Memories Come To Us
In the Rain and the Wind
Oral Histories and Photographs of
Navajo Uranium Miners & Their Families (Extracts)
Arizona and New Mexico
The following interviews and photographs are taken, with permission, from "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. Doug Brugge was director and photographer for the book project and Timothy Benally and Phil Harrison were interviewers. Translation and transcription were by Timothy Benally, Martha Austin-Garrison and Lydia Fasthorse-Begay. Click on photos to see a larger version in a new browser window
Interview by Phil Harrison
.... several of my brothers have died from the effects of uranium (one was married to Mary Frank). So their lives ended in front of my eyes, and several others who are related to me have had the same thing happen to them .... My sympathy goes to them and I am affected from it (I have silicosis) and have become weak. I lack energy to work even at my own home. If they told us about it at the time of uranium mining, perhaps we would not have worked. This is what I think, and our families .... are worried and concerned about how I worked, and its effect on me .... And later, when it really starts to affect me, I think I'll also be one of the victims.
There are many things we could talk about regarding uranium mining on our land. Some of our animals have been affected; calves have been born defected and sheep had lung problems, these we learned about ourselves. Uranium is really dangerous, we learned, and that is how it is. Why did they not tell us this? Perhaps we were just experimental subjects to them, I wonder. "How will it affect them, and what will it do to them in the end," perhaps this was what they thought. Were these the reasons they did not tell us? It generates many thoughts. They were studying us. Doctors learn about surgery using various animals and others. Perhaps in that way we were used for experiments. There are many thoughts.
Are we disposable to the government? These are some of our thoughts this uranium brings out to the front .... For sure water has been contaminated from it. Tributaries wash uranium ore from different mines and concentrate it in the main washes and thus contaminate land and livestock .... From the government's point of view .... they tell miners that they will only be compensated if they (have) lung cancer. I think this is wrong. I watched two of my brothers die from cancer. Sores appeared all over their bodies. It does not just affect the lungs!
(Added in English by Mr. Frank in January, 1997) They just piled low grade ore and put it around our cabin .... So we didn't know if that was dangerous. They didn't tell us. Low grade is just waste, but there is some uranium in it. Here is the mine and our cabin is about 100 feet from the mine. We mined the ore and piled it up and the children played on it. They didn't tell us that our kids should not play on it. This is what I really worry about for our kids.
Mitten Rock, New Mexico
Interview by Phil Harrison
As far as I am aware, there were no safety warnings told to us. But when I was working with Kerr McGee they did tell us something. Just before we began our work every morning, they told us to be sure before you enter in there where you are going to work .... to feel the ceiling for any loose rocks. Do not stay under too long. I knew what they were telling us. So I obeyed their rules
.... there were two of us working one day, Kelleywood Yazzie and I were working together. We had finished digging out the stuff with our shovel and we were told to dig more out. We were getting ready to go back in as we moved on each side of the entrance. In the place where we were a few moments ago, there was a rock slide, with a big boom sound. We were both very scared, looking at each other with wide eyes. We were very lucky that the rocks did not fall on us while we were still digging/mucking stuff around. We were both shaking all over.
Did they tell you about the smoke? Did you wear nose guards?
None, they did not tell us to wear such things. When the explosion of dynamite did not take place, whatever was in it that did not burn would be so smelly. It got us all very sick for sometime. That stuff was so smelly. The smoke was bad too. We were treated rough. They told us to hurry up and enter the mine. "If you do not dig out all the stuff, you will be standing there digging again tomorrow," we were told. Kerr McGee treated us bad almost as though we were slaves.
I think it did something to my feet. I was wearing my rubber boots so it did affect my feet. I almost became crippled because of my leg/feet. (His wife: He suffers from his legs). My feet get very cold (freezing like) and they get fire like. So it bothers me in two ways. My feet cannot stand the cold.
How about your lungs?
It does bother my breathing especially when I go up a hill. It is not strong. It is like that, and my blood pressure is high. They (clinic staff) told me that I have high blood pressure. My thyroid is not working right, I was told. Yes, my eyes are bothering me too. When I look at something like paper or other things, they get blurry or I cannot see a long way anymore.
No. I am thinking back about all the votes I have made in Aztec for 18 years. Overtime an Indian person does something wrong the Whites will speak against all Indians (one Indian person does some- thing wrong, then every Indian will be blamed for that wrongdoing). This is the reason why I spoke/voted against the Whites, such as patrols so that they do not hold their jobs. Just thinking about these things makes me feel that they are prejudiced for that reason our young people are gone (died). They think of the Indians like they thought of the Black slaves. Does the president of US think of us (Navajos) as though we are slaves too? We have suffered in the holes (mines). On top of that our language was used to win a war. Is that worthless too? I served in the war too. I was drafted. I was injured and there was no room for me to stay (in a hospital) so I was sent back home.
