Nuclear buildup sickened his Navajo community. Then it caught up with him.
Activist Earl Tulley fought for justice, then unexpectedly found himself on a scary, uncertain path
Blue Gap-Tachee Community — Growing up in this corner of the Navajo Nation in northeastern Arizona, Earl Tulley experienced all the bounties that the high desert community of sage-covered hills, valleys and plateaus had to offer. He knew that uranium had been pulled from the depths of the mesas here during his Cold War childhood. But only after he graduated from high school, as neighbors and relatives fell ill, did the consequences of extracting this radioactive poison unfold before his eyes.
In the early 1980s, Tulley listened to stories of symptoms as his father, one of the few people in the community with a car, gave a lift to people headed to medical appointments.
He translated as best he could the documents local residents brought him, paperwork with dry language about deadly illnesses. “Can you tell me what this is, what it means?” they asked him.
And he watched his paternal grandfather, a medicine man, perform healing ceremonies to try to restore harmony to those battling diseases that the Diné — the Navajo people — did not have words to describe.
“How do you say cancer in Navajo? How do you say neuropathy?” Tulley said. “What people were being exposed to, there are no words.”
Those exposures never stopped. Private companies extracted an estimated 30 million tons of uranium ore on or near the Navajo Nation from 1944 to 1986, largely for the U.S. government’s nuclear arsenal and in later years for commercial purposes. They left a trail of radioactive waste that — nearly 80 years after the work began — is largely unremediated and is still causing harm, according to the Navajo Nation Environmental Protection Agency.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has identified more than 520 abandoned uranium mines on Navajo land, but it’s likely those numbers are far higher.
Tulley, 63 and an enrolled member of the Navajo Nation, wanted the U.S. government to clean up its mess and do right by the people its uranium development harmed. In 1989 he helped found Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment, which was part of a successful Navajo-led campaign in the mid-1990s to expand a federal radiation program that compensates sickened people and surviving relatives. But many were left out. And the toxic waste remains. He and others kept pushing Congress to act.
Though he spent one summer after high school working in an Arizona copper mine, he’d never worked in the region’s uranium mines or processing mills. He thought he was safe, his advocacy work meant for others in his community.
Then he looked in his bathroom mirror while shaving in the summer of 2020 and noticed the lump near the lower right side of his jawline.
Land that heals and sickens
In Diné bizaad, the Navajo language, Blue Gap is Bis Dootłʼizh Ndeeshgiizh. Some of Tulley’s earliest memories are as a 5-year-old there in the 1960s, shepherding his family’s flock of sheep, roaming the valleys and plateaus. Protecting the flock of sheep taught him to appreciate the responsibilities that came with taking care of another living being, one that relied on the water and grass in his backyard for its survival. He also learned how to live off that land, transforming pinyon pine sap into a gum to seal wounds, harvesting juniper berries and Navajo tea.
For Tulley, the land was a healing pharmacy and a farmer’s market, its bounty freely offered.
But just five miles from his home, danger lurked in plain sight at a uranium mine.
The 17 million-acre Navajo reservation is situated on a uranium mining belt, with deposits that some have described as among the world’s richest. When locked in the rocky formations, uranium is radioactive, but poses far less of a risk to human health than if it’s pulled out. Mining it produces hazardous waste with chemicals that are much more radioactive and toxic.
The dangers “had long been documented in Central European uranium mines,” but the U.S. government alternately ignored and suppressed information that could have saved lives, U.S. Department of Labor historian Judson MacLaury wrote in 1998.
“There was no warning,” said Phil Harrison, whose father died of lung cancer in 1971 after two decades working in a mine that ultimately decimated the population of their Navajo community. “There was no consent.”
In one decades-long study of more than 700 mostly Navajo miners, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health wrote in 2000, “we found over 3 times more lung cancer deaths than expected.”
