By Daryl Meador
“The Return of Navajo Boy” (2000) was released over a decade ago, but in the wake of the recent earthquake, tsunami and resulting nuclear disaster in Japan, the documentary by Jeff Spitz is more relevant now than ever.
The film tells the story of a serendipitous chain of events revolving around the Cly family, Navajo Indians who have resided in Monument Valley, Utah, for more than six decades. The family appeared anonymously in media beginning in the 1930s, including tourist photographs, Hollywood Western films and postcards sold at local stores. The story begins in 1997 when Bill Kennedy, the son of a 1950s filmmaker, decides to return a silent film called “Navajo Boy,” which featured footage of the family. From this initial interaction with the Cly family, a long succession of discoveries began to unfold.
The documentary eventually uncovers the fact that while being photographed and filmed throughout the years, many members of the family also worked in the nearby uranium mines. While the mining appeared to be a steady job for the Navajo, they were never warned of the disastrous health effects that could result from the radiation exposure. In recent decades most of the uranium mines in the United States have been closed. Since then, many Navajo people, including members of the Cly family, have been diagnosed with cancer and are fighting for compensation under a federal program for those affected by uranium mining and nuclear weapons testing.
Uranium is primarily used for nuclear power—a contentious issue since the days of the Cly family mining. In light of climate change, uranium has gained popularity as a “clean fuel.” The recent disaster in Japan, however, has put the spotlight on safety issues involved with nuclear power and uranium. The March 11 earthquake, tsunami and resulting destruction at the country’s nuclear plants raised new fears about the safety of nuclear power. Specifically, the biggest risk in Japan has stemmed from spent uranium fuel rods that could self-destruct if they’re not kept at a cool temperature inside the plants. If the rods become exposed to the environment, they could pose health risks comparable to those suffered by the Cly family. These health risks would affect a large part of the country for many years.
Since the disasters in Japan, intense debate on the safety of nuclear power has been spurred up around the world, with specific debate about the locations of plants on fault lines. Many countries stalled plans for the construction of nuclear plants or halted activity at existing plants until their safety had been tested.
What does this mean for continued uranium mining in the United States? The disaster in Japan is reported to have shaken the world’s uranium market. According to a recent article in the Durango Herald by Joe Hanel, the disaster will delay plans to build a new uranium mill in Colorado for at least a few months. The mill, which would be located in Piñon Ridge and aimed to create a resurgence in uranium mining in Southwest Colorado, would be the country’s first new uranium mill in two decades. The nuclear disaster in Japan, however, may put an indefinite roadblock in the way of this resurgence, as people are questioning the safety of nuclear power around the world.
Indeed, the Facebook page for the movie “Return of Navajo Boy” states “Let’s use Japan news to raise questions about problems in our backyard!” and Japan’s situation seems to be doing this on multiple levels, not only by bringing attention to the dangers of uranium mining, but also by making people all over the country more aware of nuclear plants in their vicinities, including those in Navajo Nation.
On March 21, journalist Ann Garrison interviewed long time Navajo environmentalist Lori Goodman about the Navajo response to the disaster in Japan. When asked how the Navajo people reacted to the news, she responded, “Well, the Navajo people understand what’s happening in Japan, and that the situation that they’re in is because of the electrical power that they were receiving, in that case from a nuclear power plant. And, in the case of the Navajo people, we have two of the largest coal-fired and most polluting power plants in the western United States on the Navajo Nation. And so they see that as one and the same, and they also understand that there’s a better way to generate electricity, by harnessing the sun and the wind.”
Japan’s severely unfortunate disaster reveals to the world a message that the Navajo nation has been trying to convey: that uranium is damaging, and when it is handled in the wrong way it can cause fatal health repercussions. This disaster may have been just what the United States needed to finally hear the message that the Navajo have been telling for decades.
For more information about “Navajo Boy,” visit navajoboy.com