The 1,000 uranium mines of “John Wayne country” and their terrible legacy
By Tommy Rock, Ph.D.
My name is Tommy Rock, PhD., and I am from the Navajo tribe in the southwest U.S. I live in Monument Valley, Utah, which is in southeastern Utah near the Four Corners area (where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah meet). Monument Valley is also on the Navajo Nation. Monument Valley was made famous by John Wayne and John Ford when it appeared in their western movies such as She Wore A Yellow Ribbon and Fort Apache, just to name a few. This place has a beautiful red stone hovering above the arid desert landscape.
As I grew older, I learned that my grandfather was a World War II veteran. My grandfather was not that tall, maybe around 5 feet 5 inches. He was a hard worker and he planned things out with great patience and thought. Ever since I could remember, he always had this little inhaler with him. He would stop in the middle of what he was doing as if he could not breathe. He would use that inhaler and cough for a while then continue working once he got his breath back. He would never show any pain or weakness. As a little kid, he was like Superman to me and I never knew what the inhaler was or why he was using it.
Learning the Extent of the Problem
In my masters and doctorate program, I got involved in uranium exposure research. I wanted to know more about it. At first, I wanted to help my relatives. But, the more I learned, the more I realized the extent of the problem. The Navajo Nation had over 1,000 abandoned uranium mines within the reservation. The abandoned uranium mines were operational from the 1940s to the 1980s – all during the Cold War era. As I researched other Navajo communities that had past uranium mining, I found they all had a similar story. They all had relatives that were former miners or lived nearby an abandoned uranium mine who died of cancer.
I recognize that the problem goes beyond the borders of the Navajo Nation. Other tribes such as the Havasupai and Sioux Nations are faced with the same problem. Both tribes are far apart from each other, but they are faced with the same issues as the Navajo Nation. I hear people talking about their exposures and the impact it has on their communities.
What Can Be Done?
The way people can help is by spreading my story. There are many stories similar to mine when it comes to uranium mining. We were not told of the harm it would do to us. The uranium contamination is in our water and in our environment, and we are waiting to see how uranium exposure is impacting the next generation.
This article first appeared on Outrider and is republished with kind permission. Dr. Tommy Rock is a member of the Navajo Nation from Monument Valley, Utah. His clans are the Salt clan, born for the Manygoat clan; maternal grandfather’s clan is the Bitterwater clan and paternal grandfather’s clan is the Reed People clan. Many of Tommy’s relatives were involved in uranium mining, and the resulting disproportionate health and environmental disparities motivated Tommy to pursue professional endeavors specializing in mitigating impacts of extractive industries on tribal lands. His work integrates issues of health, environment, and culture with informed decision-making on tribal lands.