More research keeps coming, linking these exposures to cancers from breast to bladder. A 2017 study found that Native Americans living near uranium mine waste sites — more than 1,100 of which pockmark the Navajo Nation — have a higher likelihood of developing kidney disease, high blood pressure and other chronic diseases.
That’s because mine waste contaminants don’t stay put. Navajo and U.S. agencies found uranium and other contaminants in 29 water sources on the reservation in 2008. A 2015 study of the abandoned mine waste close to where Tulley was born found high uranium levels in the natural springs three miles away.
The ties binding Tulley to this land are deep and unrelenting. He’s never wanted to leave. When his parents sent him to a Bureau of Indian Affairs boarding school more than an hour away from home in Many Farms at age 8, and then a foster home in Tucson at age 11, he longed to return.
“Is my family thinking about me as I’m thinking about them?” he would wonder, looking up at the moon. “Is the land thinking about me? Will the land recognize me upon my return?”
His parents had a goal for him, he said: to learn all he could, then serve as an interpreter between the rest of the world and his community. He graduated from high school in Tucson and returned to Blue Gap, prepared to step into that role.
His elders taught him that his roots were firmly planted on land that belonged to everybody and had to be protected by all. The names of his clans spoke to the interconnectedness of life: To’aheedliinii, his paternal grandmother’s clan, meaning water that flows together; and Ta’neezahnii, his maternal grandmother’s clan, meaning tangle, akin to interwoven roots.
In his 20s, he was learning how Cold War decisions made in Washington, D.C., were rippling in tragic ways for his community and the broader Navajo Nation.
The breakthrough for him came after he moved in 1986 to Rock Springs, New Mexico — a 150-mile drive from Blue Gap — with his children and their mother, Leila Help-Tulley, to be closer to Help-Tulley’s clan. Their home, still within the Navajo Nation, is about 10 miles from the Church Rock area where uranium was mined for decades. Church Rock is where, in 1979, a dam failure released more than 1,000 tons of uranium waste and radioactive water into the nearby Rio Puerco, contaminating the riverbanks and wells on Navajo land. The nuclear spill remains the largest in U.S. history.
Living so close to yet another mine triggered Tulley’s involvement in the movement to address uranium contamination throughout the Southwest. Once again, he heard testimonials from family members and residents diagnosed with different forms of cancer, many of them women with breast cancer. He started connecting the dots. For the first time, he wondered whether the high cancer rates were linked to uranium exposure and radiation fallout from the nuclear tests of the 1940s through the 1960s.
In 1990, after years of pressure from advocates and miners, Congress passed the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act to provide what it called “partial restitution.” But many sickened people were left out. Tulley and others pushed throughout the 1990s to include them, winning a partial victory in 2000 when the law was amended to add mill workers and uranium ore transporters, and to compensate miners with diseases that weren’t on the original list.
Some remain left out, either because their exposures came in areas not covered by earlier legislation or because they worked in the industry after 1971, the year the U.S. government stopped procuring uranium for its atomic weapons program.
“How much is a human life worth to them?” said Tommy Reed, a post-1971 uranium miner who worked 12- to 16-hour shifts in several New Mexico mines.
Reed, among the Navajo mineworkers petitioning congressional members to expand eligibility, said he’s continued to speak out because he’s lost so many friends and family to uranium-related diseases. There are days when he can’t sleep, his respiratory ailments making breathing a struggle. He wants the United States to hear the stories of this as-yet-unwritten chapter.
“They put us in harm’s way,” Reed said. “How do you rectify it?”
Tulley kept advocating for the mineworkers. He called for an end to the mining. He ran for vice president of the Navajo Nation, the first environmentalist to be part of a presidential ticket.
All along, he worried for other people’s health, not his own. Blue Gap is near a mine and downwind of the region where atmospheric atomic testing took place, but just eight years of his early childhood and a portion of his early adulthood were spent year-round there.
