13| Uranium Development on Indian Land

In remote areas of the Navajo Reservation there are still over one thousand unreclaimed uranium pit mines open, filled with water, inviting children to swim and animals to drink.

By Manuel Pino

Uranium development on Indian land parallels the history of the nuclear industry in the United States. When the race to build atomic weapons began in secrecy during World War II, nuclear weapons research had been established in New Mexico, right in the heart of Indian country. Six Pueblo nations in northern New Mexico are within thirty miles of the Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory, where the first atomic bomb was developed. The remote desert spot called Trinity, New Mexico, where on July 16, 1945, the first atomic bomb was tested, is withing sixty miles of the Mescalero Apache Nation. The Grants Mineral Belt—which would ultimately become the largest uranium belt in the world—was located on or near the Navajo nation and Laguna and Acoma Pueblo lands.

A majority of uranium produced on Indian land between 1950 and 1968 went to one source: the Atomic Energy Commission of the United States. The supply was found in the Grants Mineral Belt of the Southwest, in the midst of Navajo and Pueblo lands. Because the government was the sole purchaser of uranium mined during the early years—and because the government neglected to regulate the health and safety of miners—a large percentage of Navajo, Laguna and Acoma miners have developed cancer and other related illnesses. The U.S. government gave the mining companies financial incentives to increase productivity, and repeatedly reminded the Indian miners of their patriotic obligation, stating that U.S. security was at stake.

In those early years of production, uranium development was a pick and shovel operation. The Indian miners were virtually "miners' canaries," who were sent into the crude, unventilated mines called "dog holds" immediately after dynamite blasting. There they breathed radon gas and silica-laden dust.


The full text of this chapter is available in the book, Metal of Dishonor. Link here for order information.




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