Sacred Lands Project: Success After Death

“As indigenous peoples who live on the land and have our—all of our ways and our traditions based within our four sacred mountains, this is going to have lasting impacts not just to our culture and our health, but to future generations” (Morgan). Uranium mining and milling has been the dark cloud of gloom over the Diné Nation (Navajo Nation) for decades killing, poisoning, and destroying the environment for the profits of mining companies as well as the United States Government. Health impacts due to toxic waste pools and particulate matter in the air drove the Diné people to reclaim their land (Brugge, Benally, and et al). The catastrophic agenda put forth by mining companies to mine uranium for thirty years in southwest specifically collaborated with the U.S. Government to ensure their right. This profiteering scheme has decreased life expectancy of miners working with uranium to less than fifty years. The profits from these mines were not circulated back into the Diné community but were being spent by the millions in Washington. To make matters worse, the uranium being extracted from the mines were being used to create weapons of unknowable proportions to use on foreign countries (Benally).

In 2005, the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act was passed in effort to disband the mines from operation and for the U.S. government to be held accountable for the degradation of the culture, environment and health of the Diné Nation (Shirley). This act directly promotes the cleanup of these sites in an effort to display to the government the lasting problems with uranium mining. The act also demanded full rights to the Diné to practice freely again on their land that was just used for exploitation of resources. The act states the U.S. Government along with the mining companies are responsible, “until all adverse economic, environmental, and human health effects from past uranium mining and processing have been eliminated or substantially reduced to the satisfaction of the Navajo Nation Council” (Shirley). They are forced under the aforementioned provisions to continue their cleanup of over 500 abandoned mining sites still saturated with toxic sludge.

There are four central sites in which mining has impacted the population, environment, and culture of the four corners region in the United States. Within these four large areas hundreds of mines have been dug or blown out of the rock to continue uranium flow. The Cove/Mesa area, on the border of New Mexico and Arizona has been on of the hardest mined areas in the country coupled with the least amount of cleanup of hazardous byproducts (Brugge, Benally, and et al). In the Cove/Mesa Area, hundreds of abandoned mines reside in the foothills of the lower Rockies giving the landscape a moonlike surface. What was once the pristine landscape that gave tribal significance to Diné religious traditions has become an epicenter of environmental injustices.

This land for the Diné Nation has been sacred for centuries until the Spanish colonizers swept through the desert looking for the city of gold. After realizing that the buildings only looked like they had gold yet weren’t actually made of it pushed the Spanish colonizers went further west towards Arizona. Colonizers raped and pillaged their way through the southwest until their governmental equivalents, the United States Army, corralled them into their current reservations. The Diné People have been trying to kick white influence out of their region for over four hundred years so they can once again practice their ceremonies in the scared White Mountains. The religious emphasis on this section of the White Mountains has been cultivated for over a thousand years and has managed to continue traditions despite the desolate circumstances established by the mines.

The continuous disrespect of the land and culture thrusts the Diné People into action in 2005. The mining and milling conditions produced “excess mortality for lung cancer, pneumoconiosis and other respiratory diseases, and tuberculosis for Navajo uranium miners” (Benally). The problem for the Diné People was that the health impacts both for the people and the landscape didn’t stop after the mines had been closed. Fish, elk, and deer populations decreased substantially because of the toxicity in the ground water and streams. Animals were being found in contaminated waste pits that had not been adequately dealt with by the mining companies. One study showed the lasting effects: “22 years after leaving uranium mining, an individuals risk of developing lung cancer due to radon progeny was 100-fold greater than if he had never mined uranium” (Benally). This inescapable pattern of death surrounds the miners’ lives and has decreased life expectancy rates on the Diné Reservation to two decades less than the national average (Morgan).

The excuse by mining corporations to exploit the land on the Diné Reservation is the assumed wealth of that land as infinitely more profitable if mining takes place rather then ceremonial traditions. The government’s reasoning to stall on cleanup efforts are attributed to “the delay to the complexity of prioritizing mine sites” as well as not having the allotted hundreds of millions of dollars needed for complete restoration (Macmillan). Yet, where did all the money from the processed uranium go? On average, “each miner 3 months of life for each year employed in uranium mining” due to mining-related lung cancer” (Benally). When people are dying at unprecedented rates from their experiences in the mine, which in turn gives profit to the United States, however when their work is finished no credible compensation to the land or the people is given for their services creates severe humanity violations                                                                                             Having limited resources and employment opportunities on the reservation most Diné People chose to work their entire lives in the mines drastically reducing their good health. The Diné Natural Resources Protection Act accurately depicts the motivation of the mining companies as well as the U.S. Government by stating, “ resources… are a matter of paramount governmental interest” (Shirley). Allowing the Diné People sovereignty over their own land does not fit in with the plan for uranium mining by these companies. In this assertive document the Diné People explain why uranium mining breaks the fundamental laws to which they uphold their society. Uranium mining and processing destroys, “the right and freedom of the people to be respected, honored and protected with a healthy physical and mental environment” (Shirley). However, the landscapes wellbeing has been dissolved and what lies in the shadows of the White Mountains are pits of harmful radiation and waste.

First Nation groups all over the United States are still fighting the issue of site cleanup from coal, uranium, and other metal mines. Out of the 500 plus mines in the four corners regions only ten percent have passed regulatory standards (Macmillan). One Native Navajo to the Cove/Mesa Area explained that her people are still living with the lasting effects of the uranium boom (Morgan).  The onslaught against the environment won’t go away for millennia and have “caused severe impacts to the economy, our health, and of course the environment” (Morgan). Traditional ceremonies have slowly returned to the White Mountains, yet the groundwater still has an excess of radiation, the animals are few and mostly poisoned and mining families are dealing with the cancer effects decades after their work was completed. This area is now considered by most Diné People to be Sacred land in the midst of devastation (Morgan). Their success in passing the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act should be a celebrated victory for the Diné People yet it has come from the death of the environment, culture and most notably their own people.

Works Cited

Benally, Moroni. Uranium and Diné Binitsekees An Analysis of the direct and in-direct consequences of uranium using Navajo principles. Position Paper 1. Diné Policy Institute, 2006. Print.

Brugge, Doug, Timothy Benally, et al. “Uranium Mining On Navajo Indian Land.” Cultural Survival. 2001: n. page. Print.

Guy, Cleve. “Environmental Contamination on the Navajo Nation: A Policy Analysis.” NM LEND 2012-2013. 19 4 2013: n. page. Print.

Macmillan, Leslie. “Uranium Mines Dot Navajo Land, Neglected and Still Perilous.” New York Times [New York] 31 03 2012, n. pag. Print.

Morgan, Leona. Interview by Amy Goodman. “After Decades of Uranium Mining, Navajo Nation Struggles With Devastating Legacy of Contamination.” Democracy Now. 11 10 2012. 10 . Print.

Shirley, Joe . Navajo National Council. Diné Natural Resources Protection Act. 2005. Print. <>.

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