Walking In Beauty
A Navajo scientist confronts the legacy of uranium mining
By Phillida A. Charley
Art by Jolene Nenibah Yazzie
Phillida A. Charley, above, is a member of the Navajo tribe. In 2018, Charley completed a Ph.D. in pathology at Colorado State University. She currently is working on an interdisciplinary team studying the health and environmental effects of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, a project funded by the CSU One Health Institute.
Jolene Nenibah Yazzie is Diné of the Black Streaked Forest People, born for One-Who-Walks-Around. Yazzie is an artist and a journalism student at Metropolitan State University of Denver.
The Navajo Nation covers more than 27,000 square miles in parts of New Mexico, Utah, and Arizona. The population of the Navajo Nation is more than 300,000, which does not include Navajos living off the territory. Most of the landscapes are arid deserts that can contain mesas, high plateaus, and mountains.
I grew up in Shiprock, New Mexico, with my parents and six siblings. People know places like Monument Valley or Shiprock from movies, but to me, it is home. The Navajo Nation is the land and the people. The land is divided into agencies, and within agencies there are chapters. There are also four clans. I am Ta’neeszahnii (the Tangle Clan – my mother’s clan) and born for Naakaii dine’é (the Mexican Clan – my father’s mother’s clan). Clan identity is part of your identity, but it can also be tied to place. For example, I know most people in the area of Littlewater, New Mexico, are related to me through the clan system.
When I was young, we used to visit my nálís (dad’s parents) near Tocito (which means warm springs or steam coming from the water) and my grandma (my mother’s mother) in Littlewater (named for a little spring in the area). When my parents took us to visit family, my brothers and sisters and I would run around all over the area, seeing what we could find in every nook and cranny. From my earliest memory, I remember going with my parents to deliver groceries to my nálís in the mountains, because they moved there before the summer to escape the summer heat for their livestock and moved back down to the desert for the winter.
From our house in Shiprock, I could look east down Uranium Boulevard and see a giant gray rock pile. It stuck out like a sore thumb, but I did not know it was an old uranium milling site until I began working on my current research project. I am now part of a team studying the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
“Walk in beauty” is a Navajo phrase that I heard a lot growing up. When you walk in beauty, you are in harmony with yourself and with everything around you. You are doing the best you can. I am trying to do the best I can as a Navajo woman and a scientist, to strive for harmony and balance in my work, but the journey is long, complicated, and full of difficult questions.
My journey in science began in my high school introduction to biology class. My teacher was Ricky Espinoza and his style of teaching was different. I liked his teaching style. For example, when Mr. Espinoza gave a test, it was a blank piece of paper. He told us to write everything we learned in the last couple of weeks, and I remember just filling the pages with everything I learned. I even drew out the pictures. I went on to take his environmental science class, and I started to love science. I was always curious and wondering why things happen. At home, I was taught to do all the stuff women do, like cooking and cleaning. That is how I grew up.
After graduating from Shiprock High School, I had no clue what to do, so I worked for a bit but decided to go back to school. I went to San Juan College in Farmington, New Mexico, and with encouragement from my organic chemistry professor, Dr. Eric Miller, I found a summer research position. The research failed, but it helped me understand that failure is a big part of science. At the time, my goal was to become a lab assistant and, therefore, I needed more lab experience. I went on to Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colorado, and my professor, Dr. Les Sommerville, encouraged me to apply to the National Institutes of Health Maximizing Access to Research Careers Program. In that program, I saw I could go further in science. Eventually, I applied to graduate schools and was accepted at Colorado State University in 2012. I finished my Ph.D. in pathology in 2018.
It was not until I came to grad school that I really left Navajo Nation. I was lucky that my sister could come with me, so I did not feel alone. I do not see myself differently now that I have a doctorate; I just know how to answer questions. Being a scientist is asking questions and trying to find the answers, with a lot of failure mixed in. Professional failure, I call it. My scientific training was good preparation for tackling the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation.
In the 1940s, the Navajo Nation started leasing land for uranium mining to American companies. Many Navajo men worked at these mines and moved their families to camps or towns near the mines. Some miners took rocks from the mines to build their homes or chimneys. They drank water collected from the mines. In 1950, the U.S. Public Health Service began studying the health effects of radiation. They enrolled more than 4,000 miners in the study without their consent. The Navajo miners were never told about the health or environmental effects of mining uranium. The U.S. government knew it was dangerous, but they did not share that information.
The uranium mines mostly shut down in the 1970s when uranium prices dropped. The mining companies left abruptly and abandoned equipment and open mines. Some sites were like ghost towns. There are between 500 and 1,000 abandoned uranium mines and several milling sites on the Navajo Nation.
