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Voices from the Earth Volume 1 Number 1
Opposition to New Uranium Mining Gains Momentum in Eastern Navajo Area

Rita Capitan
Just an "Ordinary Person [that] Won't Sit Here and Let This Happen to us Again Like in the Early 1980s."

PHOTO: (Left to right) Rita Capitan, Mitchell Capitan, and artist Lonnie Vigil at the ENDAUM benefit Art Auction, December, 1999. (Photo by Hal Malone)

Editors note: Rita Capitan, Member, Governing Board of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM), works for Crownpoint Middle School. The following is from a presentation before the Diné College Uranium Education Program 2000 Teacher Seminar, on July 11, 2000.

My name is Rita Capitan. My oldest daughter is 29, and I have three boys — 26, 18, and 9. I worked at Crownpoint High and now at the Middle School. I have put in over 25 years in education, and I worked among children all my life. I like to speak from the perspective of a community member.

From about 1975 through 1980, several big uranium companies came into the Crownpoint area. The companies brought in a lot of uranium miners from out of state. Most of them were non-Indians. They built a big trailer park in Crownpoint, and the school that I worked in suffered. I felt like I was just being an attendance clerk, and they really disrupted the school and community for a good five years. Students were full of misbehavior problems, attendance problems, all kinds of problems, and the things that they did. And they didn't get any support from parents. So it was very hard to work with those people. Mitchell, my husband, also worked for the school for awhile. He is the one that had to go to the different families to work with these students and their parents. It was very unbelievable what we both went through from working there at the school.

The drilling for uranium, all kinds of drilling, went on all over the community of Crownpoint and the surrounding communities of Smith Lake and Church Rock. The communities dealt with a lot – women left their husbands, women were left with fatherless babies when the miners went on to different areas, and it was real big disruption.

Finally, the uranium price went down. Everybody moved off all of a sudden. Things got quiet at the school, and it was a lot better.

Later on my husband worked for five years for Mobil Oil, on a pilot in situ leach mining project just three, four miles out of Crownpoint. He was hired to be an assistant to the chemist there, working with a guy by the name of Winston Benally, from the Fruitland area. The water that Mobil wanted to pump underground and bring uranium back up was supposed to come out clean, but that never happened. There were always different types of dirty stuff in the water, stuff that people shouldn't be consuming. Mitchell would tell me how these engineers came down from Denver, and they would be very frustrated with the samples they had to pick up because they said that this is never going to work. One day Mitchell came home and he said that he thought everybody was going to get laid off in one more month and the company would shut the whole thing down. And that happened. Since then he has worked for more than 10 years with NTUA [Navajo Tribal Utility Authority].

On November 14, 1994, I still remember that date, we picked up a Gallup Independent and there in the front page it says, "Crownpoint mining open soon." I read it first and then he read it and we talked about it. I asked him if he hadn't said, when he worked for Mobil, that they never proved that the water can be clean after they did all this operation? He said yes, and I really could tell it bothered him and we started to talk about it.

We Decided to Have a Meeting

The next evening I told my husband maybe we should do something about it. We can't just sit here and let this happen to us again like in the early 1980's, when all these other miners came here and disrupted our community. So then we started calling around, and we decided to have a meeting at the chapter house. We put a little note in the paper about the meeting. To my surprise, we had about 30 people there, and a lot of people that were opposed to it. They were questioning when did this all come up? When was it approved? We were all puzzled. But there were three or four people who were allottees and when they spoke, you could tell they were working on this and they already knew about everything. They said that it had been explained by HRI, and they are telling us it's safe, and it's our land and please don't get in the middle of it.

We had several meetings after that. A lot of us didn't know what to do, who to call or where to get the information. My husband ran into Chris Shuey (SRIC staff) at Mariano Lake Chapter House one day just by accident, that's how he came into our lives. We were able to really get things going with him.

We're just ordinary community people. We didn't know what uranium does to you, what goes on underground, and what's in the water and all this type of stuff. But there are people who know about things like that. So we had meetings after meetings, and before you know it we had invited a [Nuclear Regulatory Commission] judge from Washington, D.C., to come and listen to the community people at a big meeting in Crownpoint [in September 1998].

Our biggest concern was allottees or landowners. Right away they were very different to work with. We didn't want that to happen, but it really disrupted our community as well. Relatives, we all have relatives by clan, and soon there were allottees that weren't looking at us and said harsh words. Also, I don't want to put the government down. Since we started to work all this uranium stuff, we've learned that the government is not really there to take care of us. And so we were very suspicious of government officials.

We Got Strong

Then we started going to local leaders, and it was very frustrating to learn that they know about it all along. It kind of reminds about these movies that you see about an invasion by aliens, and then you run to your leaders and run to your friends for help — friends that are leaders — and come to find out they are aliens themselves. We went through that most frustrating part, so we had to get on our feet and form an organization called Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining. We formed ENDAUM, and we got strong.

I'm always thankful for Chris Shuey and SRIC, and the New Mexico Environmental Law Center. They came to help us and then we eventually hired another attorney in Washington, D.C. And my husband and I got to know a lot of people through all this work.

We knew we had to pay specialists and experts and we had to learn how to go out and look for grants. So Kathleen Tsosie [Administrative Officer, ENDAUM] and several other members came. My husband and I, we never thought in our lives we would ever get to New York City, but we found ourselves on the streets of New York City looking for grants and foundations to fund our experts and to pay for our lawyers. We did it. We went through things we never thought we would have to go through in our lives. We had some artists in Santa Fe area who got together, wanted to help. About 40 artists brought beautiful pottery, a real heavy concho belt, nice paintings, all kinds of Native American art work and sold them at an auction in Santa Fe in December 1999. Tony Abeyta organized the auction. We met a lot of generous people through this event who helped us pay for our experts and lawyers.

So like I said, there has been a lot of community disruption. We always talk about k'é, relatives. We lost a lot of that, but gradually we're getting back together. I think a lot of allottees are realizing that they moved too fast and they approved all this without really getting educated about it, so gradually it's getting better.

As a mother, as a wife, as a community member, I had to really get strong; both of us, my husband and I.

We asked for help through the Catholic Church, and the church is a wonderful thing because they tell us you are Native American, you are Diné, and you have your corn pollen. Just because you join our church does not mean you put that aside. They have been wonderful, so I am glad to say that I really have faith in the Lord and He's been with us throughout and also the traditional way, the corn pollen. I was raised as a traditional person.

Someone said earlier that I don't like to be called an activist, and I am kind of like that too. When I hear the word activist, I think about people that are down the street with big signs and yell and just make a big ruckus, but I don't see myself that way. I am just an ordinary person. I just want to be home baking cookies, doing housework. That's the way I want to be. But the seven years that we done this have really disrupted our lives, both in a good way and in a bad way. But like I said I have my faith. That keeps me strong, and I encourage you to go to church in your area and up north of church, where they did a lot of mining, and see for yourself what these outsiders can come in and do to our land and our water.

Thank you.

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"Until one is committed there is hesitancy, the chance to draw back, always ineffectiveness. Concerning all acts of initiative (and creation), there is one elementary truththat the moment one definitely commits oneself, then Providence moves, too. All sorts of things occur to help one that would never otherwise have occurred. A whole stream of events issues from the decision, raising in one's favour all manner of unforeseen incidents and meetings and material assistance which no man would have dreamt would have come his way."
– W.H. Murray in The Scottish Himalayan Expedition.

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