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Navajo Nation Leading Voices on the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act

"We have seen the devastating effects on our Navajo land and our people. There has been social, cultural, economic damage to our nation, due to uranium mining and processing. We now know that this substance, uranium is harmful to our people and should not be disturbed. The Navajo Nation now states that its extraction should be avoided as traditional practice and should be prohibited by Navajo law."
Lawrence Morgan

Lawrence Morgan, Speaker, Navajo Nation Tribal Council
As Navajo people we were always guided by certain laws. In 2002 the Navajo Nation Council recognized these fundamental laws of the Diné People. They made the Diné Fundamental Law the guiding principal of Navajo Nation law through resolution CN-6902. The Diné Fundamental Law is the most significant action taken by the Navajo Nation Council with regards to sovereignty and protection of our sacred lands. The Fundamental Law maintains our sovereignty and the integrity of our culture. The Diné Fundamental Law acknowledges our purpose in life and the right to life. Wherein each creation has it’s own design and laws and has rights and the freedom to exist. We know that the integrity of such holistic system is meaningful must be upheld and protected. As individuals our responsibilities are so prescribed that we must up hold our responsibilities. Accordingly, we the Diné people are the designated steward, to preserve, and protect the foundations of our ceremonies and our Diné way of life.

Navajo Nation President Joe Shirley, Jr. welcomes the attendees to the Conference and the Awards Presentation

On April 21, 2005, the Navajo Nation council voted to enact the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act. The act specifically states “no person shall engage in uranium mining and uranium processing on any site within Navajo Indian country.” There are four aspects of fundamental laws in passing the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act. There is traditional law, natural law, common law, and customary law, the components of the law that were sited. The traditional provides the right and freedom of the people to be respected, honored and protected with the healthy physical and mental environment. The natural law mandates respect for all natural resources within the Four Sacred Mountains. The incorporation of the Diné Fundamental Law to quantify laws have been most significant in maintaining our unique identity as Diné people. The traditional and natural law components have given us the foundation to ban uranium mining and processing on the Navajo Nation.

Our sacred environment makes us a whole nation. We are never disconnected from our mother earth. We have a living bond to all creation. It is a sacred bond. This is our true identity as Diné people. This is the reason why we must protect the integrity of our environment. We have seen the devastating effects on our Navajo land and our people. There has been social, cultural, economic damage to our nation, due to uranium mining and processing. We now know that this substance, uranium is harmful to our people and should not be disturbed. The Navajo Nation now states that its extraction should be avoided as traditional practice and should be prohibited by Navajo law.

David Taylor, Assistant Attorney, Navajo Nation Dept of Justice
I think plain speaking is what we need here today when we discuss enforcement of the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act. The Act is very simple and is very plain, and Attorney General Louis Denet Tsosie, who regrets that he can’t be here today, asked me to tell you three very simple things and to make sure that this message goes forth from today: Number one, Navajo law bans uranium mining and processing on all Navajo lands. Number two, the provisions of that law are very, very clear. Number three, for the members of the community, for the honored guests here today, and especially for the companies who plan to mine uranium on Navajo lands, let the message go forth: the Department of Justice intends to do everything within its power to make sure that the provisions of Navajo law are enforced. Thank you.

Stephen B. Etsitty, Exec. Director, NNEPA
The rule of law on Navajo is very important, and it’s very important to have good laws like the DNRPA that are straightforward, to the point, and very clear to understand. We have seven or eight other laws in my particular area of environmental protection which also, I believe, support this law. We have the Navajo Nation Clean Water Act, the Navajo Nation Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Navajo Nation Clean Air Act. We have Navajo Nation water quality standards, to name a few of those. Each one of those has been shepherded through the Navajo Nation legislative process, and has been signed by previous presidents since 1995. We continue to do the work of compiling technical information and working with communities to make sure our laws speak to the needs of the people. And as new situations arise, that our laws are on top of the situation and give us the right authority and the necessary powerful mechanisms by which to enforce these.

