This briefly details some of the exploitation of Native Americans for labor and the subsequent exposure of them to high levels of radiation over the last 60 years.

With the advent of Nuclear power and the atomic bomb, there was a vast increase in the demand for uranium. Originaly mined in eastern Europe on a relatively small scale for use as a coloring agent primarily in ceramic glazes, the miners who extracted pitchblende/Uranium-238 often came down with a mysterious disease that was at the time inexplicable. It was found that there were high conentrations of uranium in the southwestern states, particularly on native american reservations, and so the Atomic Energy Commission provided the capital and fostered development of a mining industry to exploit these deposits.

Towards the beginning there was a fair amount of diversity in the companies which did the mining, a large portion of them were very small operations with limited funds. At the outset, the laws were constructed such that any person was allowed to travel over reservation land and stake a claim if they detected a deposit. This led to an intrusion on native american land by prospectors, as well as arbitrary loss of land upon being claimed. It should be pointed out that in the beginning some of the prospectors were the inhabitants of the reservation, though not at all a majority, nor did they reap the financial benefits by any measure in the end. As time went on, the mining corporations grew more and more consolidated, until a majority of the work was being done by a small handful with deep financial pockets.

The first mines were often crude and simple constructions with very little regard to safety, however as the scale of the operations increased, the safety level failed to increase in parallel. Since the mines were located on the reservations it was only natural that the majority of the work force ended up being native americans who otherwise would not have pursued work out of their community, the wages were also low enough to not draw in travelling workers.

The workers were given no respiratory protection nor ventilation, nor were they warned of any potential dangers (which were starting to become known) regarding the effects or even presence of radiation. If any caution signs were posted, they were often of no use since many of the workers could not read english. The mines were hot and the work was difficult, it was common for workers to drink the water which trickled down the mine walls, water which was extremely radioactive having seeped through uranium saturated rock. The mines were filled with radon gas which was released during blasting and pick removal of the uranium ore, this gas is extremely cancerous particularly with regard to the lungs. After the industry had been operating for around a decade, several health measures were proposed by outside groups as the result of studies done locally and abroad. These were largely supressed despite showing that workers were regularly recieving a years worth of radiation within a couple weeks, and in some cases a single day.

The mines were not the only place where native americans were exposed to high levels of radiation without regard to their welfare, the ore processing plants were equally dangerous. These plants reduced the crude ore into refined uranium powder which was packed into drums and then shipped away. The yellow uranium powder often filled the air as it was being packed by vibrators into the drums, and caked the workers in this highly concentrated radioactive dust. The workers subsequently went home and spent time with their families, bringing this dust with them into their own homes on their clothes, skin, and hair. It should be pointed out at this time, that the entire industry was subsidized, with the government as the sole purchaser whom set the price, and was therefore in a position to set standards and make demands regarding safety and worker knowledge of risk. None of this was done, further the supression of these critical areas was spearheded by the government, perpetually downplaying any possible risks.

Once a particular deposit had been exhuasted, the mine and the nearby refining mill were often abandoned. As a by product of the refining process, the crude ore which had been processed for Uranium was turned into a fine gravel called 'tailings'. The tailings were still radioactive, they were dumped in large piles near the mills and left. In many cases, the residents of the reservation were unaware that these tailing piles were radioactive, and thus found them as a convenient and cheap source for making concrete in an area which was economically destitute. The cement was then used to build houses, the walls and floors of these houses were then radioactive. When this was revealed later, the inhabitants continued to live in the dwellings because they were too poor to move out. The tailing piles often remain to this day, allowing radiation to seep out in concentrated form into the surrounding area, and will for an extremely long period of time.

Only recently, after decades of lobbying and work, has a small amount of recourse become available for those who were exploited and exposed to unreasonable health hazards. However, the system of retribution has been set up to be exceedingly difficult as it requires explicit health records dating back to pre-mining work as well as proof of employment by the mines (pay stubs), items which are often unavailable and were not kept by the miners who had no reason to forsee their use at the time. It continues to be an ongoing struggle fraught with the passing of blame and reluctance to distribute reparation.


the primary resource for this writeup was a book titled If you Poison Us, the content and phrasing of this writeup is from memory and original in its enitirety.

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