When De Haven Solimon Chaffins was growing up in Laguna Pueblo, she regarded the nearby Anaconda Jackpile uranium mine as a dragon.
The beast took a deep breath and exhaled its contamination through its village and family.
Open at the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Indigenous Arts in Santa Fe, “Exhibit: Indigenous Art and Political Ecology” explores the impact of nuclear testing and uranium mining on Indigenous peoples and the environment around the world.
More than 500 abandoned uranium mines and mills sprawl across Navajo Nation and pueblo lands. Most of them are unmarked. Prior to 1962, Native American miners worked in these mines without any protective gear and lived in houses constructed from contaminated materials. Many died of uranium-related illnesses. Generations later, family members continue to suffer from cancer and birth defects.
“Some of these houses, their houses were only 50 meters from the mines,” said IAIA curator Manuela Well-Off-Man. “So when the wind blew, it contaminated everything.”
The more than 50 artists in the exhibition tell personal stories of illness, struggle, and resilience in the face of ignorance and government and corporate complicity.
Mallery Quetawki (Zuni Pueblo) uses his paintings to help tribal members affected by uranium exposure discuss their symptoms. Quetawki is the Artist-in-Residence and Research Assistant for the Community Environmental Health Program at the University of New Mexico College of Pharmacy.
His diptych “Extraction and Remediation” (2020) explores the collision, then the cooperation of traditional beliefs and technology.
Although Zuni has not been subject to uranium mining, it is downwind of the 1979 Church Rock uranium spill on the Navajo Nation.
“A lot of our waterways mix and combine,” Quetawki said, “so that affects us as well.”
His great-uncle worked at the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine near Laguna. He suffers from chronic respiratory problems, although he has never smoked.
Cancer rates doubled in the Navajo Nation from the 1970s through the 1990s. Many Navajos died of kidney failure and cancer, conditions linked to uranium contamination. New research from the Centers for Disease Control shows uranium in babies born today.
Dotted with petroglyphs, the left side of Quetawki’s diptych depicts his ancestors as the DNA helix swims beneath them. Further to the right, the hazard symbol replaces the flowers blooming in the grass. On the right panel, a circuit board blends with traditional culture.
“We’re not supposed to take more than we should,” Quetawki said. “We should never dry out the Earth.”
An old prophecy the tribe traces back to Chaco Canyon has proven to be prescient.
“They prophesied something under the lands that should stay there; that it is dangerous, that it would provoke war.
Chaffins (Laguna and Zuni Pueblos) spent time with his grandparents in Paguate, near the Jackpile-Paguate uranium mine, as both a child and an adult. The Environmental Protection Agency has designated it as a Superfund site, a polluted location requiring a long-term response to clean up hazardous material contamination.
Chaffins used humor to create two paintings playing on ShurFine baked goods.
“One day I saw a box of ShurFine yellow cake and thought, wow, in reference to ‘yellow cake,’ the purest form of uranium,” she said during a telephone interview from Laguna Pueblo. “It’s so ironic because we lived 300 meters from the uranium mines. I thought, ‘What a pun.’ ”
For years after the mine closed in 1982, Chaffins noticed people who were once healthy were developing cancer and other health problems. His grandfather died of cancer, then his grandmother, then his uncle.
She was regularly ill as a child. Eventually, doctors diagnosed him with congenital cervical dystonia, characterized by involuntary contractions or intermittent spasms of the neck muscles. Her daughter developed autism. Her only son died at the age of 2.
“We wondered why all of this was happening,” she said.
Chaffins’ grandfather had been governor of Laguna in the 1950s. He and the pueblo council made the decision to allow mining. Later, many pueblo members blamed him for their health and land problems.
“I just remember being outside when the siren went off and I heard the explosion,” Chaffins said. “They were exploding so they could remove the ore. We ran inside and closed the windows. Sometimes the wind came in our direction. I looked up and it sounded like a dragon’s breath.