When one is in need of something, one wishes to be better. I would like to have this and that. How shall I get something a little bit more, one usually thinks/wishes for, even when one gets too old to do something for oneself. I usually think that way for myself. And you think of something valuable that one has; will my children carry that forward with them, is what one wonders usually.
They will observe how you care for your livestock, cows, horses, your work, skills, and from these they learn to do as you did, and one wonders how long they can do the same. I usually think of these things. My father also taught me some songs, I still have those songs in me. These are the Blessing Way and Shootingway songs. My grandfather taught me these things and told me to think this way.
"You try harder, the good ones begin right here" as he would stretch his arms. "You remember these things in your future." What he said is true to this day. "There is the very good thing that exists just beyond my reach (as he extends his arms). You remember that as time goes on, you think about that and before you know it will happen." That is true today. "Just beyond your reach is where the good stuff exists. These you will be aware of and walk in a holy way. There is one life that one lives. No one lives two lives." This is what Hastiin Tseta' taught me. I remember what he taught me.
Interview by Chenoa Bah Stilwell
....counseling helped me to express a lot of my feelings, a lot of the grief that I was going through, and that is one of the reasons why I stress that a lot of counseling is needed in these areas.... the victims, I and others, are suffering out there. I know they are grieving, it's all inside and they don't know how to express that. And, being a young person and knowing what's out there, the help that can be there, that's why I always express that they should have counseling for the victims, the survivors, the grandparents, the parents, the brothers and sisters, uncles and aunts and this way we could talk about our feelings. This is another way of having and taking a positive step into the future and dealing with all the grief that we have been through, the trauma of the death of our relatives ....
.... And dollar amounts should be earmarked specifically for counseling, because a lot of them, as the Navajo people, you really don't express a lot of these things unless, you know, somebody brings it up. And there are a lot of widows who live alone, and their kids are all grown up. They are by themselves and when I go out in my community out at Cove, I always say kinship and I know how that makes me feel because when you say, "k'é" that we have relatives and that's your support by saying "k'é". My relatives and I even offered to help to do part of the counseling too because in my field when I do there are a lot of people that know me by helping the youth, the adults. There is a lot of spiritual healing that needs to be done and a lot of the grieving.
And, like for me, it was really hard to do this interview because you go back in time and then, you know, our elders always say "go ahead" and that's how I was brought up by my grandparents, my father, my uncles; they always encouraged me to "go ahead." And as I speak I always say now, as I speak, I am my grandfather, my grandparents, my fathers, my uncles, my aunts and my mother, as I speak, I am them .... I say my relatives have gone on to the spirit world, they come in the wind, the rain, the four seasons and I will always say that in my prayer and they guide us in the right direction.
And the only thing we have is our prayers (crying) and as a relative and person that is concerned about this, you know, I really appreciate the people that are willing to help and their concerns because they don't know how much we hurt and yet people think it's, you know, the people that did this, they think, "hey, deal with it, it's done and it's gone." It's not, it's not done and it's still there and that's why I say we really need a lot of counseling in our areas even though it's a remote area, no matter where you go there has to be some type of counseling support group. (crying) Thank you.
Interview by Phil Harrison
How it is, I'm not sure, but what I think is that all the residents of Cove Community have been affected in one or more ways, this is what I think. From there (pointing), waste and ore that were hauled out, some of these washed down with water. Also here (pointing), they hauled some in front of where the trading post is. It used to be piled over across; there was a pile. Then they hauled it over the roads, uranium fell off the trucks, so this makes uranium everywhere. Some homes, they used rocks for foundations which are radioactive; perhaps in the community there are also some like that. Some houses are also built with these same rocks.
Water too, this wash, irrigation ditch-the same water. Dig wells, you drank the same water, there was no water system then. We carried water home in buckets from there. So, they just dumped the waste into the washes, they flow down, that way everything was exposed, animals as well. This is what I think. Even down to the babies are like that.
Effects are not noticed until later on, some years later. From observation, this is what I have determined. When it starts on you, there is no turning it, nothing to back it off with. It just progresses to the end. Several people here in Cove, this happened to them, from that came my thinking. If they had informed the people, perhaps something would have been done then, perhaps our leaders could have done something about it, this I think about sometimes.
Why did I work there, is what I often ask myself, when I'm lying with chest pain. Perhaps, if I had not worked, I would be well. There are some men who worked for short periods or had not worked at all and they're well and living their healthy lives. Some are old, still they are in good health. From this I form my opinion. From these observations. If the people knew, if brothers, cousins, etc. had not worked in mines, they'd be with us today, this is what I think. If they try to open more mining they should say no! We've found out it is a very dangerous material, no cure.
Published in In Motion Magazine - November 16, 1997.
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