Uranium Mines on Native Land

The New Indian Wars

The weekend of April 27-29, 1979 marked a turning point in Indian resistance, and may even herald the beginning of the end for the source of the nuclear fuel cycle. On those dates, thousands of Navajo and Pueblo Indians--joined by Chicano and Anglo supporters--physically and spiritually protested uranium mining on native lands. The demonstration occurred at Mt. Taylor, N.M., a sacred mountain to local natives and the site of a Gulf Oil-owned underground uranium mine--the deepest of its kind in the world. Beyond the implications of bringing 100 million pounds of uranium from deep within the earth to the surface, the people view this mine as an act of sacrilege and desecration.

Speakers at the conference included local, national and international native American speakers, Chicano representatives who live near the mine site, and Anglo representatives Helen Caldicott, the Australian author of Nuclear Madness, and George Wald, Higgins Professor of Biology Emeritus. The gathering provided the basis for ongoing resistance to uranium and coal mining slated for Lakota, Spokane, Ojibwa, Dine and Navajo reservations, along with the land of many other native Americans. Local Chicano residents have been significantly affected by the national nuclear waste isolation pilot project located on a Chicano land grant in the southern part of the state. For these reasons and many others, people of all races have banded together over the issue of uranium exploitation on native American lands.

This conference follows a law suit filed in December 1978 by 92 Navajos and one Acoma Indian in an effort to halt uranium production indefinitely. These two groups represent contingents of growing Indian resistance to government and corporate exploitation of Indian land, resources and people.

Filed in Washington, D.C., the lawsuit names as defendants six branches of the federal government--the Departments of Energy, Interior and Agriculture, the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and the Environmental Protection Agency. The plaintiffs contend that the country's ongoing uranium policy has not been approved by the public. This uranium policy has included the leasing of large areas of Navajo, Pueblo and other Indian lands for uranium exploration and development.

Uranium is the raw material used to fuel nuclear power plants and to make nuclear weapons. The health and environmental problems related to the nuclear fuel cycle have not been resolved, yet federal approval of all projects, usually through the issuance of prospecting permits, mining plans, and rights-of-way over federal and Indian land, has been continuous in the past decades, with or without environmental impact statements (EIS).


Environmental impact statements are required by the National Environmental Policy Act for all federal actions which significantly affect the environment. The plaintiffs contend that since 1970, many of these actions have been approved without the EIS's. The Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) has approved 303 Indian uranium leases, and the U.S. Geological Service okayed nine mining and reclamation plans. Both of these agencies fall under the Department of the Interior.

Prior to 1970, uranium mining on Indian lands was very much a fledgling industry, but by 1975 the Federal Trade Commission could report 380 uranium leases on Indian lands as compared to four on public and acquired lands. The momentum once established, the industry flourished.

Anaconda made the first discovery of uranium in the U.S. at Laguna Pueblo, N.M., in 1951. Within 20 years, Anaconda's mine has become the largest uranium strip mine in the world, over five miles long and without any prospect for restoring the land to its original condition.

The second big company to move into the area was Kerr McGee. In the mid-1950s, Kerr McGee discovered the uranium reserves of the Navajo Nation. Within a few years, the company had developed a series of underground uranium mines and a uranium mill at Shiprock, the major population center of the Navajo reservation. According to provisions of the BIA-negotiated lease, Kerr McGee held rights to the land "for as long as the ore is producing in payable quantities." The BIA viewed the mines as a welcome boost to the Navajo economy, providing jobs for a people plagued with unemployment hovering in the 50 per cent range. Kerr McGee saw the mines as an easily available uranium source--important for the first oil company to diversify into the nuclear industry--as well as an abundant supply of cheap labor.

The BIA prohibited union organizing on the reservation. Consequently, while union uranium miners were paid $2.01 per hour in 1963, Navajo miners earned only $1.25; in 1968, hourly union wages rose as high as $3.42, while Navajo miners got $2.26. Former miner Terry Light recalled. "The company came around and said there were mining jobs opening up, but they didn't tell us a thing about the dangers of uranium mining." The Navajo man continues, "The mining came cheap back then. The white men really took advantage of the Navajos who needed jobs."

The jobs came, with over 100 Navajos employed as uranium miners. There were few problems until the ore ran out.

In 1969, Kerr McGee began to move out of Shiprock, abandoning uranium mine shafts and the uranium mill in favor of awaiting ore bodies found elsewhere on the reservation. In the early 1970s, the long-term effects of low-level radiation began to take their toll among the Navajo miner workforce. By 1974, 18 Navajo uranium miners had died from radiation-induced lung cancer, with many more near the hospitalization stage. Kerr McGee refused to take any responsibility or to pay medical expenses. As Kerr McGee spokesman Bill Phillips told one reporter in Washington, "I couldn't tell you what happened at some small mines on an Indian reservation; we have uranium interests all over the world." More painful than Kerr McGee's negligence was the apathy displayed by the federal agencies which had approved the mines and purchased uranium from the company.

Amanda Spake, a Washington-based freelance journalis, reported in 1974:

Official after official has denied responsibility for the 18 deaths, except one who denied that the mines ever existed. Although the federal government did not willfully kill the 18 miners, its policy of death through inaction killed them just as surely.

The Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) had purchased the uranium for its ambitious nuclear weapons program, and this agency also denied responsibility. The AEC stated that it had jurisdiction over the uranium only after it had been taken out of the mine.