The COVID-19 pandemic is wiping out Indigenous elders and with them the cultural identity of Indigenous communities in the United States. But on lands that sprawl across a vast area of the American West, the Navajo (or Diné) are dealing not just with the pandemic, but also with another, related public health crisis. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says COVID-19 is killing Native Americans at nearly three times the rate of whites, and on the Navajo Nation itself, about 30,000 people have tested positive for the coronavirus and roughly 1,000 have died. But among the Diné, the coronavirus is also spreading through a population that decades of unsafe uranium mining and contaminated groundwater has left sick and vulnerable.
In Indigenous lands where nuclear weapons testing took place during the Cold War and the legacy of uranium mining persists, Indigenous people are suffering from a double whammy of long-term illnesses from radiation exposure and the COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, we have not witnessed in the mainstream media and policy outlets a frank discussion of how the two public health crises have created an intractable situation for Indigenous communities. The Diné are drinking poisoned water, putting them at risk for more severe coronavirus infections.
From 1944 until 1986, 30 million tons of uranium ore was extracted on Navajo lands. At present, there are more than 520 abandoned uranium mines, which for the Diné represents both their nuclear past as well as their radioactive present in the form of elevated levels of radiation in nearby homes and water sources. Due to over four decades of uranium mining that supplied the US government and industry for nuclear weapons and energy, radiation illnesses characterize everyday Diné life.
The water crisis
The Navajo Nation comprises a land area larger than several US states. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, up to 15 percent of Diné do not have access to piped water in their homes—down from 30 percent in 2003. The nonprofit Navajo Water Project says the Diné are 67 times more likely to be without running water or a toilet connected to sewer lines than others in the United States. As a result, many are forced to drive or even walk several miles to the nearest communal water station. Some instead get water from an unregulated source, like a livestock trough. But research shows uranium mining may have contaminated many wells on the reservation.
A large portion of the area’s groundwater has been contaminated with uranium as well as other mining by-products like arsenic that were mobilized by the mining operations, according to researchers who presented their findings at a 2019 American Chemical Society conference. Another recent study found that 11 percent of unregulated wells tested on Diné lands exceeded the maximum contaminant levels set by the Environmental Protection Agency for uranium. Seventeen percent contained high levels of arsenic.
The Navajo Cancer Workgroup, which includes representatives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as well as nonprofits, universities, and government agencies, concluded that the Diné die from stomach, liver, and kidney cancers at two to four times the rate of non-Hispanic whites. One report titled “Cancer among the Navajo” covered the time period between 2005 and 2013 and analyzed the Diné’s increased mortality rates in the context of their environment, including their contaminated water supply.
It’s not surprising that the Journal of Public Health Management and Practice study from last August found that COVID-19 cases were less likely to occur in Indigenous community homes where only English is spoken. Some Diné face severe language barriers to understanding important health information; they have faced the same barriers to addressing health issues since at least the days of uranium mining.
The Diné have faced significant linguistic obstacles to protecting their health from the harmful effects of uranium. The Diné call the substance leetso and used it in sand paintings and body adornment for many years. But the Dine did not have a word for radiation, which has limited their ability to discuss contamination. As a result, the concept of radiation hasn’t been a part of Diné culture despite its impact on Diné bodies.
According to social scientist Susan Dawson, the author of a 1992 study published in Human Organization, Diné miners were never “informed of the dangers of radiation, nor were they informed of their rights under state workers’ compensation laws when they became ill.” Most didn’t speak English, the language of their predominantly white managers. In the book, The Navajo People and Uranium Mining, a Diné miner named George Tutt recalled shoveling uranium ore and radioactive waste by hand. He and others, he said, “were not told to wash or anything like that.”
When mining companies were extracting 30 million tons of uranium from the Navajo Nation, language barriers prevented miners from getting accurate information about the risks of their jobs. Likewise, those barriers have impeded the families of miners who died from conditions linked to working in the uranium mines from seeking compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act, which will sunset in 2022.
Today most young Diné speak and write English, but older members of the community are not always comfortable in the language. The August report on COVID-19 and Indigenous communities found that just 32 percent of people in the Navajo Nation live in English-only households. When Dawson interviewed a widow whose husband worked in a mine, the researcher wanted to know why her interviewee did not file for occupational illness compensation. The widow responded that, “she felt intimidated by the process because of being told she had to write letters,” while she “had no stationery or stamps and could not write in English, and so decided against it.”
Indigenous organizations are doing a tremendous amount of work to address radiation poisoning and water scarcity in the Diné community. These include the Red Water Pond Road Community Association where activists like Terry Keyanna are fighting for environmental justice every day. The Navajo Water Project, a section of the larger non-profit DigDeep, is doing valuable work to address the lack of access to clean water in the Diné community. Since last March, Gavin Noyes and Woody Lee at Utah Diné Bikeyah have provided food and supplies to more than 800 homes, and delivered “175,000 gallons of new water storage capacity to over 600 families without water.” The Navajo and Hopi Families COVID-19 Relief Fund is another grassroots organization, started with a GoFundMe page created by former Navajo Nation Attorney General Ethel Branch that raises money for two weeks’ worth of food for Diné and Hopi families in self-quarantine. Their work is a pivotal lifeline in pandemic times.