Navajo artist Venaya Yazzie wrote the Diné expression – Tó éí ííná – beside a photograph of a friend sullenly looking out on the tainted San Juan River in the days after the Gold King Mine spill.
It means “Water is Life,” and for the indigenous tribes affected by the mine blowout in August, the words sum up months of confusion, fear and sadness surrounding the health of critical southwest waterways.
On Aug. 5, the Environmental Protection Agency breached the portal of the mine north of Silverton, sending an estimated three million gallons of orange mine wastewater down the Animas and San Juan rivers, and through 215 miles of the Navajo Nation.
“The river, for desert people, is everything – it’s gold,” Yazzie said. “Mentally. Spiritually. Physically. It covers the whole human spirit of life.”
The incident elicited strong feelings from those living on tribal land, from farmers who depend on its waters for crops to residents with a spiritual attachment to the river.
In March, Navajo President Russell Begaye claimed Navajo suicides spiked just three weeks after the spill, alleging 15 Navajos had taken their own lives in the eight-month time span.
Yazzie said the suffering has yet to subside and likely won’t anytime soon.
“It plays into a legacy of trauma for the Navajo people,” Yazzie said.
Fearing her fellow tribal members are spiritually broken, Yazzie called on artists throughout the Navajo Nation to take their experience with the Gold King spill and put it on canvas.
On Sunday, backdropped by a surging, discolored Animas River, Navajo artists gathered under the pavilion at Rotary Park in Durango to showcase eight works as part of the exhibition, “On Behalf of Water.”
Ruthie Edd, a Fort Lewis College student, said the challenge of drawing such a complicated issue was a cathartic experience. Her image of a woman submerged in a tainted river expresses her sadness better than words, she said.
“It doesn’t have to be rigid or defined because it is an emotional response,” Edd said. “The water is a living being and needs to be respected. We’re not above the environment. It needs as much maintenance as much as any person.
Her sister, Chamis Edd, painted the trail of an orange plume beside the screen of an iPhone, also with the words Tó éí ííná.
“I was really sad, having grown up in Durango and using the river for swimming,” she said. “It really hurt because I felt like something was being taken away from me.”
The artists acknowledged a vague awareness of the 100-year-old problem of mine discharges, as well as the natural metal loading into the waterway – yet admitted the striking visual of an orange river put the issue into the spotlight.
“It was really out of sight, out of mind,” Yazzie said. “But now, everyone’s a little more educated, and now we have a voice. The younger generation wants to hold people accountable.”
President Begaye has vowed to sue the EPA for damages incurred from the spill. To date, the federal agency has reimbursed the Navajo Nation $158,000.
Just last week, the EPA found itself in further controversy with the tribe when the agency declined to send a representative to a field hearing on the EPA’s treatment on Navajo Nation residents in the wake of the spill.
The cold shoulder prompted Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain to call for a subpoena on EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy to attend another field hearing on April 22.
“The EPA’s response is unacceptable,” McCain said. “It is a violation of our obligation to protect the interests of Native Americans and their tribes, and EPA must be present at this hearing.”
On Sunday, Begaye lauded McCain’s threat of a subpoena, according to Good4Utah.
“The EPA continues to add insult to injury by refusing to send even a single representative to the upcoming field hearing on the spill,” Begaye said in a prepared statement.
“The Gold King Mine spill culturally and economically devastated Navajo communities along the San Juan River. ... The Navajo people have suffered due to the reckless actions of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other responsible parties.”