When he first discovered the lump on his jaw, pressing at it with the pads of his fingers, he thought it was a dental cyst related to a toothache. He traveled to an urgent care center, where doctors said the lump could be an abscess and prescribed antibiotics. Soon the marble-like lump shrank.
But later that fall, he felt the lump again.
It was November 2020, well into a global pandemic that posed particular threats for the Navajo people living near abandoned mines and cut off for decades from clean water supplies because of uranium groundwater contamination. At least 15% of homes in the Navajo Nation lack running water, a problem that weighed on Tulley, who feared the number was far higher. To help, he was working to join the Navajo Nation Water Rights Commission to examine water rights and quality issues.
The lump felt like a distraction in the midst of all that. But by Christmas, as he played with his young grandchildren, he realized he needed answers about what was ailing him.
Several of his grandchildren were nearly as old as he was when he first started shepherding his family’s flock of sheep. He thought about their future — a future without him.
“If it is cancer, am I still going to be here?” he thought. “I better do this for them, do it for myself.”
January, February and March brought a series of tests, including a biopsy of the lump and a warning that he might have lymphoma. Tulley’s first question as he reeled from the news: “So is that better than cancer?’” The doctor clarified. Lymphoma is cancer, a sort that starts in the lymph system.
He finally received an official diagnosis in April: It was an aggressive form of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Cancerous lumps dotted his jawline, back and stomach.
The role reversal felt destabilizing: from an advocate for patients to a patient himself.
“I did not know what anxiety was,” he said. “I did not know what some of these people were dealing with, ’til I went through it myself.”
A cancer across the land
So many with cancer on the reservation saw their diagnosis as a death sentence. Too often, they were proved right.
“Prior to uranium mining, Navajo people were virtually cancer-free with the lowest lung cancer rate of all Native American nations,” Nez said.
In the spring of 2021, Tulley’s prognosis looked bleak. Telling his family was the hardest part: They had no illusions about the difficult road ahead because they’d traveled it already.
His wife survived a painful battle with breast cancer in the late 1990s, and his children’s maternal grandmother died of lung cancer. The Tulley children were by her side during the final hospice-care stage of the disease.
His eldest daughter, Crystal Tulley-Cordova, is a scientist well aware of the increased cancer risks that uranium mining wrought. But she hadn’t thought both her parents would be struck.
“You just don’t anticipate that it’ll ever be you,” said Tulley-Cordova, 39, a mother of two.
Wondering how his family would manage financially without him, Tulley thought of the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act. He reviewed mounds of paperwork, trying to figure out if and how he might qualify, then set the documents aside as he dealt with his treatment. But as his hair started to fall out from the chemotherapy, he decided he could wait no longer. That June, he finally sat down to apply for the RECA program he’d helped expand and never thought he’d need.
“I guess it’s my turn,” he thought. “Little did I know that whatever I was defending, I would be defending for myself today.”
The clock was ticking. The program was set to expire in July 2022.
For years Tulley and a cadre of other Navajo advocates, Harrison among them, repeatedly urged Congress to extend RECA and expand its eligibility. Uranium-sickened people fall between the gaps of RECA qualification rules all the time. They didn’t live in the right place or work during the specified years. Or, especially problematic for Navajo applicants, they lack documentation such as a government-issued birth certificate or pay stubs from mining companies that didn’t issue them.
About 39,000 people had been approved for RECA benefits as of May 2022, most of whom lived in areas affected by atomic tests. Uranium workers, who are denied at higher rates, make up less than a quarter of approvals.
And contracting a disease RECA recognizes as radiation triggered after living close to old uranium mines doesn’t qualify a person for help, despite the studies showing radioactive material leaching into water and releasing carcinogenic radon gas into the air.
The federal government “did a lot of damage,” said Harrison, a head consultant for the Navajo Uranium Radiation Victims Committee, who has pushed for true restitution since 1982. “Here it’s 70 years and really nothing has come our way yet with a capital J in justice.”
