Final Report-NK

Uranium Mines, the “Hidden” Poison of the Navajo Nation: How Anti-Nuclear Campaigns restricted progress for Navajo activism

By Nicholas Kenny

It is a cold May 1980 morning in Washington D.C.  Norman E. Brown is standing outside the ocean of grass encompassing the United States Capitol with hundreds of other protesters.  “Nuclear Power Kills”, “No Nukes, No Nukes” the crowd of Anti-Nuclear protesters chanted as they wave flags embellished with yellow radioactive trefoils and three skulls. Norman Brown smiles sardonically at the protest’s message, as a Navajo environmental activist, he could naturally understand the fervor of these protesters. It has been more than a month since the Three Mile Island nuclear reactor melted down in Londonderry, Pennsylvania, and there was no end in sight for its official cleanup effort. Despite this acknowledgement, he feels a sense of loss and separation. Norman finds himself isolated from the rest of the protesters, both with his identity as a Navajo man and a proponent of justice for indigenous people impacted by uranium mining; he laments about the suffering of his people that had not received an iota of attention at this march. Years later when reminiscing about this march, Norman remembers leaving the crowd and silently thinking; “they march against nuclear reactors. But these thousands and thousands of people don’t realize that when they do this there is still destruction, and [that] there is still desecration of land on the Native People of the Four Corners Area.”[i]

Norman had reasons to think this way, even if nuclear power weapons and power plants were to be disarmed, the destruction wreaked upon communities that extracted, milled, and transported radioactive materials remains; the Navajo Nation is an example of such. The Navajo Nation is the United States largest internal producer of uranium, with nearly 30 million tons of uranium between 1944 and 1984[ii].  Until the late 70’s, regulations for extracting and milling uranium has been historically lax in the United States, allowing miners, mostly Navajo, to experience unnecessary levels of uranium exposure. Miners, however, are not the only ones to suffer from uranium exposure, many of these mines and mills have contaminated neighboring water sources with radioactive material. This is a severe problem for the Navajo Nation’s population as nearly 33% of it relies on neighboring streams and wells for water.[iii]

The anti-nuclear movement has negatively impacted Uranium miners of the Navajo Nation with its sole focus on the disarmament of nuclear technologies.  The movement’s foci detract from the importance of lower-level processes in the creation of nuclear technology and has taken the public’s attention from environmental injustices occurring in rural, indigenous lands such as the Navajo Nation.

I agree with the sentiments of several related works, who attribute the rural and Native American-dense locations of the environmental injustices as one of the roots of government and media inaction[iv]. However, these arguments fail to attest for Anti-Nuclear organizations who work in the Four-Corner region or those with national reach and share similar ideological platforms. Large Anti-Nuclear organizations like the Critical Mass had nationwide influence and similar platforms but failed to create meaningful dialogue on the injustice’s Navajo denizens faced. My argument is unique amongst peer documents because it partly attributes the continuation of environmental injustice inside the Navajo Nation with the Anti-Nuclear movement.

            The perennial history of environmental injustices in the Navajo Nation makes it important to understand its and the Anti-Nuclear movement background. This paper will first detail the livelihood of Navajo denizens before uranium and mineral companies had exploited their population. Interviews from Navajo denizens and historical documents will help connect the societal issues faced by the Navajo during the early 1900s with the environmental injustices inflicted decades later.  Next, this paper will segue into the anti-nuclear movement and organizations that have had presences in the 20th century. We will discuss specific events that had great influence on the movement such as the Three Mile Island. Finally, after discussing both groups, this paper will discuss why Navajo activism had not taken ahold within media and other Anti-Nuclear groups. There will be an analysis of several environmental disasters, and the accompanying responses by grass roots & anti-nuclear organization. Here, the reader should see the negative influence that the inaction of Anti-Nuclear organizations had on Navajo activists.

