In 1950, Hosteen Nez found a yellowish rock outcrop not far from Cameron, Arizona. His people, the Diné, called it leetso. Ten years earlier that find would have been no big deal. But with the Cold War heating up, Nez suspected this was the valuable ore geologists said contained uranium.
It marked the beginning of a decade-long boom. A hundred mines opened around what had been a remote crossroads; collectively the mines produced more than a million pounds of uranium. And it was the beginning of a much longer legacy of radioactive and toxic contamination in the region.
In the 1950s the federal Atomic Energy Commission was buying all the uranium ore it could for weapons. The Colorado Plateau was ground zero—prospectors scoured the plateau from horseback, jeep, and small aircraft, looking for signs of radioactivity.
Some found it. A handful became rich. But most miners, or community neighbors, didn’t know the risks.
The mines were poorly ventilated and miners didn’t wear respirators. People knew little about how uranium produces radon gas that can enter lungs and cause cancer, or how long it lingers in the environment.
Today, Cameron and other places continue to face the long-term health effects of uranium contamination in soil and water. To learn more about this story, check out the new exhibit Hope and Trauma in a Poisoned Land.