Environment | National

Native Sun News: Navajo activists spearhead 'No Nukes' effort

Leona Morgan

Young Navajo spearhead ‘No Nukes’ effort
By Clara Caulfield
Native Sun News Correspondent

NORMAN, Okla. –– Leona Morgan, a young Dine’ (Navajo) woman speaks passionately about uranium issues affecting her people, recently addressing the Society of Environmental Journalists, 25th Annual Convention in Norman, Okla.

“Our past, present and future depend on the health of the Four Sacred Mountains and everything within them,” she said.

The Four Sacred Mountains include Mt. Blanca (Colorado); Mt. Taylor (San Juan River Basin, New Mexico), San Francisco Peak (Arizona); and Mt. Hesperus (Colorado), encompassing the traditional Dine’ homelands. The Navaho Reservation is located within that circumference, Morgan explained, yet the tribal government does not exercise jurisdiction over the entire area, the huge reservation divided among three regions of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Yet, that is where uranium mining threatens the traditional Dine’ and other tribal people who live there. Leona pointed out that there are also many abandoned uranium mines in the Black Hills, South Dakota, sacred area to many Plains Tribes, especially the Lakota, Cheyenne and others.

And, the Mt. Taylor region is one of the most uranium-contaminated places in the United States. The Navajo Reservation includes Superfund clean-up sites, the chilling details of that story to be found in a 2014 expose by Talli Nauman, Native Sun News Health and Environment Editor.

Leona spent her formative years on the Navajo reservation, inspired to higher education by her father, James Morgan, a retired civil engineer and her mother, Nina Jean, veteran Indian Health Service employee of 42 years. After elementary and high school on the reservation, close to Window Rock and Gallop, N. M., she obtained a Bachelors of Fine Arts from the University of New Mexico in 2006, a talented artist, now focusing on photography.

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Yet, she maintains traditional ties, careful to note her Dine’ clanship relations: Bitterwater, Sleeping Rock, Towering House and Where Waters Come Together.

“I have always respected my traditional life ways and culture,” she explained. “And now, after straying off that path for a little bit, I am recommitted, including learning my language and practicing Dine’ life-ways.”

As Leona sees it, the truest expression of that “life-way” is to actively urge more protection for the Four Sacred Mountains, gaining cleanup of 520 abandoned uranium mines and fighting proposed development of new uranium activities in the area. That is why, she and two Dine’ friends, Janene Yazzie, community organizer and Tommy Rock, who is working on a Ph.D., formed the ‘Dine’ – No Nukes organization, a new grassroots effort. A primary goal is to educate the reservation-based Dine’ about uranium issues, very complex and far-reaching.

She shared a poignant personal story about her own relatives who suffered fatal health effects from exposure to uranium based radiation. During the 1950’s uranium boom, she said, there was no federal oversight of uranium mining or regulation/requirement for cleanup of abandoned mines.

“I’m sure that some of that uranium was used to produce bombs that killed Japanese people,” she noted.

And, on the Navajo reservation during that time, tribal members sometimes salvaged materials from abandoned mines, not knowing about the effects of radiation contamination. One rural family, she said, used such materials to build a house. Later, several children in that household developed fatal brain tumors, which they suspect is related to the effects of uranium contamination, very slow acting, perhaps twenty years or longer.

The issues associated with uranium development are complex, Morgan explained, spanning several states and numerous conflicting jurisdictions. On the bright side, she said, there are no current active uranium mines in New Mexico, but under current political state leadership, new uranium based development is proposed and welcomed.

The Navajo Nation now prohibits uranium mining on the reservation. There is, however uranium activity in Arizona; a new nuclear reactor is proposed in Utah; and transport of nuclear waste from the Grand Canyon through Navajo lands poses continuing concern. While the Navajo reservation prohibits transport of such material on tribal lands, they cannot exercise jurisdiction over federal interstate highways crossing the Reservation, where regular transport of radioactive waste occurs. Finally, a newly proposed nuclear reactor in Green River, Utah deeply concerns the activists.

“The potential contamination of the Green River, the Colorado and Navajo waters should be of grave concern to all Tribes downstream,” Morgan emphasized. “Yet, most of the Dine’ people don’t know about it. That is why we are committed to community education about uranium issues, which is very challenging to translate into our language.”

Morgan also explained other intricacies and risks associated with uranium, both conventional mining and in-situ-leaching, involving injection of chemicals into the underground waters to release uranium deposits, a process which she says contaminates the water source, with little reclamation success to date.

In summary, Leona, Janena and Tommy aim to educate their fellow tribal members, building a base of community members who will be able to lobby their leadership to stand strong and unified against any and all uranium development.

“Uranium and nuclear? Not on my lands or in my water,” she concluded.

Leona Morgan can be reached at Leona.morgan.rim@gmail.com.

(Clara Caufield can be reached at acheyennevoice@gmail.com)

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