Coconino Center for the Arts, Flagstaff, AZ, 2017
I was raised as a member in the Mormon Church in Utah. I was taught to be silent – to not question those in authority – and to sing the anthem, All is well. As a child living in Southern Utah, I became part of a disposable people. Beginning in 1951, the federal government conducted above ground testing of nuclear weapons in the deserts of Nevada. The nuclear fallout from those tests blew eastward, downwind, falling in Utah. All was well. The Eisenhower administration and the Mormon hierarchy believed that the risk of injury to a few thousand people due to nuclear testing in the name of national security was worth the sacrifice.
In 1956, a fifty-one year old Dutch-American miner from Colorado, Tom Van Arsdale, suffocated of carcinoma of the left lung, after having worked in uranium mines for over a decade. He left a wife and several young children. Van Arsdale had worked for Union Carbide Nuclear, formerly known as the U.S. Vanadium Corporation. His death was just one of hundreds of those who worked in the uranium mining/milling industry. It was caused by a silence, a colluding between the federal government’s Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) and the uranium industry. Because of profits and national security, they kept their workers in the dark about what was happening inside their bodies. Moreover, the AEC accepted no responsibility for the health, safety and welfare of the miners and mill workers.
And thus a silence pervaded over the landscape of the four-corners.
One feels that silence today. It is palpable, both geographically and historically, from the slow trudge of the forced Long Walk to Bosque Redondo, to the thirty years of uranium exploitation on the Navajo reservation, to the radioactive waste left on the land and in the waters of northern Arizona.
And there was a silence in the dust as it hung in the air inside the mines and in the mills.
And a silence in the cool water the miners drank as it dripped down the sandstone walls of the shafts.
And there was a silence by the scientists and medical teams who monitored the miners, having been told to keep quiet as they tested Navajo and non-Native bodies, collected their urine, took blood samples and chest x-rays, and had them spit into cups.
And for economic reasons, there was a silence by Navajo political leaders.
And the silence continued inside the homes the miners returned to each day to shed their clothes, letting their pants drop to the floor, the yellowcake dust collecting in the air.
And after the mining boom was over, that deadly silence remained, exhaling from the tailings that were crushed and mixed with concrete as new homes were built, foundations, footings and floors were laid, and plaster for stucco walls was applied.
And there was a silence in the tailings piles the children played on and in the wells and ponds where they swam.
And there continues to be a silence in the individual families as to what was and is happening, today: the cancers, the suffering, the deaths, because of a strong cultural taboo and the tradition to not speak of the dead and the dying.
And the winds continue to blow across the land and the summer rains continue to wash the uranium laden dust, collecting in the watering holes used for thirsty sheep – flesh into food – and in the flora used for medicinal herbs and dyes for wool blankets.
It is invisible. It has no odor. It is silent. It enters bodies as they breathe the air, as they drink the water, as they eat the mutton, as they sleep on the sheepskins in their hogans.
And what is the responsibility of the artist? To give form to this silence, to become visual storytellers to the silent history of a people, their trauma, their hope.