Marian Naranjo remembers too well the day her passions for truth-telling and conflict resolution were born.
Naranjo was a third-grader in a school in Tooele, Utah. Men from Santa Clara Pueblo, including her father, worked for long periods at the Army depot there and brought their families with them to live at the post, which was about a 12-hour drive from their New Mexico homes.
“Our teacher told us to write a report on what we did on our summer vacation and then read it in front of the class,” said Naranjo, now 64.
“So I wrote this paper on coming to Santa Clara and our feast days and the women baking the bread in the oven and our dances and all that.”
Halfway through, the teacher interrupted her. “She says, ‘Marian, you need to write about something that really happened.’ ” So I wrote a big lie and got an A on it. “That was a big eye-opener for me on how things really work.”
The experience also inspired her efforts to ensure that the coming generations “know the truth about what has happened in these lands.”
Over the years, Naranjo, working sometimes independently and at other times for tribal entities or various advocacy organizations, has been deeply involved in numerous issues that have affected tribal, Hispanic and Anglo communities.
They include organizing farmers to preserve indigenous seeds, teaming up with acequia groups to ensure adequate and safe water supplies, and being a key player in land, water and health issues involving the Los Alamos National Laboratory.
Naranjo, a former potter from a well-known and established family of potters and a onetime LANL dosimetry employee, has succeeded not through acrimonious confrontations but more through trying to unite opposing cultures and political forces in nonhostile ways, in the style of Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela, to whom she has been compared.
Most recently, working through a group she founded, Mujeras Hablan, and other Native women’s groups, she and others convinced the National Cancer Institute to include many more New Mexicans than it originally intended in its belated study of possible health effects from the 1945 Trinity Site test, the first detonation of an atomic device. Naranjo also was instrumental in explaining Native protocols and brought the institute’s researchers up to speed on tribal customs and working with Native peoples.
“It was this whole new place they had to learn about,” Naranjo said. “And I had that privilege to tell them, ‘This is where you are coming and there are protocols here.’ It was a learning experience for them. “You just can’t come in and do interviews in a Native nation. There’s a process. … You have to do X, Y and Z before you can even come here. And one of those was getting resolutions from a tribal nation that says, ‘yes, we are interested in you coming.’ ”
Naranjo was among tribal residents and others who played a key role in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s decade-long study of releases of radiation and hazardous chemicals during the Manhattan Project and the manufacture of nuclear weapons during the Cold War and beyond.
When the report, the Los Alamos Historical Document Retrieval and Assessment Project, was released in 2010, it included — at Naranjo’s request — a poem by Beata Tsosie-Pena of the Santa Clara Pueblo. Several stanzas referred to the 1945 Trinity test, describing how “a plume of ash rained down for days. … Radioactive fallout on cisterns of drinking water, on crops and livestock.”