Indigenous Uranium Forum Denounces Mining, Militarization, and Hate Crimes in Indian Country


Brenda Norrell, Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP) –

Date of publication: 
4 November 2009

Indigenous Peoples from Bolivia, Alaska, and throughout Indian country gathered at the 7th Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum and told the same story: Uranium mining is a hate crime in Indian country. “Leave it in the ground,” said Native Americans whose parents, brothers, sisters, aunts, and uncles died from cancer, respiratory diseases, and brain tumors resulting from uranium mining.

Over 250 representatives of Pueblos, Navajos, and other indigenous peoples gathered at the Indigenous Uranium Forum Oct. 22-24 in Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico. The gathering had the dual purpose of sharing experiences in the fight against uranium mining on native land and to protect nearby Mount Taylor, considered a sacred mountain and the site of recent hate crimes against Native Americans after Mount Taylor was designated a Traditional Cultural Property by the state of New Mexico in 2009. Among those arriving from the four directions was Winona LaDuke, from the Anishinabe nation in Minnesota. LaDuke urged indigenous peoples to be proactive in their battle against uranium corporations. Supai Waters, Havasupai, spoke of the need to protect sacred mountains and canyons from the onslaught of destruction to ensure the balance of the world.

Acoma Pueblo activists Manny Pino and Petuuche Gilbert welcomed Indigenous Peoples to their homeland. The forum was also viewed by 80,000 viewers in a live stream video broadcast and later in archives.

Pueblos and Navajos told of the grim legacy of uranium mining in the Grants Uranium Belt and on the Navajo Nation, beginning with Cold War uranium mining. Although the United States government knew of the dangers of radiation, Pueblos and Navajos were sent into the mines without protective clothing. Carletta Garcia of Paguate Village, Laguna Pueblo, told the story of her mother, Dorothy Purley, an ore truck driver who died from cancer. Garcia told how the radioactive dust from the Jackpile Mine covered their food, resulting in cancer for the people of Laguna Pueblo and their neighbors at Acoma Pueblo.

Native Americans in the United States were not the only victims who succumbed to the U.S. energy policies that lured American Indians into the mines under the guise of patriotism and nationalism. Navajos’ relatives in the north, the Dine’ in Canada who are also Athabascan, have also suffered the often fatal consequences of uranium mining in Saskatchewan and elsewhere. With the promise of jobs, came a trail of radioactive waste, poisoned water, contaminated food sources, and widespread deaths from cancer.

In Red Valley, Cove, and Monument Valley, Arizona, cancer and other diseases from uranium mining have claimed the lives of hundreds of Navajos living in the Navajo Nation. The United Nuclear Corporation’s tailings spill at Church Rock, NM on July 16, 1979, poisoned the lands and water of Navajos and continued to do so as it flowed down the Rio Puerco stream into Arizona. The Eastern Navajo, organized in the local group Dine’ against Uranium Mining, have spent their lives, and their meager resources, fighting the uranium corporations in federal court, resulting in decades of court battles with little relief.

Although the Navajo Nation government banned uranium mining in 2005, new uranium mining targets the checkerboard land areas and public lands on the border of the Navajo Nation. Navajo water and land would be contaminated by these new mines and operations. In the Grand Canyon, Denison Mines is threatening to reopen an existing claim in the area of the Havasupai’s sacred Red Butte, at the south rim of the Grand Canyon.

While the mining companies claim the new in-situ uranium mining is safe, Navajo and Havasupai point out that an accident or spillage while drilling could contaminate the water supply of thousands of people.

Elsie Cly Begay from Monument Valley on the Navajo Nation told how she still lives on the land alongside an abandoned uranium mine that claimed the lives of her mother and two children from cancer and brain tumors. Begay’s story is told in the film, “The Return of Navajo Boy.”

Begay, who travels on speaking tours with the film, tells of the horrors of uranium mining and death at the only home she knows. “We still live there,” she said, after the film that chronicles her family’s tragedy.

The strewn radioactive waste from uranium mining in the Black Hills in South Dakota has been shrouded in secrecy. Charmaine White Face, Oglala Tetuwan and coordinator of Defenders of the Black Hills, points out that both the Badlands region in South Dakota and Navajo land in the Four Corners were declared National Sacrifice Areas in 1972 by executive order and targeted for increased mining.

White Face said there are more than 1,000 abandoned open-pit uranium mines and more than 10,000 abandoned exploratory uranium wells in the northern Great Plains, resulting in extensive pollution. Radioactive dust goes into the air and runoff pollutes the water and land. “People don’t know how polluted the water, air, grass, everything, is in our region,” White Face said.

White Face said state leaders in South Dakota are attempting to conceal the facts about the dangers of radioactive waste contamination, because they fear it will affect tourism. Mount Rushmore is within 20 miles of the Badlands on Pine Ridge Indian land.

White Face said the U.S. government seized Lakota lands in the Badlands for a bombing range during World War II, displacing families, including her family. The land was confiscated and 210 Oglala families were given 10 days to leave. They were made homeless. Most were women, children, and elderly, since many of the men were in the military. They were ranchers, leaving behind their means of survival.

