Poisoned Ground

Chemical Heritage cover from Spring 2013

Chemical Heritage cover from Spring 2013

During our conversation about the nuclear age on CHF’s #histchem webcast, host Michal Meyer held up the cover of the spring 2013 issue of Chemical Heritage magazine, which included my article on the effects of uranium mining on Navajo Nation, “On Poisoned Ground.” On the cover is a photo with no names. The caption states, “a Navajo miner and his family living near a uranium mine.” The photo is painfully juxtaposed with the words “half lives.” For me, these two words and the photo capture the 70 years of history since uranium mining began in the American Southwest.

There is a story behind the cover. Michal selected the photo from Associated Press, which did not name the mining family. Unbeknownst to her, she selected a photo from the 1950s of my friend Elsa Mae Begay as a child with her family.

Elsie Mae’s father was one of the miners who were part of a secret health study begun in 1949 by the U.S. Public Health Service (PHS). This study confirmed an already suspected direct link between radon exposure and lung cancer. The health study did nothing to protect the miners. Miners sick with lung cancer were not told of their condition, and certainly they were not informed that their exposure to radon would soon lead to their deaths.

But, photos, death, and Navajo traditions are difficult for me to navigate as I am a non-native. For the Navajo, as for many Native American cultures, it is important to never say aloud the names of the deceased or to show their photographs.

On the show I stumbled over expressing my feelings about the cover. I did not know how to describe the family without saying their names. But if I had been thinking, I could have said, “This is my friend Elsie May Begay’s family, and to learn the story of her family, see the documentary The Return of Navajo Boy.” I had the new edition of the DVD beside me on the stage, a gift from the filmmaker, Jeff Spitz. For some inexplicable reason I went mute even though the aim of my work is to create the space for people who have been affected by nuclear pollution to speak in their own words. The film does this. It shows how Elsa Mae Begay’s life and family was changed irrevocably by uranium mining, contamination, and cancer. The documentary can be described as a weaving that brings together this technological-environmental disaster with the richness of Navajo culture and the resiliency of the community.

The PPHS miner study was uncovered in 1989 in declassified documents by Perry H. Charley, who worked with Congressman Stuart Udall. Like Begay, Charley is also the son of a uranium miner who died young from cancer. Charley found his father’s name on the list of men examined regularly as part of the PHS secret miners study.

As a member of the Navajo Nation (or in their own words, Dinè, which means “the People”) Charley has spent his life protecting the people of the Southwest from uranium contamination. “On Poisoned Ground” was written to honor him by telling just a little of his life. I also want to acknowledge all the elders and survivors of radiation exposure who told me their stories.

Nuclear risks and cleanup standards continue to be calculated as separate from people’s lived experiences, based on probabilities and statistics. But 50 years ago a president thought this was wrong. When President John F. Kennedy signed the first atmospheric test-ban treaty in 1963 he said, referring to risks from atmospheric weapons tests: “this is not a natural health hazard, and it is not a statistical issue. The loss of even one human life or the malformation of even one baby—who may be born long after we are gone—should be of concern to us all. Our children and grandchildren are not merely statistics toward which we can be indifferent.” 

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