photo by Nancy Hill
advertisement for the show on eye lounge, roosevelt street in phoenix
installation at coconino center for the arts
Artist statement for Hope + Trauma in a Poisoned Land
Coconino Center for the Arts August 12, 2017 – October 28, 2017
While many people may be aware of the invaluable contribution of Diné Code Talkers during World War II, few are cognizant of the contribution of Diné uranium miners towards the end of WWII and during the Cold War. Anglos first discovered uranium on the reservation in 1943. Diné miners worked over 500 mines on the reservation until uranium prices dropped in the mid 1980s.
Initially mining company supervisors + public health officials thought the Diné were immune to cancer since their rates were low relative to the national average. More than 5 million pounds of yellowcake was mined which in the process released heavy metals, radon gas and low level radiation from the rock. By 1950 the Public Health Service knew radiation levels at the mines exceeded levels considered safe but did nothing for 2 years.
In May of 1952 the Public Health Service and the Colorado Health Department published a paper called “An Interim Report of a Health Study of the Uranium Mines and Mills.” The levels of radioactive radon gas and radon particles (known as radon daughters), were so high in reservation mines they recommended wetting down rocks while drilling to reduce dust which the miners breathed; giving respirators to the workers; mandating daily showers, frequent changes of clothing, loading the rocks into wagons immediately after being chipped from the walls to decrease time for radon to escape and for miners to receive pre-employment physicals. Sadly, the recommendations were ignored and the Public Health Service was complicit.
Similar to the attitude of the Public Health Service towards southern African-American men in the Tuskegee Syphilis Study from 1932 to 1972 to determine the natural course of syphilis in the human body (even after the discovery of penicillin in 1928), the PHS decided in 1954 to allow natural events to unfold in the mines and the miner’s lungs without explaining the hazards involved.
Economics influenced the woeful state of events on the Navajo nation. In 1955 the Navajo nation received $625,000 a year in uranium royalties which provided about 25% of the annual budget. In light of this, tribal authority at that time demonstrated little interest in learning the hazards of uranium mining. By 1956 the United States was the world’s leading provider of uranium thanks to the Navajo nation. Monument Valley provided nearly 1.4 million tons of uranium ore to the American people. At the same time the PHS recorded the first death of a 48 year old Anglo mining foreman at the Monument Valley Mine Number 2. He died of lung cancer.
By 1960 the PHS definitively declared that uranium miners faced an elevated risk of pulmonary cancer. However, it wasn’t until June 10, 1967 that the Secretary of Labor issued a regulation declaring that “…no uranium miner could be exposed to radon levels that would induce a higher risk of cancer than that faced by the general population.” By this time it was too late. In the 15 years after the uranium boom the cancer death rate among the Diné doubled from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. During this period the overall U.S. cancer death rate declined.
As a physician at a small clinic on the Navajo nation since 1987 many of my patients have suffered and continue to suffer the effects of uranium mining. I asked a co-worker whose father worked as a uranium miner in the mid 60s and who died of a uranium related cancer if she’d share with me any memorabilia she had of her father from that period. She shared with me stories of her dad and provided photographs from that period. Her mother died of a uranium related cancer and she has an older brother presently suffering from a uranium related cancer.
I chose to work with a translucent fabric to emphasize the penetrative, see through nature of radioactive material and to place the viewer in the perspective of a radon daughter. The see through material also references the ephemeral, fragile and transient nature of our life experience at a time when the new Secretary of Energy seeks to “make nuclear cool again” in a new atomic age.
Rose Hurley and her great grandson in Bitter Springs