By Amy R. Levek
Three coyotes run through the sagebrush, stopping briefly to check us out. Head of the Uranium Education Project at Diné College Perry Charley and I are out in the windswept canyons of the Navajo Reservation, looking at the legacy of uranium mining and its sad and tragic intertwining with Navajo lives and livelihood.
The coyote is the trickster in Navajo lore and culture, ready to show you that things are not always what they seem. It can be a specter of evil, malice and chaos, but also a beneficent figure.
Uranium has been a dual presence in Navajo life, as well, first providing jobs in the late 1930s and early 40s, when the people were starving and the economic outlook bleak – and now today, having left in its wake a trail of death, disease and heartbreaking loss, as the Navajo Nation copes with the ravages of uranium mining.
Late this year, spurred to action by a series of articles in The Los Angeles Times in 2006, Representative Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) held a hearing on “The Health and Environmental Impacts of Uranium Contamination in the Navajo Nation” in the House Oversight Committee.
The Navajo Nation’s Edith Hood testified at that hearing about “a Navajo concept called hozho.
“Hozho is how we live our lives. It means balance, beauty and harmony between we, the five-fingered people, and nature. When this balance is disturbed, our way of life, our health and our wellbeing all suffer. The uranium contamination and mining wastes at my home continues to disrupt hozho.”
The Waxman hearings led to a charge to federal and Navajo Nation agencies to determine a course of action for dealing with the aftermath of uranium mining: Identify a plan for the studies, tasks and long-term actions needed to get a handle on and deal with the contamination issues left behind, as well as a budget. Some close to the situation anticipated a multi-year plan and budget.
The agencies, however, returned with a one-year plan.
‘If You Poison Us’
The day that I was on the rez, Environmental Protection Agency staffers were meeting with residents whose homes showed contamination.
They would spend the week testing for radiation, part of the hastily thrown-together study that followed the Waxman hearing.
The hardscrabble, seemingly desolate Navajo Nation, an area that encompasses about 7,400 square miles spread across the states of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico, is rich in the uranium exploited by the US government in its push to create the first atomic bomb. Navajo miners worked in the uranium mines and mills on the reservation in the 1930s and 40s, and then again during the boom that lasted through the cold war of the 1950s and 60s, enthusiastic about the opportunity to be paid relatively and work close to home. Besides the physical after-effects, the Navajo would suffer deep cultural wounds as a result of their work.
Peter Eichstaedt, in his book on the Navajos and uranium, If You Poison Us, describes the role of uranium in the Navajo worldview:
“In one of the stories the Navajos tell about their origin, the Dineh [the people] emerged from the third world into the fourth and present world and were given a choice. They were told to choose between two yellow powders. One was dust from the rocks, and the other was corn pollen. The Dineh chose corn pollen, and the gods nodded in assent. They also issued a warning. Having chosen the corn pollen, the Navajos were to leave the yellow dust in the ground. If it was ever removed, it would bring evil.”
How helping to create an atomic bomb capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people threatens the concept of hozho is hard for non-Navajo to understand.
The Navajo “have an aversion, having caused this disruption with the atomic bomb,” explains Perry Charley. “How do we remedy the situation?”
There were no Navajo words for “uranium” or for “radiological effects” until Charley and the Uranium Education Program developed a Navajo-English glossary to describe uranium phenomena. “My job is to convey concepts to scientists AND spiritual advisors, to tie culture with the sciences,” he explains, acting as a translator, and also trying to bring cultural sensitivity into work being done on Navajo land.
In the Navajo language, Naycee is the name for monster, he explains. “You have to know the monster to defeat it, to fight it,” he says. “Each community has its own Naycee, and you have to acknowledge it, develop a strategy to deal with it; otherwise, it will always be there.”
Leetso is a monster, something that puts the world out of balance, and once that balance is disrupted, regaining equilibrium is difficult.
Charley points to contaminated hogans and houses, now abandoned, waste rock piles open to rainwater drainage, and other remnants of uranium mining near communities and individual houses as we cruise the Rez.
For 38 years now, Charley, whose background is in nuclear science, has carefully marshaled resources to document how uranium has changed the lives of the Navajo. His office shelves are lined with a massive collection of white notebooks brimming with data provides the grim basis for an epidemic of uranium-caused health issues.
Beyond his office, one only needs to see the piles of waste rock and tailings marking the old mines to know how difficult it is to put the uranium genie back in the bottle. While the 1,200 or so abandoned mines on the Navajo Reservation have mostly been sealed, remaining waste continues to emit dangerous levels of radioactive decay products and some of the mines remain dangerous to human health.
