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Mr. Smith Returns from Washington, "Disappointed"

Chee Smith, Jr., is president of the Whitehorse Lake Chapter of the Navajo Nation and a member of the Governing Board of Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining-Concerned Citizens of T'iists'óóz Nídeeshgizh (ENDAUM-CCT). Mr. Smith helped found CCT in July 2001 in response to Navajo community concerns about the potential impacts of federal legislation that would have provided millions of dollars in grants to companies using the in situ leach (ISL) technique to mine uranium. Mr. Smith was a member of an ENDAUM-CCT delegation that went to Washington in November 2001 to advocate against the proposed legislation and to attend a federal hearing on ENDAUM's legal challenge to a proposed uranium ISL mining operation in Crownpoint and Church Rock, New Mexico. New to the environmental justice movement, Mr. Smith calls his involvement in indigenous environmental issues over the last 21 months "a whole new education" in community activism. In October 2002, Mr. Smith attended the Second National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in Washington, D.C. Below is an interview with SRIC's Chris Shuey about his experiences at the Summit.

Voices: Is industry and government still targeting minority and low-income communities with risky development?
CSJ: The basic problems of dumping on poor, uneducated communities continues. But more of these poor people are getting educated and they are fighting these companies coming onto their lands, and this was said [by people attending the conference] to be a plus.

There were people and groups from the U.S., North America, South America, the Amazon rainforest. The people are getting more educated. When they were illiterate, they were taken advantage of; and now that they are educated, they are not being taken advantage of.

There were workshops on drilling in the Arctic and cutting down and burning of the rainforests for timber. Companies are going around the regulations, and people were asking why. In the case of smokestacks, many companies are putting up smaller ones to get around the regulations. Asthma - especially in children - in the northeast from New York to Washington was being brought up constantly. They said a lot of this was from transportation, and there was talk about how to regulate it. Lawsuits have been filed against utility companies to battle these emissions.

Voices: Has the Environmental Justice/People of Color movement helped you and your community? Has it helped ENDAUM-CCT fight new uranium mining?

CSJ: I wasn't aware of environmental justice before joining up with CCT and ENDAUM. Other groups were part of it from the beginning. But they weren't doing anything - the word wasn't getting out. [At the conference] I told them I was representing ENDAUM out of Crownpoint, New Mexico. A lot of people said they knew about ENDAUM. I guess ENDAUM is known on the national level. Since it was my first time, I was learning it for the first time.

Voices: Will Native American communities have greater voices in development decisions?

CSJ: The environmental justice concept hasn't registered yet [with Navajo community people]. I think we still have a long ways to go. My perspective is that we live in two worlds: the white man's world and our traditional ways. And they sometimes clash. The grassroots Indian people often don't want to learn new things, and they don't quite understand what we're saying when we bring up these issues, like uranium mining. [Navajo] people who support the mining, they tell the local people it's okay, but they really don't understand them, either.

One day, they had a workshop on uranium mining, and I got to present. There were groups from the Yakima tribe in Washington and they've got the same mining proposed up there too. I was surprised. The two guys from Laguna pueblo spoke about their problems there [with the old Jackpile uranium mine]. Then they gave time to Melton Martinez [a Navajo from Baca-Haystack Chapter in New Mexico], and he said he works with RECA [Radiation Exposure Compensation Act], that people worked in the underground mines, got cancer, and are getting compensation. I liked Andy Bessler from Sierra Club in Flagstaff, he was honest, and he reminded me of you - he had all this information and he was sharing it with me.

Voices: How effective was the Native American caucus at the summit? Were the principles developed by the Native American caucus adopted by the conference?

CSJ: Each group - ours was the indigenous network - and other networks presented a proposal. They read it word for word in English and Spanish before the committee, and they had some attorneys who asked that some of the words be changed. They asked us to vote on it, and so we just voted. They were supposed to mail the results back to us. So we don't know if they were approved or not. The Native American statement was already drafted when we got there, and many groups didn't participate in the discussion, and thought it was a done deal. We didn't get copies of it until the morning of the voting.

They counted 1,170 on the first day, but many people left. They couldn't get affordable lodging in the area, either.

Voices: Overall, how did you feel when you came back?

CSJ: I was disappointed. The whole thing was disorganized. I didn't like it from that angle. I didn't come back feeling energized. It was total confusion. They were changing the numbers for the workshops and people couldn't find the right workshop. There were no evaluation papers or anything asking people what they thought.

The good thing I got out of it was that ENDAUM is known. They'd say, "you're out of Crownpoint, New Mexico, right? Have you stopped those mines yet?" I only had 30 of our fliers, and I handed them out during the presentation. On the board I wrote down our address and phone number, but nobody's contacted me since then.

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"The term "equity" was a government creation pushed onto the EJ movement by the Environmental Protection Agency. SWOP doesn't want "equal opportunity pollution." We want to reshape the whole table. We want a fundamental reordering of our priorities and commitments, and that starts with corporate and government accountability to the community. We want justice."
--ColorLines, Vol. 3, No. 2
Southwest Organizing Project "Organizing in the 21st Century"

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