Leave It in the Ground
by Mary Sojourner
I was half-way through writing this post when I realized I was weary — not fading light weary or tired from a life suddenly too busy — but weary from revisiting yet again a potential atrocity motivated by nothing but greed and political ambition. I’m seventy-one. I was forty-six the first time my friends and I took action to stop uranium mining on sacred lands around the Grand Canyon.
It was 1986, a gorgeous day on the south rim of the Canyon — brilliant sunlight and clear turquoise sky, ravens spiraling down to circle the trees. My friends and I pulled on white radiation suits and gas masks. We linked hands and stepped across the main road in Grand Canyon National Park. A few dozen people waved banners and sang. There was a human raccoon and a human raven laughing up at the scrawwwking birds. A bright red banner read: Uranium? Leave it in the Ground.
The Park police came. My friends and I had, in the tradition of Civil Disobedience, told them of our plan. They knew that eight Earth First! members would face arrest to protect a meadow the Havasupai know is the Belly of the Mother. They knew we were blocking the road to up the ante in stopping a breccia pipe uranium mine from being thrust into the Belly of the Mother.
The arrests were gentle. Perhaps the hardest part was being cuffed behind our backs for the long ride down to the Coconino County Jail. Even that was eased when we saw our support group outside the jail. We were booked. A woman detention officer took me into the Ladies Room to remove my bra. “I know,” she said, “it’s weird. But we have to do it in case you decided to hang yourself.” We laughed. And then for a moment, we were silent. I don’t know what she was thinking, but I had suddenly imagined the other women brought into the jail – not because they chose it. The detention officer leaned in close. “Listen,” she said, “you didn’t hear me say this – lots of us think you guys are great. We’re with you on that uranium business.”
The Hualapai, Havasupai, Hopi, Earth First!, Canyon Under siege and others fought the Canyon uranium mine for four years. We held more demos, filed endless Environmental Impact Statement appeals, gave slide shows around Arizona and wrote articles and press releases. The Havasupai hosted an annual gathering in the big sage meadow at the foot of Red Butte, a sacred site a few miles from the meadow. And a few un-known people monkey-wrenched – cut electrical poles into the mine site, draped buildings with banners that said: Hayduchess Lives. We all held off the mine long enough for the price of uranium to drop. Our victory was not permanent.
* * *
Yesterday I stood with thirty people on a main street in Flagstaff, Arizona to bear witness to a sinister uranium mining proposal designed by two Arizona politicians: “GOP lawmakers led by Senator John McCain (R-AZ) and Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) announced legislation that would open one million acres of public lands forming Grand Canyon National Park’s watershed to new uranium mining. The bill would overturn an existing moratorium on new mining and mining claims and block Secretary of the Department of Interior Ken Salazar’s proposal to extend those protections for the next 20 years.” (Press release issued by the Grand Canyon Trust, October 2011.)
Yet again my friends and I carried bright banners and signs. Yet again we waved at bystanders and smiled. There was no raccoon, nor any raven except the ones dropping to the shopping center parking lot for crumbs. There were two young Dine (Navajo) boys with drums, drums they had been taught to make by Dine activist and musician, Klee Benally. He stood with them, sometimes leading the beat of the drums, sometimes following the boys.
We were Native Americans, Anglos and Hispanics. We were old and young, seasoned veterans of this work and bright-eyed newcomers. People drove by, read the signs, honked and gave us thumbs up — or flipped us off and shook their heads as if we just didn’t get it. High school kids on lunch break stopped to take a sticker and listen to the drumming.
The sun was too bright, my clothes too warm for the day. My legs ached. My hearing aids picked up ravens, traffic, horns and anything that wasn’t the voice of someone I was talking with. I felt cranky and more than a little hopeless. Then Klee began to lead the boys and a dozen of the others out across the road.
The light was green. They stayed in the crosswalk. There were no police, just a brilliant red and yellow banner rippling in the mountain air, people waving signs that said, Protect Grand Canyon — No Uranium Mining, and the two boys and the tall man with their hair tied up in the traditional way, drumming. Norm, my activist friend of twenty years leaned toward me and said, “We just don’t quit, do we?”
In that instant, I remembered the words I’d heard Acoma poet, Simon Ortiz, speak at a lecture a few months earlier: “I believe in land, culture and community. We must behave with continuance — not just with our words, but our actions. Again and again.”
Please join us in fighting Gosar’s and McCain’s plan. For more information and ways to act: www.protectgrandcanyon.org.
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books. She is a National Public Radio commentator and the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.