Saturday, October 24, 2009

Navajo Women and Uranium Mine Poisoning: where Violence Against Women is a mutli-layered issue

What strikes me about what you are about to read is the impossibility of comprehending "violence against women" from a white standpoint. White-centric analysis is utterly insufficient to grasp the depth and complexity of the forms of violence against women discussed below. For me, this piece, along with other posts here at A.R.P. and at the blogs of women of color linked to at this website (to the right), make a strong case that if profeminism isn't centered around the concerns, values, analysis, activism, and lives of women of color, there is little to nothing radical about it.


(Above, left) Rose Anderson of Fort Defiance, Ariz., and Esther Yazzie-Lewis at the Indigenous World Uranium Summit. (Right) Esther Yazzie-Lewis. [The photo, by Brenda Norrell, is from here]

Just about everything that follows below [except what is in brackets and also below the book passages] is from The Navajo People and Uranium Mining by Esther Yazzie-Lewis*, Timothy Benally**, and Doug Brugge***:
There is a story about the Hopis (retold by Frank Waters), who have a similar belief [to their geographical neighbors, the Navajo]: One day, an Anglo man asked a Hopi about it. "What would happen if someone dug into the earth with a steel shovel?" he asked. The Hopi answered, "I don't know, but that would certainly tell us what kind of man he was." Sometimes we--as Indians--have a difficult time understanding the abuse of our environment or other people.

The Navajo Nation in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah is the world's largest Indian nation. With more than 16 million acres of land, it is larger than Ireland and about one-fifth the size of Japan. It has the largest American Indian population in the United States, with over 255,000 enrolled members, 168,000 of whom live in the Navajo Nation. The Four Corners region of the American Southwest--named for the place where the states of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico come together--is where the largest quantities of uranium were mined in the United States. It is also the U.S. region with the highest American Indian population. Over 400,000 American Indians live in those four states. That is 20 percent of the total American Indian population.

[... The Navajo people are as diverse as any other population, with a range of values and perspectives. And, not in contradiction to that, the authors of this book state that] [t]hey see uranium and materials for atomic power as a monster. The Navajo word for monster is nayee. The literal translation is "that which gets in the way of a successful life." Navajo people also believe that one of the best ways to start to overcome or weaken a monster as a barrier to life is to name it. Every evil--each monster--has a name. Uranium has a name in Navajo. It is leetso, which means "yellow brown" or "yellow dirt." Aside from its literal translation, the word carries a powerful connotation. Sometimes when we [non-Navajo/white people] translate a Navajo word into English, we say it "sounds like" something. We think leetso sounds like a reptile, a monster. It is a monster, as we will explain.

The monster was fertilized in 1896, when radioactivity was discovered, and again in 1898, when the Curies uncovered atomic energy. It took shape in 1934, when Enrico Fermi achieved nuclear fission, and on December 2, 1942, when the first successful nuclear chain reaction too place under a sports at the University of Chicago. The monster was born on July 16, 1945, at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the first atomic bomb was exploded.

[...] The Bureau of Indian Affairs discovered a uranium/vanadium-bearing mineral in the Navajo Nation in 1941. At the same time, the Navajo Tribal Council passed a resolution to support the United States in opposition to the threat of Nazi Germany. By the time the war broke out in late 1941, Navajo people joined the war effort. Many enlisted in the American armed forces. They joined the military at rates far higher than the general population. Navajo patriots did not realize that they were a central part of the Manhattan Project, the military-civilian organization that built the first atomic bomb. Traditional Navajos would have been horrified had they known what others would do with their yellow dirt.

Navajo people also joined the Cold War. They again enlisted in the military to serve in Korea, Vietnam, and other places of confrontation. They also did their part on the nuclear front: Navajo lands contributed 13 million tons of uranium ore from 1945 through 1988. The nuclear industry dug the world's largest underground or deep uranium mine, sited by Mount Taylor [the Anglo name]. That mountain is Tsoodzil in the Navajo language: the sacred mountain of the south. Navajo people had no say about the desecration of that sacred place by mining.

