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Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country

Traci Brynne Voyles
Copyright Date: 2015
Pages: 304
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Wastelandingtells the history of the uranium industry on Navajo land in the U.S. Southwest, asking why certain landscapes and the peoples who inhabit them come to be targeted for disproportionate exposure to environmental harm. Uranium mines and mills on the Navajo Nation land have long supplied U.S. nuclear weapons and energy programs. By 1942, mines on the reservation were the main source of uranium for the top-secret Manhattan Project. Today, the Navajo Nation is home to more than a thousand abandoned uranium sites. Radiation-related diseases are endemic, claiming the health and lives of former miners and nonminers alike.

    Traci Brynne Voyles argues that the presence of uranium mining on Diné (Navajo) land constitutes a clear case of environmental racism. Looking at discursive constructions of landscapes, she explores how environmental racism develops over time. For Voyles, the "wasteland," where toxic materials are excavated, exploited, and dumped, is both a racial and a spatial signifier that renders an environment and the bodies that inhabit it pollutable. Because environmental inequality is inherent in the way industrialism operates, the wasteland is the "other" through which modern industrialism is established.

    In examining the history of wastelanding in Navajo country, Voyles provides "an environmental justice history" of uranium mining, revealing how just as "civilization" has been defined on and through "savagery," environmental privilege is produced by portraying other landscapes as marginal, worthless, and pollutable.

    eISBN: 978-1-4529-4448-7
    Subjects: Sociology, History, Environmental Science

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. PREFACE: In Search of Treasure
    (pp. vii-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION: Sacrificial Land
    (pp. 1-26)

    Long before uranium was commonly known for its associations with both nuclear power and nuclear bombs, and long before atomic power took hold of the American public imagination as a fearsome signifier of new human relationships to technology, to the environment, and to each other, uranium was mostly considered waste. Miners came across it when they blasted apart carnotite, a composite rock that can often be recognized by characteristic streaks of red, black, and bright yellow, to get at the real prize: vanadium, which was used to strengthen steel alloys in a range of products, from automobile parts to gun...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Empty Except for Indians: Early Impressions of Navajo Rangeland
    (pp. 27-54)

    In 1934, a federal biologist named Waldo Lee McAtee was sent to Diné Bikéyah to study the Navajo rangeland, with a focus on the problem of soil erosion. McAtee was a seasoned biologist, having started his career thirty years earlier with the Bureau of Biological Survey in the Department of Agriculture. McAtee spent three days trekking over an unspecified portion of the reservation, and then sat down to compose a report. It appears he was none too impressed with the state of Navajo country:

    in three days’ travel over the Reservation, I saw no quail, no meadow-larks, and only three...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Prospecting for Magic Ore in America’s New Frontier
    (pp. 55-86)

    In 1955, twenty newspapers from towns across the Colorado Plateau—from Aspen, Colorado, to Grants, New Mexico—collaborated to produce an “Energy Edition,” which appeared in each of their papers as a hefty, 100-plus page supplement. The special supplement, the editors collectively declared, “had but one purpose”: “To bring to the attention of America the great potentials of the Colorado Plateau, the multitude of opportunities that here await the ambitious, the industrious, the stalwart and adventurous people of this great country.”¹ In this edition, the Four Corners region is remapped from Navajo, Nuevomexicano, and Pueblo inhabited land deeply implicated in...

  7. CHAPTER THREE Cowboys and Indians in Navajo Country
    (pp. 87-116)

    In mid-July 1950, on a red dirt horse trail that traversed a rocky formation known locally as Haystack Mountain, tiny puffs of dust kicked up behind a horse’s hooves as it ambled lazily behind a tall man in a tan cowboy hat. The trail smoldered in the late afternoon sun. As the man walked, he puffed pensively on a cigarette, freshly rolled from a brand new tin of tobacco just purchased in the nearby town of Grants, New Mexico. His eyes scanned the rocky outcrop. He moved slowly, concentrating hard. At last, he spotted it—just where he thought it...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Hot Spots: Justice, Power, and Gender in the Radioactive Present
    (pp. 117-150)

    On October 18, 1979, pronuclear women across the United States hosted over 4,000 meetings for their neighbors and friends to explain just how vital nuclear power was for women’s lives. Called “energy coffees,” these meetings featured speakers from the nuclear energy companies and pronuclear lobbying groups who used the meetings to explain the benefits of nuclear energy for American women. This was, as it was dubbed, a national Nuclear Energy Education Day put together by the organization Nuclear Energy Women—a day and a group with very apropos acronyms: NEED and NEW. Taking place just as nationwide protest against the...

  9. CHAPTER FIVE Monsters and Mountains: Competing Geographies of Uranium
    (pp. 151-184)

    The town of San Mateo, New Mexico, is nestled into a crook of Tsoodził’s western foothills. At an elevation of over 7,300 feet, San Mateo’s 160 residents live in modest and well-maintained country homes, clustered along curling roads lined with swaying cottonwood trees. Looking to the east from the center of town, the summit of Tsoodził—or Mount Taylor, the Diné sacred mountain of the south—is blocked from view by its own gentle upward slopes. Looking to the west, the view stretches for miles across the classic arid mesa landscape of northern New Mexico: dusty plateaus ranging in color...

  10. CHAPTER SIX The Big Hurt: Boom and Bust on Contested Ground
    (pp. 185-210)

    In the eastern borderlands of the Navajo Nation, in the area encompassing the towns of Grants, Milan, and Prewitt, as well as Tsoodził and the Cibola National Forest, two country music stations compete for listeners on the FM dial. On 94.5 KYAT, the twangy final chords of Trace Adkins’s most recent hit give way to the rich voice of a deejay who cheerily calls out “Ya’at’eeh, Diné!” to greet his listeners. The deejays, callers, and many of the advertisers on KYAT exclusively communicate to the station’s listeners in Diné bizaad, the Navajo language.¹ KYAT reaches listeners all across Diné Bikéyah...

  11. CONCLUSION: Zombie Mines
    (pp. 211-218)

    In 1946, the U.S. Congress established the Indian Claims Commission to hear and litigate land claims made by Natives and settle those claims with monetary compensation for land lost as a result of the Dawes Act and other land-dispossessing U.S. policies. A major part of the work in Claims Commission cases involved gathering maps of Native land and reservations and deciding which maps would be considered valid for use in court in order to referee conflicting land claims. Figure 21 shows a map that was produced for the Claims Commission “delineating the boundaries of Navajo Country . . . as...

    (pp. 219-224)
  13. NOTES
    (pp. 225-272)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 273-292)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 293-293)