Yellow Dirt

Judy Pasternak (Free Press)

Parul Sehgal, PWxyz, Oct. 28

Here are the facts:

In the summer of 1943, surveyors from the Manhattan Project began poking around a Navajo reservation that blanketed parts of Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona. They were looking for uranium. They found it. Navajo miners blasted open the mesa and hauled out the rock, with its trademark golden veins, with their bare hands. When mining stopped in 1969, the Navajo built homes from discarded blocks of ore. They drank from makeshift lakes, empty pits filled with rainwater. They started to die. Stomach cancer rates on the reservation were up to 200 times higher than normal on average. Babies were born with their fingers fused together in claws, a syndrome doctors began to call Navajo neuropathy. There was no restitution, no adequate effort at cleanup. They are still dying.

Here is the story:

If the facts can be condensed into a paragraph, the story is bigger, baroque, and, at its heart, lies a betrayal.

From 1930-1960, the cold warring U.S. sought to stockpile uranium. When white men were seen sniffing around the reservation, the tribe’s patriarch, Adakai, knew they were after the leetso (“yellow dirt,” the Navajo word for uranium). There was longstanding bitter blood between the tribe and the U.S.—the people had only recently been foisted off their ancestral lands to this reservation. Adakai instructed his people to keep their mouths shut about theleetso on the mesa. But the patriarch’s son (who else?), Luke Yazzie, motivated by patriotism and a generous finder’s fee, disagreed, disobeyed, and blabbed.

From this almost Biblical betrayal, the story becomes mazy; we enter a Kafkaesque world of double-talking government bureaucracies (the acronyms abound!), all intent on concealing the dangers of radiation from the Navajo—one group told the miners that handling uranium was not only safe but fortifying.

It’s an outrageous story, but Pasternak tells it with restraint (she can resist the overheated language I can’t); she is sensitive but unsentimental. And she has the courage to leave the story overgrown, the truth hard-won and ambiguous. This is no Erin Brocovitch with easily identifiable heroes and villains.

We tend to think of the American abuse of indigenous people as a shameful chapter in history—something painful and protracted, yes, but finished. But Pasternak’s is a modern story. It (and so many other stories–see thecontroversial Canadian Tar Sands issue) is still unfolding; the exploitation of native peoples is still very much a part of our national narrative. Pasternak’s book breaks the silence of the Navajo’s suffering and tells us the truth about ourselves; this is investigative journalism at its most necessary.

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