Between chemotherapy appointments, Tulley kept track of the RECA-related bills wending their way through Congress. But he focused most of his time encouraging Diné men to get screened for cancer and other uranium-related diseases, and to apply for RECA if they fit the parameters. At the market or the lumberyard or the gas station, he struck up conversations with people he knew, sharing his own experience as a cancer patient to lift the veil.
Many of the men assumed that a cancer diagnosis loomed in their future. The history of diagnosis followed by death in their community — the translation of “cancer” in Diné bizaad came to be “the sore that never heals” — made people put off screenings. “They’re afraid,” Tulley said.
The treatments fatigued him. He lost sensation in his feet, his fingernails turned black, and his hands were unable to grip items. He lay in bed at night, sleep stolen by anxiety. But he had reason to hope that his RECA application would get approval under the imperfect existing program.
Blue Gap was in the fallout zone from atomic weapons tests north of Las Vegas in the 1950s and early 1960s, before he left for school. That made him a “downwinder” by the U.S. government’s definition, which RECA does cover.
In late August last year, he opened a letter from the attorney he hired to help him navigate the process. “I am pleased to inform you that the above-referenced claim for compensation under the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act has been approved in the amount of $50,000,” his attorney wrote. Tulley would receive $45,000 after the attorney’s fees were deducted.
The letter he held in his hands was an acknowledgment of the U.S. government’s role in his suffering. He thought of the people who had already received their own letter, and all those who also suffered but never got one. He thought of Navajo women unjustly blamed by doctors for miscarriages or for their children’s health problems.
He didn’t expect to win his battle against cancer, but the letter reminded him what he was fighting against.
“I am collateral damage from the Cold War,” he said.
Finding a way home
Tulley’s long, silver-frosted black hair came out in tufts in the early stage of chemotherapy for his cancer. He looked at the strands in his hands, thinking of how his late mother never let a stray hair drift away in the wind. She would place her fallen strands in the hearth instead.
Your hair represents your thoughts, your creativity, your smarts. He recalled that explanation as she burned her hair strands to protect that knowledge.
The time had come to cut off his braid, he decided. He would take it to Blue Gap when the time seemed right and burn it in his family’s hearth, where the clan’s elders had offered prayers for generations.
By that point, May 2021, he couldn’t drive because his ability to grip the steering wheel had faded. But with help from family, he made the two-hour trek to Blue Gap from Rock Springs, New Mexico, as often as he could. When his energy allowed, he slowly restored his parents’ home. Or he walked the land in solitude, passing the sandstone outcrop near one edge of the Tulley homestead where several generations of the clan inscribed their names.
Where would he be in a month, he wondered? Six months? A year?
Home, he thought. One way or another.
As a child who grew up roaming the land in Blue Gap, Tulley developed a keen sense of direction, using the ridge near his home as a polar star to guide him through the foothills. Once, succumbing to the childhood temptations that came with this freedom, he lost track of his flock of sheep.
As the last glints of tangerine light disappeared on the horizon, 5-year-old Tulley arrived home in tears, hoping that someone else had led the sheep to safety. Why are you crying? his grandmother asked him. “I’m scared,” he answered.
“Those are your ancestors,” she told him, pointing into the night sky. “Look at the moon up there. That’s your grandfather.”
And then she shared a prayer that illuminated the possibilities that exist even during life’s bleakest moments. Nearly six decades later, Tulley stood on that same land and repeated the prayer: “It’s darkness, my grandfather. Keep me warm with your embrace. Keep me warm right here,” he said, gesturing to his heart. “Have that space for me.”
He remembered how his grandmother then sent him into the night. “Go back after the sheep,” she instructed him. “Look at that moon up there. Look at that moon. Your grandfather is with you. He’ll always be with you.”
He took it as a lesson to persist. And that no matter where life took him, the moon was there to show him the way home.
