Environment | Law

Native Sun News: Uranium labeled a cultural insult to Navajos

The following story was written and reported by Talli Nauman. All content © Native Sun News.

Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and First Lady Martha Shelly kicked off a weeklong Annual Treaty Days Festival on June 1 at Church Rock, New Mexico, where Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining wants to prevent Hydro Resources Inc.’s ISL operation. Photo courtesy Navajo Nation

disturbs harmony with the earth The Inter American Human Rights Commission should hold a special hearing on the issues presented in a petition against the in-situ leach mining proposed for the Navajo communities of Crownpoint and Church Rock since 1988 by Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI), says the non-profit Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining.

HRI’s materials license allows it to extract uranium, or leetso, in the Diné language. “That is an affront to the cultural norms of the Diné,” petitioners tell the human rights commission in their May 16 filing. “Notwithstanding petitioners’ public health and environmental concerns, the damage to land and groundwater that will result from the industry will disrupt natural harmony (hoozho) in a way that cannot be undone,” they say.

“The groundwater contamination that will indisputably occur will not only make water that is currently potable unfit for consumption, but will also make these same sources of water unfit for ceremonial and other cultural purposes,” they continue.

“The land that will be disturbed by HRI’s operations, to the extent that it has not already been impacted by past uranium mining and milling, will carry the indelible stain of desecration. It will no longer be fit for ceremonial practices or for gathering plants and herbs used in religious ceremonies," the filing states. “The disharmony caused by HRI’s operations will impose an incremental cultural insult on the petitioners, in addition to the ongoing cultural affronts caused by historic uranium mining and milling,” the petition states.

Petitioners share in the Diné worldview, in which uranium represents part of a parable of how to live in harmony with one’s environment. Uranium is seen as the antithesis of corn pollen, a central and sacred substance in Diné culture that is used to bless all life.

In one of the stories Navajos tell about their origin, the Dineh (people) were given a choice when they emerged from the third world into the fourth and present world. They were told to choose between two yellow powders. One was yellow dust from the rocks, and the other was corn pollen. The Dineh chose corn pollen, and the gods nodded in assent. They also issued a warning. Having chosen the corn pollen, the Navajo were to leave the yellow dust in the ground. If it was ever removed, it would bring evil, the petition explains.

In written testimony before the NRC, petitioner Mitchell Capitan stated: In the Navajo culture, uranium is said to be a source of evil that is best left in the ground. My tradition tells me that once uranium is brought to the surface, the surrounding area is contaminated and the people will be destroyed. If mining begins at Crownpoint or Unit 1, I will no longer be able to use Sections 22 or 27 for plant gathering and food crop cultivation. And, we will not be able to perform ceremonies in those areas,” he said.

Because Church Rock and Crownpoint are within Diné bikeyah, they have particular spiritual and cultural importance to the Diné and the petitioners, Capitan testified before the NRC: “This land is my home and my family’s home on several levels. For one thing, our roots are literally tied to this land. In accordance with Navajo tradition, my family buries the umbilical cords of our newborns on family land. This custom binds each child to the land where his umbilical cord is buried. This bond with Mother Earth is very important to each of us.

“It is a Navajo belief that to maintain harmony, a Navajo must live between the four sacred mountains. In my family, we make prayers to these mountains every morning and we feel we are being protected here by the four sacred mountains. My home in Crownpoint is within these mountains, and so my family belongs here.

“In addition, we live close to our relatives, including clan relatives. It is important to live among your clans; these relatives can help you when you need them. When you live among your relatives, you practice “K’ei”, which means you have respect for the deep bonds that exist between one another and that you carry out certain duties to each other,” he said.

The land is also carries significant cultural importance in terms of the subsistence it provides, the petition notes.

Petitioner Larry King’s likely displacement will physically remove him from the land that has been occupied by his family for generations. King’s physical removal from his home represents an assault on his cultural ties to a specific parcel of land – Section 17, according to the petition.

King is a member of the Navajo Nation and resides with his family in Church Rock. Also a member of the ENDAUM board of directors, he is fluent in Navajo and engages in traditional cultural practices. King formerly worked as a uranium miner in the old Church Rock mine near his current residence. He suffers from various illnesses he attributes to his time as a miner. He is employed with the federal Public Health Service, but also relies on the land for subsistence.

King testified before the NRC that it would be impossible for him to relocate to avoid the mining project, stating: “We would have no place to go. Through my father’s side, this parcel of land [Section 17] has been in my family’s possession for several generations. We all live here together on my family’s land and we feel at home, at peace, and safe. We were all born and raised here and this place is home to us. “Raising livestock helps with income and for human consumption and survival. For most Navajo people, their flocks of sheep and livestock are considered part of the family. We cannot part with them. When I look outside and I see my livestock grazing out there, I feel good, knowing that I am able to carry on the traditional Navajo way of life. For the older Navajo people, if their sheep get taken away, they get sick.”

The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights should request that the NRC or other appropriate administrative agency prohibit forced removal of King and his family from Church Rock Section or forced disruption of his subsistence grazing practices or cultural activities, the petition says.

The Diné’s cautious attitude toward uranium is justified in light of uranium’s radiological and chemical properties, according to the petition.

Uranium itself gives off little ionizing radiation, but when exposed its decay products, particularly radon and radium, can release significant ionizing radiation.

No safe level of ionizing radiation exists, because even the smallest dose causes a corresponding increase in the risk of cancer to humans. Uranium is a heavy metal, so, like mercury and lead, it also can have serious negative health effects when ingested, the petition states.

“Further, it is well established that ‘boom and bust’ resource extraction activities impose significant social and cultural costs on host communities,” it says. “These social and economic costs include increases in crime, particularly domestic violence and illegal drug use and sales. They may also include the appearance of or increase in prostitution.

“The Petitioners’ cultural values are likely to be negatively impacted due to increased prostitution, property and violent crime, domestic violence, drug addiction, drug trafficking, traffic congestion, traffic accidents and deaths, and other public costs that normally follow from extractive resource industries,” the petition says.

(Talli Nauman is the Health and Environment Editor for Native Sun News. Contact her at talli.nauman@gmail.com)

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