Lessons from the Navajo: assistance with environmental data collection ensures cultural humility and data relevance in the Navajo Churchrock mining district

Author Name: 
DeLemos, J., Rock, T., Brugge, D., Slagowski, N., Manning, T. and Lewis, J.
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, March 3, 2009
Private File Attachment: 
In 2008 DeLemos and his team partnered with a Navajo graduate student to discover the totality of the affects of Uranium mining on the men who worked inside the mines. The Navajo Nation in the states of New Mexico and Arizona were the major producer of Uranium anywhere in the world. The major warning sign for Uranium poisoning is Renal Failure (disease of the Kidneys in humans) this is a failure to fail to adequately filter waste products from the blood. According to DeLemos et al this would be attributable to environmental or occupational exposures. The objective of this study is to “develop a field and laboratory campaign to characterize both the distribution of uranium contamination and the geochemical controls on uranium mobility from waste sources.” Geochemical controls are defined as a water table that could be changed by excavation. Geochemical is defined as “The chemistry of the composition and alterations of the solid matter of the earth or a celestial body.” Ultimately, the connection between kidney disease and uranium exposure was the objective of this data. The bilingual Navajo student was highly valuable to this project. Because of his knowledge of Native customs and ability to speak with his people, the necessities of the project, namely the digging of earth around culturally sensitive sites was smoothed over. Also the researchers go into the matter of trust, why should they be trusted at all, especially when after the data is collected researchers fade away never to be seen again? From this vantage point, the reader should understand the skepticism of the Navajo. DeLemos and his team here explained how they worked on earning trust with the Navajo. Through assimilation with their culture by doing simple things like avoiding direct eye contact with elders and showing deference to customs they gained some trust. This article also speaks of many ways that the Navajo team member pointed out vegetation, characteristics of land and wildlife. Also listed are stories about things that were avoided so that they could respect Navajo traditions, if they had not made many special considerations the well-being of their team member was threatened at least from the emotional level. This report does not contain a lot of data but the amount of stories could be useful for any non-Native researcher team who wants to earn trust with a Native American community, or from the other side any Native American who wishes to know more about the research process.