“Contrast the life–giving radiance which comes from nurturing other people and the Earth we share, against death–dealing nuclear radiation -- potent, invisible, lacking in honor.”
- Charles Lawrie
Day 160 - Wednesday, November 29, 1995 - Grandfather Commanda is scheduled to fly home to Ottawa late today. I'm headed back to New Hampshire, and will be able to fly with him for the first leg of the journey, east to to the airline hub in Pittsburgh.
Since our flight takes off late in the day, we have time to adventure. Grandfather, Jacki, Rita and I drove out Interstate 40 from Albuquerque about 50 miles west to the walk’s camp in Paguate, New Mexico.
Our main benefactors in Paguate are Dorothy Purley and her sister, Virginia Romero. They welcomed us warmly, making sure that we met and talked with village leaders.
When we arrived at Paguate, Grandfather Commanda settled down on a stump and offered tobacco to the fire. He was soon joined by Dorothy and Virginia, lifelong residents, who inquired about his health.
The grandmothers said they were happy to receive our Sunbow 5 prayer walk. They said they were hopeful that our prayers and songs would help to awaken the people.
As the afternoon wore on, our conversation broadened, turning to discussion of the amazing, horrifying industrial wasteland surrounding this pueblo.
|Paguate Plaza - Sunbow 5 pilgrims gather round the fire at our camp on the plaza in Paguate. From the left: Jacki Gauger, Virginia Romero, Dorothy Purley, Grandfather Commanda, Rita Sebastian, and Jim Duncan. Author Photo.
Dorothy told us about the open-pit Jackpile uranium mine that had been dug next to her village. She spoke of how life had been for her and Virginia during childhood, when the people grazed sheep on the land, rode horses, planted corn, and were able to drink freely from the creek that ran beside their mesa. That changed when the mine came in and started ripping up the earth for uranium.
For ten years, Dorothy said, she drove a truck and worked as an ore crusher. "They said the mine would make us rich, but I'm still poor and almost everyone around me is dying of cancer and strange diseases," she said.
Dorothy, herself, miscarried three children, and now has been diagnosed with lymphoma cancer. Her brother has cancer and other family members are victims of leukemia, or are diabetics on dialysis.
|The Jackpile Mine -- open-pit uranium mine next to the village of Paguate in the Laguna Pueblo, NM. The mine has since been closed, and the earth smoothed.
Sitting by the fire with Grandfather Commanda and the walkers, Dorothy told us some of what she had said in 1992 when she testified The World Uranium Hearing, held at Salzburg, Austria.
I later researched her testimony:
"My name is Dorothy Purley. I'm from the Pueblo of Laguna. I've lived on the reservation all my life. The village from which I come is called Paguate. It is one of the southern villages located on the Laguna Reservation. It is where you can find the ghost of what was once the Anaconda Jackpile Mine.
"In 1952, when the mine first opened, it seemed like a dream come true. It gave so many of my people on the reservation a chance to find employment without having to venture off the reservation. It was a dream come true to many of us. It never occurred to us that we would soon be putting our lives in jeopardy. It never occurred to us that our children and our grandchildren's lives would be put at risk. All we saw was that we were finally going to be self-sufficient, and that we could finally have some pride in ourselves. We never knew about the dangers in the beginning.
"As years went by, things started to change on the reservation. The mine was in full operation. More and more machinery was being used. More and more of my people were being employed. The Anaconda Jackpile Company started using explosives to loosen and dislodge the beautiful view in the valleys of Paguate. They ripped up land that was once used to plant crops. They tore up orchards filled with fruit. They massacred fields that once held livestock.
"With the mine in full operation, life seemed great for the most part. My people were living comfortably within their fat paychecks. We tried to close our eyes and not notice how our land had been destroyed. All we were concerned about was raising our families. I cannot ever recall anyone talking about radiation or even really knowing about it…
"I recently learned that the Anaconda Jackpile Uranium Company knew about the high levels of radiation as far back as 1953…
"...for a while the Anaconda Company seemed to become obsessed with their pursuit of the uranium. It was in great demand at that time. And we became the largest open-pit uranium mine in the world.
"In about 1970, we started to see and hear about health issues. More and more people started to die of cancer. It was like an epidemic. We started to hear about people being affected by upper respiratory problems like emphysema, tuberculosis, and numerous allergies. Our children and babies were starting to be born with birth defects, mental retardation and heart problems. Childhood leukemia was on the rise. People developed mysterious tumors, skin rashes and skin cancer. We wondered what was going on. We still did not realize we were being poisoned by radiation.
"As time went on, my health started to deteriorate. I started to lose weight, developed a cough that would not go away. I noticed two lumps under my arm and right breast. I was so frightened…
"…I have lost sensation in my hands and feet. I have migraine headaches and I fall frequently. I have to walk with a cane. My vision is blurry and I'm losing all of my teeth. All of these physical hardships can never compare to the time that I may lose with my children and my beautiful grandbabies.
“...For now I place my health in the hands of Great Spirit," Dorothy said as she concluded her testimony. "He is the only one who knows what is in store for me."
Three Rivers tended a pot of chile over our Coleman camp stove, simmering dinner and listening carefully while Grandfather Commanda huddled by the fire discussing these matters with Grandmothers Dorothy and Virginia. Grandfather knows uranium horror stories firsthand, since the lake he lives by in Quebec has been embittered with the stuff.
Later we would all make ceremony together, praying and singing sacred songs for the village, for all the villages and all the people harmed by uranium, and for all those involved in digging it up and putting it out into the world.
In late afternoon Jacki, Rita, Grandfather and I drove back to Albuquerque Sunport. Grandfather and I boared a jet and flew off to the east together.
"I feel a whole lot better than I did last week," Grandfather told me as the plane lifted off. "I feel good now. They are going to make it. I know in my heart they are going to complete the walk."
We had a smooth journey, napping, talking and speculating about how the rest of walk would go. I told Grandfather that after I got back home to New Hampshire, I would start preparing to turn around re-join the walk in late December and then walk till the end.
Note: Dorothy Purley of Laguna Pueblo died of lymphoma on December 2, 1999 at age 60.
Copyright 2006 by Steven McFadden
Read Day 161 -- Odyssey of the 8th Fire