Another thing I learned and one of the many striking and unconscionable elements of the environmental, human rights, and health disaster of Navajo uranium mining is that, even though the risks were known, miners were not provided even the most basic information, safety training, or personal protection. Dust masks – the absolute minimum protection that could have been offered – can thus become a meaningful art statement. A mask over the mouth protects, but it also is a potent symbol for silencing, and relates to the silencing of the miners’ health concerns as well as the warnings of government officials over the years.
A prayer in my mind as I worked on this project:
Blessed be her feet, as she walks her path, blessed be her hands as she does the work that calls her, blessed be her spirit as she stands true to herself, blessed be her heart as it beats and pours forth its power into this wounded world.
Yellow Dirt Testimony -
A Promise in Many Parts
Uranium mining began on the Navajo Nation in 1944 as the Manhattan Project was developing the bombs that would obliterate Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Through 1986, mines on the Navajo Nation supplied 30 million tons of uranium to feed the country’s cold war bomb-making appetite. There are still many unremediated mines on Navajo land, some of them very close to the Little Colorado River.
I took this picture while standing on an abandoned uranium mine. The sweet green ribbon below is the Little Colorado. It flows into the Colorado River in Grand Canyon.
A truth that arises in conversation about the cold war and nuclear buildup is that many people, whether or not they live on the Navajo Nation, are, in one way or another “downwind” of nuclear bombs; their health was affected by fallout, by nuclear materials used to build the bombs, by the cold war ethos. Indeed, winds from nuclear blasts at the Nevada Test Site passed over the town where I live, Prescott, Arizona. Many adults across the U.S. have dark childhood memories of the the 50’s and 60’s duck and cover drills.
In January of 2017 I began an artist residency at Prescott College and started work in the beautiful Sam Hill Gallery and adjacent studio. The idea was to provide community education on the issues surrounding uranium mining on the Navajo Nation, to work with as many people as possible in decorating the masks, and to build a prototype of the mushroom cloud structure before the installation at Coconino Center for the Arts. I taught a number of classes at the college and held open studio sessions there through early spring. Using these guidelines and a resource page with images, Prescott College students, members of the Prescott community, friends, friends of friends, and artists from all over the country, made masks. People from Hawaii to Florida, New Hampshire to Washington, sent me packages with decorated masks. Their beautiful expressions made this project deep and powerful.
Bringing together the history and ongoing impacts of uranium mining on Navajo lands and people and the widespread general effects of nuclear build-up, I invited artists and community members to render their responses onto dust masks and used these to build a large sculpture of the cold war's most terrifying icon, the mushroom cloud.
With able help from Jenna Trizzino, a Prescott College student working on her senior project, Ron Miller, a fellow welder who worked with me on the framework, Florida sculptor Jan Tomlinson Master, who was an invaluable second pair of eyes on the design, and dear friend Rosy Dixon, who did everything from cutting lace to holding my leg while I was up on the high ladder, the cloud prototype was finished in April. Jenna led a beautiful ceremony and, along with Lucy Beckner and Molly Rosen performed a moving dance at Prescott College. Here is a link to her dance performance: https://vimeo.com/216239158 I installed a larger version of the mushroom cloud at Coconino Center for the Arts for the Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land exhibit which opened August 15, 2017 in Flagstaff, Arizona. The exhibit, running until October 28, 2017, is accompanied by a series of events. Here is the website for the exhibit that gives good background information on the overall project and the many special events that accompany it: https://flagartscouncil.org/2017/04/hope-trauma-poisoned-land/
Clockwise from Left: first time on the oxyacetylene welder, upper support hoop, "arms" that will be attached to semicircular support structure, like the spokes of an umbrella, "arms" as they fit into support structure, Rosemary Dixon keeping me aloft on the ladder, lifting the 14' ladder, kindly loaned and delivered by Royce Carlson. (photo credit, Dana Oswald), Jenna Trizzino with stem support hoop.
How the Yellow Dirt Testimony project evolved:
This mine is just above and behind the Cameron Chapter House. If you have ever driven north from Grand Canyon, or stopped at the Cameron Trading Post, you have passed very closely to this mine When we talked to current residents of Cameron, we learned that children from miles around used to swim in a waterhole just across the highway. Water in the desert! No one ever told them or their parents that it was a radioactive tailings pond.
In the picture to the left is the Little Colorado River, as seen from an abandoned uranium mine. The buildings in the middle distance are Cameron. You can see the Highway 89 bridge that you cross going north from Grand Canyon.
On the second to last day of our training, we participated in a sheep slaughter. The sheep was blessed and the meat cooked all day before a big community meal. Several local people shared their stories of illness and loss from uranium poisoning.
Please scroll down to the bottom of the page for pictures of the finished installation.
