From the Ground Up: Diné Women Artists Fight for Environmental Justice

Yellow has long been a symbolically significant color within Diné (Navajo) culture, affiliated with Changing Woman, or Asdz ą ą Nádleehé, among the most important of the Diné Holy People, who is often given yellow corn pollen as an offering. She is in many ways a personification of Earth herself, responsible for the changing seasons; for the birth of the original clans from whom all Diné are descended; and for Diné women’s transition through puberty. Yellow is also aligned with one of the four sacred mountains that delineates the parameters of Dinétah, the Diné homelands.

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But in the 20th and 21st centuries, the color yellow has taken on another association: the poisonous dust released by uranium mining and milling that took place on the Navajo Nation—a reservation located on portions of present-day Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah—between 1942 and 1986, initially under the auspices of the Manhattan Project, and subsequently the Atomic Energy Commission, established by passage of the 1946 Atomic Energy Act.

Enriched uranium oxide powder fuels nuclear power plants and, with additional processing, can also be used as the fissile core of nuclear bombs. The United States government therefore put a premium on locating domestic sources of uranium during the early years of the Cold War, and when significant ore deposits were found on Diné territory, federal officials pressured the Navajo Nation Council into leasing the land to mining corporations. Struggling with widespread poverty, misled into believing the mining operations would stimulate economic development, and given no information about the (known) health hazards of such extraction, council members agreed.

Eventually, more than 3,000 Diné were employed in some 2,500 mines in and around the Navajo Nation. While the miners were overwhelmingly male, women’s studies scholar Traci Brynne Voyles, in her 2015 book Wastelanding: Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country, reminds readers that “women were exposed to radioactivity when men came home from work covered in radioactive mud and dust; when they laundered workers’ clothes; when radioactive dust settled onto the swept dirt floors of their hogans, where children played; and when they slaughtered, prepared, and ate contaminated livestock.”

The effects linger today, even decades after the mines’ closure. Due to uranium contamination, dangerously elevated levels of radiation remain in homes, crop soil, livestock, and water sources, causing an array of serious, even fatal, health problems among Diné communities. Diné women, who frequently shoulder the domestic burdens brought about by these issues, have been at the forefront of aesthetic and activist responses in ways that have gone underrecognized.

For the 2017 exhibition “Hope + Trauma in a Poisoned Land: The Impact of Uranium Mining on Navajo Lands and People” at the Coconino Center for the Arts in Flagstaff, Arizona, a group of four artists, including the esteemed Diné weaver Jane Lilly Benale (who died this year in her early 90s), collaborated on a textile-based installation reflecting on how the homes of mine workers were contaminated by uranium dust that clung to their clothes. Titled When They Came Home, the installation took as its point of departure a weaving by Benale. Fiber artist Ann Futterman Collier then produced fabrics that incorporated aspects of the patterning and colors of Benale’s piece, which apparel designer Kim Hahn fashioned into contemporary garments inspired by Navajo dress customs. Collier and Hahn, who are not Indigenous, worked under the direction of Benale’s son, multimedia artist Malcolm Benally, who advised them on how to appropriately incorporate Diné perspectives. In the exhibition, the garments were displayed on a mannequin standing next to Benale’s original weaving, which hung on the wall. As the artists described in a joint statement: “This piece symbolizes the lives of women and the land. The designers were inspired by a Navajo weaver and matriarch; she wove a prayer for the earth and told a story through her voice. When the uranium workers came home, their clothing was tarnished by yellow toxic dust from the mines; the dust stayed in their homes. Navajo women, who keep the home safe, must wear the memories of how their lives were changed.”

A boldly colored wall hanging with stripes and geometric designs hangs on a gray wall and ot the right is a wooden dress stand wearing a dress and capelike coat with Native patterns and a big turquoise necklace.
Ann Futterman Collier, Kim Hahn, Jane Lily Benale, and Malcom Benally: When They Came Home, 2017, dyed wool, silver, turquoise, cotton, and silk organza, dimensions variable.

Weaving is a custom long associated with Diné women’s knowledge production and power. Matrilineal weaving conventions are connected to the very origins of Diné culture: Na’ashjé’íí Asdzáá (Spider Woman) wove the web of the universe, connecting all beings with her skeins and promoting through her cosmic weaving the concept of hózhó. A Diné term with no direct English translation, this notion broadly corresponds with interrelated concepts of harmony, health, beauty, and balance, and is deeply ingrained in Diné worldviews.

