Nuclear-Free Future

in the Category


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24 September 2005

Joe Shirley Jr. und George Arthur

Leetso has been vanquished – quelled by a ceremonial quill. In the language of the Diné (as the Navajo call themselves),’Leetso’ means ‘yellow monster’ and refers to uranium oxide, or, as it’s commonly called in uranium milling circles, ‘yellowcake.’

Back in 1950, Paddy Martinez, a Diné cowboy, discovered a rock laced with yellow specks outside his hogan near Haystack, New Mexico. Eureka: uranium! A Cold War uranium rush hit the Colorado Plateau, and the men of the Diné left behind their families to prospect for the valuable mineral in underground uranium mines. Unaware of any danger, they used no skin or respiratory protection. By the end of the decade, many of these men had fallen victim to lung cancer, pulmonary fibrosis, pneumoconiosis, silicosis, tuberculosis…

Diné elders, powerless against the grim pestilence, blamed Leetso who, according to oral tradition, lives beneath Tsoodzil. The southernmost of the four mountains sacred to the Diné, Tsoodzil is listed on American maps as Mount Taylor, and at its foot General Atomics Inc. operated the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine from 1979 to 1991.

“No person shall engage in uranium mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.”

The Diné experienced Leetso’s unforgiving nature firsthand: yet today, the majority of wildcat uranium mines that pock the reservation remain unremediated, and tailings from the region’s open-pit mines sew wind and rain with cancer. In 1979, the Church Rock disaster, the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history, sent eleven hundred tons of radioactive mill waste and ninety million gallons of contaminated liquid into the Rio Puerco River when a dam burst. The Navajo still cannot use this water.

Radicalized by the impact of uranium mining and milling on public health – hardly a family on the reservation has been spared the radiation-related loss of a loved one – such people as Gilbert Bedonie, Norman Brown, Ed Carlisle, Mitchell Capitan, Rita Capitan, Phil Harrison, Larry King, Johnny Livingston, Anna Rondon, Earl Saltwater, Kathleen Tsosie, Louise Yellowman, and Al Waconda helped organize tribal opposition to all things nuclear. This year, a fresh promise of $30 million from the Bush people in Washington to jumpstart water leech mining threatened to end the reservation’s moratorium on uranium mining.

We honor the Navajo tribal council and George Arthur for their timely framing of the Diné Resources Protection Act of 2005, a piece of legislation that includes the final language: ‘No person shall engage in uranium mining and processing on any sites within Navajo Indian Country.’ On 29 April, when tribal president Joe Shirley, Jr. attached his name to the bill, the dozens of Diné gathered for the ceremonial signing cheered and hugged each other, singing: “Leetso Dooda” (No more uranium monster).

–Craig Reishus