'The Navajo People and Uranium Mining'
ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. - Leetso is a Navajo word with several meanings, including yellow dirt, yellow monster and uranium, according to the editors of ''The Navajo People and Uranium Mining'' (University of New Mexico Press, 2006). In the volume, Doug Brugge; Timothy Benally, Navajo; and Esther Yazzie-Lewis, Navajo, take us from the birth of the monster at Alamogordo, N.M., in July 1945, when the first atomic bomb was detonated, to its subsequent devastation of Navajo lands and people. Native people in other communities whose lands have been appropriated for ammunition and toxic waste dumps, test ranges and the like will recognize this story.
The book's chapters alternate between scholarly essays by Brugge, Perry H. Charley, Navajo, and others on the one hand, and oral histories on the other. The latter - interviews conducted in Navajo of miners and their families by Benally and Phillip Harrison Jr., also Navajo - are translated to preserve the verbal patterns of the original language, thereby making Navajo voices central to the book's argument. The speakers' modesty and reticence are touching, as is their sense of betrayal at the horrific, ongoing consequences of what they thought were simply desperately needed jobs close to home. These moving conversations balance the carefully researched analytical chapters and give the book its emotional depth and originality.
After the test explosion at Alamogordo, the uranium monster spawned not only death and destruction at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, but also the Cold War, with international nuclear brinksmanship terrifying the world for decades. Leetso soon grew to include civilian uses of radioactive material as well: for medical and industrial applications, and to generate electricity.
From 1945 through 1988, Navajo lands provided some 13 million tons of uranium ore to support these developments, according to the book. Tribal members who dug up the yellow rock for as little as 81 cents per hour were provided neither safety instruction nor gear such as respirators, earplugs, goggles and protective clothing. The mines had no ventilating fans or other safeguards.
The perils of working with uranium had been documented in Europe since the late 19th century. During the 20th century - particularly following World War II - numerous scientific and medical studies by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Public Health Service and others repeatedly reconfirmed the hazards. However, the federal government ignored this information when it came to uranium mining, despite having promised to protect Navajo health and safety in the Treaty of 1868. Safety issues were ceded to the states and the mining corporations, which typically supplied accommodations and showers for white supervisors - who, in any case, spent less time in the mines than the laborers - while Navajos were left to fend for themselves.
The text reports that tribal members built homes for their families out of available materials, including radioactive uranium tailings. They drank water that flowed out of the mines. Navajo wives washed uranium dust out of the men's' clothes by hand while their children played in dust clouds created by blasting. Lorraine Jack, Navajo, a miner's wife quoted in the book, said, ''They watched us expose ourselves [to uranium] ... it was like herding sheep into a field of stickers.'' Miner Floyd Frank, Navajo, asked, ''Are we disposable to the government?''
The savage, dismissive way in which Navajo people were treated didn't stop there, the book shows. On the reservation, some 1,000 abandoned, unsealed mines continue to contaminate land, air and water, despite federal regulations for shutting them down properly. Children play in old mineshafts, and sheepherders use them as livestock shelters. Those who eat meat from exposed animals become contaminated in turn.
A health crisis has ensued, with miners and their families contracting cancers and other diseases, and experiencing genetic consequences. The widowing of large numbers of Navajo women and the disruption of the community's primary value of hozho nashaadoo, or walking in harmony, has meant cultural dislocation as well.
After decades of advocacy by Navajos, Congress passed the Radiation Compensation Exposure Acts of 1990 and 2000, which cover all miners, not just tribal members. ''To visit [Navajo homes] ... to see the lack of phones, the wood stoves, and the remoteness of the community is to marvel that their complaint ever reached Washington, D.C.,'' according to the book.
RECA afforded some compensation; however, it created special barriers for Navajos, requiring them to meet tougher standards than white miners in order to receive payment, for example. In the book's foreword, Stewart L. Udall, secretary of the Interior Department in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, called RECA ''a bare semblance of justice.'' He concluded: ''The Navajo uranium miners and their families were literally sacrificed to help the nation prevail in the Cold War.''
A Navajo origin story retold in the book tells of two powders the people were asked to choose between: yellow dust from rocks and corn pollen. When they chose the latter, they were told never to touch the rock dust, as it would bring them evil. To banish the malevolence of leetso, Navajo activists are working to educate fellow tribal members about its effects and their rights. In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council approved the Dine' Natural Resources Protection Act, forbidding uranium mining and processing anywhere in the Navajo Nation. It is the duty of the Dine', says the act, ''to preserve the natural world for future generations.''
And thus, the book ends on an optimistic note, with the hope of restoring harmony to Dine'tah.