Today active bombs remain in the Badlands in the World War II bombing range and the region is strewn with radioactive waste from uranium mining. The impact of the bombs in the bombing range also exposed naturally occurring uranium in the earth. “As long as you don’t touch it, it is fine. Just leave it alone,” she said. White Face said her people have lived there for thousands of years and never had the cancers or birth defects they have today.

Now, Canadian-based PowerTech Uranium Corp. is planning new uranium mining in South Dakota, Wyoming, and Colorado. Lakotas are also fighting Canadian-based Cameco Corp. in federal court over in-situ uranium mining in Nebraska. With the cost of cleanup for the existing radioactive uranium mining in the billions of dollars in the Plains alone, White Face said the United States must clean up the existing damage before granting permits to new uranium mines. Currently, there is a campaign urging the Obama administration to issue a moratorium on uranium mining until all of the abandoned uranium mining is cleaned up.

It was copper mining in Arizona that ruptured the earth and contaminated the groundwater and soil of the Tohono O’odham with uranium. As Indigenous Peoples gathered in Acoma Pueblo for the forum, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced that Cyprus Tohono Corporation agreed to spend $6 million to investigate the contamination, about 30 miles south of Casa Grande, Arizona.

The cleanup is too late for the Tohono O’odham who died from cancer in this cancer cluster. Ofelia Rivas, Tohono O’odham, came to the Indigenous Uranium Forum to learn more about the contamination and cancers left behind by the results of Cyprus mining. Rivas is founder of O’odham Voice against the Wall, opposing the militarization of her homeland by U.S. agents and the construction of the border wall that became a barrier to annual sacred pilgrimages and resulted in the digging up of the remains of O’odham ancestors.

Rivas said the new information on the uranium contamination comes as Tohono O’odham struggle against the ongoing oppression of the U.S. Border Patrol, other federal agents, and tribal police that swarm their homes. Meanwhile, Tohono O’odham are now fighting the planned Rosemont copper mine, 30 miles southeast of Tucson, mining that could destroy sacred places in the Santa Rita mountains.

Fighting “Environmental Racism” and “Energy Terrorism” and Defending the Earth

Chris Peters of the Seventh Generation Fund said the corporations are relentless. The majority of the abandoned uranium mines are on, or near, indigenous lands. It is environmental racism, he said, pointing out that if these mines, with radioactive waste, were located elsewhere they would have been cleaned up. The Seventh Generation Fund supports grassroots projects, ranging from Native farming to media projects.

Navajos are not just battling new uranium mining. Throughout Indian country, there are layers of exploitation and destruction. Navajos in the northwest corner of New Mexico in the Four Corners are also fighting a proposed new power plant on the Navajo Nation, Desert Rock.

Already this region is contaminated by Cold War uranium mining, two existing power plants, and hundreds of oil and gas wells. Navajo activist Bahe Katenay from Big Mountain points out that this area near the city of Farmington is the sacred region of Dinetah, the Navajo place of origin. Katenay said the U.S.-installed Navajo tribal government was created by the U.S. government to sign energy leases and is now a “puppet” government of the United States, resulting in widespread contamination to this sacred region by coal mines, power plants, and oil and gas drilling.

At the Indigenous Uranium Forum in Acoma Pueblo, Faith Gemmill arrived from the far north and the lands of the Gwich’in in Arctic Village, Alaska. In Gemmill’s homeland, uranium mining, drilling, and catastrophic climate change threaten the way of life of the Gwich’in and the fish, animals, and birds of the Arctic. Gemmill is executive director of RED OIL, Resisting Environmental Destruction on Indigenous Lands, which works toward sustainable economies for Native communities.

Gemmill said living the way of life in a subsistence culture is not just about what one eats, but involves ceremony and thankfulness. Gemmill described how a Native community in northwest Alaska, where the people depend on clean water and salmon, is targeted for uranium mining. She said the key is to empower Native people to take on the corporations, resist and halt mining.

“Energy terrorism,” is what is happening in Alaska. “We have to live the old ways. Our way of life is based entirely on the land.” This way of life is threatened by energy exploitation, said Gemmill, who has struggled to protect the calving grounds of the caribou from oil and gas drilling.

Louise Benally of Big Mountain, Arizona, resisting relocation in her Navajo homeland for over 30 years, spoke of her recent visit to the Arctic. “My heart was so broken, I got sick. I’m still sick,” Benally told the gathering at Acoma Pueblo. “We all are from the earth and we have to defend it in any way that we can,” she said. Benally questioned how people could destroy a land as beautiful and bountiful as the Arctic.

Benally spoke of farming and the health benefits of eating one’s own locally grown food, during her presentation on Food Sovereignty. She said climate change is obvious to farmers. This year some of the corn was popped inside its husk, male flowers matured a month before the female flowers, which must cross pollinate, and the bees did not come.

