If you thought the conquest and, indeed, the genocide of Native Americans in the western US ceased sometime around the turn of the last century, YELLOW DIRT will enlighten your ignorance. In the Four Corners region of the Southwest, an area encompassing the tribal lands of the Navajo and Hopi, there is a nearly perpetual reminder of the white man’s footprint on Indian Territory --- the glowing poison of radioactivity.
Defeated by whites in battle, tricked with useless treaties, and then for two generations dominated, out-maneuvered and deceived again and again by their supposed advocate, the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the Navajo thought they had finally gotten a bit of their own back when they were offered a chance to work in the uranium mines that proliferated on their land in the early 1940s in response to the war effort. Their willingness to work hard was evidence of their patriotism, but after the war was over, no one (including the US government, which was the sole client for the products of the mines) thought to warn them of the risks of the abandoned mines. Instead, they were allowed to mine the mines again for stones and wood to build houses where they slept in peace, little knowing that the very walls around them would bring disease, death and --- perhaps the worst --- crippling disabilities, generation after generation.
Focusing on a family who has occupied a large swath of the land where the mines were opened, writer Judy Pasternak composed this book by exploring the region and staying among the family. She saw the ravages of neuropathy that cruelly afflicts many Indian children and heard tales of those who died from cancers, primarily of the lung. Originally, so the story goes, a great Navajo leader named Adakai spotted yellow dirt on his family’s lands and, believing it to be the gold that had caused such havoc in the West a generation before, forbade his son, Luke Yazzie, to tell anyone of its existence. But Luke was easily convinced by wily traders and speculators who had their own stake in the game. And indeed, even though their share was a pittance, for the Navajo the mining industry brought temporary prosperity. The low wages they received were a fortune, especially since other whites with other agendas had forced them to abandon the sheep herding that had formerly been their livelihood.
After the mines shut down, dangerously high radon levels were discovered in the mainly white town of Grand Junction, Colorado. Suddenly the United States had a “moral obligation” to remove the mining materials in which the radon was retained, materials that had been used for home construction. It was okay, however, for the Indian ex-miners and their wives and children to go on living in contaminated houses, sleeping on floors of yellow dirt.
The slow but still growing reaction among the Navajo to this injustice has served to unite them even as it reveals the persistent divide between Indian rights and the rights of the white race, of corporations, government and power-brokers. The struggle against the residues of the uranium, and against further mining, will take place over generations. Perhaps for this reason, the Navajo are best equipped to win this particular war; they have patience and the long view.
YELLOW DIRT is well researched and fact-filled but always returns to the personal. Judy Pasternak wants us to be there in that ancient land, and feel the pain and grief of the people whose lives, if it were possible, have been destroyed by greed and racism. It urges us to look within and examine our own principles. Is one kind of dirt worth the decimation of a people and their way of life? Do the reparations that have been made match the deep scars that they are meant to hide? Can the culture and world view of a people prevail despite such massive wounds? Pasternak believes it is possible when she writes: “Adakai’s family remained and more were coming back. They would atone for betrayal with perseverance. They could transform destruction into rebirth.”
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on January 24, 2011