7. Fighting for the Restoration of Justice

Chapter 1: The United States
Part 3: Uranium Mining on the Navajo Reservation

The Navajo Indians have begun to rebel against long years of oppression by demanding assistance for the victims of uranium mining among their people.

"We want to bring justice back to the United States," said Phillip Harrison, launching into his speech at a meeting in Red Valley, Arizona. Harrison is one of many who have lost a relative to the mines—in this case his father. It is ten years since Harrison formed a committee to support the mine workers and decided to devote himself to alleviating the suffering which has come to the surface in the Four Corners region over the last few years. He sees the movement also as "a fight for the restoration of Navajo rights," and in his speech he recounted the history of the cruel repression of the Indians, and their demands for self-determination.

Until the eighteenth century, the Navajo were found in the region northwest of what is now Albuquerque, near the Mexican border. They were forced west by European settlers, and were finally rounded up into the barren Four Corners area because it had little value to the white settlers. Apart from using it as a backdrop for Westerns, white Americans showed little interest in the Four Corners region of rocks and sand until the wilderness was suddenly transformed into a treasure trove with the coming of the nuclear age. They dug up all the ore they could find, but it was mainly the Navajo who did the digging.

Harold Tso is a former member of the Navajo council which worked to improve working conditions at the mines. He told us about the lengths the government went to in order to deceive the Navajo. "Before mining started, the government told the Navajo that they would be mining copper. The word uranium is nowhere to be seen in the contract. They leased the land for a dollar per acre—the government's lies have caused tragedy here."

Safety measures were not taken in the mines or at the refineries until the 1970s, when the number of white workers increased and complaints about working conditions began to be made. No general survey of the damage caused to the health of local residents has been carried out to date, but the effects of exposure to radioactive substances are gradually coming to light. For example, the infant mortality rate and the incidence of congenital diseases in the Four Corners region are twice the national average. Cancer in children is also common. Harrison had harsh words to say about white domination of the region.

"They worked our people as hard as they could, and under terrible conditions, then threw them out when the mines were no longer profitable. The companies and the government that condoned it are no better than thieves. They never think about the Navajo except as a means for making money." We noticed there were no paved roads in the Navajo reservation, very little farmland, and no irrigation projects like those we had seen in California. Telephones are still a rarity. There are areas which have only got electricity in the last two years. In short, the area suffers from an almost total lack of public amenities. It is little wonder then, that, according to Harrison, sixty percent of the people depend on welfare.

He and his fellow committee members are pressing for a law to provide aid for people suffering from illnesses caused by working at the uranium mines. The reasoning behind their demands is that the Navajo workers became victims of the nation's nuclear policy, so it is only just that the government should provide compensation. Unfortunately, Harrison explained, it would take over $100,000 to organize a campaign to get a new law created.

"There's no way Navajo can raise that kind of money," Harrison said. "But we can't stay silent about this. We're going to do our best to draw Washington's attention to the situation here." He paused, then added, "Don't forget to tell the people in Hiroshima that there are hibakusha over here, too."