Uranium Mining, Native Resistance, and the Greener Path

IN A DINE CREATION STORY, the people were given a choice of two yellow powders. They chose the yellow dust of corn pollen, and were instructed to leave the other yellow powder — uranium — in the soil and never to dig it up. If it were taken from the ground, they were told, a great evil would come.

The evil came. Over one thousand uranium mines gouged the earth in the Dine Bikeyah, the land of the Navajo, during a thirty-year period beginning in the 1950s. It was the lethal nature of uranium mining that led the industry to the isolated lands of Native America. By the mid-1970s, there were 380 uranium leases on native land and only 4 on public or acquired lands. At that time, the industry and government were fully aware of the health impacts of uranium mining on workers, their families, and the land upon which their descendants would come to live. Unfortunately, few Navajo uranium miners were told of the risks. In the 1960s, the Department of Labor even provided the Kerr-McGee Corporation with support for hiring Navajo uranium miners, who were paid $1.62 an hour to work underground in the mine shafts with little or no ventilation.

All told, more than three thousand Navajos worked in uranium mines, often walking home in ore-covered clothes. The consequences were devastating. Thousands of uranium miners and their relatives lost their lives as a result of radioactive contamination. Many families are still seeking compensation. The Navajo Nation is still struggling to address the impact of abandoned uranium mines on the reservation, as well as the long-term health effects on both the miners and their communities, many of which suffer astronomical rates of cancer and birth defects.

As a college student, I worked for Navajo organizations, trying to inform their people about the uranium-mining industry and the large corporations — EXXON, Mobil, United Nuclear — that proposed to mine their lands. It was a humbling experience, seeing some of the richest corporations in the world faced by courageous peoples who fought for the two things that mattered to them more than money: their land and their identity. The Navajo people joined with many others across the country who felt that there was a much better way to make energy. In the end, the people did prevail — new mining proposals evaporated as tribal resistance and legal and administrative battles merged with economic forces. Eventually, contracts for uranium were canceled by utilities, which no longer sought to build unpopular nuclear power plants.

Now I feel like I am having very bad déjà vu — only this time nuclear power is seen as the answer to global climate destabilization. In 2005, the Navajo Nation passed a moratorium on uranium mining in its territory and traditional lands, which was followed by similar moratoria on Hopi and Havasupai lands, where mines are proposed adjacent to the Grand Canyon. “It is unconscionable to me that the federal government would consider allowing uranium mining to be restarted anywhere near the Navajo Nation when we are still suffering from previous mining activities,” Joe Shirley Jr., Navajo Nation president, explained at a congressional hearing on opening uranium mines in the Grand Canyon area. To the north, the Lakota organization Owe Aku (Bring Back the Way) is an intervener in a Nuclear Regulatory Commission hearing to allow the Canadian corporation Cameco to expand its Crow Butte uranium mine, just over the Nebraska border from the reservation.

I recently traveled to Australia, the country with the largest known uranium reserves in the world. In my Sydney hotel room the television broadcaster summarized Australia’s economic strategy: “We dig it up, and they buy it.” The mining industry, in a world bent upon combusting and consumption, looks to be very healthy. Australia’s uranium mines include the Beverley Mine, which is in the territory of the Kuyani and Adnyamathanha peoples. Olympic Dam (operated by BHP Billiton — the largest mining corporation in the world) is the country’s second-largest uranium operation and is in the traditional territory of aboriginal people as well. In fact, most major mining operations in Australia are within aboriginal territory. These are some ancient civilizations — resilient in the face of a deep history of genocide and destruction, which continued well into the twentieth century. Aboriginal people did not even get the right to vote until 1967. Due to their relative isolation in the outback, many of these tribes have had few interactions with outsiders. That is, until recently.

Kakadu is the longtime home to the aboriginal Mirrar people, as well as a recent intruder: British-based Rio Tinto. In the 1970s, Kakadu’s Alligator River System became the focal point of Europe’s uranium demands. Built right in the center of the Mirrar homeland, the Ranger Uranium Mine is one of the largest uranium mines in the world. But the Ranger mine is also in the center of Kakadu National Park, one of just twenty-five UNESCO World Heritage sites in the world designated on the basis of both cultural and ecological significance. Kakadu includes over 190 major aboriginal rock-art and sacred sites.

