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The Deadly Inheritance of Uranium Mining for the Navajo Nation

The deadly environmental destruction and tribal disputes that have originated due to uranium mining in the Navajo Nation.

The history of resource mining on the Navajo Nation is one that spans many decades. In 1948, the US Atomic Energy Commission announced that it would guarantee a price for and purchase all uranium ore mined in the United States. This announcement subsequently created a mining boom across Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico, with the Navajo reservation being consumed by the growth.

Navajo men began to find work within the mines in hopes of gaining some economic prosperity and improving the lives of them and their families. Many Tribal families viewed it as an opportunity for social mobility, whereas others saw it as the destruction of their sacred land. The mining boom had peaked from 1955-1956, with it declining in 1967, leaving more than 500 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo reservation in the process.

The mining boom had peaked from 1955-1956, with it declining in 1967, leaving more than 500 abandoned uranium mine sites on the Navajo reservation in the process.

Many of these mining sites have been neglected because of low population densities and the remoteness of the locations themselves, with many of them still not systematically characterized. The effects of these abandoned mines have been disastrous for the local Navajo community despite royalties paid to many of them by the mining companies. With their primary means of sustenance centered around cattle and sheep, the exploitation of uranium unnecessarily destroyed numerous grazing areas. Perhaps even more importantly, many Navajo miners that worked during the boom era also developed lung cancer and silicosis, with some of their family members developing cases of it alongside that of an increase in congenital disabilities as well.

Community organization began to come about around uranium mining in the early 1960’s as cases of health issues began to climb. Harry Tome of Red Valley, a member of the Navajo Tribal Council, was one of the earliest advocates in bringing public awareness to the development of lung cancer by miners, encouraging that a compensation system be installed.

It took roughly two decades of further community organizing for it to culminate in the passing of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) in 1990. RECA acknowledged that the United States government has historically mistreated uranium miners, making compensation payments up to $100,000 to uranium miners. Cleanup efforts were also established, with inspections of potentially unsafe abandoned mines being initiated by health inspectors.

Despite many of these efforts to reconcile the damaging effects of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation reservation, pollution from the uranium has made it unsafe for many people to live on the reservation long term. While many of the abandoned mines shut down years ago, mounds of toxic waste are still piled atop the dirt as the radioactive dust has become a primary issue for many local Tribal residents, with the continued struggle to restore their sacred land and to remove the contaminated material still underway.

Hopi and Navajo dispute land

Land disputes in the Black Mountain region in Arizona between the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Nation have been highly controversial. With the establishment of the Hopi Indian Reservation in 1882, many Navajo Tribal members continued to migrate into the reservation land, with the Navajo Hopi Land Settlement Act being passed in 1974 which divided the 1882 reservation in half with each tribe allocated a partition of land. This has led to much contention between the two tribes as they dispute the ownership of the land itself.

With the Hopi Nation having leased mineral and water rights to Peabody Mining Company, a small collective group of Navajo people have resisted what they perceive to be the destruction of their land for monetary gain by the hands of the Hopi Tribal Council, of whom they describe as a puppet government. The group also claims that Peabody Mining Company has destroyed the natural terrain through their twenty-four-hour mining operation, the illegal dumping of petroleum waste-products on the land, and the primary cause of sickness in livestock.

The group also claims that Peabody Mining Company has destroyed the natural terrain through their twenty-four-hour mining operation, the illegal dumping of petroleum waste-products on the land, and the primary cause of sickness in livestock.

A lack of compatibility between the two tribes is often to blame for their dislike of one another, in which cultural differences make sharing the land very challenging. Members of the Hopi Nation view members of the Navajo Nation as aggressive and nomadic, which contrasts the Hopi’s agricultural and communal nature. Surprisingly, the Navajo-Hopi conflict is not one based in any sense of historicity, as there is no record of conflict to have existed between the Navajo and Hopi before the discussions between the Peabody Mining Company and the U.S. government took place. As these two tribal groups continue to battle each other, the Peabody Mining Company is making a considerable profit as they continue to exploit mineral resources.

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