Benale was a weaver throughout her life, cleaning, carding, and spinning Churro sheep’s wool into the threads she then wove into conventional geometric designs using a loom of the sort that Diné women have employed for centuries. Benale’s weaving for When They Came Home is in keeping with this historically rooted practice, although the overt political messaging and collaboration with younger, non-Native contemporary artists marks a departure for her oeuvre. Conceived as a visual manifestation of uranium mining and the ramifications of this practice for Diné women, as well as an offering aimed at healing Diné communities destabilized by this extractivism, the top of the piece features a blue expanse divided by two thin, white horizontal lines, which directly beneath gives way to a bright yellow broken up by indigo lines. This is followed by a golden section shot through with thin lines of the same indigo and arrow-like patterning that evokes the goat track and eagle feather designs favored by Benale. The remaining third of the textile shows deep brownish-purple horizontal striping alternating first with sections of red and green, then red and light blue.

Colorways are crucial to interpreting the piece. The artists’ statement continues: “The Diné bloodlines temper the fabric of the brown earth; the life-giving turquoise, the water is just below and on the land. The red streaks running into water are red ochre rock, earth history, bloodlines of strata. Sheep is Life and Water is Life. Growth becomes green pastures, the healing medicinal plants, the juniper and piñon trees. From the blue sky comes the clouds, then rain.” These colors and their symbolic meanings harmonize in the geometric designs of the textile, tempering what might otherwise be an overpowering yellow in the upper portion, while offering the possibility that the yellow hue might evoke not just the damage of uranium mining but also the many positive attributes historically associated with it.

Despite the environmental traumas referenced, Benale’s weaving can also be read as hopeful: perhaps these threads will eventually be woven together to create a restored hózhó as balanced as the even, geometrically precise patterns of the artist’s design. Women may “wear the memories of how their lives were changed,” but they are also descendants of Changing Woman herself: powerful in their ability to dynamically adapt and provide modes of maternal stability for Diné communities past, present, and future.

Dynamic adaption also figures in the works of younger Diné artists who, like Benale, evoke women’s aesthetic customs and responsibilities toward Dinétah—but do so via practices incorporating non-Native contemporary art techniques. Bean (Jolene) Nenibah Yazzie, for example, is known for graphic figurative works that pair Diné cultural signifiers with the punchy pictorial style of comic books, often in ways that emphasize the importance of women’s roles and the fluidity of gender customs in Diné worldviews prior to colonization. Yazzie, an artist, graphic designer, and journalist who identifies as nonbinary, has repeatedly depicted women in roles from which community members other than cisgender men are typically barred today, such as warriors and Yei Bi Chei dancers, even as half-forgotten histories point to their precedents.

As Diné anthropologist Wesley Thomas explains in his 1997 essay “Navajo Cultural Constructions of Gender and Sexuality,” Diné culture acknowledged and celebrated multiple gender identities prior to the 1890s, assigning social responsibilities based on “sex-linked occupation, behaviors, and roles.” Biological sex was just one factor among many, until increasing interaction with Euro-Americans and the imposition of Christianity drove these diverse customs underground.

In an untitled 2020 digital print first produced to accompany an article about the legacy of uranium mining by Navajo pathologist Phillida A. Charley, Yazzie, like Benale, uses colors and forms associated with historical and contemporary Diné symbolism to call attention to the damaging effects of uranium mining and the potential restoration of hózhó, as well as the significant role of women—a role Yazzie characterizes in its preinvasion capaciousness—in these situations. The background of the print suggests the balance and harmony of conventional Diné weavings, featuring a serrated patterning of yellow sinking into deep purple, calling to mind designs referring to sacred mountains that are frequently found in Diné textiles. Looming over the saturated background is a figure rendered in black-and-white, its face obscured by a shadowy mask bearing the international radiation symbol, a trefoil at the center of a small circle.

Radiation hazard signs around the world feature this three-pronged imagery set against a yellow background. The trefoil is typically black, although the earliest radiation symbol developed in the US presented this emblem in magenta, a color that still appears in some American signs—including ones interspersed across the Navajo Nation, imbuing the saturated purple foreground of Yazzie’s work with further indications of the harm uranium extraction entails.

Seen at the face of the figure, the radiation symbol takes on the effect of a mask that may be interpreted in a multitude of ways: it represents the kind of safety equipment denied Diné workers in the mines; the postapocalyptic tenor of a gas mask; and the regalia of Diné Nightway ceremonies, which significantly feature masks. The latter reading calls to mind the Yei Bi Chei, Diné Holy People invoked in Nightway rituals of healing and renewal. During the nine-night winter ceremony, Yei Bi Chei dancers appear in masks topped by dyed sheep’s wool and frequently sport evergreen boughs at the throat of their attire, as can be seen in the print. The dances are accompanied by chants, prayers, and sandpainting, all aimed at restoring balance and health to Dinétah and community members suffering from various ailments—including the environmental damage and health problems caused by radiation.

