HERMOSA – The importance of the San Juan River and its riparian corridor to the cultural and spiritual practices of the Navajo Nation came into perspective Tuesday night as three members of the tribe described their efforts to overcome the lingering damage caused by the Gold King Mine spill.
A contingent of Navajo tribal members spent the first day of a two-day tour exploring the headwaters of the Animas River, the main tributary of the San Juan River, and the abandoned mines around Silverton. The old mines would be the source of the problems that led to the August 2015 spill that sent 3-million gallons of heavy-metal-laced mine waste down the Animas a century after the heyday of mining in the San Juan Mountains.
“Water is more than a physical entity. It is a matter of spirituality, a mater of culture. We give our prayers to the water,” said Duane “Chili” Yazzie, president of the Shiprock chapter of the Navajo Nation, speaking to a crowd of more than 100 people gathered Tuesday night at the Animas Valley Grange.
Subsistence farmers lost 75 percent of their crops in 2015, and only 10 percent of farmers planted in 2016, Yazzie said. “Hopefully, this year more returned,” he said, noting the important role of farming in the tribe’s spiritual and cultural practices.
Karletta Chief, a Navajo tribal member who is an assistant professor in the Department of Soil and Water at the University of Arizona, said the spill was measured by government agencies as a blow to economic activity such as recreation, but it took input from Native American communities to bring home to government agencies the spiritual, cultural and lifestyle impacts damaged in their communities. Cultural, spiritual and lifestyle harms caused by the spill could not be fully captured measuring solely economic data, she said.
“We identified some 400 unique ways we use the San Juan River and the riparian corridor,” she said.
Janene Yazzie, who lives along the Arizona-New Mexico border, away from the San Juan River, said she had been studying the long-term effects of the Church Rock uranium mill spill, a breach of a mill tailings dam that sent 90-million gallons of acidic, radioactive tailings solution flowing down the Rio Puerco in New Mexico in July 1979, and cites lessons from that episode to caution against a belief that long-term harm will not be a problem from the Gold King Mine spill.
Decades after the Church Rock spill, she said two times the acceptable level of uranium was found in area wells, including wells that serve two schools where Janene Yazzie and her daughter both attended.
Like the Church Rock spill, Janene Yazzie said the Gold King Mine spill was a “traumatic event that destroyed the way we live with the land and disturbed our subsistence agricultural practices.”
The importance of the past two days of visits by members of the Navajo Nation to the Animas River Valley, Janene Yazzie said, was to build relationships, networks and communication among all the communities dependent on the Animas and San Juan river basins.
“This is an evolution of a human-based movement for a more sustainable better future. We’re not that much different from what’s happening in Flint, Michigan, and in communities in New York and Pennsylvania impacted by fracking,” she said.