In the wee hours of June 15, 2021, Ella Mae Begay vanished from her home on the Navajo Nation, near Sweetwater, Arizona. She was 62 years old. Within days of Begay’s disappearance, a person of interest was named in the case and local search parties were scouring the roadsides and arroyos near Sweetwater. But more than a year into an investigation by Navajo law enforcement and the FBI, no arrests have been made. Begay still has not been found.
The gale-force winds that swept across New Mexico on Friday, driving fires and evacuations, gave Diné residents in a small western New Mexico community an opportunity to demonstrate first hand the danger they live with every day.Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) members were in the Red Water Pond Road community, about 20 minutes northeast of Gallup, to hear local input on a controversial plan to clean up a nearby abandoned uranium mine. It was the first visit anyone could recall by NRC commissioners to the Navajo Nation, where the agency regulates four uranium mills. Chairman Christopher Hanson called the visit historic, and the significance was visible with Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez and other Navajo officials in attendance. This story originally appeared at New Mexico In Depth and is republished with permission through a Creative Commons license. As commissioners listened to 20 or so people give testimony over several hours Friday afternoon, high winds battered the plastic sheeting hung on the sides of the Cha’a’oh, or shade house, making it hard for some in the audience of many dozens to hear all that was said. “This is like this everyday,” community member Annie Benally told commissioners, mentioning the dust being whipped around outside by the wind.
With historic uranium mine sites already polluting communities, members of the Navajo Nation have been fighting for 27 years to stop a new mining initiative from starting in the Crownpoint and Church Rock areas. On Thursday, the Eastern Navajo Diné Against Uranium Mining took that fight to the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, arguing that the United States and the Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s approval of Hydro Resources Inc. mines violated the human rights of Navajo Nation residents. “For far too long, our Indigenous communities have borne the brunt of environmental racism and of environmental harms,” said Virginia Neochea, the executive director of New Mexico Environmental Law Center, which is representing ENDAUM. “For decades have Indigenous families and communities been targeted for the intentional siting of polluting industries. This intentional and inequitable siting has resulted in direct harm to the community as well as their health, their traditions, and it has violated their fundamental human rights to clean air, land and water, fundamental human rights that we’re all entitled to.”
ENDAUM petitioned the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights in March and the commission admitted the case, allowing ENDAUM to file additional observations on the merits of the case this week.
Native American groups have been protesting fossil fuel production this week in Washington, D.C., in order to help shine a light on the connection between fossil fuel extraction and violence against Native women. Members of the New Mexico Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women (CSVANW) traveled to participate in the protest that began on Indigenous People’s Day in front of the White House to demand that President Joe Biden declare a climate emergency and end fossil fuel production. Many Native leaders from around the country are participating in the week-long protest. Angel Charley, Laguna Pueblo and executive director of CSVANW, told NM Political Report from the nation’s capital that “we don’t necessarily think of extractive industries as a violence against women issue.”
“It’s a connection folks aren’t making. We know that where these industries exist, there’s a heightened rate of sexual violence against Native American women, especially in the Dakotas in the Bakken region,” Charley said.
On Thursday the state ended COVID-19 restrictions, including mask mandates, but Indigenous leaders with the Coalition to Stop Violence Against Native Women urge the public to keep wearing the mask. Angel Charley, Laguna and executive director of CSVANW, said this is a safety precaution. “It requires a lot of sacrifice from all of us as individuals; it’s how we made this much progress,” she said. “But until we reach herd immunity, until there is vaccination access for kids under 12, until there is true equitable access to vaccinations then we’re asserting this is a safety precaution.”
The World Health Organization recommended that vaccinated people continue to wear masks, especially in light of the spread of the Delta variant of COVID-19, which is more contagious than other variants. Charley said the Navajo Nation is following WHO guidance and is continuing its mask mandate.