Navajo families are connected to the land in many ways. There is a risk of poisoning if sheep that provide food have grazed on uranium contaminated soil. I took the picture below from a uranium mine that had been treated by having several feet of dirt moved on top of it. It is next to the Little Colorado and a grazing area. This is an area with high winds and a lot of water erosion, especially during the monsoon season.
Starting in February, I learned how to weld and began building and attaching the metal framework that would hold fabric and masks to the Sam Hill gallery walls.
Here is a very small sample of some of the beautiful masks
Mask artists, clockwise from upper left: Anne-marie Read, Prescott, Arizona; Helen Tiainen, Berkeley; California Noni Floyd, Kailua, Hawaii; Dori Mion, Prescott Arizona.
Eventually, I would receive masks from over 300 people. Here is the list of people who made masks as it appeared with the installation at Coconino Center for the Arts.
A little gallery of the doings in the studio and Sam Hill Gallery, clockwise from top left: the Gibbs-Archer family; helpful Bug; painting a mask; unpacking a box of masks form Washington State; installing masks on cap (last 3 photos by Dana Oswald).
Yellow Dirt Testimony at Sam Hill Gallery
All photographs of the installation at Sam Hill Gallery were taken by Christopher Marchetti
Images below show details of "blast zone" at the base.
Multimedia Production Specialist at the University of New Mexico, Malcolm Benally, is one of the artists that participated in the Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land training and exhibit. Here are a couple of his videos about the project:
This is what I asked
of the mask artists:
•The response could be a word or words, an image, a symbol or anything else you are inspired to record.
- The artists participating in Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land understood that it might be most helpful to the local people affected by the mining to, as much as possible, record a message or symbol of hope; something that represents active peace and honoring the earth, our source of life.
- This may require you to acknowledge and address your own sorrow and anger and shame.
- Please be aware of Navajo prohibitions about depicting people who have passed. Images of death, like skulls, are not used in Navajo culture and should be avoided. Non-Navajos should not reproduce Yei images.
•To provide some visual continuity, I ask that the colors used be limited to:
•Images can be rendered in ink, paint, thread, or whatever else you feel is appropriate. •Each person who participates in this project is making twin commitments: to pay attention and not let something like this happen again, and to be a positive force toward peace. When you make your mask, keep this in mind. You might even want to add a word or thought to the back of the mask that represents what this promise means to you. The names of all participants will be exhibited.
Clockwise from upper left: Rosy Dixon, Prescott, Arizona; Edith Edson, Annapolis, Maryland; Susan Jacobson, Gainesville, Florida; Bobbit Tiller, Cornville, Arizona; Raina Gentry, Prescott, Arizona; Marc Ellen Hamel, Oakland, California.
Left to right: Susan Dillon, Essex, Massachusetts; Nina Perlmutter, Chino Valley, Arizona.
Yellow Dirt Testimony at Coconino Center for the Arts Gallery
In the late fall of 2016 I participated in a heartbreaking and inspiring 4-day workshop – Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land, hosted by Flagstaff Arts Council's Coconino Center for the Arts to educate artists on the impact of uranium mining on Navajo lands and people. The program was designed to give artists a voice in what has been called a slow motion environmental and social catastrophe. Over the course of the training, we heard from medical and environmental experts, talked to Navajo people who had lost family members to radiation sickness, and walked on abandoned uranium mines in the Cameron, Arizona area. I came home exhausted and sad, but also filled with ideas, inspiration, commitment, and the sense that I had found some kindred souls in the art world. One idea took on life in the peculiarly serendipitous way that happens when something is right.
Me and Jenna Trizzino. Tom Fleischner photo.
Artist statement at Coconino Center for the Arts, Tom Fleischner photo.
With special thanks to: Jenna Trizzino, Rosy Dixon, Jan Tomlinson Master, Dori Mion, Ron Miller, Martyn Davies, Aurora Berger, Royce Carlson, Ellen Greenblum, Cynthia DeCecco, Christopher Marchetti, Shawn Skabelund, Travis Iurato, John Tannous, and the Navajo people who shared their stories and continue to live with the legacy.
May all beings be well and safe.
Bows of gratitude and hope to the children at Bluff Elementary School who made turtle shells and overwhelmingly voted to color them green, and at Cedar Tree Montessori School, who put lots of glitter on the birds.
Images below show details of the stem.
Images below show details of the cap and stem
Some close up details of parts of the cloud and masks
Unless otherwise noted, Coconino installation photos are by Tom Alexander.
A 55 page color catalog of the Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned land exhibit is available from the Coconino Center for the Arts by calling (928) 779-2300. The catalog features full color photographs of all artwork in the exhibition in addition to curatorial statement, artists’ statements, foreword, and educational displays.
Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land is a partnership between the Cameron Chapter House of the Navajo Nation, the Flagstaff Arts Council, University of New Mexico Community Environmental Health Program, and Northern Arizona University.