She said the people must return to the earth and to their medicine and songs. When it comes to the coal mining company Peabody Coal that orchestrated the so-called Navajo Hopi land dispute for coal mining on Black Mesa, and the corporations now intent on new uranium mining, Benally said bluntly, “It is greed.” Referring to the monsters foretold by Navajos, she said George Bush was one of the “monsters” who has manipulated the world.

“They never say the military is overspending and that is why the people are hungry and there’s no jobs out here. They will never admit that, but that is what the problem is—-war, war and greed,” Benally said.

Jihan Gearon, Navajo with the Indigenous Environmental Network, cautioned those attending not to allow corporations to “greenwash” the climate change agenda. Gearon said people in the United States are being led to believe they can pay their way out of climate change, with commercial offers. “They believe they can buy their way out of climate change.”

Carbon trading is not the answer. Under the guise of carbon trading, corporations have seized the lands of Indigenous Peoples, she said. Gearon urged Indian people to continue as the standard-bearers who do the right thing.

The legacy of uranium mining in Indian country is the legacy of death. Still, young student filmmakers, Navajos from Shonto, Arizona, are educating themselves and others about the dangers. Twenty of the 37 filmmakers from Shonto Preparatory School’s middle and high schools attended the forum and screened their film on the impacts of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.

Orleta Slick, film producer working with the students to preserve Indigenous languages at the Media Center, said the video shown at the forum was a combination of film projects looking at the current debate over coal vs. uranium as energy sources. Just days after the Indigenous Uranium Forum concluded, the New Mexico state government announced approval of a uranium mining project that could further poison Navajo water.

Navajos considered it a slap in the face. According to the company Uranium Resources, the state of New Mexico’s Mining and Minerals Division approved its request to renew its permit for uranium exploration in McKinley County, despite vast evidence of environmental damage and human suffering presented just days earlier at the Indigenous Uranium Forum.

The permit allows Uranium Resources to drill as many as 10 holes in preparation for in-situ uranium mining. It is a process that Navajos living nearby said could poison their water supply, in the same area as the devastating Church Rock uranium tailings spill.

Native Americans and peoples from as far away as aboriginals in Australia noted that they faced the same corporate bullying, division, and bribery tactics from uranium mining companies. One of the largest and most active uranium mining companies, the Canadian-based Cameco Corp., routinely targets the territories of Indigenous Peoples in the United States, Canada, Australia, and Central Asia.

Cameco is the same company that received a secret shipment of 500 tons of yellowcake from Iraq in 2008. It was secretly transported by the U.S. military, using U.S. taxpayer dollars, and became public when the shipment reached Montreal, before delivery to the purchasing company, Cameco. Michaela Stubbs from Melbourne, Australia represented the Australian Nuclear Free Alliance at the Acoma Pueblo forum. The Alliance is a network of Indigenous and others who share skills and strategies to campaign against nuclear development in Australia. “It’s been amazing to be here, meet people, and strengthen international links,” Stubbs said.

“The tactics used by multinational corporations on the Indigenous Peoples here—-division, bribery, and bullying—-are the same tactics used in Indigenous communities in Australia. We need to find the resources to connect, support, and strategize together. If we can accomplish that on the grassroots level, I believe we can shut ‘em down.”

Longtime Navajo activist John Redhouse spoke of the hate crimes against homeless Native Americans in the area of Grants. Redhouse said the racially motivated beatings occurred after Mount Taylor was designated a Traditional Cultural Property. One of the attackers said the beating was because of the designation to protect Mount Taylor.

“As an old civil rights activist and veteran of the border town wars in Gallup and Farmington in the early 1970s, I don’t think these beatings are an isolated incident. I think they are directly related to a non-Indian backlash against the Traditional Cultural Property designation and what it means in terms of protecting and defending our sacred mountain from more uranium mining and milling,” Redhouse said.

When Redhouse was on the New Mexico State Advisory Committee to the U.S. Civil Rights Commission in the late 1970s, the Commission made a similar connection with the rise of anti-Indian groups in Grants and northwestern New Mexico and growing Indian resistance.

Gathered at the Indigenous Uranium Forum with Redhouse were activists who have been fighting uranium mining and its legacy of death all their lives.

Redhouse compiled a history of the decades old resistance and remembered the first efforts of Navajos to fight uranium mining here on Pueblo lands. Redhouse remembered the first gathering to protect Mount Taylor from uranium mining in 1979. “Bahe Katenay, Roberta Blackgoat, and other youth and grandmother warriors were at the First Mount Taylor Gathering. They walked all the way from Big Mountain.”

The route to Acoma and Laguna Pueblo from Navajoland is the same route that Navajos were forced to walk on the Longest Walk to Bosque Redondo, NM. Many died from the cruelty and starvation and others were murdered by U.S. soldiers on the walk and during the imprisonment at Fort Sumner.

Native Americans said the legacy of oppression by the cavalry continues today as uranium mining corporations seize lands bordering Indian communities and sacred lands for uranium mining. State and federal regulatory agencies, and politicians urging the proliferation of new nuclear power, are complicit in this crime against humanity.

Brenda Norrell is a freelance writer and Americas Program border analyst, Her blog can be found at

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