The Radioactive Colonization of Indigenous Bodies

Longhouse at Crawford Lake. Source: Sean Kheraj, 2017

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Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of reflections on the 2017 Canadian History and Environment Summer School. You can find all the articles here.

There is an epidemiological study that began in 1950, showing that Native American miners on the Colorado Plateau (roughly the area where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah meet), had an increased risk of death from stomach cancer.[1]  The white miners in the same study have no excess deaths from stomach cancer.  This fact about stomach cancer puzzles and troubles me.  Why and how did Native American miners become more susceptible to stomach cancer?  And what do Native Americans living in the U.S. southwest have to do with my experiences at CHESS 2017?

Part of my dissertation, which I am currently working on, is the comparative history of Indigenous populations in relation to uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union (this piece will focus solely on North America).  Though the Native American stomach cancer statistic concerns a U.S. population, the scope of my dissertation pushes me to think about what it might reveal when approaching the Indigenous Canadian population I study: the Serpent River First Nation (SRFN).  CHESS guided me to a fuller understanding of how the North American Indigenous experience of uranium mining was unique, and how this distinctive contact with the industry relates to stomach cancer.

On the last morning of CHESS, Dr. Brittany Luby gave an exceptional presentation about the women of Dalles 38C Indian Reserve, in which she discussed the health ramifications of damming the Winnipeg River in the 1950s. In her talk, she noted that the bodies of the women and children on this reserve became sites of colonization as they succumbed to diseases brought on by the effects of the dam.  It was this idea of bodies as the last sites of colonization that resonated with me and shaped my understanding of my own dissertation project. In Ontario, uranium mines near Elliot Lake heavily polluted the Serpent River Watershed.  Uranium mining companies portrayed the land as empty and then indiscriminately dumped waste in lakes and rivers.  Grass, water, fish, and larger fauna carried increased levels of radioactive elements in their leaves and flesh.  Just as the dam caused contamination in the Winnipeg River, the uranium mines polluted the Serpent River.

This point brings me back to the Native American mortality study from the Colorado Plateau. Mining uranium was injurious to everyone who worked in a mine. It did not matter to a radon daughter (that is what the harmful uranium decay products are called) if one was white or Native American.[2]  Radioactive progeny indiscriminately entered the lungs of whoever breathed them, and I have found no evidence that miners had different jobs based on race in North America.  Still, the effects of uranium mining were not equal, and this fact comes through, I think, in the differing stomach cancer rates. So how and why did mining affect white and Native American miners differently? I am not an epidemiologist but I will offer a hypothesis. Largely, white miners did not live off the land.  They and their families lived in offsite communities.  They were more likely to use a municipally-provided source of water (more likely but not guaranteed; indeed, white miners also faced poor health regulation and drank from contaminated supplies).  They bought food that was shipped in from elsewhere. And crucially they oftentimes moved away when the mine was closed or tapped out.

On the other hand, Native American miners continued to live in these spaces for they were located on or near reserves.  Furthermore, they gained sustenance from the land by raising livestock on it.  They drank the water from local sources, with little or no government water supply infrastructure, and they continued to do so for long periods of time because they did not move away. This prolonged and routine consumption of water and food containing high levels of radon might account for increased rates of stomach cancer among the Native Americans. And though I do not know stomach cancer rates among SRFN miners, they also fished, trapped, and hunted from a contaminated landscape and drank from the contaminated sources in the Serpent River Watershed.  For many white miners the act of mining was an occupational hazard (there are exceptions).  For Indigenous miners, the risk did not end when the job did.  It was pervasive in the daily acts of eating and drinking long after the work went away.  Similar to the bodies of the Dalles 38c women in Luby’s study, Navajo and SRFN bodies became sites of colonization in a way that differed from the experience of others due to the duration and regularity of the radioactive intrusion.

But so far I have discussed only men, and they are not the only people that uranium mining impacted.  Because these cancers may not be related to occupational work, there are other groups who are often erased entirely from uranium mining narratives: women and children, Indigenous and otherwise.  They laundered their clothes with the dust-covered work wear of miners with whom they lived.  We hear little about them in narratives of uranium mining.  We hear even less about Indigenous women and children. Luby and the residential school on the Six Nations of Grand River reserve that we visited during CHESS  pushed me to think of these groups.  In contrast to their white counterparts, Indigenous women and children–like their husbands, brothers, fathers, and sons–often lived in polluted spaces longer and used local land and water for sustenance more frequently than the wives and children of white miners.[3]

The legacy of uranium mining for Indigenous miners is unique; the effects on uranium extraction on proximate non-miners is often ignored.  Indigenous women and children fall into both of these categories, and so they are almost entirely overlooked. There are no epidemiological studies of these groups of which I am aware (though there are, thankfully, interviews, particularly as a result of Lianne Leddy’s work). The unique repercussions of uranium mining for Indigenous groups are poorly understood, and the consequences for Indigenous women and children are in danger of complete erasure. Their bodies are unacknowledged sites of radioactive colonization.

[1] The Native Americans in question were likely predominately Navajo.  Pueblo and Utes also worked in the mines on the Colorado Plateau.

[2] There is a conspicuous absence of Hispanic workers in this study and nearly all scholarly and journalistic accounts of uranium mining, even though they certainly worked in the mines.

[3] There are also socioeconomic factors connected to being bound to a contaminated landscape.  As Stephanie Malin’s sociological study, The Price of Nuclear Power: Uranium Communities and Environmental Justice, shows with regards to Monticello, Utahthere are  people of many races that are tied to a landscape due to socioeconomic constraints and thus continue to experience the harmful effects of uranium mining even though they were never employed in a mine.


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Robynne Mellor

PhD Candidate at Georgetown University
I received my PhD from Georgetown University and am currently working as a historical consultant at Sunmount Consulting in Santa Fe, New Mexico. I study the intersection of environmental history and the Cold War, with a focus on uranium mining in the United States, Canada, and the Soviet Union.

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