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Navajo Nation Artists Respond to the Threat of Uranium Radiation

Nuclear contamination from abandoned uranium mines is rampant across the Navajo Nation, and a community of artists is raising awareness through a street art project and gallery exhibition.

“Radioactive Pollution Kills. It’s Time To Clean Up The Mines.” (2016) by Icy & Sot for The Painted Desert project in Gray Mountain, A.Z. (all photos by Emily Pier for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — A large-scale human rights violation is occurring in the United States, and there is a dearth of news coverage on the issue. Nuclear contamination from abandoned uranium mines is rampant across the Navajo Nation’s 27,000 square miles of land, throughout Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. This situation has left thousands of people without access to safe drinking water, according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In response, a community of artists is raising awareness about the problem through a street art project and a gallery exhibition.

The Southwest has a legacy of uranium mining that has contaminated water, destroyed land, killed people and animals, and forced the government to pay billions in reparations. Abandoned mines and nuclear waste litter the area’s Indian reservation, yet only a fraction of the contaminated sites have proper warning signs. Fortunately, artists are using murals and billboards to alert the public to these hazards.

Grafica Mazatl and Stinkfish (left hand side of the structure); Tom Tomahawk Greyeyes and Nadine Narindrankura (right hand side); Greyeyes’ mural serves as a fact sheet of coal mining in Navajo Nation and the associated environmental and health impacts. Both collaborations are for The Painted Desert project in Shonto, A.Z.

The Painted Desert Project is a street art collaboration that warns people of radioactive pollution in the area of the Navajo Nation, and is curated by Dr. Chip “Jetsonorama” Thomas. The artist (who has adopted the nickname “Jetsonorama”) is also a medical doctor who lives on the Indian reservation and treats people who have developed cancer and other health complications as a result of radioactive exposure. Jetsonorama’s art serves as a means of educating people about environmental injustices that deeply affect the Navajo Nation. He hopes that his artwork will encourage people to petition Congress and the federal government to clean up old mines and contaminated land and water.

As part of The Painted Desert Project, inside of a hut he had wheat-pasted, Jetsonorama hung a sign stating:

Welcome to #ThePaintedDesertProject. The photo … speaks to the land around this old pump house. Much of the land is contaminated with uranium. There’s >500 uncapped uranium mines on the rez. They affect this land, the water, animals + people. (Don’t linger in this room + don’t kick up dust.)

Wheat-pasted pump house on a radioactive wasteland by Jetsonorama for The Painted Desert Project in Cameron, A.Z.

An installation piece by Icy & Sot called “The Killing Wind” (2016) rests on the floor of the pump house. The plastic fan, painted to resemble the warning symbol for nuclear radiation, serves as a reminder of the wind’s ability to spread nuclear particles hundreds of miles . Radioactive dust can be especially problematic when contaminants blow into nearby streams or other water sources. Although Jetsonorama has gained international exposure through his collaborations with world renowned artists, such as Icy and Sot, this publicity has yet to translate into the passing of meaningful legislation or tangible progress with respect to cleaning up the mines.

“The Killing Wind” (2016) by Icy & Sot for The Painted Desert Project in Cameron, A.Z.

To further his efforts to catalyze change, Jetsonorama brought his work from the open desert to an indoor gallery with his participation in Hope + Trauma in a Poisoned Land, an art exhibition running through October 28, 2017 at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona. The show raises awareness about uranium mining and its aftermath and promotes healing through artistic expression. It features the work of 20 local artists, including Jetsonorama, who in the previous year had attended a four-day educational seminar about uranium and contamination on Native American soil, in which Navajo community members, scientists, mental health professionals, and health care experts had educated the participants on the impacts of uranium mining. Jetsonorama used the information he had learned from the seminar in his work pertaining to abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation.

Jetsonorama’s wall mural in Phoenix, A.Z. promoting Hope + Trauma in A Poisoned Land: The Impact of Uranium Mining on Navajo Lands at Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, A.Z.

Jetsonorama’s major installation piece entitled, “Atomic (r)Age” (2017) features a newspaper article about hidden casualties of the Atomic Age printed on translucent fabric. The man pictured in the 1967 article from The Washington Post featured in “Atomic r(Age)” is the father of Jetsonorama’s colleague who died from cancer related to uranium mining. As described on Jetsonorama’s website: “the see-through material … 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.” The massive size of this piece — eight feet by eight feet — reflects the monumental nature of the issue. The piece also shares the story of one victim of uranium mining and his family, thereby simultaneously personalizing the enormous problem.

Jetsonorama’s installation ““Atomic r(Age)” (2017) (photo courtesy Jetsonorama)

Uranium, an element that naturally exists beneath the earth’s surface, is used for nuclear energy. It supplies 11% of the world’s electricity and is used for weapons and atomic bombs. During the Cold War, the development of nuclear weaponry increased demand for radioactive ores in the United States. From 1944 through 1986, 30 million tons of uranium was excavated from the Navajo Nation by independent energy companies operating under U.S. government contracts to make nuclear weapons and fuel. By 1970, the Atomic Energy Commission had ample reserves and stopped buying uranium. Domestic uranium mining ceased in the mid 1980’s due to plentiful reserves, foreign competition, nuclear fears, and federal regulations. Energy companies abandoned the mines without cleaning them up. At the time, Navajo miners and residents were not informed of the health or environmental ramifications of uranium mining.

Helen Padilla’s poem for Hope + Trauma in A Poisoned Land (photo courtesy Helen Padilla)

Many Native Americans died from lung cancer as a result of working in unventilated mines. Kidney failure and various types of cancer also killed many who merely lived nearby. Hope + Trauma shares the stories of these people who live with the consequences of uranium mining and whose land, water, animals, and surroundings have been polluted. Performance, installations, photographs, paintings, and poems reveal the impact that 42 years of uranium exploitation has had on the community.

Abandoned mines continue to emit dangerous levels of radiation. In 2014, the federal government allocated $1 billion to clean up 50 of the 521 abandoned uranium mines on the Navajo Nation. Some progress has been made, but Trump’s EPA budget cuts are interfering. Furthermore, contamination can worsen if new mining is allowed. Trump has threatened to reverse Obama’s 20-year moratorium on new uranium mining near the Grand Canyon and to reconfigure the national monuments boundaries set by the former president, and thus remove current restrictions on land use. These destructive environmental policies would be a death sentence to many.

“Buffalo Bear” by Alexis Diaz for The Painted Desert Project in Bitter Springs, A.Z.

The perilous state of conservation underscores the importance of the efforts of the Navajo Nation’s art community to raise awareness. It is the federal government’s responsibility to see that the contamination is fully remediated, but much work remains to be done. Jetsonorama has done a wonderful job of working with other artists to raise awareness and encourage people to contact government officials to address the environmental injustices in the Navajo Nation. Until the government takes further action to protect the public from dangerous radioactive exposure, the best hope of reform comes from grassroots efforts such as the ones being pursued by Navajo Nation artists.

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