Mitchell and Rita Capitan (ENDAUM Founders) wait for their panel on Uranium Extraction Methods and Regulatory Issues

I’d just like to say that in my short time at the Navajo EPA, we’ve been very successful with the assistance of people like Mr. George Arthur. With the activism and the leadership from the community level with groups like ENDAUM and people like Lynnea Smith out in Church Rock and in Crownpoint. And along with assistance from outside organizations like Southwest Research and Information Center, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, and also internally from the Department of Justice (DOJ). You’ve just heard the position on DNRPA coming from DOJ in its support to enforce the law. We have that same support from DOJ for our environmental laws.

We are starting to turn the corner on some significant, long-term issues that have been unaddressed for so many years, most notably out in Church Rock. We are now getting the EPA to help us start cleaning up an old uranium mine site. And its that type of combined effort from all fronts, from the communities, from within the council, from outside support organizations, and from our legal side – the combination of good technical information, good legal understanding that supports the Navajo Nation as it exercises authority and exercises sovereignty. Taking the teachings from Fundamental Law and making them relate to the tenants of Western legal doctrine and to have something to stand on both from within the Hogan and within the U.S. Supreme Court.

Lynnea Smith, Executive Director,
Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining

Uranium mining has happened in these communities because they are people of color, they are people without a voice, and they are people without money. These are the reasons why uranium mining happens on these types of communities and on these types of reservations. We are not the only people affected. We have seen that there are cancers, there are diseases, there are all of these physical and health ailments that people suffer from since the beginning of uranium mining until this very day. And we will continue to see it because our people were impacted because they worked in the uranium mines. They were impacted because they built their homes out of radioactive material. We are impacted because they continue to this day to herd their sheep on these contaminated hills. Their sheep continue to eat these contaminated grasses – our vegetation that is contaminated from this past uranium mining. They are contaminated from eating these animals.

Former Miss Navajo Nation, Radmilla Cody

These are why our Navajo people are suffering. It’s because of these trails of contamination that happened from decisions made a long time ago. And my organization, Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining, has been focused on stopping new uranium mining for our future, and because of all of the past and historical stuff that has happened. We don’t want to face it again.

There are over 1,000 abandoned uranium mining sites on the Navajo Nation. This is on the Navajo Nation. This isn’t to include all the indigenous regions across the world. This is just on the Navajo Nation. This is just a small part that our people face as indigenous people. And why are we going to open up new mining? Why are we going to let these companies tell us its safe? “You’ll benefit from it. We’ll give you jobs. We’ll give you money.” And the very thing they ask in return is to purposely contaminate our groundwater, and hope to God that it doesn’t get into our community sources. And hope to God that our communities don’t have to drink it. That is what they want us to gamble. That’s what they want us to give up our lives for. And that’s the reason why we can’t do this. We have all of this past stuff that we have to deal with, and it’s not going to go away tomorrow. It’s not going to go away next week. It’s not going to go away next year. It’s going to be around for the next 50 to 100 years. It’s going to continue to pollute the groundwater supplies, it’s going to pollute the land. It’s going to continue to harm our people. So why double the impact.

And that’s why our native people continue to say “no” to this day, and that’s why our Navajo Nation Council enacted the law that would ban uranium mining on the Navajo Nation – to protect its people. Because if nobody else is standing out there protecting them, who else is going to do it. Our government has stood and has posed as a model to various other native communities, to say, “No, we are not going to stand this anymore.” If you want to do this, we want you to come in and we want you to clean it up. We want our water back. We want our way of life preserved. We want it to stand a chance of continuing on so that our children have a future. That’s the reason. That’s the whole thing that is at stake here: We want our life preserved. And if we continue to do uranium mining, if we let it go through, we stand to lose it all.

Navajo Health Surveys

Bess Seschillie, Project Coordinator,
Dine Network for Environmental Health

The Dine Network for Environmental Health (DiNEH) project is a health study and water sampling that we’re doing with twenty chapters. This is our third year of the first phase of the project: water sampling and the health survey questionnaire. There are 110 chapters throughout the Navajo Nation. They’re like townships and have their own council people. The project was initiated by the Eastern Navajo Health Board (ENHB).

DiNEH is a Health Board initiative that began many years ago out of concern with the high rate of kidney cancer out in Eastern Navajo. The Health Board members are community members who are the voice for the communities and have a concern for their people. They sought out the expertise of people such as Chris Shuey (Southwest Research and Information Center) and Dr. Johnnye Lewis (University of New Mexico), the Crownpoint Service Unit (hospital), and the Health Board – the four partners in the DiNEH Project.

