Book review — Vanquishing the Yellow Monster

Published in Indian Country Today in April 2007.

Leetso is a Navajo word with several meanings, including yellow dirt, yellow monster and uranium, according to the editors of a new book, 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, New Mexico, 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 in Navajo of miners and their families by Benally and Phillip Harrison Jr. (Navajo) — are translated so as 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 subsequently 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, as well as to generate electricity.

From 1945 through 1988, Navajo lands provided some 13 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 with no safety information or 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. After World War II, numerous scientific and medical studies by the U.S. Atomic Energy Commission, the U.S. Public Health Service and others reconfirmed the hazards. However, despite having provided guarantees for Navajo health and safety in the Treaty of 1868, the federal government ignored these promises when it came to uranium mining — turning safety issues over to the states and the mining corporations instead. On the Navajo reservation, the companies typically provided accommodations and showers for white supervisors — who, in any case, spent less time in the mines than the laborers — while tribal members were left to fend for themselves.

The book reports that Navajo men 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 their menfolks’ clothes by hand, while their children played on mounds of tailings and 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 dismissiveness with 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 closing 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 (RECA), 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 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 have worked hard to educate fellow tribal members about its effects and their rights. In 2005, the Navajo Nation Council approved the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act, forbidding uranium mining and processing anywhere in the Nation. It is the duty of the Diné, 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 Dinétah.

c. Stephanie Woodard.

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