He pushed through chemotherapy, finishing in the summer of 2021. Then came a series of tests to see if the treatment had been successful.
His oncologist called him into her office at the New Mexico Cancer Center in Gallup in early October. She had the results.
His daughter Crystal joined him as she had for many of his other medical appointments. Tulley arrived wearing a navy blue suit, with a striped pocket square tucked in his lapel, and a double dragonfly necklace symbolizing the rainmaker who refreshens life.
He sat on the examination table, worrying.
There were no more signs of cancerous cells in his body, his doctor told him. His cancer was in remission.
Tulley, astonished, wondered exactly what that meant.
“I’m thinking: remission for life? Remission for a week?” he said. “I wanted more, knowing that I got a ticket to the dance, but when is the dance going to start? How long is the dance going to last?”
There was no easy answer to that. The cancer could return at any point, the doctor explained.
But at that moment she could give him a clean bill of health.
Tulley glanced at his daughter, always level-headed and measured, and saw her emanating relief. He looked down at the examination table and couldn’t help but imagine all of the cancer patients who had sat there in this exact spot.
This is a spiritual place, he told his doctor. Tulley could sense the prayers and petitions of the patients who had come before him.
Long ago Tulley’s people would travel high into the mountaintops to call forth the rain for the survival of the community, making offerings of white shell, jet, abalone and turquoise. That day, he too sent forth a petition, just as his ancestors once did by letting the wind carry their songs and prayers into the universe. His request: that local tribal leaders would gather momentum in their push to expand RECA before the program expired.
The offering at Blue Gap
As the sun rose on his family’s homestead in Blue Gap on an icy Saturday morning in December, Tulley gathered with his wife and their daughters, son-in-law and grandchildren at the hearth near the front porch where generations of Tulley’s family held ceremonies.
They were there to celebrate Tulley’s birthday. And right in this moment, to mark what he had gone through to get there.
The flames crackled, burning the juniper and oak logs that Tulley had chopped on site. His family stood solemnly in a circle around the fire.
Tulley directed his words to his 6-year-old grandson, Naabaahii, explaining that the hearth was where the family performed a ceremony when Naabaahii’s mother, Crystal, came of age. It’s where they offered prayers for family members fighting in U.S. military wars and for relatives who needed healing.
“The fire represents a place where you’re going to make your offerings,” Tulley told him as he reached into a string bag and pulled out his braid, a reminder of his chemotherapy. He handed it to Naabaahii and his son-in-law, Victor. “The hair strands, each one of them have a representation as to what your actions are, what your thoughts are.”
Naabaahii and Victor placed the braid atop the fire, and the flames enveloped it.
“So now the new journey begins,” Tulley said.
Later that morning, he set off on a walk up a muddy slope of the Tachee Wash canyon to Claim 28. Federal contractors mined it for uranium and vanadium in the 1950s and 1960s. Today it’s fenced off with a stern sign warning “DANGER,” though the chain link offers no protection to nearby residents from contaminants spread by rain and wind.
University of New Mexico scientists found hazardous levels of heavy metals, uranium and vanadium on the site’s waste dump, estimated to be as high as 200 feet.
“When we were growing up, we weren’t told anything,” Tulley said, looking past the fence. Some residents used mine tailing pile waste to construct their homes, he said — waste that was later found to be radioactive.
Across the road from the site, on the farm where she was raised, 76-year-old Sadie Bill jabbed a shovel into frozen water in the metal trough for her cows. She wanted to break up the ice so they could drink it. In the meantime, a handful of her cows were lapping up the water in a nearby pond that she feared the mine had contaminated.
“There’s no way that I can prevent them from going over there,” Bill told Tulley, describing how other animals, including deer, coyotes and dogs, also drink from the pond.
After the mining began, the water running off the site looked yellow, she said. Her family’s pond turned a shade of rust. Calves were born with deformities, such as three legs. Diseases plagued her family: cancer, miscarriages, early death. It wasn’t until the 1980s that they learned of the toxic waste in their own backyard.