Before anyone realized how toxic the underground materials were, the Navajo hogans – the traditional dwellings – as well as the foundations for Anglo-style homes were built with the radioactive rocks. Sweat lodges, used for spiritual purification ceremonies, were also constructed with uranium laced sand and stones.
Children played in water saturated with the stuff; livestock were sheltered in the old mines. Thirsty Navajo women dipped their cups into the yellow uranium-contaminated ponds as well.
Meanwhile, miners labored underground, unaware that the poorly ventilated shafts held the radon that would lodge within their lungs, causing cancer and other respiratory ailments.
The elevated lung cancer rates, some three to five times higher among Navajo miners than the rest of the American population, is as ironic as it is tragic. Prior to the inception of uranium mining in the 1930s,the Navajo people were virtually cancer-free and had the lowest lung cancer rate of all Native American groups.
On April 19, 2005, the Navajo Nation Council adopted the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, and banned uranium mining and milling, in part to “ensure that no further damage to the culture, society and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium mining within the Navajo Nation and Navajo Indian Country and that no further damage to the culture, society and economy of the Navajo Nation occurs because of uranium processing.”
In a November 2005 press release, Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. explained an executive order prohibiting any discussions with uranium mining companies. “As part of the findings of the law,” he wrote, the Navajo Nation Council had determined that “‘the
Fundamental Laws of the Diné, Diné Bi Beenahaź annii, [which] support preserving and protecting the Navajo Nation’s natural resources, especially the four sacred elements of life – air, light/fire, water and earth/pollen,’” which form the foundation of the Navajo people’s spiritual ceremonies and the Diné way of life, had been violated.
According to Shirley, “It is the duty and responsibility of the Diné to protect and preserve the natural world for future generations.”
The Council found that the mining and processing of uranium ore since the mid-1940s had “created substantial and irreparable economic detriments to the [Navajo] Nation and its people.” Henceforth, the Resources Protection Act declared, “no person shall engage in uranium mining and uranium processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.”
But whether US government agencies that review mining permits will acknowledge and uphold the ban remains to be seen.
For instance, in 1988, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission approved a uranium mine near Church Rock, N.M.The decision was appealed by Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, the Southwest Research and Information Center and others, partially to ensure that the land was considered part of “Indian Country,” and was thus subject to the ban.
About 1,200 abandoned uranium mines were identified on Navajo Nation land, says Charley. Of these, about 90 percent have been plugged, decreasing the human, livestock and wildlife exposure to dangerous radiation levels.
The waste-rock sites, however, are a different story. Complicating the problem is the fact that uranium mines, tailings and waste-rock piles are not included in Superfund legislation. “The mills do [qualify],” says Charley, but the mills are not as significant a problem because there are fewer and they are more contained. Waste rock remains subject to erosion, with uranium wastes washing down hillsides after storms. The water may end up in ponds and other sources of drinking water, unbeknownst to those dependent on them.
EPA to the Rescue?
Back at the Teec Nos Pos Chapter House, about twenty people, most of them elderly, have gathered to hear the EPA staffers discuss sampling plans. Navajo EPA representatives, including PR Liaison and translator Lily Lane, line the simple meeting room, which doubles as a gym and gathering place for celebrations.
Charley chats in Navajo with the men. “They say they are ready for uranium mining,” he tells the EPA representatives, going on to ask them: “Are you the Great White Father’s representatives?”
Charley’s gallows humor stems from impatience; data the EPA is now using to frame its testing comes from data collected by Charley in 1981 as well as 1975 studies that showed contamination in Monument Valley.
The three-decade lag in the federal government’s response led Waxman to castigate those responsible. “For many years,” he said at the hearings, “the United States Government was the sole customer for this uranium. After mining ended in the late 1980s, literally hundreds of radioactive mines in the Navajo Nation were abandoned. The companies that had leased the lands simply walked away without cleaning them up.
“This isn’t something that happened only during a bygone era when schoolchildren kneeled under their desk during nuclear drills and Americans built underground bomb shelters in their backyards. Navajo kids were swimming in open pit uranium mines in the 1990s. When the US EPA took readings at one mine site, the radium levels were over 270 times the EPA standard. And that was last year. And American citizens are still drinking contaminated water, breathing in radioactive dust, and likely living in radioactive homes today. That’s happening today, right now.”
©2007 Amy R. Levek