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Surviving the Cold War

EP. 5 / USA

Surviving the Cold War

Between the 1940’s and 1980’s, uranium for America’s nuclear program was mined throughout the Navajo Nation. Three decades later the story of how it’s affecting the Navajo people is still being written.

Since the first steps of man, Native peoples have shared a spiritual connection with mother earth, a belief that sustains us, shapes our cultures and gives us faith.

My name is Simon Baker and I’ve come to the Navajo Nation, the largest Indian reserve in the United States. With an estimated 170,000 Navajo language speakers, Navajo is by far the largest indigenous language spoken in the USA. Today, the Navajo Nation has a population of almost 350,000 nation members across a 72,000 square km territory spanning the US states of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.

Navajo Nation - the largest Indian reserve in the United States.

The Navajo people are descendants of the Dene, Athabascan speaking peoples who migrated from northern Canada around 1400 A.D. and integrated with the Anasazi (‘The Ancient Ones’), the original pueblo Indians thought to have emigrated to what is now the Southwest United States as early as 200 A.D.

To learn about the birthplace of the Navajo Nation I’m heading to Canyon de Chelly, a US National Park that is jointly administered by the Navajo Nation.  It is believed that first peoples have lived here uninterrupted for nearly 5,000 years. Eddie Draper is a local Navajo guide who’s taking me into the Canyon on horseback to see how the history of the Anasazi and Navajo people were carved into these Canyon walls.

Simon visits Canyon de Chelly, a US National Park that is jointly administered by the Navajo Nation.

The Navajo Nation is also home to some of America’s largest uranium reserves. Beginning in World War II with the birth of America’s atomic bomb program, hundreds of tons of uranium were mined from Navajo territory until the 1980’s. For the Navajo Elders who worked in these now abandoned mines, prolonged and often unprotected exposure to uranium has today manifested itself in an epidemic of cancers and other life threatening illnesses.

Hundreds of tons of uranium were mined from Navajo territory until the 1980’s.

Contaminated waste dug out of these abandoned mines was dumped on the ground and for decades, wind and water have spread its uranium pollution throughout the Navajo Nation. Now, the United States Environmental Protection Agency has made the Northeast Church Rock mine a ‘Super Fund Site’, one of the top ten most polluted places in America.

“At the Northeast Church Rock mine alone we’re having to deal with about a million cubic yards of soil that’s been contaminated by the processes of uranium mining.”

Lillie Lane, Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

The town of Window Rock, Arizona is the seat of government for the Navajo Nation. To understand the scope of their uranium contamination problem and how it’s affecting the Nation, I’ve come to connect with leaders from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency. On behalf of the Navajo people, they are working with the United States Environmental Protection Agency to clean up several abandoned uranium mine sites across the Navajo Nation.

Simon meets the leaders from the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.

As the head of the Navajo Environmental Protection Agency, Stephen Etsitty wants me to see some of the worst contaminated abandoned mine sites across the Navajo Nation. His colleague Lillie Lane is going to be my guide and interpreter. Our journey will take us across Arizona, into New Mexico and the Monument Valley in southern Utah.

Some people out there only speak Navajo. Those are the ones we have to educate.

The abandoned North East Church Rock mine is the Navajo Nations largest and most polluted site. Lille and I are driving up to Church Rock where about 40 families continue to live between two abandoned uranium mines. She’s wants me to meet Edith Hood, a retired schoolteacher who’s lived here her entire life and now advocates on behalf of her community.

“In our language, we refer to uranium as ‘tleetsoh’, and some people still refer to it in one of its translations as a monster being.

Lille and Simon are driving up to Church Rock where about 40 families continue to live between two abandoned uranium mines.

For centuries the Navajo people lived above some of America’s largest uranium reserves. Then, World War II ushered in the nuclear generation and with it, the rapid expansion of uranium mining and nuclear bomb testing in and around the Navajo Nation. In addition to the uranium mined for the US military war effort, during and after WWII, the Navajo language became an instrumental weapon in helping to defeat the Japanese in key battles throughout the South Pacific.

Over 400 Navajo Marines served as Code Talkers.

“When I went to school, they told me you are here to learn English, not any other language. And every time I said something in Navajo, they punished me.”

Made famous in Hollywood films, books and monuments, the Navajo Code Talkers were young Navajo recruits who the US military used to conceal their communications during the war against the Japanese in World War II. Teddy Draper is one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers so I want to meet this living legend and hear his story.

I’ve come to meet a living legend and hear his story.

Despite the central role the Navajo language played in helping to defeat the Japanese in WWII, many Navajo soldiers returned home to work in uranium mines that impaired their health and the future of their Nation.

Simon meets Teddy Draper, the living legend and one of the few remaining Navajo Code Talkers.

“About 8 million tons of uranium have been extracted in the 20th century for the purposes of essentially securing the United States, helping with the development of the nuclear arsenal, and leading the way toward the development of nuclear energy.

Atom bomb tests at the Nevada Test Site.

America’s only use of nuclear weapons predicated the end of WWII but it also ushered in five decades of atomic weapons testing and development. Located down wind from the US Government’s Nevada test site, fallout from nuclear bomb tests was for years dispersed over the Navajo Nation. Radiation from that fallout combined with uranium pollution from abandoned mines has today manifested itself in a range of health issues.

Navajo uranium workers were abused. They were not informed about the dangers of uranium mining.”

Generations of Navajos exposed to radioactive fallout and uranium contamination.

To supply the US government’s nuclear weapons and energy programs, between the 1940’s and 1980’s, a generation of Navajo men worked the mines across their Nation. The lack of proper safety procedures has today left many of these now elderly men with a host of chronic health issues. However, an effort is underway to help retired Navajo miners seek compensation from the US government so we’re heading to New Mexico to find out more.

They never set off bombs (fallout) to go to Hollywood, they protected Marilyn Monroe, they protected John Wayne. But when we were over here, they detonated these bombs.

Simon is on his way to meet the Navajo retired miners and to listen to their stories.

NEXT – PART II