Mining created a boomtown environment, with all its associated violence. Mining took place throughout the Navajo Nation, and as of today, there are at least one thousand abandoned and unreclaimed uranium mines within the Navajo Nation. We have not yet discovered the extent of toxic waste that came from the mills and plants that processed uranium and other products. In the aftermath of the atomic warfare and energy industry, people talk about using Indian lands to store nuclear waste.

Today, we celebrate the winning of the Cold War after the collapse of the former Soviet Union. What is the "peace dividend" for Navajo people? It is both direct and indirect.

Hundreds of Navajos worked in the open-pit and underground mines. No one told them about the dangers of radiation, so Navajo miners are dying of radiation-related diseases. They leave widows, children, and other dependents, who most often must fight hard to get compensation benefits. Many are denied compensation by a bureaucracy that is bizarre to Navajo thought. The United States Department of Justice delays and quibbles about whether widows were "married" to men who fathered children and made homes with them, making Navajo women the "tag-along" victims of radiation poisoning. These are the direct victims of the death industry that "hot" and "cold" war created.

The Navajo people use earth to build the traditional hogans--log-and-earth structures. In modern times, they use building blocks and concrete containing soil. Today, there are many Navajo homes and schools that are contaminated with radioactive gases. No one warned and no one cared about the waste left behind from the mines. Children play on the tailings left from a thousand or more mining sites, and strong winds blow radioactive dust across Navajo lands.

The people of the American Southwest were not told of the possible effects of bomb testing. Bombs were tested in the New Mexico and Arizona deserts near Indian nations [...]. [T]here may be many communities in [the region] that will suffer the aftereffects of nuclear testing. The Indians who live in those areas receive America's worst health care. Even if others are tested for radiation illness, will anyone care enough to think of Indian victims?

In 1979, the retaining dam at the Church Rock mine near Gallup, New Mexico, broke, sending tons of radioactive waste down the main drainage of the area--the Rio Puerco. Cleanup operations are still going on. That disaster devastated the traditional Navajo grazing country. Navajo people could not market their meat or wool. And during the 1933 hantavirus mania over Navajo deaths, the public victimized the Navajos who lived downstream from the spill all over again.

[...] What else did the uranium industry bring to the Navajo people? Historians identify World War II as a turning point in Navajo life. Before the war, they still were able to enjoy their traditional grazing economy. The war brought Navajo people into the war industry, and the postwar energy boom forced them into the modern wage economy.

[...] The boomtown atmosphere that follows energy development also fosters crime, alcoholism, child abuse, and domestic violence [all of which the white man brought with him to this land]. [...] The uranium mines and mills near Navajo communities required workers. Most often they were semiskilled, and they came from rural communities. Rural Navajos live in family and clan groups, where everyone is related to, or knows everyone else. Jobs attract people who are not related to each other, and Navajo people who had previously lived in clustered villages and towns. Women were taken from the protection of their families, quarrels over wages promoted family fights, and the sudden availability of alcohol (near the dry Navajo Nation) escalated violence. A study of Navajo families near Shiprock, New Mexico, showed that Navajo women were left unprotected in arrangements that fostered family violence.

[...] Urbanization and industrial growth created what James and Elsie Zion (in their paper on domestic violence under Navajo common law) call "a climate of institutionalized violence." The secondary effects of uranium and other mineral development include alcohol-related crime, family disruption, and dependence on a wage economy that comes and goes. The traditional Navajo economy was disrupted by energy development, as was traditional family life. Abused children and brutalized women are as much the victims of atomic energy as others who suffer and die as a direct result of the atomic bomb.
______________________

About the creators of this 2007 ECD book:

*Esther Yazzie-Lewis is President of the Board of Directors of Southwest Research and Information Center in New Mexico. She is not only co-editor, but also provided translation and co-authored two chapters of the book: the Introduction and the discussion of the Navajo cultural interpretations of uranium mining. She received the Nuclear Free Future 2006 Special Recognition Award for Southwest Research and Information Center.

**Timothy Benally did interviewing, translation, and transcription of "Memories Come To Us In the Rain and the Wind", Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners & Their Families. The book of 25 interviews is part of the campaign of Navajo uranium miners and their families to gain compensation for the great loss in death and illness brought about by mining uranium, with no warning of its ill effects, during the Cold War era of 1947- 1971. (Timothy Benally and Phil Harrison were the interviewers; translation and transcription were by Martha Austin-Garrison, and Lydia Fasthorse-Begay, and Timothy Benally.)