That rock pile I could see from my house in Shiprock covers an old milling site with mine waste. You can imagine in the past the mine waste was left out in the open where adults and children could be exposed to radiation. When we visited our grandparents and ran all over the plateau, we may have been playing in abandoned mines, but we did not know it.
Today, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency oversee the cleanup and closure of abandoned uranium mines. It is a very slow process.
In 2019, I started my postdoctoral position in environmental and radiological health sciences. I joined a team studying the legacy of uranium mining on the Navajo Nation. This opportunity meant I could go home a lot more often. I did not know very much about the mining until I started the research. I still cannot believe there is mining waste out there. We have been working on scientific communication related to the abandoned uranium mines, mainly near the Sweetwater Chapter. They have a lot of mines and three of them are still radioactive, so they are considered the priority mines by the EPA for cleanup.
We talk to the community about the health and environmental effects of uranium mining. All of the miners there died. I have met several widows who are 80 to 90 years old. They are really interested in what is going on and concerned for their kids and grandkids. They know people come in and do stuff and then leave and do not let the community know what they are doing. That has been going on since the EPA started monitoring these abandoned mines in the ’90s.
The Treaty of 1868 assigns the responsibility for providing economic, educational, and health services on the Navajo Nation to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.
European scientists conclude that uranium mining is associated with high rates of lung cancer, but debate continues about the causal agent.
The U.S. Atomic Energy Commission guarantees a price for all uranium ore mined in the United States, and kicks off a mining boom in New Mexico, Utah, Colorado, and Arizona.
The U.S. Public Health Service begins studying health outcomes of uranium miners in the Colorado Plateau. Miners did not consent to the study and were not informed of the health risks.
American scientists William Bale and John Harley demonstrate how radon causes lung cancer.
The Atomic Energy Commission and other agencies actively prevent informing the public about the health risks of uranium mining and establishing ventilation requirements in mines.
The PHS study shows a significant association between uranium mining and lung cancer for white miners. Minority miners included in the field study were excluded from the report.
First cases of lung cancer appear in Navajo uranium miners.
U.S. Congress establishes limits for radon exposure in mines.
Navajo advocate Harry Tome and Stuart Udall, secretary of the interior, file two lawsuits seeking damages for uranium miners, but both cases failed.
Navajo people advocate for compensation for the suffering of miners.
Navajo advocates assist in the passage of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which takes responsibility for the historical mistreatment of uranium miners by the U.S. government.
Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency established. The agency begins monitoring radioactivity in abandoned mines.
Navajo Nation bans uranium mining and exploration.
There is a lot of information about the mines that the Sweetwater community did not know about or could not access. There are so many barriers. When you try to look for the data it is very hard to find. They have limited Internet access, so they cannot download these huge reports. There are also language barriers. Some of the older folks do not speak fluent English. And there are no words in the Navajo language for certain things, like how radium breaks into different elements. Some of the data makes no sense, so I understand how people from the community do not know what is going on. For example, the water wells were last tested in 2015. They were testing for only one contaminant and there are typos in the data. Things just do not match sometimes, and it is really outdated.
The miners’ families are still dealing with direct and indirect health effects, such as cancer, diabetes, hypertension, and kidney diseases. More studies need to be done to link the health effects to long-term uranium exposure. We do not know how far that will go. There is uranium and arsenic in the groundwater wells. We can explain to the community that the water is contaminated, but the water is clear, it does not smell, it looks clean, so it is hard to communicate the danger. Some of the houses built with mine rocks are still there and radioactive. One community member is frustrated because the EPA took down her chimney, but they did not replace it. She cannot build a fire for cooking or heat. They have to deal with the U.S. EPA, but when they try calling, they do not get any answers.
It is frustrating to not have answers. The community wants to understand what is there and what the risks are, but they do not have access to that information. Before a cleanup, the EPA might give a presentation and show graphs, but to half the people it makes no sense. We talk to the community. We listen to what they say. A lot of the Navajo people are visual learners, so we use pictures and come up with different ways of communicating the information.
It is early in the process. We are trying to think of ways to improve the situation. The community I am working with wants answers, but it varies from community to community. Sometimes I ask myself, “Did I open a can of worms?” On the one hand, it is healthy for the community to talk about how they are impacted by the legacy of uranium mining. On the other hand, it is a heavy responsibility to address their specific concerns and provide useful support for an array of issues – physical, psychological, environmental, and cultural – that should have been addressed a long time ago.
The passage of time makes it even more difficult to set right what’s gone wrong, because with every death we lose pieces of their history. More than anything, the survivors want to know how the past affects their future. What does this history mean for their children and grandchildren? Navajo traditions and practices maintain balance with nature. Uranium mining disrupted that balance and contaminated places that are part of our oral traditions and spiritual practices. I think success would be for everyone to understand the history and the cleanup, so we can restore balance.