Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country

Volume 27, No. 4 - Summer 2016
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Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country By Traci Brynne VoylesBy Traci Brynne Voyles
University of Minnesota Press (2015)
304 pages

Review by Doug Brugge

This book, based on extensive reading of secondary sources, is framed from an anticolonial–feminist perspective that is somewhat polemical and ideological. The author posits that U.S. industrial capitalism requires, or at least desires, to designate Native American lands as wasteland in order to devalue the people and land and render them exploitable for extraction of natural resources. Voyles is at her best when deconstructing media and popular narratives of how White people saw the Navajos in relation to the “uranium boom” on the Colorado Plateau. Her understanding and presentation of health science is less firm-footed.

A high point of the book is the thorough demolishing of the obviously fictionalized media stories of Paddy Martinez, the Navajo man who allegedly sparked uranium mining in the Grants, New Mexico area by finding high-grade ore. Her thoroughly convincing demonstration of the racist and even ludicrous nature of the highly inconsistent public narrative is well worth reading. So are other thoughtful and probing efforts to explore how words and messages about uranium, nuclear weapons, and the Navajo people reveal underlying, sometimes subtle and hard to discern, racial and sex-based assumptions and biases.

I have some doubts about her historical interpretation of the motivation for the brutal military campaign against the Navajo s around the time of the U.S. Civil War. Maybe the Navajos were singled out for the slash-and-burn tactics employed. But another possibility is that this approach to warfare was ushered in via Sherman’s scorched-earth campaign through the South to win the war for the North.

I have another question regarding the author’s thesis about “wastelanding” and what she would prefer in terms of economic development for the Navajo people. At times it almost feels like she romanticizes the poverty that I witnessed growing up on the reservation. Maybe she thinks that industrial capitalism (and the information age) should have left the Navajo people alone. I hope that what she was implying was economic development, but with greater respect for the sovereignty and culture of the Navajo people. The latter is what I think most Navajos wanted and still seek.

Another area of uncertainty with regard to the book’s main thesis is how it applies to socioeconomic class and, specifically, to White and Hispanic miners. Obviously, the author chose to focus on the Navajo people, and with good reason. However, the validity of her thesis as an intellectual product depends to some extent on the relation of wastelanding to non-Native populations. My contention has long been that the U.S. government basically put national security above the interests of everything during the early Cold War period and that Native Americans, among them the Navajo people, were one of many populations harmed in the process. Toward the end of the book, the author addresses White mining communities and correctly identifies that they choose economic development over environment. But large numbers of them paid the price with their lives. In the end, this book is thought-provoking and challenging. That is always a good thing, even if the reader does not end up agreeing with everything they read.

Doug Brugge, Ph.D., is a professor of public health and community medicine at Tufts University School of Medicine.

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