***Doug Brugge, a non-Indian and white man, has a PhD in biology from Harvard University and an MS in Industrial Hygiene from the Harvard School of Public Health. Doug Brugge was director and photographer for "Memories Come To Us In the Rain and the Wind", Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners & Their Families.

I was led to research this story by checking out this blogpost at CENSORED NEWS: Indigenous Peoples and Human Rights News, titled "Woman Warriors: Indigenous Uranium Forum", linked to just above.

For more information on this crisis, click here.

Post Script: One of the few past boyfriends I have cared deeply about was born and raised in Shiprock, New Mexico.

END OF POST.

8 comments:

sexgenderbody said...

I very much agree with the connections you make here and the distinctions you draw attention to. Your opening statement about relevance is right on the money.

I am enjoying this blog and regularly tweet your posts. I added your site to our google-reader feed some time ago. Please keep up the excellent work.

-arvan

Julian Real said...

To arvan, aka sexgenderbody,

I really appreciate your kind remarks, and am deeply grateful to you for getting my posts out there!

And please come on by and comment any time. :)

Cheers.

Anonymous said...

To me, freedom for women is not only about a male free country, but it is about international connections between all women. Since my feminism started out global and worked back to local, I came from a perspective of working as a minority in a non-white majority feminist movement.

All these connections need to be made and are being made.
Women bear the brunt of poisoning worldwide, from uranium, to coal burning, to polluted water, to having to be the primary water carriers.

Clean water alone would free millions of women. Something as simple as that.

I believe the very nature of men is about pollutiing the earth, whether it is raping women or raping the earth, this is what men seem born to do.

So how do we stop them, and how do all women unite for the benefit of women. Men are perfectly capable of guarding their own best interests, but women are not trained in the fine art of putting ourselves number 1 all the time.

It's a huge challenge, but one women the world over are rising to. Global feminism is amazing, when women's rights fall somewhere in the world, they rise elsewhere, as Mary Daly once said.

The most powerful feminists are to be found in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Somolia. When women put themselves first and unit, nothing can stop us!

Thanks for this post! It was amazing.

Julian Real said...

Hi again Anonymous,

Thanks, as always, for your contributions here.

To me, freedom for women is not only about a male free country, but it is about international connections between all women.

Would you agree that such international connections are hampered greatly by white women's denial of their white supremacy, and Western women's denial about their Western biases and oppressive power?

Since my feminism started out global and worked back to local, I came from a perspective of working as a minority in a non-white majority feminist movement.

I am absolutely fascinated by this comment, Anonymous! I would love to know more about this experience!!!! (I don't know of ANY other white women who came to consciousness about feminism in a predominantly woman (and man) of color society or region.)

Tell me as much as you'd like to about that time in your life, if you wish to. Where were you born (country only) and where were you raised? Please don't share information that will make you less anonymous here. But please tell me as much as you feel comfortable with about what you are referring to above.

All these connections need to be made and are being made.
Women bear the brunt of poisoning worldwide, from uranium, to coal burning, to polluted water, to having to be the primary water carriers.


Yes, I agree. The atrocities against women by men globally are too numerous to even list.

Clean water alone would free millions of women. Something as simple as that.

YES!!

Julian Real said...

I believe the very nature of men is about pollutiing the earth, whether it is raping women or raping the earth, this is what men seem born to do.

I think that's a racist statement, in that there have been and are Indigenous men, for example, who have lived for thousands of years without polluting the earth and practicing rape as we know it in the West. So is that what those men over thousands of years were born to do?

So how do we stop them, and how do all women unite for the benefit of women.

That's a damn good question!

Men are perfectly capable of guarding their own best interests, but women are not trained in the fine art of putting ourselves number 1 all the time.

The same can be said in white male supremacist societies of people of color vis a vis white people. People of color are often not encouraged or rewarded for putting themselves first, for working for their own best interests, against the interests of white women and men.

