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Leetso: the Powerful Yellow Monster

The monster was born on July 16, 1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico,
when the first atomic bomb exploded

Esther Yazzie and Jim Zion
Albuquerque, New Mexico


Mining uranium in the Navajo Nation. Photo by Milton Snow. Used courtesy the Navajo Nation Museum.To see a more indepth version of this article see: Leetso: the Powerful Yellow Monster
A Navajo Cultural Interpretation of Uranium Mining
by Esther Yazzie and Jim Zion
Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Navajo word for “monster” is Nayee. The literal translation is "that which gets in the way of a successful life." Navajos believe that one of the best ways 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 - meaning "yellow brown" or "yellow dirt". Aside from its literal translation, the word carries a powerful connotation. Sometimes, when we translate a Navajo word into English, we say it "sounds like" something. I think it sounds like a reptile; like a monster. It is a monster, as I 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 took place under a sports stadium at the University of Chicago. The monster was born on July 16,1945 at Alamogordo, New Mexico, when the first atomic bomb exploded.

Navajos were the midwife of the monster, although they did not know it at the time . The Bureau of Indian Affairs discovered a uranium-vanadium bearing mineral in 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, Navajos 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 the military to serve in Korea, Vietnam, and other places of confrontation. They also did their part on the nuclear front: Navajo lands contributed thirteen million tons of uranium ore from 1945 through 1988. The nuclear industry dug the world' s largest underground or deep uranium mine was at a site by Mt. Taylor. That mountain is Tsoodzil in our language, the sacred mountain of the south. Navajos had no say about the desecration of that sacred place by mining. The Laguna mine operated from 1979 through 1982; the Mount Taylor mine from 1979 through 1990. 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 the toxic waste which came from the mills and plants which 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.

Navajo traditions live in their daily life. When Navajos have practical discussions of today ' s problems, they often recite their sacred traditions, their sacred scripture. Navajo traditions speak of what to do with monsters such as Leetso.

In ancient times, Navajos were destroyed by monsters which roamed their traditional lands . In those days, the deity Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins. (In other accounts, the Twins came from separate mothers -White Shell Woman is associated with Changing Woman. ) The Twins went through many trials and gained much wisdom from the supernatural to acquire the skills to kill the monsters. Ironically, the first monster the Twins slew was Yeetso -"Big Monster." He was the biggest and the worst of monsters, and he roamed Mount Taylor, where the world' s largest underground uranium mine would be built.

Navajo thought is directly relevant to any discussion of the nuclear culture. Changing Woman, who bore and raised the Hero Twins, is also our Mother Earth. She is important to us as our Mother. As the Earth, she must not be disrespected or harmed in any way. There is an ancient Navajo belief that people should not dig into the earth, particularly with steel tools or machines. There is a story about the Hopis (retold by Frank Waters), who have a similar belief: One day, an Anglo man asked a Hopi: "What would happen if someone dug into the earth with a steel shovel?" 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 either our environment or other people.

There is no question that uranium is a powerful being; that it stands in the way of a successful lire and therefore is a monster. How do you slay or weaken a monster? First, you know it. You must gain knowledge of its destructive force to understand what it does to you and what you can do to it. Knowledge of it is the key to knowing how to weaken or destroy it.

Second, know its fellow monsters. When an evil act is done, many monsters are born of that act. Our traditions tell us that the monsters of the past were created when people transgressed, when they committed evil. The other monsters are a war industry built on disrespect for human life, and a modern international energy industry built on disrespect for both other humans and the environment. Those monsters feed on power, political power as well as nuclear power. Their nourishment comes from disrespect for the five-fingered People (i.e., humans) and for Mother Earth.

Third, use appropriate weapons. If the monster feeds on disrespect and abuses of power, use respect and group action as weapons. In Navajo thought coercion is evil. We use solidarity with others and consent within the group to fight it. We use prayer and good thought to overcome coercion, which is a form of witchcraft. Put another away, we must reinforce the thought and morality of a strong international community to gain the political force necessary to counterbalance the international nuclear industry. Too often, people forget the importance of native peoples to the environment. As the World Commission on the Environment pointed out, native peoples and their thought may be a key to the future. We must be enlisted as part of a community of understanding and conscience. What we think must be a part of the strategy to combat and to control the monsters.

Fourth, we must have a plan. Navajos believe that powerful forces can be controlled through understanding and planning for group action. Navajos did that many times in keeping the Spanish away from Navajo territory and coping with modern ways. One of the things writers say most often about Navajos is that they have a canny way of taking the best from outsiders and rejecting that which does not fit the Navajo way of life. I think we can all share the approaches that Navajos and other native peoples have developed to address these issues.

Our thought is coming into its own in a world community: People are discussing the concept of "Gaia," the planet as a living thing which requires our respect. "Rainbow Serpent," an international woman' s network opposed to the destructive force of nuclear power, takes its name from the teachings of the first nations of Australia- "Let the Rainbow Serpent sleep under the ground." Native peoples awaken to what is done to them; their teachings may be the ancient wisdom of all people. It may be that we are all "native peoples."

This article is reprinted with permission from the Navajo Uranium Worker Oral History & Photography Project newsletter,

Esther Yazzie is a Court interpreter in Albuquerque, New Mexico, a member of the Southwest Indigenous Uranium Forum and a member of the advisory board to the Navajo Uranium Worker Oral History and Photography Project. She is currently completing translation of the interviews excerpted in the book.

To see a more indepth version of this article see:

Published in In Motion Magazine - January 3, 1999.

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