Navajo Nation battles yellow ‘monster’


These days we speak of weapons of mass destruction without truly considering the historical weight of those words. The phrase is bandied about by talking heads without an ounce of emotion or regret. That the United States is trying to halt the proliferation of nuclear programs for the sake of preventing mass casualties by terrorist attack, while maneuvering constantly to maintain its status as a world superpower, is ironic. The earthly material used to transform the United States into the world’s most powerful political and military force, uranium, has proven just as massively destructive as the nuclear weapons it spawned.

A new book, “The Navajo People and Uranium Mining,” edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally and Esther Yazzie-Lewis, is the documented history of the forgotten victims of America’s Cold War, according to Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley Jr. Generations of indigenous people living and breathing on Navajo land have suffered the deadly effects of uranium mining, without compassion or just compensation from the federal government. Shirley described the uranium mining era as genocide. “There is no other word for what happened to Navajo uranium miners,” he said.

Leetso, “yellow dirt” in Dine’, is found throughout Navajoland. A map of mining areas shows a dozen mines in Navajo alone, and a few others in the vast outlying territory. As in countless stories of the exploitation of indigenous resources, the Navajo and Hopi people were the last to know the true effects of their mining efforts.

The Dine’ are people with the utmost respect for the ground on which they live. The world’s largest deep uranium mine is at the foot of Tsoodzil, the Navajo sacred mountain of the south. Imagine the spiritual loss for a people whose ancient ways tell them it is disrespectful to dig into the Earth with steel tools or machinery. The miners themselves suffered often fatal radiation-related diseases and dangerous threats to their way of life as Dine’. These are the primary handlers of the uranium; countless secondary victims live today in communities wasted by invisible radiation exposure that runs deadly through families, hogans and playgrounds. Even the wind itself blows radioactive dust throughout the land. The result, lamented Shirley, has “cost the Navajo Nation the accumulated wisdom, knowledge, stories, songs and ceremonies of hundreds of our people.”

Victims of radiation poisoning and their descendants have received very little federal compensation. The 1990 Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was initially drafted to address concerns of non-Native miners. They received some 80 percent of $300 million. Native miners and their families received 12 percent, or roughly $4 million. A quick look at the RECA compensation guidelines gives one the scope of the physical effects of radiation exposure. Eligible claimants can be compensated for leukemia, lymphomas and chronic renal disease, as well as a host of “primary” cancers affecting the brain, thyroid, lung, colon and ovary, among many others. The guidelines provide for “compassionate” compensation, to exact dollar amounts, for eligible claimants.

Many Navajo claims were denied, deemed ineligible for failure to produce a birth date or birth certificate. According to Navajo Nation communications, Shirley acknowledged this bureaucratic challenge at an update in September. He told the elderly miners, “Many of you were born at home in a hogan and didn’t receive a piece of paper with this information on it. Our mothers gave birth to us holding on to a sash belt and we remember a specific season, not a date and time.”

Again, we find Indian people faced with somewhat irrelevant questions of citizenship and worthiness in their search for justice and restitution. Whatever compensation is provided by RECA, it will never amend the destruction caused to the fabric of Navajo lifeways. Death and disease can be documented; social collapse over the course of generations is more difficult to record. The discovery and mining of uranium produced more than atomic energy for the power-hungry United States. Boomtowns rose out of sacred lands, creating an entirely new socioeconomic dynamic that was alien to the traditional Navajo way of life. The mining industry has polluted bodies and minds, water and soil. There has been no just compensation for Indian peoples affected by leetso.

These issues became a priority when the Navajo Nation Council passed the Dine’ Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005. This law prohibits uranium mining and processing throughout Navajo country. However, there is a looming threat to Navajo sovereignty, as the market price for uranium has taken a sharp upward turn in the last two years amid widespread talk of alternative energy production. Already speculators are seeking state and federal permission to reopen mines that, although government-controlled, are situated on Navajo territory.

Avoiding “a repeat of one of the most sorrowful periods in the Navajo Nation’s history” will be the focus of its Indigenous World Uranium Summit. The nation expects international guests, other Indian tribes and federal legislators at the gathering, which begins Nov. 30 in Window Rock, Ariz. Speaking in holistic terms about their effort to prevent future uranium mining, the Navajo have on their agenda a range of topics from the legacy of mining, community health studies and traditional cultural teachings, to market forces affecting the new uranium boom and sustainable development of alternative energy sources.

The Navajo grass-roots campaign to stop uranium mining has reached the height of a world summit. Exploitation of indigenous resources and the destruction of people and communities can no longer be considered collateral damage by those seeking enriching economic opportunities. We commend the Navajo Nation for telling its story so effectively, and for its resolve in keeping its future generations safe from harm.