On July 10, 2018, Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye announced his call for Congress to extend federal compensation for Navajo Nation uranium miners and workers who worked between 1971 and 1990. The good news is that he has received support from the New Mexico Congressional delegation, but the push for recognition and compensation has just begun.
For more than 150 years, the Navajo Nation have been victims of American capitalist-centered exploitation, oppression and imperialist domination. In recent years, the most exploitative example this relationship has been the devastation of government-induced large-scale uranium mining on the reservation. It began in 1943 with the government using Navajo land in the Four Corners of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah for uranium mining in support of the first atomic bomb. Tribes on whose lands uranium was mined included the Navajo, Southern Ute, Ute Mountain, Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma, and several other Pueblo nations. Further facilities on Native lands, added shortly after that included the Hanford uranium enrichment facility near Richland, Wash., where uranium was enriched into plutonium. This facility was located on land, owned by the Yakima people, bordering the Columbia River. Their work was critical to the successful completion of the Manhattan Project. Mining work would continue up to 1990 in support of the huge Cold War nuclear weapons buildup.
When the mining project began, most Navajos struggled under long-term extreme poverty forced on them by U.S. imperialism. So, when the government and mining companies started coming around with promises of jobs, men lined up for weeks to take them. Workers were never warned about unsafe working conditions or the health dangers to which they were exposing themselves, their families, and their communities. Mine workers were not provided with any breathing or other protective devices.
Miners would also bring home work clothes, coated in radioactive dust, to be cleaned in their family laundry. Moreover, most of the mines and pits used to extract uranium on tribal land remain open and abandoned to this day. Navajo and other tribal peoples often built homes and livestock enclosures from material taken out of the mine sites. The miners had no understanding of the dangers for themselves, their families and the community at large. Many died of lung cancer or pulmonary fibrosis. Others died from bone cancer and kidney disease that resulted from radioactive drinking water. As recently as 2017, a study discovered continuing high levels of concentrations in reservation livestock which drank from radioactive pools of water. The study found high concentrations of not only uranium, in the organs and tissues of sheep, goats, and other livestock slaughtered by the Navajo for food, but also found measurable levels of cadmium, arsenic, lead, and molybdenum as well. High uranium concentrations were present in the roots and leaves of plants, and in the local soil. Respondents to the study also reported their children frequently played and drank from pools of waste water from the mines, as well as irrigating their crops with the water.
Millions of tons of radioactive waste are still there, and the site has been on the U.S. Superfund list for years, although no cleanup has begun. For several years, Navajo leaders demanded relief from the government for this horrific situation. Finally, in 1990, the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act was passed. It was a positive step, but it only covered those who worked in the mines to 1971. It did not cover those workers who continued mining into the late 1980s. They faced the same exposure problems and must be compensated.
Native Americans are a colonized people, within an imperialist country. They have experienced genocide, theft of resources, and attempts to abolish their cultures. These fears and concerns are now returning as Donald Trump calls for an end to the bans put in place to stop uranium mining in 1998. Only a future grounded in socialism can reverse the damage from centuries of colonial oppression and exploitation.