Organizing grassroots groups to protect the Navajo Nation
|"Dineh Bidziil Coalition helps grassroots organizers across the Navajo reservation work together instead of in isolation, and that's very powerful," explains Robert Tohe, a longtime Navajo activist and one of the volunteers who founded DBC in 2000. "In the Navajo language, Dineh (deh-nay) is the word for the people and Bidziil (bid-zeel) means strength — and that's what the coalition is about."|
Bringing the coalition together was no small task. "These groups are scattered across Arizona and New Mexico, "says Robert, "and yet they don't have access to technology such as computers and email, and some don't even have basic infrastructure like phone services and electricity. So our approach was to plan a series of regional meetings to bring people together."
Hazel James, another volunteer and DBC cofounder says the group came together quickly. "We first met with five grassroots groups to discuss the possibility of starting a united front. Within a year, we had 23 groups across the Navajo Nation, and another 13 non-Navajo groups. That's why DBC has been so effective."
Describing DBC's first steps, Robert says, "Initially, we did some long-range planning and identified some of the urgent priorities of each community. Then we prioritized the issues in terms of the feasibility of getting a solution — which things could we actually get done?"
Uranium: The Hot Issue
DBC's most urgent priority soon became clear: uranium mining. Beginning in the 1940's, millions of tons of uranium ore were extracted from Navajo land and used to fuel America's nuclear arsenal. But no one ever told the people of the dangers of radiation poisoning from exposure to the uranium dust covering their communities and entering the waterways, and the result was devastating. Cancer fatalities, once rare among Navajos, skyrocketed. Hundreds suffered and died from respiratory disease. And previously unknown birth defects became common.
The last of the uranium mines closed in the mid 1980's. But recent worldwide interest in nuclear energy has caused the price of uranium to soar, igniting an industry effort to get mines operating again on Navajo land. "Some energy companies are using concern about global warming to revive interest in nuclear power plants as a way to get clean, safe energy," Robert tells us. "But the people calling it 'clean' don't have a uranium mine in their backyard."
Even with the history of uranium's terrible health impacts, coming to consensus among Navajo people about the future of mining is a challenge. "The people need jobs," says Robert, "and tribal government is under tremendous pressure to find revenue sources. Selling our natural resources is an easy solution."
DBC worked tirelessly for two years to get a broad range of community groups and tribal leaders to agree on what should be done, Robert explains. "We worked with Navajo Nation leadership and hammered out the Diné Natural Resources Protection Act of 2005. This act bans uranium mining within the Navajo reservation, and it's a huge statement to the industry. Now, we're working to prevent the mines from operating on land adjacent to the reservation."
In 2006, DBC helped make history again as a principal organizer of the first Indigenous World Uranium Summit held in Window Rock, Arizona, the capital of the Navajo Nation. More than 350 delegates from nine countries and ten Indigenous nations issued a declaration calling for a worldwide ban on uranium mining, citing the disproportionate impact of the nuclear fuel chain on Indigenous communities around the world.
Seva's Support Was Key
"Even though DBC is a volunteer organization, we had a lot of expenses," Hazel explains. "To organize meetings, we had to pay for travel, phones, printing and radio time. We really appreciate the support from Seva because it gave us the means to involve people on the reservation who normally don't come out. Some elders don't have money for gas, but we could pay for them to travel to meetings."
"We were concerned that our issues weren't mainstream enough for most funders," Robert recalls. "When we learned about the ways Seva addresses grassroots issues we thought, 'Wow — this is something new. We can apply our own skills and knowledge, and maintain our identity as we do our work.' Without Seva’s funding I don't think we would have gotten very far."