Festival brings together tribes to discuss uranium impacts, Bears Ears

(Zak Podmore | The Salt Lake Tribune) Hopi artists Ed Kabotie and Ryon Polequaptewa perform at the Rumble on the Mesa festival in Bluff, Utah, on Sept. 28, 2019.

Bluff • Tribal members from around the Colorado Plateau gathered in Bluff on Saturday for a day of music, traditional dances and presentations from activists and academics.

The event was organized by Tewa and Hopi artist Ed Kabotie, lead singer of the Arizona-based reggae-rock group Tha ’Yoties, who performed songs throughout the day at the Bluff Community Center.

For the past five years, Kabotie has hosted Rumble on the Mountain, a mix of cultural celebration, musical performances and presentations on environmental issues — which Kabotie calls “edu-tainment” — in Flagstaff, Ariz. Saturday’s gathering was the first time the event was held in Utah.

“The purpose of Rumble events is to tell our story from our perspective,” Kabotie said. “Our voice as opposed to the voice of a textbook.”

Kabotie identified two major themes for the Rumble on the Mesa event: the reduction of Bears Ears National Monument and the ongoing legacy of uranium production around the Four Corners area.

He noted that President Donald Trump’s decision to cut Bears Ears to 15% of its original size in 2017 came after a lobbying effort from the uranium company Energy Fuels Inc., which owns the White Mesa Mill between Ute Mountain Ute lands and Blanding. The mill is the last conventional uranium mill still operating in the United States, and Energy Fuels also owns mines near Bears Ears and Grand Canyon National Park, though neither is currently producing uranium ore.

Justin Secakuku, a school teacher on the Second Mesa of Hopi, brought in Hopi youth with the Antelope Track Dance Group to perform an elaborate story-dance of a rainstorm forming and dispersing.

“These different areas were once inhabited by our great-great-grandmothers and grandfathers,” Secakuku said of the landscape around Bluff, including Bears Ears National Monument. “The way we write our history is a little bit different. We don’t write it in books; we write it on the walls.”

Secakuku’s words were echoed by Hopi archaeologist and river guide Lyle Balenquah, who gave a slideshow about the Bears Ears cultural landscape.

“A big question people sometimes ask is: The [political boundaries of] Hopi are 200 miles south of here ... how is it that you are connected to this landscape that is far outside your boundaries?” Balenquah said. He described how traditional knowledge — oral history, songs and prayers — is being collected from tribal members and field-proofed against features on the landscape.

By way of example, Balenquah showed a map of the migration route his clans — the Bamboo, Bow and Greasewood clans — took according to oral histories. The map illustrated the clans traveling over many generations from Central Mexico north across Arizona to Navajo Mountain, through the Bears Ears landscape to what is now Arches National Park. The clans then passed back south through Mesa Verde and Chaco Canyon before settling on the Hopi mesas.

“We don’t want to just say we’re going to draw a boundary around the [cultural] site,” Balenquah said of the Hopi Tribe’s involvement in consulting on landscape-level preservation. “We’re looking at these issues on a very large scale.”

The event’s focus shifted more specifically to uranium production issues when Kabotie showed two short films produced by Grand Canyon Trust: “Too Precious to Mine,” which documents Canyon Mine’s potential impacts on water sources in the Grand Canyon, and the “Half Life: The Story of America’s Last Uranium Mill,” which discusses concerns raised by the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe over water and air contamination from the White Mesa Mill.

Former Havasupai Council member Coleen Kaska traveled from Supai Village to speak at the event. She told the story of attending the Standing Rock protests in 2016 with her elderly father and linked the protests against the Dakota Access Pipeline to the fears of water contamination her tribe has with regard to Canyon Mine.

Alicyn Gitlin, Grand Canyon program coordinator for the Sierra Club, explained that Canyon Mine has sunk a 1,400-foot-deep shaft through an aquifer that is potentially linked to the world-famous springs and waterfalls in Havasu Canyon, but the mine has not yet started production due to low global uranium prices.

In July, Energy Fuels and another uranium company, Ur Energy, were denied a petition they submitted to the Trump administration that would have required domestic nuclear power generating stations to buy more domestically mined uranium. Trump ordered the creation of a nuclear fuels working group, however, which could find alternative ways to boost domestic mining.

Darphene Badback, a member of the Ute Mountain Ute Tribe and resident of White Mesa, spoke about his late uncle, Norman Begay, who helped defeat a plan to transfer radioactive waste from Monticello to the mill site north of White Mesa in 1994. Badback expressed worries that aging liners under the White Mesa Mill’s tailing ponds could lead to irreparable groundwater contamination.

Rumble on the Mesa also featured live art from Diné (Navajo) painter Jerrel Singer as well as a musical performance from Hopi artist Ryon Polequaptewa. The event was followed by an evening concert with Tha ‘Yoties at the Bears Ears Education Center.

Zak Podmore is a Report for America corps member and writes about conflict and change in San Juan County for The Salt Lake Tribune. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps keep him writing stories like this one; please consider making a tax-deductible gift of any amount today.