Anyone who has worked or lived on or around the Navajo reservation will recognize in the blockbuster movie Avatar the very real spirituality of the Navajo (Na’vi) culture and unfortunately, also the very real story of the mining and milling of uranium (‘Unobtainium’). This is not a moot point: Consider President Obama’s stunning announcement yesterday morning, February 16, 2010, pledging 8.3 billion dollars for new nuclear power plants to be built, so in fact this is a ‘hot’ issue that makes uranium all the more valuable (some mining companies shot up 20% yesterday on the news) and that reverberates immediately throughout New Mexico.
Uranium mining is a party that never ends because as uranium decays it gives off radiation. This doesn’t happen in a week like a left-over pizza on the sink. We’re talking millions of years. Beginning in 1948 uranium mining has caused continuous radiation poisoning of the soil and water of Navajo and other New Mexico lands, resulting in never-ending pain, suffering and cancers for thousands of Navajos, generation upon generation. Imagine compounding this with the mental anguish and suspicions that go with mysterious illnesses that come out of nowhere to sicken and kill off family members, while the federal government has dragged their feet for sixty years barely taking any responsibility, and you have some idea of the frustration that might be experienced by some of your neighbors throughout the four corner states of New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado when they see this film.
The only element missing in the movie Avatar is the fairy tale that some guilty white guy actually managed to put a stop to a mining company. On the bright side, one figure that I would match up to Avatar’s ‘Jake Sully’ is Chris Shuey, MPH, Director, Uranium Impact Assessment Program, at the Southwest Research and Information Center (SRIC) in Albuquerque, whose organization has fought for years to stop efforts by uranium companies to start up new mining. Read of the good fight being fought and visit the ‘real’ Jake Sully at http://www.sric.org/.
So, if the movie Avatar can do good, let it serve as a warning on the local level today to say to URRE (Uranium Resources Company), stop trying to get the local New Mexico Environmental Dept. to approve destructive mining of uranium (‘Unobtainium’) on the checkerboard area of the Navajo (Na’vi) reservation, because despite the Navajo Tribe’s ban on uranium mining put in place by Navajo President Joe Shirley, and the federal EPA having ruled against URRE, they are still trying get around into these checkerboard areas by appealing to the State. Governor Richardson, where ar-r-e you? (Checkerboard: land divided like a checkerboard with plots that are Reservation and plots that are private land). They want to drill under a potable aquifer using a questionable technique to liquefy the rock and bring up uranium, saying ‘science’ says it’s all safe and it won’t poison the water? But it has never been proven safe. See more at www.sric.org.
For further reading on uranium mining on the Navajo Reservation, google “History of Uranium Mining on Navajo Reservation.” Look for articles by Doug Brugge, who also authored with Timothy Benally and Phil Harrison the very poignant and heartfelt “Memories Come to Us In the Rain and the Wind, Oral Histories and Photographs of Navajo Uranium Miners and their Families,” 1997, Navajo Community College. Also read back issues of The Gallup Independent at www.gallupindependent.com.
For those of you who were not around in 1979 when Three Mile Island blew up, see where reality imitated art in the movie The China Syndrome. That unbelievably prescient movie came out 11 days before the real disaster of a nuclear reactor partial meltdown happened at Three Mile Island in Pennsylvania. It was nominated for four Oscars and based on a book by engineer, journalist, and screenwriter/filmmaker Mike Gray. Later, Chernobyl in Russia had a much worse meltdown.
The story of uranium mining on the Navajo lands has been going on at least since the Vanadium Corporation of America came to Monument Valley and told local people to bring in interesting especially heavy ‘vanadium’ rocks and tell the trading post where they found them. For some eye-opeining insight into this at a personal local history level, read Tall Sheep: Harry Goulding, Monument Valley Trader by Samuel Moon, University of Oklahoma Press, 1992. On page 177 you can read the story of how, over a bottle of soda pop, Goulding tricked Luke Yazzie into revealing the location of uranium deposits worth millions. When the mining companies came, Yazzie and the miners were never paid proper wages, were never given any protection, nor was there ventilation in the mines, nor were they told of the dangers. Later, the milling operations left mounds of processed uranium ore to wash down the San Juan River. Another shocker: an underground nuclear explosion was detonated in the late ‘50’s, called the “gas buggy,” just outside Farmington, New Mexico.
As I wrote last week in Avatar: Cool message but it’s the medium, stupid, I have another problem with the movie. On the global level, my biggest concern is that we as a society (not to mean, of course, those of you who are actually reading this! and who do of course! care for the environment), that we as a society are very quickly becoming like the book Brave New World. We are looking more and more like a totalitarian society, a ‘happy’ one, like in Aldous Huxley’s book where the ‘proles,’ (genetically-modified consumers – all in our places with sun-shiny faces) get their weekly portion of ‘soma’ (Prozac) and go to the ‘feelies’ (surround-sound 3-D entotainment) and buy lots of sports equipment and flying vehicles for weekend sport (keeps them happy, keeps the economy going) and then, one crash-lands on a New Mexico Native American reservation and (okay, now you have to go read the book and find out what happens then). It’s arguably the most important book in print today, alongside George Orwell’s book 1984. Brave New World, by Aldous Huxley, written in…1931…
My friends who experienced Avatar as a healing experience (and who let me know in no uncertain terms!) will be happy to know that a planned forthcoming post here will highlight a counterpoint view, a conversation with Jerome S. Bernstein, Jungian Analyst and author of the book “Living in the Borderland: The Evolution of Consciousness and the Challenge of Healing Trauma,” http://www.borderlanders.com/ and who I understand to say that, while Avatar is a somewhat confused mixing of old and new myths, that the movie actually is and points to an evolution of mankind, and that while we cannot of course go back to the Garden, we can (hopefully) go forward.
UPDATE: breaking news story “Court denies review of uranium mining permit in NM” 3/9/2010 www.aerochug.com/a-2516009~Court_denies_review_of_uranium_mining_permit_in_NM.html
Update 3/10/2010: Since this article first appeared it has been republished, to date, in a full page editorial at the Gallup Independent newspaper on March 6, 2010 on page 4 as “‘Avatar Unmasked:’ The real Pandora, Na’vi and Unobtanium” and at Peace, Earth and Justice News Service, www.pej.org, in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and flagged at websites from China to Mexico and on WorldNews.com. The interactive, non-passive, hot medium of the Internet is cool!
Correction: an earlier version of this article misstated the accident at Three Mile Island. It was a partial meltdown.