Nuclear Free Future Awards representatives Jutta Wisenthal (far left), Willem Malten (second from left), Claus Biegert (second from right), and Jorg Grossman (far right) with SRIC Board Member Manuel Pino (center).

The liaisons go out with the community environmental health surveys to the chapters to solicit participants for the surveys. There’s never been research in Eastern Navajo on these issues. There are many issues regarding the language. We you live in a bicultural world, but there is a lot of people who still speak the Navajo language. But there is no word for radioactivity, radon, or gamma rays. How do you describe those things? Our language is very descriptive. Describing one word can be very lengthy. When we go out and do these surveys, we ask people questions regarding their health, their environmental occupational exposure, their history, and from where they haul water. The purpose of this project is to find reasons behind the effects of cancer. Is it in the water? It is one of the major questions because of the past uranium mining in Eastern Navajo.

Through the surveys and research, we are getting data to determine what types of elements are in the water, the levels of uranium, arsenic, lead, nickel, copper and mercury. People are concerned. In our surveys and talking to them, they tell us stories. "I no longer have my sheep," "My people have died," and "Our medicine people are gone." We have this contamination on our lands. My mother died from kidney cancer ten years ago. She lived on the reservation for 70 plus years and lived off the land. There was never any cancer in her family, or any illnesses of that nature. However she came down with kidney cancer, and she said to us: “I hope you can carry on and find answers, not for just me, but our people.” So I have a personal interest in this. I think one day, the determination of the relevancy between uranium and our drinking water will be answered.

Gerald Brown, Church Rock Uranium Mining Project
Church Rock Uranium Mining Project is a community-based project started by Church Rock chapter in 2003 to do a house study on the effects of uranium in areas of past uranium mining and tailings sites. We were looking at the water quality in Church Rock. We were also looking at the ambient air quality, dust particles, and gamma radiation surveys within Church Rock.

In study area C north of Church Rock, near New Mexico Highway 566, there was a proposal for a new 1,000 home housing development. A concern brought up at the chapter meeting was, in the early ‘80s, there was high radon readings in the area. We also went to study area A, the tailings pile that was part of the tour yesterday. We were looking at how our people are being exposed by dust particles blowing off that site. How is it affecting the community and individuals living there? How is the off-site contamination being looked at? When it rains, the soils, the tailings run through the community, down back through the Rio Puerco, and into Gallup. We are looking at high radon, which is odorless. You can’t smell it, can’t see it. But it is an everyday occurrence. It is radioactive decay.

I worked in the Navajo EPA radon program. Vivian Craig and I went to 173 homes placing radon cans, checking for indoor radon. Out of those 173 plus houses, 40 or so houses came back with high radon. We had to go back in and retest those houses again.

If we found radon, what is the chapter going to do? What is the Navajo EPA going to do? What is the state going to do? We ran into a lot of different questions on the initial start of the house study. It is an ongoing process. We also did a gamma radiation survey. We had a sodium iodide truck come in from U.S. EPA and Las Vegas Laboratories. They did a gamma radiation survey in and around Church Rock for two days.

This is where we start. This is where you, the community, have to take a step forward and start building. You know we just can’t wait and say, "Okay I need help over here." This is where program building comes in.

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"We’re here to talk about what we can do to save the world from nuclear proliferation. Our world, we’ve come to find out, is very small. It’s not as big as we once thought. It is an almost impossible task to save the world from nuclear proliferation, but in my way of life, the Diné way of life, we believe that there are no impossibilities. Although it seems like there are only a handful of us here trying to make a stand against nuclear proliferation, the task is not impossible. It all starts when we come together from all corners of the world, like we are doing here this week. We can start by coming to the realization that we are all on the same side. We are all members of the five-fingered intelligent earth dwellers called homosapiens, human beings. It doesn’t matter the color, the creed. We’re all earth dwellers here, in this world."
—The Honorable Joe Shirley, Jr.
President of the Navajo Nation
Address to the Indigenous World Uranium Summit, November 30, 2006

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