Thursday, May 26, 2005

Mining, Militarism, and Self-Governance

by Caitlin Bruce

European policymakers met on Tuesday, May 9 to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of World War II’s end. Armistice was a great achievement—a genuine embrace of rationality—and signaled what has become a truly valuable commitment to remembrance of the war. However, it seems that our memories of dehumanization have not prevented its continuous occurrence in a mileu of forms. The legacy of WWII as the initiation of the nuclear threat is one which continues beyond the Yalta conferences and subsequent institutional arrangements for reconstruction. The nuclear industrial complex is intimately linked with a legacy of environmental racism that continues to be inflicted today upon the indigenous people of the fourth world (that is to say, former colonies on the periphery of the world system). During and after WWII, nuclear testing occurred in the Marshall Islands, over the Kwajalein Atoll, with horrific health effects and dire cultural implications. Entire generations of Marshalese were left infertile or subject to painful cancers. Many bore children with little resemblance to basic human body structure—dying upon birth with enlarged heads, mal-developed limbs, subsequently called “jellyfish babies.” Military bases in Guam, Okinawa, and Hawai’i, among others, supposedly for the “protection” of native individuals there and perpetuate an ongoing reality of violence in the form of rape, domestic violence, terror, and engender a racist neo-colonial presence. The effects of this are seen in the prevailing social hierarchies, cultural limitation, and economic subjugation experienced by the Kanaka Maoli and the Okinawans, only to name a few of the victims.

The relationship between racism and ecological degradation is particularly pronounced in Native American issues and environmental justice has emerged as a crucial tenet in sovereignty movements. North American tribes currently experience a diverse set of challenges and respond variously to poverty, militarism, and cultural imperialism. It is important to realize the romanticized view of the “native” is not an inclusive category; rather, experiences as a Native American are varied and cannot be encapsulated in a broad stereotype. However, it is essential to see hope in the fact that indigenous people currently involved in activism and environmental law are experiencing some success in fighting the more insidious aspects of colonialism: nuclear power and fossil fuel consumption. They are using a combination of the elf government and sovereignty doctrines articulated in treaties with the United States Federal Government, along with emphasizing an infusion of traditional ideals which provide cultural and spiritual strength. The debate between activists who seek use of an exclusively “nativist” discourse and those who try to include the “modern” aspects of political organization in movements, such as bureaucratization, hierarchies, and majoritarian decision-making is a heated one.

Prominent activists in the tribal sovereignty movement have espoused a highly critical view of the Anglo-American legal system- with good reason. The culture of litigation and winner-take-all judicial procedures contradicts the building of community and consensus that characterizes many traditional tribal governments. In fact, imposition of a western model of legality causes inter-tribal conflict, and fractures conflict resolution procedures—evidenced when it was imposed at the initiation of the treaty making process between indigenous nations and the American government in the eighteenth century. Robert Porter, director of the Tribal Law and Government Center at the University of Kansas, argues that imposition of American law contributes to the less obvious effects of colonialism, loss of a way of life, because inter-personal conflict prevents native people from choosing to be who they once were, and such dislocation prevents effective self-governance. Instead, Porter suggests a revival in indigenous traditions through drawing on the knowledge of tribal elders. Due to the demand for speed and efficiency, activists cannot question every action to determine if it is truly culturally acceptable, and expediency often wins out. However, the Navajo victory that bans uranium mining demonstrates the power of self governance and the feasibility of Porter’s prescriptions.

Bush’s energy policy poses a substantial challenge to the environmental justice movement. Some of its mandates include subsidies for fossil fuel extraction in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve (ANWR) (which threaten the Inupiat who live there and will most likely destroy the now-pristine habitat) and massive subsidies for uranium mining corporations who operate in the Black Mesa area of Arizona. As mentioned earlier, the utilization of native land for nuclear use is not a new phenomenon. In the late 1990s a mandate was passed to dump spent nuclear waste from military facilities on Yucca mountain. That represents only a small part of a legacy of nuclear war that has been waged on indigenous peoples for decades. Black Mesa extends into the Diné (Navajo) and Hopi reservations in Northeastern Arizona. Since 1965, Peabody Western Coal Company has been operating two strip mines on Black Mesa, pumping over 4,500 acre-feet of Diné and Hopi drinking water from the N-Aquifer to mix with crushed coal (slurry). Coal mining has continued to the present day.