The Ranger Uranium Mine opened in the early 1980s, after much protest from the Mirrar people, who made it clear that they opposed the mine. Rio Tinto has assured Australians, UNESCO, and the aboriginal owners that it is operating under “world’s best practices” of uranium mining, a term some would argue is an oxymoron. Meanwhile, radioactive groundwater contamination is reported to be spreading through the park. A 2004 incident allowed a number of workers to drink, ingest, and shower in heavily contaminated water, with a large amount spilling out of the site itself. And in 2006, Cyclone Monica delivered extreme rainfall, causing the radioactive containment ponds to fill. The company responded by lifting tailings dams, redirecting runoff into streams, and using the contaminated water for irrigation.

In 1999, Jacqui Katona, a Djok aboriginal woman, and Yvonne Margarula, a Mirrar woman, won the Goldman Environmental Prize for their struggle to oppose development at Jabiluka, another mine proposed for Kakadu National Park. Yvonne explained that an agreement to open the mine “was arranged by pushing people, and does not accurately reflect the wishes of the aboriginal people who own that country.” In 2005, after a long and heated battle, the Mirrar people fought off the proposal to open a uranium mine at Jabiluka. But now, with demand for uranium on the rise, the threat is once again looming on the horizon.

With some 16 percent of Australian land controlled by aboriginal people and with many of the mine sites in the aboriginal heartland, the upcoming pressure on communities to buckle to the largest mining companies in the world will be daunting. Coinciding with the proposed ramp-up of the nuclear industry is the negotiation of land settlements for a number of these aboriginal first nations. If history is any indicator, many of these land-rights settlements will mirror what happened in Alaska, where the Alaskan Native Claims Settlement Act — promoted by oil companies that deemed it necessary to negotiate some agreements between themselves and aboriginal people — established Alaskan Native corporations, which today create a complex set of divided loyalties and communities. This is perhaps best illustrated by the case of the Gwich’in people, who find themselves not only opposing oil companies that want to drill in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, but also Alaskan Native corporations, whose income has derived from the exploitation of the land and its resources.

There is another prophecy that is relevant to this story, though. Ojibwe legends speak of a time when our people will have a choice between two paths: one path is well worn and scorched, but the second path is not well traveled and it is green.

There is an alternate economic future for indigenous peoples, and it too is green. In order to stabilize carbon emissions in the United States, the country will need to produce around 185,000 megawatts of clean new power over the next decade, which could mean up to 400,000 domestic manufacturing jobs. The Intertribal Council on Utility Policy estimates that tribal wind resources alone represent 200,000 megawatts of power potential. In fact, Native American nations are some of the windiest places in the country.

The Rosebud Lakota put up the first large native-owned windmill in 2003, a 750-kilowatt turbine right in the middle of the reservation. The Turtle Mountain Ojibwe just erected a 660-kilowatt wind turbine; ten more megawatts are planned for Rosebud; and the White Earth Anishinaabeg have several projects under way in Minnesota. Proposals for up to 800 megawatts of power for northern Plains states are being put forth by the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy. There’s also a 50-megawatt project on lands held by the Campos and Viejas bands of Kumeyaay people in Southern California, and a 500-megawatt project in which the Umatilla Tribe of Oregon is a partner. Boston-based Citizens Energy is working with a number of tribal communities in the U.S. and Canada to bring green power from the reserves to the grid.

In the U.S., native communities have an opportunity to lead the way to a green future. We have a chance to create a just energy economy in the most wasteful and most destructive country in the world. We need help, though. Insuring that climate-change legislation does not reboot the nuclear industry will be a critical part of supporting native struggles to choose the green path over the scorched one.

Winona LaDuke is executive director of Honor the Earth and a member of the Mississippi Band of Anishinaabeg. She lives in northwestern Minnesota. She is the author of Recovering the Sacred.