In the 1950s, Bill’s father worked at Claim 28. He later applied for RECA benefits but was denied because he lacked the documents to prove he worked there. The mining company offered slips of paper as compensation that the miners used to purchase items at the local trading post, so the evidence needed to verify their employment was lost, Bill said.
Nearly two years ago, Bill and her sister applied for RECA, hoping to receive compensation on behalf of their father. They’re still waiting for a response.
And for the mine to be remediated.
All Bill can do now is fill her troughs with fresh water and hope for the best. “I have no choice,” she said.
Tulley questions whether remediation efforts will ever restore the land to the point that it’s safe for humans and animals. His greatest concern is the potential for uranium waste to take hundreds if not thousands of years to decay.
“The EPA basically just does the bare minimum, and they don’t fully go in there and clean up,” Tulley said. “So our communities are still going to be exposed.”
What will be done to address the contamination at Claim 28 is still unknown. The U.S. EPA halted most fieldwork in the Navajo Nation during the pandemic due to travel restrictions, with some resuming at Claim 28 earlier this year. More is expected next spring and continuing through 2024, including investigations of groundwater, surface water, soil and sediment, an EPA spokesman said in an email.
Only after completing the field investigations will the agency determine whether remediation is necessary. That means such work is years off.
The lack of progress weighed on Tulley. He worried, too, about the RECA program. On that day in December 2021, it was set to expire in seven months.
Later, while in Washington, he would petition congressional staff for support of a bill to keep the program going and expand it to more mineworkers and downwinders. Ultimately, he would watch as the legislation failed to advance. Congress kicked the can down the road, pushing the expiration date to July 2024.
He had more battles ahead of him.
But now, in Blue Gap on a chilly winter day, he had a walk to take. He led Naabaahii to the place where several generations of the Tulley family have etched their names onto a sandstone outcrop. Tulley moved with the deliberation of a man who has traversed the land many times. Naabaahii scrambled behind his grandfather to catch up, taking Tulley’s hand as he did.
Tulley knows that each ceremony, each story, each memory could anchor his grandchildren to this land that needs them, just as it did for him.
It’s no longer possible to go to the nearby stream and drink water as he once did, nor cast a line into a lake without wondering if the fish have been poisoned.
But it is home. And you don’t give up on that.
Today his daughter Crystal is the principal hydrologist for the Navajo Nation, while daughter Nikki is a doctoral student at the University of Arizona, researching how climate adaptation influences water resource management approaches in Indigenous and rural communities. They wanted to pursue water-protection careers after seeing the environmental impacts of mining and the challenges of accessing clean water. Cancer’s harsh toll on their family members showed them the value of data on the link between the environment and people’s health.
Tulley hopes his grandchildren will take up the mantle in their own time.
When he and Naabaahii arrived at the golden plateau, Tulley helped him settle on a spot. Naabaahii crouched, his measured breaths and repeated scrapes of a small screw against the sandstone the only sounds as he etched his name onto a tiny section of the massive slab.
When he finished the first letter, Naabaahii blew the grains of sand across the rock and looked at it with satisfaction.
“I bet it’s going to be here a long time,” he told his grandfather.
Now, in the winter of his life, Tulley doesn’t know how much time he has left on earth to see his work through. But his grandson affirmed his belief that it will continue. Throughout Tulley’s illness, Naabaahii, whose name means “defender,” became his shadow, sensing what his grandfather needed and chanting, “I want to help.”
One day when he’s gone, Tulley hopes that Naabaahii will stand here at Blue Gap, look up into the night sky and remember that his grandfather is there to guide him no matter what path he takes.
This story was published in partnership with ICT, formerly Indian Country Today, a nonprofit news organization that covers the Indigenous world with a daily digital platform and weekday broadcast.
Reprinted by permission of The Center for Public Integrity.