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Leetso, the Powerful Yellow Monster:

A Navajo Cultural Interpretation of Uranium Mining

by Esther Yazzie-Lewis and Jim Zion
Albuquerque, New Mexico

The following is Chapter One of The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, edited by Doug Brugge, Timothy Benally, and Esther Yazzie-Lewis, published by University of New Mexico Press. Doug Brugge is associate professor of community health at Tufts University School of Medicine, Boston. Timothy Benally, a bilingual Navajo, is retired director of both the Office of Navajo Uranium Workers and the Uranium Education Center, Diné College, Shiprock, New Mexico. Esther Yazzie-Lewis is a bilingual Navajo and recently completed her master's degree in American studies at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. The Navajo People and Uranium Mining can be purchased from the University of New Mexico Press or

The Name of the Monster

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 Nation is a nation, a nationality. As such, what do the Navajo people -- Diné in the Navajo language -- think about atomic energy? What do they think about modern uranium culture? How do Navajo people view the events of the second half of the twentieth century, when military, political, and industrial factions used the power of radioactive materials to build political and economic power?

Navajo people do have points of view on these issues. They 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 translate a Navajo word into English, we say it “sounds like” something. We think leetso sounds like a reptile, like a monster. It is a monster, as we will explain.

The Birth of Leetso

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 was exploded.

The Navajo people were the midwife of the monster, although they did not know it at that time. The Bureau of Indian Affairs discovered a uranium/vanadium-bearing mineral in the Navajo Nation in 1941 (see chapter 3). 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. 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.

The Victims of Leetso

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 radioactivity and 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, and an underground blast took place near the Jicarilla Apache Reservation in 1967. We are told that American servicemen were not warned or protected during atomic tests, and that there may be many communities in Nevada or New Mexico 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 1993 hantavirus mania over Navajo deaths, the public victimized the Navajos who lived downstream from the spill all over again.

Navajo people have a sense of humor: instead of Spider Man -- a superhero who contracted supernatural powers from radiation -- the Navajo people have Mutton Man. He is said to have gotten his superhero power of flight from eating contaminated mutton from the Church Rock spill. These are the direct impacts of mining and radiation, but we sometimes forget to consider their indirect effects.

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.

Energy development in the West created what they call the “Gillette Syndrome,” after the big mining operations near Gillette, Wyoming. The boomtown atmosphere that follows energy development also fosters crime, alcoholism, child abuse, and domestic violence. Something similar happened to Navajo people. 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 scattered rural communities were thrown together 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.

Perhaps we should call what happened the “Shiprock Syndrome”; we could name it after the modern Navajo community near the Four Corners. 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 the direct result of the atomic bomb.

Slaying the Monster

Navajo traditions are a part of their daily life. When Navajo people 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, Navajo people were destroyed by monsters that roamed their traditional lands. In those days, the deity Changing Woman gave birth to the Hero Twins. The Twins went through many trials and gained much wisdom from supernatural beings 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 the 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 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 either our environment or other people.

There is another story that tells us what Navajos would have thought had they known about the use of their yellow dirt for the atom bomb. Barry Tolkein tells us of his experiences when he lived in the Navajo Nation in an essay entitled “Seeing with a Native Eye: How Many Sheep Will It Hold?” He came to know an elderly Navajo man who had never been outside the Navajo Nation. The man could not speak English or read. He did not have television, and had no other means to know anything about people other than Navajo people. Tolkein decided to educate him about the marvels and miracles of the Anglo world: He showed the man a picture of the Empire State Building in New York City. The man’s reaction? “How many sheep will it hold?” Tolkein showed a picture of an airplane, and again the reaction was, “How many sheep will it hold?” The Navajo elder’s reaction to the outside world was obviously framed by what he knew and held dear.

One day, as the two were talking about the wonders of the non-Navajo world, an airplane passed over. Tolkein pointed up to the vapor trail, which traced a line across the sky. The event took place during the period of atomic hysteria, when B-52 bombers formed a shield over the United States. Tolkein explained what a bomber was, relating it to the earlier picture of an airplane, and said that it carried a destructive weapon that could kill thousands of people at once. That angered the elder, who forbade any future discussion of the outside world. He was disgusted with the immoral thought that any human would kill another. The thought of thousands of people dying at the hands of another was so horrible that the elder wanted no further mention of such an immoral act.

What would the elder have said had Tolkein explained uranium and atomic energy to him? Today, many Navajo people are using their traditional ideas to discuss it. There is a Navajo saying that one should “always beware of powerful beings.” A “powerful being” includes any force that we do not understand well. If we do not know it -- if we cannot control it or “name” it -- then it may be dangerous. One example of a powerful being we must take great care with is electricity. Although we have used it in our homes for a long time, we still do not know much about what it might do to us. The same holds true with uranium and things associated with it. It is a powerful being, and we did not take enough care to know it before attempting to use it. Anglos have another way of putting it. They say, “You have a tiger by the tail,” or “You have a wolf by the tail.”

There is no question that uranium is a powerful being -- that it stands in the way of a successful life 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 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 way, 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 the environment to native peoples. 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 part of the strategy to combat and control the monsters.

Fourth, we must have a plan. Navajo people believe that powerful forces can be controlled through understanding, and planning for group action. Navajo people did that many times in keeping the Spanish away from Navajo territory, and in coping with modern American ways. One of the things writers say often about Navajo people 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. We think we can all share the approaches that Navajo and other native peoples have developed to address these issues.

Approach and Conclusion

Our thoughts are coming together as a world community: people are discussing the concept of “Gaia,” the planet as a living thing that requires our respect. “Rainbow Serpent,” an international women’s network opposed to the destructive force of nuclear power, takes its name from the teaching 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.”

In September of 1992, native or indigenous peoples met at Salzburg, Austria, to hold the World Uranium Hearing. Its final communiqué, which is dated September 19, 1992, gives us recommendations about what to do with Leetso. We repeat them here:

1. No more exploitation of lands and people by uranium mining, nuclear-power generation, nuclear testing, and radioactive waste dumping.

2. Clean up and restore all homelands.

3. End the secrecy and fully disclose all information about nuclear industry and its dangers.

4. Provide full and fair compensation for damage to peoples, families, and communities; cultures and economies; homelands, water, air, and all living things.

5. Provide independent and objective monitoring of human health and well-being of all living things affected by the nuclear chain.

The communiqué also reported the vision of native peoples for the future:

1. In view of the unity of humanity and the world, we appeal on behalf of future generations to use sustainable, renewable, and life-enhancing energy alternatives.

2. We call on the whole world, in particular leaders and scientists, to share in our vision for peace, harmony, and respect for life.

We support these recommendations. Nuclear power must be recognized for what it really is -- a power that comes from abuse. It is the symbol of the ultimate disrespect of modern industrial society for that which native societies keep dear: Mother Earth and the Five-Fingered People. The abuse of power is tyranny, and as all modern people have done, we must fight it as a monster.

Published in In Motion Magazine November 13, 2006

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