MISSION: Southwest Research and Information Center is a multi-cultural organization working to promote the health of people and communities, protect natural resources, ensure citizen participation, and secure environmental and social justice now and for future generations

A Clash of Values —
the Navajos' Uncompromising Opposition to Uranium Mining

The Navajos who make up the core of opposition to HRI's mining plans are firmly and uncompromisingly opposed to new uranium mining. Their reasons coalesce from a combination of historical, technical and traditional understandings that, I believe, are not well understood or appreciated by the dominant society. Allow me, a White guy from Ohio, a chance to explain.

From the historical perspective, the lingering impacts of underground uranium mining on the health and lands of the Navajo people are most often cited by community leaders as one of the principal reasons why so many Diné disfavor new uranium development by any method, including the in situ leach (ISL) technique. In their now historic letter of August 15, for instance, Navajo Nation President Kelsey Begaye and Vice President Dr. Taylor McKenzie urged Senator Jeff Bingaman to help defeat the uranium provisions of the House Energy Bill, in part, because "uranium mining has proven to be devastating to the health and well-being of the Navajo people," and because there remains "serious doubt on the safety of uranium in-situ leach mining technology." More than a year ago, Crownpoint and Church Rock chapters, in resolutions opposing new uranium mining, cited community concerns about the potential health and environmental effects of abandoned mines, and called on tribal and federal agencies to expedite cleanup of those sites.

Church Rock resident Larry J. King, whose land abuts the proposed HRI Church Rock mining site, often speaks, with strong emotion, about how members of his family, including a brother, died as a result of past mining-related accidents near his home. King, who as a young man worked in the underground mines in Church Rock for five years, reminds those he talks to that he and hundreds of other Church Rock residents have to live forever within a short distance of a permanent, low-level radioactive waste dump - the now-abandoned United Nuclear Corporation uranium mill tailings pile.

"We don't have any choice in this matter," King says. "We can't just move away, like you White people do. This is our land, our homes, it is where we were born. And now we're being told - again, not asked - to accept a new uranium operation. Well, we say 'No!'"

For Mitchell Capitan, one of the founding members of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) who is now president of Crownpoint Chapter, the reasons are technical, and he gives them in a story I have heard more than a dozen times over the last seven years. Whether in a van with Representative Tom Udall or while addressing the Navajo Nation Council, Mitchell Capitan's story is always the same.

He talks about working as a laboratory technician at the Mobil Section 9 ISL pilot project west of Crownpoint in the early 1980s, analyzing water samples from restoration wells for uranium and other contaminants. As the months passed, company officials thought the levels of uranium and other chemical constituents were not going down as fast and as low as they had predicted.

"They'd send in these guys from Houston, and when they saw how high the levels were, they'd say, 'No, this can't be right, do it again,'" Capitan says. "I'd run another sample, and it too would be high. They'd tell me to do it again. Still, the same result. Finally, they just gave up, and eventually I and many other workers were laid off."

Capitan says when the local papers reported in November 1994 that the Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) was ready to approve the HRI project, "I told Rita [Capitan, his wife], 'I know this can't be done safely. This will ruin our water.' I said we just couldn't sit there and do nothing. I didn't want my kids looking at me 20 years down the road, after our pure, sweet water was polluted, and say, 'Why didn't you do anything?'"

As parents and as community leaders - not as lefty political activists - Mitchell and Rita Capitan did something. They called family and friends together, and after several initial meetings, formed ENDAUM for the purpose of "protecting our precious water supplies by stopping uranium solution mining in the Eastern Agency of the Navajo Nation." To this day, ENDAUM's raison d'être — to protect the only source of drinking water for Crownpoint and other Eastern Agency communities — has motivated thousands of residents to take action, and as a result, they have become a political force not only on the Navajo Nation, but nationally.

Fundamentally, though, the success of ENDAUM and its new companion group, Concerned Citizens of T'iists'óóz Níídeeshgizh (CCT), has been built on a simple truth for traditional Navajo people: Tó eii be'iín´ ´t'é, that "Water Is Life." For many Navajos, including ENDAUM and CCT members, there is no differentiation between the "old mining" and the "new mining" because they both are inimical to traditional values.

One of our newest Board members at SRIC, Esther Yazzie-Lewis, pointed out to me a few months back how uranium development on Navajo lands progressed generally in a counter-clockwise direction, beginning, more or less contemporaneously, in the east and in north in the Four Corners Area, and proceeding west, then south, then east again. This progression, she said, is opposite to the natural way of the four directions, in which the sun moves through the sky from east to south to west, ending each day in the darkness of the north. In traditional Navajo blessings, participants always move clockwise around the center of the hogan, and sprinkle corn pollen circularly in each direction - east, south, west and north - as a blessing for the renewal of each day, and for strength and balance in their lives.

Since the birth of the atomic age, some Navajos contrast their belief in the life-giving properties of yellow corn pollen with what they say are the life-taking properties of yellowcake, the metallic form of uranium used since 1942 as the main fissile ingredient in nuclear warheads. We in the dominant society don't look at yellowcake quite like that because we, as products of the Scientific Revolution and the Age of Reason, understand that uranium is used primarily today as fuel in nuclear power plants, which generate electricity for about 20 percent of the American population. But the Navajo view of uranium is not one of energy or power (i.e., life-giving), but one of war (i.e., life-taking). Former Navajo miners often talk about how the mining company officials in the 1940s and 1950s appealed to their "warrior" impulses and sense of patriotism to motivate their recovery of uranium ore from the unventilated "dog holes" that were the early underground mines.

Other Diné traditionalists and scholars go much deeper into Navajo lore, explaining that the Navajo language term for uranium, léétso, or "yellow dirt," closely resembles and sounds like the name of one of the People's great monsters, Yé'iitsoh. Yé'iitsoh lived on what is now Mount Taylor until he was slain by the Hero Twins. The Hero Twins were the sons of Changing Woman (who is synonymous with Mother Earth) and are said to have slain all of the naayéé, or enemy monsters, allowing the "Five-Fingered People" to emerge into the present-day world. Mount Taylor - alternatively, Tsoodzil, or "Mountain Tongue," or Dootl'izhii Dziil, or "Turquoise Mountain" for its association with blue or turquoise, the color associated with the south - is one of the Navajos' four sacred mountains, defining the southern boundary of Dinétah. Traditionalists say that it is no coincidence that vast uranium deposits underlie Mount Taylor, which between the mid-1970s and 1990 was the site of the deepest underground uranium mine in the world. They therefore equate léétso with a monster - something that gets in the way of life - as forbidding as Yé'iitsoh was to the Hero Twins.

Esther Yazzie-Lewis, who conducted interviews with many former Navajo miners, said the miners believe they saw evil in the walls of the underground mines where they observed the fossilized skeletons of serpent-like creatures. "Navajos avoid snakes," she writes. "They are treated with respect and with caution, because they are dangerous and thus potentially evil." That the miners had actually seen these images was not illusionary. Many uranium deposits occur in ancient buried stream channels that contain animal fossils and that structurally are long, thin, narrow and twisted - indeed, "snakelike".

In the end, the Navajos' staunch resistance to uranium mining and HRI's dogged determination to mine represent a clash of values that few people understand. For HRI and other companies, uranium solution mining is a challenging engineering problem, which, if solved, can make stockholders and company officials alike wealthy in exchange for the financial risks they have taken to extract the uranium. For the Navajos, the risk is not financial, but spiritual. As I have tried to show, they believe that uranium represents the very things that they try to avoid and attacks the very things that support and sustain their lives - the water, the land and their religious beliefs.



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