On Monday, the United States officially observed Columbus Day. Some states, Alaska, Florida, Hawaii, Oregon, South Dakota, and Vermont, and many cities observe Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead, which recognizes the communities that inhabited the “new world” long before Christopher Columbus landed. Among the many injustices suffered by native communities in the centuries that have passed since Europeans arrived on North America’s shores and claimed it for their own is the dangerous and deadly exposure to the radioactive materials used to create nuclear weapons. The United States’ nuclear arsenal has taken an especially hard toll on the Navajo, who continue to live with the repercussions of nuclear mining even today.
The process of building nuclear weapons starts with mining. One of the main elements of a nuclear bomb is enriched uranium. Some of the world’s richest uranium deposits span across Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah — heavily overlapping with the Navajo Nation. These mines provided the uranium used in the Manhattan Project; the United States’ top-secret endeavor to build the first nuclear bombs. Between 1944 and 1986 mining companies blasted 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land. Until 1971, uranium from these mines was sold exclusively to the United States government. Many Navajo were employed in the uranium mines and exposed to unsafe conditions by the companies in employing them. The mining companies knew that mine workers were at heightened risk for developing lung cancer and other serious respiratory diseases in 15 or 20 years. Additionally, the mines operated in a way that contaminated the surrounding lands and water by leaving large piles of radioactive materials exposed.
The legacy of these mines and the contamination they leached into the environment on the Navajo Nation has been devastating: the cancer rate on the reservation doubled from the early 1970’s to the late 1990’s, even as the cancer rate declined nationwide. This is especially notable given that the cancer rate on the reservation has been historically much lower than that of the general population of the United States. In a recent study that sought to gauge the impacts of uranium on Navajo families today, researchers found that 27 percent of the participants have high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to 5 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.
Many Navajo continue to live in close proximity to contaminated uranium mines. Of the 523 abandoned mines, the Environmental Protection Agency has only successfully cleaned up nine. The contamination of Navajo land is especially devastating given their deep, traditional connection to the land. When a Navajo baby is born, the umbilical cord is buried in the ground, tying them to that place forever. Add to that high rates of poverty experienced by many indigenous peoples living on reservations, and the ability to leave contaminated lands becomes almost impossible. The Navajo have few options to escape the uranium contamination that has been wreaking devastating effects on their health for decades.
For some, Monday was a regular day at work. Others got a day off in the name of Christopher Columbus or in memory of the people who were here long before the Niña, the Pinta, and the Santa María. But each and every day, minority populations like the Navajo continue to be unduly affected by the militaristic pursuits of our government. For the Navajo, that means generations of health problems in the name of our nuclear weapons. We owe it to them, and to all the marginalized communities harmed by our pursuit and maintenance of nuclear weapons, to highlight the price they have been forced to pay for our nuclear arsenal.