The Navajo Before Mining

For many Navajos in the 20th and 21st century, mining has become synonymous with livelihoods, mineral companies employed thousands of people[v], however, there has not always been a reliance mining. The traditional Navajo denizen had relied on livestock for his livelihood, by 1933, the average Navajo family possessed around 150 sheep, 60 goats, and 10 horses, with a total amount nearing two million heads[vi]. The relationship between Navajo and livestock was simple, “sheep is life”. Sheep provided for both food and economic viability, with products coming from their wool accounting for 50% of all earnings[vii].  However, the Navajo Livestock reduction of 1933 forever changed this way of life. The Franklin Roosevelt administration saw Navajo livestock as a threat to western soil quality and declared a livestock quota of 500,000 animals; Navajos received two options: to either sell or slaughter their livestock to reach this quota.  In enforcing this quota, the FDR administration had eliminated more than half of Navajo purchasing power.  To the Navajo, sheep were more than just livestock, they were the gold and dreams of the tribe, their lifeblood; without it, the Navajo lost their self-sufficiency and were pushed by the FDR administration into generations of poverty[viii].

Figure 1 Terry Eiler’s  Power Plant and Sheep Herder(1972)

            The image above is a picture of the Four Corner Generating Plant and a Navajo Sheep herder. It comes to show the dependency that the Navajo tribe and mining industry has with each other. The herder manages sheep as a traditional Navajo woman while the generating plant creates electricity, using material sourced from the reservation to run. Each would find it hard to exist on its own, the plant runs on the labor of thousands of Navajo miners whereas herder’s family survives on the capital gained from the generating plant. Years of poverty and unemployment had forced many off the Navajo reservation in search of work that the livestock economy once provided. Impoverished and unemployed Navajo denizens welcomed mining operations with open arms.  Uranium and coal mining provided stable jobs located within the reservation for thousands of Navajo men; Navajo men and women were able to provide for their family without going on a self-imposed exile in search of work. However, these newly employed men did not realize the dangers that accompanied their workplace.

The United States government found it in its interest to hide the negative impacts of uranium exposure. During the 1950’s, the Atomic Energy Commission forbade scientists and doctors from publicly speaking against uranium mines despite several findings of danger[ix]. When extracted, uranium releases gaseous-radioactive radon particles, that when inhaled or absorbed into the skin, cause malignancies. The implementation of vents and washrooms could be used to mitigate exposure to uranium, however that was not the case for many mines in the Navajo Nation.  In a 1971 survey of 1,300 uranium miners by Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee, 79% of workers responded that their mines did not possess a single wash basin, nor did workers receive adequate training to effectively prevent exposure to uranium. Coincidentally, 71% of all respondents reported uranium related illnesses[x]; these reports were not unfounded evidence, studies by Robert Roscoe from the American Journal of Health and Duncan Holaday of the United States Health Services had found similar results decades before. According to a 1961 cohort study by Robert Roscoe, Navajo miners with over five years of exposure have an increased the likelihood of lung diseases and cancer by over 700% compared to Navajos who have never worked at uranium mines, even among those who are non-smokers and have no lung complications. Likewise, the study showed a strong correlation between radon exposure and other complications such as liver cancer.[xi] As a result of government mishandling, thousands of Navajo workers mined for years without being aware of the extensive danger that uranium posed and to this day are suffering.

The Church Rock Spill is another uranium “secret” within the Navajo nation, hidden among several anti-nuclear campaigns. The Church Rock Spill transpired at the United Nuclear uranium mill, east of Gallup, New Mexico. During the morning of July 16th, 1979, the stakes containing waste within man-made lagoons broke, resulting in 1100 tons of uranium waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water flooding into the Puerco River.[xii] The sheer number of pollutants released titled the Church Rock Spill the largest radioactive release in the history of the United States. Despite the intensity of this spill, it received very little attention due to various others anti-nuclear campaigns occurring in the same timeframe.

Anti-Nuclear march in Washington D.C (1979)Reproduction and copyright information regarding this item is available from the American University Library — Archives and Special Collections.

            This is a scene of an Anti-Nuclear march, which took place on May 7, 1979 at Washington D.C. because of the three-mile island nuclear reactor meltdown. Three Mile Island’s second nuclear core melted down after a series cooling failure. The meltdown acted as a focal point for the Anti-nuclear movement, several other large protests like the one pictured above occurred as a result. Washington D.C.’s 1979 march boasted a participation of about 60,000-75,000 protesters, who were shocked at the potential for disaster that nuclear technology possessed[xiii]. Despite reports of a complete lack of permanent damage to the nearby Middletown and its denizens, the Anti-Nuclear movement considers the Three Mile Island as one its focal points and compares the accident with environmental disasters such as the Chernobyl meltdown.