It's a huge challenge, but one women the world over are rising to. Global feminism is amazing, when women's rights fall somewhere in the world, they rise elsewhere, as Mary Daly once said.

And I wish Mary Daly fully owned her white privileges. She has hurt many women. I've seen her publicly humiliate a young woman in front of a predominantly female audience, without observable (to the other women there) regret or apology.

The most powerful feminists are to be found in China, in Saudi Arabia, in Somolia. When women put themselves first and unit, nothing can stop us!

I think that is such an important point, Anonymous, and thank you so much for making it. One of the most powerful feminists I know is Yanar Mohammed. And few white women (and, needless to say, white men or men of color in the U.S.) even know who she is.

Thanks for this post! It was amazing.

Thanks for all your thoughtful, woman-loving commentary! I hope you inspire many women to be so loving of womankind. I imagine that you do!!

Anonymous said...

I think if you strip away the romanticism often attached to a white view of native american men, you'll see a completely different historical tale. It's why I believe that there is something inherently wrong with men across time and culture. We see men murdering each other in inter-tribal raids, we see maintaining tribal supremacy, and tribal leadership. Whether it is the 16th century or the 20th century, you have to look at cultures and what they were like before white men ever visited different parts of the world.

Something tells me that Azttec men or Mayan men were no prince charmings.

It's why I believe in the consistency of men's opposition to the full development and renaissance of women worldwide. Even the word renaissance is such a joke if you look at it from a woman's point of view.

Since I didn't start out in the American feminist movement, I wasn't involved with what white women and black women were dealing with. I guess it's why I don't relate to the idea that white people are all that much different from non-white people. I think a better analogy would be looking at majority vs. minority interests.

Men create artificial women's minorities by freezing women out of the public sphere in a variety of ways -- domineering behavior, debating and silencing women, freezing women out of business opportunities, paying men more just because they are men..only hiring a few token women after millions have been spent on lawsuits, and that old favorite, isolating women in homes, beating the stuffing out of them, preventing their psychological development free of male influence and control.

The groups I'm talking about these days are largely interracial women's groups, both straight and lesbian. I've been a minority within non-white lesbian groups, and I can say that every time, the common denominator is simply the ease of the work or cultural or political environment when men are simply not there.

Add men, and women get off track. I really think that most men think only of women as sex objects, or care givers, old men marry young women so that someone takes care of them in old age. Women's energy is simply used up in service to what?

I have always been an advocate for women only environments, and whether it's all lesbian groups or all women's groups or different racial combinations, the key is the unity of women.

I think the assumption of this blog is about a feminism that is American, rather than about a feminism and women's separatist movements that are international.

Men do everything in their power to cover up the lives of women. You have to search hard in America to get news of the daily life of women all over the world. It's all about men, war, and destruction on the nightly news, but it is not women interviewing women worldwide.

I look at the dynamism and energy of women, and what this actually feels like if you are white in non-white contexts. There is just too much of an assumption that lesbian separatism or women's separatist associations are American or whtie, when the majority of the world is not white, I guess that's where I'm coming from.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I have never personally known a lesbian who was battered by another lesbian. I have known hundreds of white women who are honest about their racism, and I've seen lesbians work harder on racism and classism than all women combined. I see men work on racism, but not on sexism. Men can't work on sexism, they need to just be isolated away from women, maybe they'd figure out something on their own. The minute women are in the mix, men become idiots, they just turn on this switch in their heads.

We have seen what men do when feminism becomes powerful. They react, they don't create, they don't volunteer to be the servants, they always want to be in control. Their control obsession is what makes feminism incomprehensible to every man I have ever met. It's not a philosophy for men, it is about women's freedom.

We need to challenge men more and more to change themselves.

Shaukat said...

Not sure if this is the right place to post this (feel free to move it to a more appropriate entry if you like) but the linked article by Joel Kovel is, I believe, an excellent piece that attempts to uncover the origins of patriarchy and male somination, the origin of which he locates in the sexual division of labor. Would be interested to know what you think.
http://www.feralscholar.org/blog/index.php/2005/11/13/gender-power-continued-book-excerpt-the-enemy-of-nature-by-joel-kovel/