December 30 to January 2, 2006 in Window Rock, Arizona, the Navajo Nation hosted the “ Uranium Mining Ban Summit and Nuclear Free Future Awards”, 14 years after the first World Uranium Mining Hearing was held in Salzburg, Austria. The Summit’s more than 350 participants gathered in the Navajo Nation Museum because nuclearism, the addiction to nuclear proliferation despite the consequences to culture and health, ignores basic human rights and natural laws. Linda Richards, of WILPF Disarm! reports back:
Eighty percent of nuclear fuel cycle activities take place on tribal lands. The Navajo Nation, sovereign nation of the Dine’ people, in the Four Corners Area of the southwest contains 25% of the US supply of uranium. Those who profit from nuclearism externalize the risks and costs to the future, in conflict with the values of land based cultures.
The motto of Eastern Navajo Dine’ Against Uranium Mining, (ENDAUM), a grass roots group’s whose thirteen year resistance to the “in situ” mining is featured in the documentaryHomeland: Four Portraits of Native Action“To eii be’ iina at e” translation- “Water is life”.
In 2005, the Navajo Nation passed the Dine’ Resources Protection Act. The Act forbids any future uranium mining and milling in the Nation, until remediation on past polluted sites is complete. Since 2001, the price of uranium has risen twelve times; from the average of $7 a lb to $85 a lb. Countries are enhancing import/export procurement strategies, with exploration for new mines and old mines reopening from Wyoming to China.
Current stockpiles of nuclear waste containing usable material for nuclear power and weapons are so large there is no need for new uranium. The only need is economic self interest by companies such as Uranium Resources, Inc. The company appealed the Navajo Nation’s mining ban and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission granted their permission for Uranium Resources, Inc of Texas to mine January 1, 2006. Several major organizations, including the UN Commission on Science and Technology, are supporting the Navajo Nation’s sovereignty.
Despite the pressure, the Navajo Nation continues resistance to further uranium mining or milling on their land, due to their past experience with uranium and the potential devastation of their culture and water supplies if mining were to resume, particularly with the proposed “in situ” mining techniques that contaminate water supplies.
Summit participants included citizens from First Nations, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Germany, India, Japan, the United States and Vanuatu, the world’s first Nuclear Free Zone. The group is dedicated to a worldwide ban on uranium mining, processing, enrichment, fuel use, weapons testing and deployment, and nuclear waste dumping on Indigenous lands. The ban is justified on the basis of the extensive record of “disproportional impacts” of nuclearism on the health, natural resources and cultures of Indigenous peoples.
Awards were presented to Phil Harrison, Jr., a long-time advocate for compensation for Navajo uranium workers and Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC), an Albuquerque, N.M.-based group that has provided nuclear technical assistance and scientific information in the area for 35 years.
While no place on Earth has escaped the signature of atmospheric nuclear testing, as radionucleotides unknown before 1945 are found in soil, water and polar ice, Indigenous communities have suffered incalculable loss. These include the Pacific Rim with the devastation from 67 weapons tests in the Marshall Islands, some explosions 750 times larger than the bomb dropped on Hiroshima. Testing resulted in devastation of the Enewetak people, and complete vaporization of the five of the Enewetak atolls. The Enewetak continue to fight for compensation from the US government today. It was the leadership of Hilda Lini, who attended the Summit, and the people of the tiny Pacific Island of Vanuatu, which has led to 2/3 of the earth’s land mass now belonging to the UN-recognized “Nuclear Weapons Free Zones”.
Other US tribes disproportionately affected by the nuclear fuel cycle lived on land taken in 1941 for the then secret activity of atomic weapons production at Hanford Nuclear Reservation, in Washington State. The Hanford area contained many spiritual and cultural sites, including the Hanford Reach, a biologically imperative site for Chinook salmon spawning. Toxic radioactive groundwater is currently leaching into the Reach. The health effects to Umatilla, Cayuse, Walla Walla, Coeur d'Alene, Colville, Kalispel, Nez Perce, Spokane, and members of the Warm Springs tribe were not examined despite their subsistence culture, which included diets high in contaminated fish.