This story is produced by the Indigenous Investigative Collective, a project of the Native American Journalists Association in partnership with High Country News, Indian Country Today, National Native News and Searchlight New Mexico. It was produced in partnership with MuckRock with the support of JSK-Big Local News. In May of 2020, the Navajo Nation reported one of the highest per-capita COVID-19 infection rates in the United States. Since that milestone, official data reveals that the Navajo Nation has been one of the hardest-hit populations during the pandemic. The Navajo Nation boasts the largest population of any Indigenous nation in the United States, and thousands of Navajos live outside the nation, in towns along the border, cities across the country, and in other parts of the world, making it difficult to tally the virus’ impacts on Navajo citizens.
Early this year, five of Gallup, New Mexico’s 16 water wells stopped producing water, including two of its biggest. After a few days of maintenance, two worked. The other three were out of commission for more than a month. Had it happened in summer, the city might have asked residents to dramatically reduce use. “I’m not in crisis mode,” said Dennis Romero, Water and Sanitation Director for the City of Gallup, but “it could go to crisis mode very quickly.”
The shortage isn’t wholly surprising — 20 years ago, the city decided it could limp along on aging groundwater wells with dropping water levels until a new water project began delivering San Juan River water in late 2024.
ByEd Williams and Wufei Yu, Searchlight New Mexico |
MONTEREY PARK, Calif. — Irving Lin, a jovial entrepreneur in his late 60’s, wanted to share a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, a near-miraculous way out of the economic devastation wrought on Southern California’s Chinese communities by the pandemic: the gift of marijuana. “We are making a fortune in Oklahoma, and you can too,” Lin, speaking in Mandarin, told a crowd of 30 potential investors gathered for a PowerPoint presentation at a Chinese cultural center on Dec. 5. The return on investment is as high as 1,200 percent, Lin explained eagerly.
Tiffany Reid, Diné (Navajo) went missing in 2004. She was 17. Law enforcement has still not entered her case into the National Crime Information Center (NCIC), her cousin, Becky Johnson, said. Johnson is a member of the state Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Relatives (MMIWR) Task Force established by House Bill 278 in 2019. The New Mexico Indian Affairs Department convened the task force and the group released its first report to Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, the public and state legislators Wednesday.
Thursday night, a group of Indigenous community leaders gave presentations about the legacy of uranium mining in the state that still threatens the health and environment of their communities, decades after the last mines ceased operations.
From the 1940s through the early 1990s, New Mexico produced roughly 70 percent of the uranium in the United States, which was used in nuclear weaponry during the Cold War. Members of Indigenous communities across the state did most of the dangerous mining of the radioactive material, and those communities are still struggling to hold the federal government accountable for cleaning up the toxic contamination that was left behind.
“We felt that there were a large portion of our communities across the state that still remain largely unaware of the major environmental justice impacts that uranium continues to have on so many individuals—especially our Indigenous communities—across the state,” said Virginia Necochea, executive director of the New Mexico Environmental Law Center (NMELC), which organized the online event.
“It’s very important that we recognize that there are hundreds upon hundreds of abandoned mines, unsealed pits, mine entrances, tailing ponds, waste piles, highly radioactive materials and toxic chemicals from uranium mining and milling, many that have yet to be cleaned up and continue to pose significant health threats,” Necochea said. “This continued uranium contamination that we witness, and that our communities continue to face, is a clear example of environmental racism and an environmental injustice that continues.”
A state of sacrifice zones
Much of the uranium mining that occurred in New Mexico was on tribal lands and was performed by tribal members. The Grants Mining District and the nearby Navajo Nation is home to one of the country’s most productive uranium belts, and the region was one of the most intensely-mined areas in the U.S., according to Manuel Pino, a member of Acoma Pueblo and an organizer of the Laguna-Acoma Coalition for a Safe Environment (LACSE). Today, there are more than 1,000 remaining uranium mines on the Navajo Nation that have not been reclaimed or remediated.