"Hear Our Voices"
In the video documentary project "Hear Our Voices," six
Monument Valley High School students created a video about
the volatile and on-going history of uranium mining in the VCA area, a community named after a prominent mining company, Vanadium Corporation of America.
The purpose for the documentary video was to create awareness and to expose the issues and concerns of communities near mining areas. Community members
have had to live with the impact of, not only the economic decisions, but also with the waste piles from the mines that littered the area for decades
after the mines closed. Tailings left behind contaminated the water, livestock, food and materials used for building. The subsequent fight for compensation
also has its own history.
Three of the six handpicked students were either from or closely related to people from the VCA area. Students involved in the project were expected
to maintain good grades and keep up with their class work.
To introduce students to the subject and issues of uranium mining, they first researched the topic that included information specifically related to
Monument Valley mine #2(MV2) in Cane Valley. Then they video taped interviews with elders from the community, government officials, environmentalist,
activists, and corporate leaders to gather a perspective of and evidence related to the topic. The students translated and wrote the script, then shot
and edited a video to convey the information they learned. The project involved students in their own learning, motivated students to learn and appreciate
their culture, and enhanced their literacy skills as they interacted with government, Navajo Nation officials, and translated Navajo interviews.
In the early 1940s a number of uranium companies came to Cane Valley to exploit the mineral that became an essential ingredient of the nuclear age.
Uranium resources were so extensive and volatile that a processing mill, MV2 was built near the Yazzie Mesa so uranium could be processed before it was
moved to more populated areas. VCA officials were aware of the toxic nature of uranium, but safety issues were largely ignored during the operations of MV2.
Workers picked up uranium samples by hand and placed them into wheelbarrows; mining equipment, including trucks, were simply abandoned on the reservation;
and wives of workers routinely washed their husband's contaminated clothes by hand. After the mines closed in the mid 1960s, the scores of mines that had
operated on the mesa and surrounding areas were largely left as they were with portals exposed and small mountains of tailings piled up nearby became
sledding hills for Navajo children in the winter. Uranium contamination permeates VCA. Water and plant samples have been found to contain radiation.
Animals that water and feed on the land have transmitted the radioactivity up the food chain, all the way to Navajos who still subsist there.
Within the last 10 years, the government has made a concerted effort to reclaim mines around the reservation, including Yazzie Mesa in VCA.
They have sealed up mines and are studying the area to gauge the extent of the contamination. Meanwhile, elderly Navajos die at faster rates than
other Navajo, largely from complications related to cancer and respiratory failure. Compensating them, however, has been a difficult process since
many MV2 workers were paid in cash resulting in a lack of records of their employment. Furthermore, the Navajo rarely visited a hospital or clinic
when they were ill with what could have been effects of radiation.
The MV2 video documentary project looks at the lives of those who live with uranium poisoning. It captures the stories of the elders, and explores
the continued efforts and effects that are likely to bring not only in Cane Valley, but in others across the Navajo Nation.
The students visited Crownpoint, NM to tape interviews about the new request to extract uranium. In Crownpoint the people were divided in their
opinion about whether or not to allow Hydro Resources, Inc. (HRI) to mine uranium through a solution process, called in situ leach mining. The
students interviewed 5 people who represented both sides.
Mark Palizza, a representative of HRI, presented information about the affects of uranium on health and that the safety concerns from decades
before were no longer issues. He assured the group that today the industry is different and every precaution is taken while mining. He talked
about the many economic benefits for the community. Another employee of HRI - who had experience mining the old way - added that with today's
technology, things are different. After these interviews, most of the students had decided that if they had a choice they would choose mining.
Billy Martin, a community member and a strong opponent of the mining, and Jameson Devore, the Chapter Vice president, were two of the three people
the students interviewed at the Crownpoint Chapter House. Jameson Devore spoke of why young people and elders from his community opposed mining.
Among the many reasons for opposition were concerns for emergency spills and community safety. Devore pointed out that the land status and the Indian
allotments make monetary payments minute because there may be as many as 500 heirs to one allotment. Billy Martin, a 70 year old gentleman who had
little formal education and a resident of Crownpoint area, started his talk by traditionally addressing the students as "my children, shiyazhi,
she'awee', sha'alchini, my babies," making his acquaintances personal. Although his image was not recorded, his speech was compelling. The images
and vision drawn from his speech were clear and vivid. Martin talked about how precious water is to the Dine people. In Navajo there are many names
for water such as Long Life, Neverending Water, Female Rain, Male Rain and the water of life. He concluded his talk by saying that he hoped that
somewhere in their (the student's) learning and lives, he hopes that they will do something for their people and for the land because many young people
sacrificed their lives to protect Mother Earth. He hopes they do something for the sacredness of the land, people, earth, and water - all that sustains
us. Humans were not put here to control the earth or its substances but are here to take care of it.
After these interviews, the students again talked again about the issues surrounding uranium mining in the Crownpoint area. This time, the students
sided with the community members who opposed the mining. Students were reminded once again where they come from - from Mother Earth and so needed to
revere and respect it for what it is. They understood completely why the residents were fighting to keep mining out of Crownpoint.
The documentary video was made possible in part through grants from the Utah Arts Council of Utah and assisted by professional filmmaker, Trent Harris,
Monument Valley High School, and the San Juan School District.