in 2002.

The Homestake Collaboration of scientists from universities and research institutions soon received a $500,000 grant to study the feasibility of the site.

In 2005, during a special session called by then Gov. Mike Rounds, the South Dakota legislature approved $19.9 million to develop an interim laboratory on the 4850 Level at Homestake, where Ray Davis had installed the neutrino detector that led to his Nobel Physics Prize nine years ago.

In 2006, Rounds announced a $70-million donation to the project from Sioux Falls businessman and philanthropist T. Denny Sanford. It is earmarked to help open the laboratory space at the 4850 Level, to improve hoists, to build or refurbish other infrastructure and to pump water. The gift includes $20 million for a Sanford Science Education Center at Homestake.

That year the National Science Foundation selected the Homestake site to be developed as the proposed Deep Underground Science and Engineering Laboratory, and its governing body, the National Science Board, provided the agency’s initial $15 million design funding. In 2009, the board awarded another $29 million for a preliminary design report.

The DUSEL project price tag originally was an estimated $550 million, half of that to build the lab, the other half to pay for an initial suite of experiments.

Canada’s Barrick Gold Corp. acquired the Homestake Gold Mine when it bought Homestake Mining Company. The Toronto-based corporation then donated the mine to the South Dakota Science and Technology Authority on the condition that Barrick would be protected from liabilities attached to the property.

The facility includes 186 surface acres, shafts to a depth of 8,000 feet and 370 miles of tunnels, called drifts in mine parlance.

At present, Black Hills State University biologists are studying microbial life they find in the underground laboratory.

The surface lab is running a testing program on the so-called Large Underground Xenon Detector, or LUX, which is set to be disassembled later this year for transport to the 4850 Level. Its purpose is to help with the elusive search for dark matter.

Dozens of mining, maintenance, remodeling, water treatment and administrative jobs have been generated by the project.

As envisioned, it will provide opportunities for every niche of science and industry, including physics, astrology, chemistry, biology, geology, hydrology, radiology, biology and any combination thereof.

Russell and other Cultural Advisory Committee members emphasize the importance of participation from Oglala Lakota College and Sinte Gleska University, which are geographically the closest Native American institutions of higher learning.

The committee has contacted about a dozen tribes, expecting to reach out to about 40 in states surrounding the project site, Russell says.

Russell served as Rounds’ Indian Health Care Initiative director. Before joining the former governor’s staff in 2008, Russell retired from 36 years with the South Dakota National Guard and the Indian Health Service.



(Talli Nauman is co-director of Journalism to Raise Environmental Awareness. Contact her at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. )



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