Uranium Mining: Book Explores the ‘Wastelanding’ of the Navajo Nation

Courtesy University of Minnesota Press

Uranium Mining: Book Explores the ‘Wastelanding’ of the Navajo Nation

The sad history of uranium mining and the desolation it has wrought across tracts of Navajo country has been the subject of numerous studies, articles and surveys. Now a new book pulls all that information together under one admittedly academic tome, and adds to it.

While tough going for a layperson, Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country(University of Minnesota Press, 2015) by Traci Brynne Voyles takes it to another level, giving readers a deeper understanding of how history is made and how it is told. Some of the book’s vocabulary is unfamiliar to non-historians, many of its concepts are new, and most of its arguments require close attention—and oftentimes a second reading—to follow.

Readers will already know something about the impacts of uranium mining on indigenous lands and people, particularly the Navajo, over the past seven decades. They may also be familiar with the events such as forced stock reductions in the 1930s that made such mining possible. What may not be apparent, though, is an understanding of how they know those things—how the telling of that story is so permeated with Anglo values, ideologies and unexamined constructs about how the world works, that we can barely see those suppositions, if we can see them at all.

For example, Voyles quotes from a brochure for visitors to the New Mexico Mining Museum in Grants (adding emphasis for illustrative purposes):

“Follow the arrival of different cultures by examining the artifacts dating as far back as 700 A.D.,” reads the brochure, according to Voyles. “Get a glimpse of the daily lives of these early settlers in the craftsmanship and beauty displayed in their pottery, tools, basketry and weapons, frozen in time by the high desert air.”

Voyles analyzes the unrecognized assumptions underlying this characterization and language.

“Here, unspecified tribes (‘different cultures’) are ‘arrivals’ and ‘early settlers,’ nevertheless ‘frozen in time’ by no less force that the desert itself,” Voyles writes. “The brochure thus navigates an impressive discursive feat, constructing Natives as having arrived too late to exert sovereignty over—or, indeed, to be indigenous to—the region, yet simultaneously ‘frozen’ in a fictive, anachronistic past. Natives are thus rendered both foreign and dead, and the United States’ peculiar sovereignty over the land’s resources remains an unspoken certitude.”

Voyles then notes that one map of New Mexico for would-be uranium miners widely circulated in the 1950s showed state and federal boundaries, including counties, but not tribal boundaries, even though by law prospectors were required to obtain tribal government permission before prospecting on reservation lands.

Another illustration of how our perceptions are shaped comes from the New Mexico District Court’s 1979 decision in Peshlakai v. Duncan, in which plaintiffs were denied an environmental impact statement for a mining project.

Since Northwestern New Mexico “is and for a substantial period of time has been a heavily mined coal and uranium region, there is nothing about the in situ project that is so substantially significant that the law must be deemed to mandate that … its operation must be enjoined…” Voyles writes, quoting from the document.

Then he describes how the intellectual framework for wastelanding is constructed.

“In framing the landscape of northwestern New Mexico as a ‘coal and uranium region,’ the judge handily erased entire histories of land use as well as geological and ecological importance outside of extractive industrialism,” Voyles writes. “Noting that this had been so ‘for a substantial period of time’ truncated the region’s (quite long and rich) history to its two-and-a-half decades as a mining province.”

This “normalization of wastelands already polluted,” or characterization of arid land as “barren,” uninhabited or uninhabitable as if it were just waiting for colonial settlers to turn up, has been a fundamental justification for usurping Indian lands for centuries, Voyles notes. The judge goes on to say that the in-situ leach mining that was being contested by the lawsuit was far preferable to underground mining, as if those were the only two options, and in fact later implies the absurdity of the position “that the plaintiffs would prefer it if the production of uranium were stopped.”

Wastelanding is meticulously researched, covers extremely complex events that continue to have dire consequences for Native peoples on the Colorado Plateau in a well-organized discourse, and draws on the work of dozens of other historians and professionals as well as a multitude of source documents.

This book has the potential to be a perception game-changer not unlike Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel. It shows how to read the subtleties, and more importantly the biases, in how historical events are described and preserved to the political and economic benefit of one group of people—in this case the U.S. military-industrial complex—to the detriment of other groups. It is hard reading, but worth every bit of the time and effort.