The selection of the Shoshone lands for the Nuclear Test Ste contaminated their lands beyond reclamation, and the threatened “Divine Strake” test will re-disperse radioactive soils across the landscape. “No one has the right to contaminant the air or water, as that destroys all life” said Carrie Dann of the Western Shoshone, “and greed has led to people eating their children, which means stealing their future.”
The history of the Navajo Nation’s experience with uranium is told in The Navajo People and Uranium Mining edited by Brugge, Benally and Yazzie-Lewis published by University of New Mexico Press (2006) and Memories Come to Us in the Rain and the Wind, published by the Navajo Uranium Miner Oral History and Photography Exhibit, on display at the Summit. The books share the destabilizing effects of nuclearism on land based cultural identity and health.
In a Dine’ creation story, the Dine’ were given the choice of two yellow powders and correctly chose the yellow dust of corn pollen. They were then instructed to leave the other yellow powder, uranium, in the soil, and never to dig it up; if it were taken from underground, a great evil would come.
Much of the mining in the Navajo Nation took place near “Tsoodzil” (Mt Taylor) a sacred site and mountain where a mythological monster roamed. This monster, although slain in traditional stories, gave birth to many small monsters, which the Navajos today equate with the radionucleotides that emit from the decaying uranium. The directive to leave uranium in the ground is held in common with the aboriginal Australian stories, of the Rainbow Serpent which sleeps under the ground to guard over forces beyond human control, and should not be awakened which would unleash vengeance.
In 1941 uranium was discovered in the Dine’ traditional lands, and thirteen million pounds of uranium were mined from 1,200 properties scattered across the Navajo Nation. The mines had no ventilation and the Dine’ and Hopi miners (note the vast majority were Dine’) were issued no health warnings, or protective gear, and returned to their homes from the mines coated with yellow radioactive dust. Early miners used gathered radioactive rocks as building materials for the traditional hogan. Many of the miners and their family members died young of lung cancers and diseases unknown previously to the tribes. It was successfully argued in 1990 at the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) hearings that the health effects of uranium were purposefully withheld from the Dine and Hopi workers, and thus, their entitlement to compensation. Unfortunately, only 12% of the promised compensation has been received because of stringent eligibility criteria such as nonexistent birth certificates.
On July 16, 1979, the earthen dam broke at United Nuclear Corporation at Church Rock New Mexico, releasing a radioactive flood of 94 million gallons, spreading 1,100 tons of highly acidic and large amounts of radioactive uranium mill tailings on the reservation. Contaminated water flowed into the Rio Puerco River, through the town of Gallup, New Mexico and westward through Holbrook at Winslow Arizona. Much of the contaminates remain untouched today, 30 years later.
Over a thousand two hundred contaminated mine sites continue to lurk on the lands, invisibly radioactive. The health effects from exposure to uranium include lung cancer, respiratory diseases, soft tissue cancers as well as leukemia, paralyzing birth defects, Down’s syndrome, mental retardation, and spontaneous abortion. Documentary evidence of the current pernicious health effects on an Indian group can be seen in the award wining documentary Buddha Weeps in Jadugoda by Shri Prakesh.
The Summit included Robert Del Tredici’s photography exhibit “The Secret Life of the Atom”, a tour of abandoned uranium mines near homes in the Church Rock area, film screenings, and discussions with the presence of inspirational past and present recipients of the Nuclear Free Future Awards.
Other award recipients were:
- Sun Xiaodi, a Chinese uranium miner who was jailed in 2005 for exposing unsafe conditions in mines and was then “disappeared” in retaliation. His award was accepted by Feng Congde with Human Rights in China in New York City.
- Dr. Gordon Edwards, a Canadian mathematician and co-founder of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility, for his work documenting and explaining the impacts of uranium development in Canada.
- Wolfgang Scheffler and Heike Hoedt, German scientists and activists who invented low-cost solar reflectors for cooking use in impoverished communities in Africa and Asia.
- Ed Grothus, a former Los Alamos National Laboratory nuclear weapons scientist who quit in 1969 to advocate against nuclear proliferation.
The leadership of Indigenous resistance is restoring the balance of the relationship of humans with the earth. For more information see www.endaum.org, www.sric.org. and www.wise-uranuium.org.
Linda Richards and SRIC