Excerpt from Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak, plus links to reviews, author biography & more

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Yellow Dirt

An American Story of a Poisoned Land and a People Betrayed

by Judy Pasternak

Yellow Dirt
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  • First Published:
    Sep 2010, 336 pages
    Jul 2011, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Stacey Brownlie

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Print Excerpt

The Indian never watched them work again.

How could he know that the white men were afraid, not of him but of themselves? They feared that they might slip and reveal their purpose.

If asked, the white men had been told, they should explain that they worked for an international mining concern. They were given a name for this company, Union Mines Development Corp., and ample care had been taken to create proof of its existence. The firm had a real headquarters on the eighteenth floor of a real building, at 50 East Forty-second Street in far-off New York City. Union Mines even set up a regional office, in the First National Bank Building, suite 404, in the Colorado peach town of Grand Junction. The men were based there.

Union Mines, they were to say, was scouring all of Planet Earth for tungsten, molybdenum, and vanadium. The last mineral on the list, at least, was familiar to the Navajos. They knew that vanadium was helping to win World War II where many of their sons and grandsons were serving. This vanadium, mixed into steel, could harden the armor that protected Navy warships. They knew, too, that vanadium did lie under the soil of Diné bikeyah, the Home of the People.

Navajos had a complicated history with white men who wanted to exploit their resources. During the uninvited march of European and American pioneers across the continent, they had endured much for their territory: fierce canyon fighting, defeat, and bitter exile, only winning return in 1868. They’d been expelled, in part, to stop their merciless raids on settlers and neighbor tribes. But they’d also been removed so covetous outsiders, who suspected that the Diné lived atop vast stores of oil and gold, could try their luck with the land. Yet, alone of all the Indian tribes forced from their homes, the Navajos had come back to the one place where they belong. They could abide once more in their holy land, granted to them by their Creators, with a treaty that made the United States their guardian and protector in exchange for peace. Yet the grab for what lay underneath their reservation continued.

Prospectors kept appearing, and individual Navajos felt free to show their displeasure in the old fierce way; some trespassers never got back out. More than once, the federal Guardian tried to take decision making over minerals out of Navajo hands, but during the 1930s, the tribal council made clear, first off, that the delegates should have the last word, and next, that they rejected new exploration on the Dinétah in no uncertain terms.

It was a madman in Germany who changed their minds. In 1940, as the great conflict with the Nazis cast its shadow beyond Europe, the tribal council voted to express full support for the United States. The delegates took their treaty seriously. “Be it resolved,” the council promised, “that the Navajo Indians stand ready . . . to aid and defend our government and institutions, and pledge our loyalty . . .”

After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor and America jumped into a two-front war, the Navajos backed their sentiments with concrete sacrifice. They offered up their young men, and they offered up their language. Navajo Code Talkers passed important messages back and forth in the Pacific, their words inexplicable to the enemy listening in.

And if vanadium could help, then vanadium the Guardian would get. In 1941, the tribe reversed its longtime anti-mining stance and authorized the secretary of the interior to issue leases to the highest bidder on the Navajos’ behalf.7 When the men of Union Mines showed up, vanadium mining had just begun on the reservation. Another white-man-New-York company, the Vanadium Corp. of America, had contracted the previous year for several Navajo properties and was already hiring locals to dig out the ore.

So the Union Mines story was plausible. It should be easy to accept that a second business wanted to get in on this patriotic market.

Excerpted from Yellow Dirt by Judy Pasternak. Copyright © 2010 by Judy Pasternak. Excerpted with permission by Free Press, a Division of Simon & Schuster, Inc.

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