Uranium exposure is like a secret, only those impacted care about its existence. Unlike the coal industry, which has been lauded by the Navajo people as a foundation for its economy and chewed over by environmental groups for increasing greenhouse emissions, there is a strikingly lack of public attention to uranium. Famous national organizations, environmental and anti-nuclear alike, are seemingly nowhere on the scenes of radioactive pollution and uranium exposure within the Navajo Nation.  This issue seems worse when even current residents of the Four Corner states do not know of the ramifications of uranium mining; according to Gerald Brown, a resident of Gallup, NM, “The topic of uranium isn’t anything new to locals. I, on the other hand, began learning about uranium mining only after living in McKinley county for a few months, and suspect many like me still don’t know of its existence.” [xiv]

It is hard to blame Mr. Brown for his lack of knowledge on uranium mining because one’s awareness on external events stems from media discourse, for which Navajo activists had been extremely lacking.  Sociology professor William A. Gamson from Boston College explains in his research that messages and ideas “succeed in media discourse through a combination of cultural resonances, sponsor activities, and a successful fit with media norms and practices”. The Navajo plea of change falls off with culture cohesion as its messages almost exclusively applies to indigenous peoples. The indigenous tribes of the Four Corners region are the largest producers of uranium in the United States, making them one of the few recipients of issues like uranium exposure and resource contamination. The average person cannot relate to the destruction that uranium exposure has silent wrecked in the Navajo Nation, making their plea less compelling. Likewise, the pleas of the Navajo activists lack the “natural advantage” that other activists for an event such as the Three Mile Island accident has, as indigenous tribes make up only 0.02% of the United States population, lowering the perceived severity of the issue of uranium contamination. [xv]Most importantly, Navajo activists, in stark contrast to three Mile Island activists, did not have sponsors to help facilitate public attention and legitimize their claims.

Grassroot movements and activists are needed to begin the process of change; however, these activists require sponsors to help facilitate dialogue and attention to their messages. For example, TMI activism had the support of established anti-nuclear groups like the Critical Mass Energy Project, the Union of Concern Scientists, and influential citizens like Bruce Springsteen, who utilized his popularity as a musician to spread awareness with his “NO Nukes” concert. Navajo activism had fiery support from grassroot movements like the Eastern Navajo Dine Against Uranium Mining (EDAUM) and Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee (Post ’71) and Post-71 Uranium Workers Committee but lacked sponsorship until the 21st century. Hypothetically, the Church Rock Spill and the thousands of abandoned mines polluting should have had more attention in comparison to the Three-Mile Island accident if the severity of an issue directly correlates to governmental response. However, in retrospect, we know this idea is not true, the Three Mile Island incident received many times more the amount of attention than any of the injustices committed within the Navajo Nation. Other readings attribute this to the location and time of the Church Rock Spill, however I believe the lack Anti-Nuclear sponsors is more of the culprit. Navajo activists would have had less attention diverted from their focus of uranium processing and could have more easily aggregated their efforts to make uranium mine cleanup efforts that are happening in the status quo if they had only a single sponsor during the 20th century.

Anti-Nuclear organizations should have become the sponsors of Navajo activists, the two groups share very similar value. However, the slight difference in ideology and the lack of cultural cohesion between the Navajo people and the rest of the United States has accosted them the backing of groups like Critical Mass. Critical Mass is one of the many established anti-nuclear groups that shared the same values as Navajo activists. Ralph Nader, the founder of Critical Mass, summarize his movement’s platform in this statement: “The root of the problem is the organization of nuclear production by profit-making corporations, which minimizes accountability and control by the public. Spokesmen for the nuclear industry are motivated to protect their own economic interests, not the public interest”[xvi]. Nader’s Critical Mass bears platform of corporate accountability, a goal that every Navajo uranium activist shares and desire to achieve. The only difference between the two ideologies is that the Navajo seeks to receive justice for exploitative actions committed against their people and to ensure the safety of their population with strict uranium policies for future mines whereas Critical Mass enacts the same, but with a focus on Nuclear power. 

            The bitter feeling of isolation felt by Norman Brown at the Washington D.C.  Anti-Nuclear march of 1979 gave some insight into the support Navajo activists received. Navajo uranium movement’s incongruency with traditional Anti-Nuclear ideology and their different culture cost them the support of established sponsors like Critical Mass and media organizations. That is not to say it is the fault of Navajo activists, if anything, some of the larger anti-nuclear groups should have made a conscious effort to support Navajo grassroot organizations. The platform of receiving justice for the negative impacts of the initial stages of nuclear technologies, the acquisition and processing of uranium, should not have conflicted with disarming or reducing nuclear technologies. In the end, Anti-Nuclear groups left Navajo grassroot activists without a sponsor, and inadvertently caused more harm to their movement by taking away media and governmental attention from uranium. 