The gender of the figure in Yazzie’s scene is left visually vague, but today the Yei Bi Chei dancers are typically men. The artist has discussed preinvasion histories of women and nonbinary figures serving in this role, and blames the current rigidity regarding the gendering of this practice on hetero-patriarchal colonial attitudes. For Yazzie, the healing powers of the Nightway ceremony are called upon to restore hózhó in the context of binarized and irradiated bodies—both indicative of infections brought about by colonial forces.

Whereas Benale’s and Yazzie’s works evoke uranium mining through the prominent use of the color yellow, artist-activist Emma Robbins points to the lurking threat posed by invisible environmental contaminants in What You Should Know About Radon (2020). Robbins is an early-career photographer and multimedia installation artist who frequently addresses Indigenous histories, Native womanhood, and environmental issues concerning the Navajo Nation and other reservations. In recent years, she has put her art practice partially on hold after taking a position in 2016 with the human rights nonprofit Dig Deep, where she is currently the Navajo Water Project Executive Director.

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A grid of 18 brochures about radon stitched together into a square.
Emma Robbins: What You Should Know About Radon, 2020, paper brochures and thread, 24½ by 21 inches.

As stated on the Navajo Water Project website, one in three Diné community members lives in a household without running water, an environmental injustice directly related to broken treaty promises made by the US government more than 150 years ago. The Navajo agreed to cede vast swathes of their land in return for what we would today term housing, infrastructure, and health care—needs that were never met. The Navajo Water Project is a community-managed organization aimed at fulfilling those needs even as they highlight the federal government’s failed responsibility to do so.

Given Robbins’s investment in providing clean running water to all Navajo Nation inhabitants, it is not surprising that What You Should Know About Radon, one of the few artworks she has made recently, emphasizes the dangers of elevated radon levels in Navajo Nation water sources, dangers directly resulting from uranium mining. The piece is part of the TSEEBÍÍTS’ÁADAH [18 Lost Treaties] series—a group of works addressing broken treaty promises made in the mid-19th century by the US government to Native Nations of California, and how these histories relate to treaty histories of the Navajo Nations—that Robbins has been working on alongside her Dig Deep responsibilities. In keeping with Robbins’s prior practice as well as her current activist work, the multimedia installation threads together pages from undated pamphlets issued by the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency (NNEPA). The pages, arranged in a six-by-three grid, feature graphs, diagrams, maps, photographs, somewhat absurd cartoon images of houses threatened by radon, and sections of text that define radon as a radioactive gas that “comes from the ground and is found in minerals and soils that have high uranium decay, which produces Radium, then Radon.” Describing where it might be found, the text reads, “It travels upward through the soil and into your homes and buildings through cracks in the floor and walls, openings around pipes, and the water supply.” As opposed to the distinctive bright yellow dust produced by uranium mining, the pamphlets warn of a “radioactive gas that you cannot see, taste, or smell,” and outline associated health risks, emphasizing in particular how the inhalation of radioactive particles leads to lung cancer.

Robbins draws direct connections between her work with Dig Deep, uranium contamination on the Navajo Nation, and loss within her own family and the greater Diné community. The artist has described how she became interested in water issues after her grandmother’s death from stomach cancer attributed to radon-contaminated water, observing: “My story is not unique; that’s something that a lot of us have experienced … loss or illness.” She notes that abandoned mines on Dinétah—left with little to no effort at cleanup after the mid-1980s—“are not labeled well, and a lot of people who don’t have running water might be getting water from these contaminated sources.”

In her installation, Robbins uses eye-catching scarlet threads to underline portions of the text and stitch together the pamphlet pages. The sutures evoke histories of Diné women’s weaving practices and the red earth of Dinétah, but also the violence connoted by this hue—links that Native feminists have argued are deeply interrelated. In the customs of many Indigenous communities across the Americas, women are associated with and derive power from a deep connection with the Earth. Because of this sacred relationship, colonial invaders’ violence against Indigenous lands via conquest, settlement, and development was—and is—inextricably gendered, with legacies of colonial violence persisting in the form of extractivist activity.

Robbins, moreover, points to the burden that the lack of a clean water source places on Diné women, who have historically drawn community influence and leadership responsibilities from their position as caretakers of the home. In a 2021 artist talk, she emphasized how “we’ve been the leaders of our communities, and we are the caregivers of our communities,” noting that “it’s not the idea of the 1960s, stay in the kitchen, take care of your family,” and describing the home as a potent platform from which to provide for kin. When the home is compromised, which is certainly the case when clean water is unavailable, Diné women struggle to fulfill caretaking responsibilities rendered unfeasible by these environmental hazards.