The Navajo Nation Council has recently passed legislation banning uranium mining and processing on Navajo land. Uranium contamination has been occurring since the Cold War. The Navajo are leading an effort to shift to use of renewable technology as a way to both achieve a level of economic subsistence and ecological sustainability, while serving as a lasting replacement to fossil fuel consumption. Tribal councils have asserted their right to lead on issues of land use and have used collective property rights to counteract individuation of the land, claiming that since mining is done on reservation land the Navajo community has a right to terminate mining contracts on that land. Such strategic uses of governance and economic rationality highlight a method of negotiating modernity which offers some lasting solutions.

Tribes are governmental entities, and as such they have the authority to administer environmental regulations such as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, and mining activities, under the Safe Drinking Water Act, under which Peabody’s action falls. Mining waste is constantly emitted into surface waters, and when mining companies seek a permit regulations include specifications on limitations on pollution discharge.

The Navajo Council has worked intensely for the uranium ban, galvanized by the passage of the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005, and given more urgency by the $30 million in incentives in President Bush’s federal energy bill towards uranium corporations. The Navajo initiative was lauded by Anishinaabe activist Winona LaDuke. In an interview with Indian Country Today, she said:
People worldwide are eternally grateful to the Navajo Nation for protecting future generations from more nuclear contamination, whether they are communities with nuclear reactors, or Native communities like Skull Valley Goshutes and Western Shoshone where nuclear waste dumps are planned.

It is time for Native people to be part of the next energy era—wind and solar—those sources are in keeping with our relationship to Mother Earth and our responsibilities for future generation.
Eastern Navajo Dineh Against Uranium Mining (ENDAUM) has urged the Navajo to write to their members of congress, and urge them to oppose the uranium subsidies. They propose an alternative: that capital could be directed towards renewable energy development.

The legacy of uranium mining is a tragic one; in 1979, a liquid uranium tailings dam was breached and 100 million gallons of radioactive liquid spilled into Navajo aquifer systems-just one incident in a history of nuclear torture. Future projects pose a direct threat to the Navajo’s water supply in the Church Rock and Crownpoint regions of New Mexico. As a consequence cancer is a growing health care threat. While there are two programs to address cancer, treatment facilities don’t exist despite the fact that cancer is the third leading cause of death in the Navajo Nation.

Not only uranium mining a biological health concern but it is a cultural and spiritual one. ENDAUM co-founder Mitchell Capitan told the United Nations:
“Water is life” is not just a political slogan—it's a description of some of the fundamental principles we live by every day. Water is used in our religious ceremonies, just like it is used in the ceremonies of the Christian, Hindu, Jewish and Muslim faiths. It is essential to our survival in an arid climate…
Uranium subsidies directly threaten this sacred medium in Navajo life.

Lynnea Smith, a member of ENDAUM, noted that Joe Shirley, president of the Council of the Navajo Nation, had taken a tremendous stride in protecting their people, and that it is one of the first of such advances. However, this action is merely the beginning of initiatives that need to be taken. Chris Shuey, president of the Southwest Research and Information Center and Norman Brown, president of Diné Bidzill, said that thousand of Navajos are still suffering from uranium-caused cancer causing daily death tolls. Open mines still spread radioactive dust into the air and water.

In the most narrow sense, the Navajo initiative is a signal of hope for the environmental justice movement, as well as the resurgence of indigenous sovereignty movement. However, nuclear testing, dumping, and the militaristic structure still exist; fossil fuel extraction, land appropriation, and neo-colonialism are everyday realities for many indigenous people, and they demonstrate the intersections between militarism, racism, and environmental destruction which influence our society in uncountable ways.

Creativity in activism, energy, and attention to the interrelatedness and the saturated nature of oppression is required in confronting such powerful forces. If we as a global community are to confront dehumanization and continue a legacy of “never forget-never again,” we must not become passive because some preventative actions have been initiated. Rather we must constantly struggle to deepen our understanding of such issues and translate a more nuanced consciousness to our tactics of resistance.

Works Cited:

Porter, Robert B. “Strengthening Tribal Sovereignty Through Peacemaking: How the Anglo-American Legal Traditional Destroys Indigenous Societies.” Columbia Human Rights Law Review Vol 28 No. 235. Winter 1997.



Black Mesa Water Coalition,, accessed 5.12.05

Royster, Judith. “Mineral Development In Indian Country: the Evolution of tribal Control Over Mineral Resources,” Tulsa Law Journal No 541. Summer 1994.

Norell, Brenda. “Navajos ban uranium mining, oppose federal subsidies.” Indian Country Today, April 25, 2005


Roanhorse, Anslem Jr. Executive Director of the Navajo Division of Health. Congressional Testimony, Senate of Indian Affairs Committee. April 13, 2005.


Shirley, Joe Jr. and Frank J. Dayish. “Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. signs Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005: Press Release.” The Navajo Nation. April 30, 2005.




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