Uranium mining in the Southwest: Dealing with its half-life and its role in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony'

Seminar Paper, 2004

12 Pages, Grade: 1,0 (A)


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2.1 Uranium
2.2 Environmental and Health Risks
2.3 Cultural Effects

3. Ceremony

4. Conclusion

5. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that much of the human cost of North American uranium production has been born, unwittingly and mostly unwillingly, by indigenous peoples” (Four Directions Council, 1987, 2).

This statement given in a report by the UN Commission on Human Rights reveals the problems and the negative side effects during the uranium milling process and the aftermaths on the indigenous tribes in the American Southwest. But what is the reason for this situation and what makes uranium mining so dangerous and causes one of the most dangerous decay products known to humans? This paper tries to answer these questions and the effects on the Laguna Pueblo people, dealing in particular with environmental and health risks. I will also attempt to compare the alleged benefits for the Laguna Indians and the long term effects of uranium and its half-life. Furthermore, I will point out the important role of uranium in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony and its power in the ceremonial process and Tayo’s healing. This healing process and the final understanding of the ceremony pattern are also connected to the Pueblo’s attempt to deal with the remains of the uranium mining age. Trying to clarify this entanglement will conclude this paper.

2.1 Uranium Mining

All uranium ends up as either nuclear weapons or highly radioactive waste from nuclear reactors. That's the destiny of all the uranium that's mined” (Edwards, 1992). Until 1970 uranium mining in the United States was for military purposes exclusively. Ten percent of American uranium reserves are found on Indian reservation lands and the largest deposit near Grants, New Mexico, lies partly under Navajo, Acoma and Laguna reservation land. Mining started in the Laguna region in 1950 and by 1980, half of the uranium produced in the United States was mined on Indian reservations, with the State of New Mexico contributing 50 percent. This relation shows that Indian tribes had to suffer in relation to other uranium sites proportionally higher under milling conditions due to the fact that in their territory a lot more uranium was mined. The most common health risk for uranium miners is breathing radon gas. It’s the only gas that occurs in the uranium decay series and is followed by extremely hazardous radon daughters due to its short half-life. Those Uranium decay products are among the most toxic materials know to science because of their alpha emitters which are 20 times more damaging inside the human body than beta and gamma emitters.

As the radon atoms disintegrate, they produce other radioactive substances. And so, in fact, you have a multiplication of new radioactive materials which weren't there to begin with. This is one of the things the scientists overlooked. So that when the miners go into a mine where the radon has been collecting for several hours, it's five times as radioactive as radon in the laboratory. And those other substances -- the radon daughters -- are extremely dangerous. (Edwards, 1992.)

2.2 Environmental and Health Risks

Uranium mining techniques can be divided broadly into the open cast and the underground mining. As soon as mining activity starts, land surface is radically disturbed and therefore natural balance is changed forever by test drill sites, drilling and blasting. The method of underground mining created large caverns in the earth and therefore causes great danger of a possible collapse and consequentially great damage to the earth’s surface. Mining inevitably goes hand in hand with the production of wastes which have disastrous effects on the surrounding environment. During the milling process the ore is crushed into fine sand in a mill and is mixed with large amounts of water chemicals. Thereby the natural containment which isolated the uranium deposits from oxygen and water for millions of years is destroyed, allowing water and air to carry contamination throughout the environment. Large volumes of waste are produced in the milling process over a short period of time, because there is only half a kilogram of uranium in one ton of uranium ore. This marketable product uranium is generally referred to as yellowcake. But 85 percent of the total radioactivity from the original ore remains as solid waste and is called tailings. If this highly radioactive sand is left on the surface and allowed to dry out, it can be blown by the wind ,deposited on far away vegetation or it can wash into rivers and lakes, contaminating them. So how long does it take for this type of radioactivity to disappear and representing no threat anymore? Dr. Gordon Edwards presented this scientific evidence at the World Uranium Hearing in Salzburg in 1992:

When we extract uranium from the ground, we dig up the rock, we crush it and we leave behind this finely pulverized material -- it's like flour. […] As Marie Curie observed, 85 percent of the radioactivity in the ore remains behind in that crushed rock. […] it turns out that the effective half-life of this radioactivity is 80,000 years. That means in 80,000 years there will be half as much radioactivity in these tailings as there is today. / […] Even archaeological remains date back no further than 80,000 years. We don't have any records of human existence going back that far. That's the half-life of this material. / And as these tailings are left on the surface of the earth, they are blown by the wind, they are washed by the rain into the water systems, and they inevitably spread. Once the mining companies close down, who is going to look after this material forever? How does anyone, in fact, guard 200 million tons of radioactive sand safely forever, and keep it out of the environment? (Edward, 1992.)

2.3 Cultural Effects

Those figures show the long term effect of uranium mining and demonstrate that this is something that the human race cannot control at all, mainly because it is dealing with time periods far beyond its comprehension. Thus the short term benefit that one generation has had while working in the mines and earning a great amount of money is not in compliance with the sufferings and consequences the following generations have to go through because of the mistakes their ancestors have made. But some of the negative side effects already occurred. Especially mine workers who were expose to a great amount of radiation are suffering from different kinds illnesses caused by cancer. While most of the Indians still had their jobs, many of them took their pay check and bought alcohol and other drugs. This resulted in drug abuse, domestic violence, murder, and suicide. “Most of us workers would go to the bars and cash our checks there and spend the money on alcohol. After drinking all night we would get in our cars and drive home, sometimes getting into accidents and causing all kinds of family problems.” (Waconda, 1992). After the uranium mines closed many people couldn’t find another job because “[…] they were ill prepared to alter life styles and they lacked an education” (Romero, 2003). There are only few business success stories afterwards: such as the tribe owned Laguna Industries, Inc. (LII), which builds electronic parts for the United States Army. The vast majority of its employees are Native Americans. But is the existence of those companies justified? Many of those companies were founded with the money the mine companies paid the Pueblo tribe after they shut everything down and moved some place else. This settlement-money may help the Pueblos right now in building new facilities, providing a better education for their children, and a Health-Care Service but it doesn’t make up for the destruction of their land, the ongoing radioactive exposure to the themselves and their livestock. But worse of all it promotes the loss of their cultural foundation and alienation to the land of their ancestors.

I'm concerned because our tribal and public health-officials never concern themselves about the consequences we face living near an open pit mine. Unfortunately, our tribal officials have made unsound decisions in the past which will affect our Acoma and Laguna people for generations to come. The Acoma and Laguna people and tribal officials were never warned about the hazards and consequences of uranium mining on Indian lands. Therefore, today our people have suffered the loss of aboriginal lands, religious shrines and some traditional customs. (Lewis, 1992.)


Excerpt out of 12 pages


Uranium mining in the Southwest: Dealing with its half-life and its role in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony'
University of Mannheim  (Anglistics)
Proseminar II
1,0 (A)
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
File size
464 KB
Uranium, Southwest, Dealing, Leslie, Marmon, Silko, Ceremony, Proseminar
Quote paper
Alexander Waldmann (Author), 2004, Uranium mining in the Southwest: Dealing with its half-life and its role in Leslie Marmon Silko's 'Ceremony', Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/27660


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