Natani Notah has likewise addressed water contamination from extractivist activities in some of her works. Like Robbins, she is an early-career interdisciplinary artist; she has worked in mediums including photography, video, printmaking, collage, and multimedia sculpture and installation. Notah routinely draws from her identity as a Diné woman in projects that underscore Native histories and cultural continuance. In recent work as well as earlier pieces, her investment in calling attention to the significant role of Diné womanhood intersects with an insistence on accounting for resource extraction on Indigenous lands and the environmental degradation that has ensued.

This manifests in Mama’s Blue (2017) in a manner that can be connected to the water contamination resulting from uranium mining. In the waistband of a long, blue cotton skirt, Notah positions a mixing bowl filled with cloudy water evoking contamination, creating layered associations between Diné women’s sacred role as vessel for gestation and childbirth and the ways in which the pollution of a body of water evinces the injurious pollution of the maternal—and, by extension, social—body. The sculpture hangs from the ceiling via rope supports, suggesting the pulley and pail system of old water wells, while the crisp blue of the skirt connotes the goal of clean water sources even as the unsettlingly murky liquid in the bowl reminds viewers that the water in many Navajo Nation wells remains unsafe for human consumption due to groundwater contamination caused by resource extraction.

While Robbins’s art and activism often point to the caretaking labor of women in the home and the disproportionate burden a lack of safe water represents for them, Notah’s work underscores labor in terms of childbirth and the heartbreaking consequences of using or ingesting poisoned water. Indeed, Mama’s Blue obliquely references the birth defects, reproductive anomalies, and miscarriages reported by Diné women exposed to radiation. The title of the work is purposely vague; Mama’s Blue might refer to her skirt, the clean water she seeks, or her anguished mental state brought on by the loss or poor health of a child.

Voyles observes that Native women are “framing uranium mining as one facet of reproductive injustice” and insisting that environmental justice be considered “not merely as an issue of the distribution of environmental harm, but as evidence of a much larger, systemic problem … of the deeply intersectional nature of race, gender, and reproduction in colonization for women.” She notes that it is from this intersectional condition that Indigenous women have taken up leadership positions in decolonizing activist movements, an observation similarly put forth by Notah, who stresses that women are “the people who are on the front lines” of movements like Land Back—a campaign for Indigenous sovereignty over ancestral lands—while serving as trusted guides in “moving forward from things like uranium mining.”

Spare and elongated abstract shapes on a white background. Two are black and have uneven edges like bird wings. There's a small sign depicted that says Land Back.
Natani Notah: Grabbing for Land, 2022, drawing and collage on paper, 22 by 30 inches.

Notah’s collage Grabbing for Land (2022) references Land Back, uranium mining, and Mama’s Blue. A blue shape connected to thin ropes floats to the left of the scene, calling to mind the earlier installation. Here, the apparatus is held up by a taped sign featuring the words LAND BACK, linking this movement to intertwined issues of reproductive and environmental justice.

Notah states that the piercing yellow shape cutting through the black form at the center of the composition represents “a lightning bolt, a ray of sunshine, and a uranium spill,” connecting natural phenomena (also seen in the tornado form below it) to that of man-made disaster in ways that point to the disruption of hózhó on the Navajo Nation. The yellow construction above can be seen as a mineshaft; it is paired, to its right, with a hogan—a customary Diné housing and ceremonial structure that is here under threat from a huge droplet of contaminated water that can also be read as a bomb. The black form thus denotes the peril of both radiation poisoning and uranium’s use in nuclear bombs. Notah describes the green expanse from which it falls as cropland, further connecting these dangers to Dinétah. Two outstretched, armlike forms reach for this field, representing, on the one hand, colonial invasion and continued land misuse, and, on the other, the restorative potential of Land Back and other initiatives at which Native women are at the forefront.

While the practices of Benale, Yazzie, Robbins, and Notah vary widely, the artists are united in emphasizing the powerful community roles of Diné women and their responsibilities in calling for environmental justice for Dinétah—calls they hope extend past the parameters of Diné communities and Native arts circles and into wider discussions being held on the topics of art, environment, and gender in the Southwest and beyond. In a 2021 statement that might describe the practices of any one of these artists, Notah explains that her work “is heavily steeped in Indigenous customs … but is also able to exist within all circles and have conversations that break down these lines that tend to divide us.” 


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