Land of poison
More than half a century later, the effects of Cold War-era uranium mining are still killing the Navajo Nation
The Navajo Nation is America's largest Native American reservation, home to some 250,000 people. Straddling the borders of New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah, the territory stretches across the southwest's sprawling mountains, deserts, and canyons.
Quietly lying beneath this striking landscape is a resource that first invigorated and then decimated the Navajo: uranium.
During the Cold War, uranium fueled the country's rapidly expanding nuclear program, bringing a boom to the Navajo's struggling communities. Thousands of Navajo men gravitated toward the promise of riches at the mines, desperate for income. Between 1944 and 1986, some 30 million tons of uranium ore were extracted from the lands and eagerly bought by the U.S. government.
But the bounty came with a steep price: An onslaught of radiation-related illnesses wreaked havoc upon these miners — breathing complications, kidney damage, heart disease, fibrosis, depression, and more, all caused by uranium exposure. Studies have found the Navajo workers are now three times more likely to die from lung cancer — and more than 500 miners did between 1950 and 1990. Worse still, the Navajo were never warned of these known risks of working with uranium, and many laborers came home covered in bright yellow uranium dust, exposing their loved ones to the same dangerous toxins.
Decades later, the Navajo Nation continues to suffer from the irresponsible mining practices of the nuclear arms race. As recently as 2016, CDC researchers were still finding uranium in Navajo newborns' urine.
A Navajo boy plays with spilled water. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
A retired uranium worker at his home near Church Rock, New Mexico. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
In the summer of 2016, photographer Gabriel Scarlett visited the Navajo Nation to document the lasting effects of the Cold War-era uranium craze. "I came to understand a truth that these reservations are prisoner-of-war camps for a defeated people," he told The Week in an interview.
"I was the only person there hoping to share their stories," said Scarlett, then just a rising sophomore at Western Kentucky University. "Often, I was the only person who had ever been there."
His resulting project, On Poisoned Land, depicts fragments of families ripped apart by a litany of premature deaths. In one scene, 92-year-old David Neztsosie visits the graves of his two daughters, who both developed a disease caused by uranium exposure called Navajo neuropathy and passed away before reaching high school. Another stark image shows an old woman holding photographs of her two sons, who both passed away from cancer.
Former uranium worker David Neztsosie, 92, visits the graves of his two daughters, who died decades ago from uranium exposure-caused diseases. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
A chest X-ray of a uranium worker found to have significant health problems linked to his occupation. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
Elsie Mae Begay holds photographs of her two sons, who both died from cancer. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
The land, too, has been poisoned by the mining legacy: There are still more than 500 abandoned mines scattered across the Navajo Nation that have yet to be cleaned up, aren't fenced off, and continue to keep radiation levels at lethal levels. The decades of irresponsible mining practices and lingering toxic waste have also contaminated the local groundwater supplies that the rural reservation once relied on for basic water needs. Today, 54,000 Navajo people have no access to running water and must haul drinking water from nearby cities.
A man drives empty juice jugs to a free pump in a neighboring town to bring water home to his family. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
A girl cries after getting shampoo in her eyes while her hair is washed in a small tub in her family's living room. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
After several class-action lawsuits and aggressive pushes from Navajo advocates, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act in 1990 to financially compensate the people who have suffered deadly health consequences from working the mines. As of 2017, more than 30,000 people have received reparations from RECA.
A contaminated well outside Thoreau, New Mexico. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
Still, the plight of the Navajo Nation is practically invisible to the rest of the country.
"We're the forgotten ones," one Navajo man told Scarlett. "We're the forgotten Americans."
A Navajo family stores as many buckets of water as they can inside their trailer home. | (Gabriel Scarlett)
Wracked by occupationally caused respiratory illness, Neztsosie requires bottled oxygen to help him speak. | (Gabriel Scarlett)