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Navajo point to history with uranium as warning against energy bill

WASHINGTON - Only days away from a probable Senate vote on the Energy Policy Act of 2003, the Navajo had little time for subtlety in carrying their opposition to Capitol Hill.

Accordingly, they delivered the message in every way they could - including distribution of a book from 1994 detailing the history of Navajo distress over uranium mining on tribal lands. An attached note from President Joe Shirley to members of Congress linked "the physical, psychological and cultural devastation caused by predatory energy practices" to the Indian title of S. 14 "that invites uranium mining on the Navajo Nation ?"

In an interview, he clarified that this invitation takes the form of an open door to potentially exploitive business relationships and environmental contamination that tribes - as stewards of their permanent homelands - cannot move away from if any damage is done.

Wanda Johnson of the Navajo Washington office drew on her personal experience to put a finer point on the cultural disruption caused by uranium mining. She grew up, she said, near a mining company that inflicted a uranium spill on the Navajo environment. The spill "destroyed the sacred elements of Navajo life" - earth, water, air, culture. "We could no longer irrigate our farm" because of groundwater contamination, she said, and this in turn enforced discontinuities in the transmission of Navajo culture.

While none of this condemns future energy development projects to the same fate, Johnson echoed President Shirley in referring S. 14 to the fullness of time: "We are talking from experience."

The book, "If You Poison Us: Uranium and Native Americans," by Peter H. Eichstaedt, published by Red Crane Books in Santa Fe, N.M., also dwells in a certain fullness of time. It takes its title from Shakespeare's "Merchant of Venice" - "If you poison us, do we not die?" asks Shylock, a Jew created for the stage in an age of visceral anti-Semitism. And ironically noted in the book is 1950s-style Navajo patriotism as the nation rallied to the prospect of jobs, yes, but also to the perceived duty of providing America with uranium for its Cold War nuclear programs.

Of any intended parallel with the present need for energy resources in the war on terrorism, not a word was said.