[i]   “Every Day Is Genocide For Us, Akwesasne Notes (May 1980): 4-5, .Note, the conspiration of events during this paragraph are fictional, however they represent the context of the quotation from sourced material.

[ii] “Abandoned Mines Cleanup”, Environmental Protection Agency(August 2018):1, https://www.epa.gov/navajo-nation-uranium-cleanup/abandoned-mines-cleanup#:~:text=From%201944%20to%201986%2C%20nearly,to%20the%20mines%20and%20mills.

[iii] Yan Lin, “Environmental risk mapping of potential abandoned uranium mine contamination on the Navajo Nation”, Environmental Science and Pollution Research 27 (March 2020):5-6, https://doi.org/10.1007/s11356-020-09257-3  

[iv] Doug Brugge, “The Sequoyah Corporation Fuels Release and the Church Rock Spill: Unpublicized Nuclear Releases in American Indian Communities”, American Journal of Public Health 97, no. 9 (September 1971): 1595-1597, http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ofm&AN=507998366&site=ehost-live

[v] James Rainey “Lighting the West, dividing a tribe”, NBC News, December 18, 2017, https://www.nbcnews.com/specials/navajo-coal/

[vi] L. Fonaroff, “Conservation and Stock Reduction on the Navajo Tribal Range”, Geographical Review 53, No. 2 (Apr., 1963):208-209, https://primo.njit.edu/permalink/01NJIT_INST/97f46a/cdi_proquest_journals_1290311935

[vii] Iverson, Peter, “Dine: A History of the Navajos”, University of New Mexico August 28th, 2002

[viii] Robert S. McPherson “Navajo Livestock Reduction in Southeastern Utah, 1933-46: History Repeats Itself”, American Indian Quarterly 22, no. 1/2, (Winter/Spring 1998): 1-3, https://bit.ly/3gYXcAs

[ix] Joshua Lott, “Once upon a mine: the legacy of uranium on the Navajo Nation”, Environmental Health Perspectives 122, no.2 (February 2014): 47, https://primo.njit.edu/permalink/01NJIT_INST/97f46a/cdi_pubmedcentral_primary_oai_pubmedcentral_nih_gov_3915248

[x] Edith Hood “Red Water Pond Road Community Association Factsheet”, last modified May 16th,2016, https://swuraniumimpacts.org/wp-content/uploads/2016/05/16-RWPCA-factsheet.pdf

[xi]  Robert Roscoe, “Mortality among Navajo Uranium Miners”, American  Journal of Public Health 85, no.4 (April 1,1995):537-539, https://primo.njit.edu/permalink/01NJIT_INST/97f46a/cdi_pubmedcentral_primary_oai_pubmedcentral_nih_gov_1615135

[xii]  Tommy Smith, “The Church Rock Uranium Mill Spill” Environmental & Society Portal last modified July 16th, 1979,  http://www.environmentandsociety.org/tools/keywords/church-rock-uranium-mill-spill

[xiii] Paul Valentine, “The Protesters”, The Washington Post, May 7th, 1979, https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1979/05/07/the-protesters/b2ea631e-933c-4f07-b59e-e97bf1068b7e/

[xiv] Gerald Brown, “Hidden legacy: Navajo Nation grapples with uranium mining issue”, Native American Times 11, no.9( March 02, 2005):1-3, https://bit.ly/2LGNgjq  

[xv] William Gamson, “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach”, American Journal of Sociology 95, no.1 ( July,1989): 3,5-8, https://primo.njit.edu/permalink/01NJIT_INST/97f46a/cdi_gale_infotracacademiconefile_A7840439

[xvi] William Gamson, “Media Discourse and Public Opinion on Nuclear Power: A Constructionist Approach”, American Journal of Sociology 95, no.1 ( July,1989): 15-6, https://primo.njit.edu/permalink/01NJIT_INST/97f46a/cdi_gale_infotracacademiconefile_A7840439

Keywords: Uranium, Navajo, Three Mile-Island, Anti-Nuclear