A good one from Winona LaDuke, writing in Orion Magazine.
Pilfered from Colorado AIM. Just like half of all my other posts.
In a Dine Creation Story, the people were given a choice of two yellow powders. They chose the yellow dust of corn pollen, and were instructed to leave the other yellow powder-uranium-in the soil and never to dig it up. If it were taken from the ground, they were told, a great evil would come.
The evil came. Over one thousand uranium mines gouged the earth in the Dine Bikeyah, the land of the Navajo, during a thirty-year period beginning in the 1950s. It was the lethal nature of uranium mining that led the industry to the isolated lands of Native America. By the mid-1970s, there were 380 uranium leases on native land and only 4 on public or acquired lands. At that time, the industry and government were fully aware of the health impacts of uranium mining on workers, their families, and the land upon which their descendants would come to live. Unfortunately, few Navajo uranium miners were told of the risks. In the 1960s, the Department of Labor even provided the Kerr-McGee Corporation with support for hiring Navajo uranium miners, who were paid $1.62 an hour to work underground in the mine shafts with little or no ventilation.
All told, more than three thousand Navajos worked in uranium mines, often walking home in ore-covered clothes. The consequences were devastating. Thousands of uranium miners and their relatives lost their lives as a result of radioactive contamination. Many families are still seeking compensation. The Navajo Nation is still struggling to address the impact of abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, as well as the long-term health effects on both the miners and their communities, many of which suffer astronomical rates of cancer and birth defects.
As a college student, I worked for Navajo organizations, trying to inform their people about the uranium-mining industry and the large corporations-EXXON, Mobil, United Nuclear-that proposed to mine their lands. It was a humbling experience, seeing some of the richest corporations in the world faced by courageous peoples who fought for the two things that mattered to them more than money: their land and their identity. The Navajo people joined with many others across the country who felt that there was a much better way to make energy. In the end, the people did prevail-new mining proposals evaporated as tribal resistance and legal and administrative battles merged with economic forces. Eventually, contracts for uranium were canceled by utilities, which no longer sought to build unpopular nuclear power plants.
Now I feel like I am having very bad déjà vu-only this time nuclear power is seen as the answer to global climate destabilization. In 2005, the Navajo Nation passed a moratorium on uranium mining in its territory and traditional lands, which was followed by similar moratoria on Hopi and Havasupai lands, where mines are proposed adjacent to the Grand Canyon. “It is unconscionable to me that the federal government would consider allowing uranium mining to be restarted anywhere near the Navajo Nation when we are still suffering from previous mining activities,” Joe Shirley Jr., Navajo Nation president, explained at a congressional hearing on opening uranium mines in the Grand Canyon area. To the north, the Lakota organization Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) is an intervener in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing to allow the Canadian corporation Cameco to expand its Crow Butte uranium mine, just over the Nebraska border from the reservation.
I recently traveled to Australia, the country with the largest known uranium reserves in the world. In my Sydney hotel room the television broadcaster summarized Australia’s economic strategy: “We dig it up, and they buy it.” The mining industry, in a world bent upon combusting and consumption, looks to be very healthy. Australia’s uranium mines include the Beverley Mine, which is in the territory of the Kuyani and Adnyamathanha peoples. Olympic Dam (operated by BHP Billiton-the largest mining corporation in the world) is the country’s second-largest uranium operation and is in the traditional territory of aboriginal people as well. In fact, most major mining operations in Australia are within aboriginal territory. These are some ancient civilizations-resilient in the face of a deep history of genocide and destruction, which continued well into the twentieth century. Aboriginal people did not even get the right to vote until 1967. Due to their relative isolation in the outback, many of these tribes have had few interactions with outsiders. That is, until recently.