During World War II, to confuse the enemy, speakers of languages with non-Indo European linguistic patterns were actively sought by the War Department. Subjects even included the Basque, but it was the speakers of Native American languages who came to dominate the popular cultural memory. Code Talkers from the Cherokee nation, the Choctaw, Comanche, Hopi, Meskawi, and the Navajo, to name but a few, actively contributed to winning the Japanese offensive. Though they could enlist in the armed forces, Native Americans could not vote. Over twenty five thousand of these veterans returned to their homes after the war to find that, although they had honorably served their country, voting rights remained denied to them.
Two decades after the end of World War II, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 put an end to individual states denying Native Americans voting rights. Section 2 of the VRA states, “No voting qualification or prerequisite to voting, or standard, practice, or procedure, shall be imposed or applied by any State or political subdivision to deny or abridge the right of any citizen of the United States to vote on account of race or color”. In spite of the VRA, efforts by states and municipalities to disenfranchise Native Americans remain ongoing. Seventy four complaints of discrimination have been heard in federal court by Native Americans, pursuant to the VRA and the US Constitution, since 1965. These cases have, generally, proven to be successful in upholding the rights of Native Americans as citizens of the United States, thereby sustaining their right to vote. Most of these complaints involve states which have large Native American populations, such as Arizona. Major Howard Connor, 5th Marine Division signal officer, stated, “Were it not for the Navajos, the Marines would never have taken Iwo Jima.”
The insult to native peoples continues with a seventy year history of rising, ponderous cancer and leukemia rates among the Navajo, a population who, prior to World War II, had little or no knowledge of these maladies. In the summer of 1979, an earthen dam in the vicinity of the town of Church Rock, New Mexico broke, flooding the Rio Puerco on the southern border of the Navajo Nation. Sheep dropped dead in their tracks and crops along the river’s banks withered and died. The pond, which had been retained by the breached dam, was used by a nearby uranium mine to store its tailings. Ninety three million gallons of contaminated water poured into the Rio Puerco. This little known occurrence still remains the largest accidental release of radioactive material in U.S. history, even greater than the notorious Three Mile Island reactor meltdown which occurred 14 weeks later. Cleanup of the Three Mile Island disaster was initiated almost immediately. After over thirty years, damage from the Rio Puerco flood has yet to be recovered.
The continuum of uranium poisoning of the Navajo begins during World War II, when government surveyors showed up on the remote reservation, allegedly searching for deposits of vanadium to strengthen steel needed for the war effort. The surveyors were really prospecting for uranium. Nearly four million tons of uranium ore were ultimately removed from the land of the Navajo. Few of the mining companies bothered to fence the properties, nor did they post warning signs. Federal safety inspectors rarely intervened. By the 1960s, the demand for uranium dwindled and private mining companies carelessly abandoned their operations, leaving piles of radioactive tailings lying around for Navajo children to play on. Abandoned quarries filled with rainwater, forming new lakes from which local residents watered their herds. People scavenged for suitably sized rocks to build houses, cisterns, and traditional outdoor ovens. Dust and gravel made first-rate concrete.
Families lived in homes as radioactive as uranium mines. They breathed in uranium particles and drank uranium contaminated water. Cancer and leukemia became widespread, as did a birth defect, dubbed ‘Navajo neuropathy’, which resulted in children’s fingers and toes fusing together and shriveling. Associated symptoms include muscular atrophy, corneal ulcers, delayed walking, depressed immune systems, and stunted growth. The disease is primarily diagnosed in the first year of life. Forty percent of these children die in their teens, before ever reaching adulthood. Cancer rates among the Navajo doubled from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. It is a travesty for people to suffer from this, when the maladies are entirely man caused. The disease process and the etiology have been identified and little is done to solve the problem, just as in the case of the Rio Puerco disaster. The real tragedy is an overt intention to exacerbate this condition, all in the name of the acquisition of wealth; renewed and increased uranium mining.
- URANIUM MINING in the SOUTH WEST: NAVAJOS TRAPPED BY TAILING and DECADES OF INACTION (pkweis.wordpress.com)
- Arizona dream and nuclear reality (rt.com)
- President Obama’s Jobs Bill and the Navajo Nation (urbannavajotimes.wordpress.com)
- Navajos seek tribal-dominated district in Arizona (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- URANIUM MINING in the SOUTH WEST: A LEGACY THAT POISONS THE LAND … “AND WILL NEVER GO AWAY’ (pkweis.wordpress.com)