'Return of Navajo Boy' results in uranium cleanup

By Cindy Yurth
Tséyi' Bureau

MONUMENT VALLEY, Utah, Aug. 29, 2011

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(Times photos - Cindy Yurth)

TOP: The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working since July on cleaning up the old Skyline Uranium Mine on the Mesa above Goulding's Trading Post. Radioactive tailings are being hoisted by cable back to the mine on top of the mesa, where they are being buried in a sealed pit. The EPA hopes to finish the cleanup by the end of September.

BOTTOM: Teacher and jewelry vendor Mary Helen Begay of Monument Valley, shown with her dog Dexter Jones, has become a spokeswoman for Navajos affected by the uranium industry. This week she was at the Tribal Lands and Environment Forum in Green Bay, Wis., showing "The Return of Navajo Boy" and talking about the uranium issue.

Jeff Spitz wasn't looking for uranium when he made the documentary "Return of Navajo Boy."

The Chicago documentarian had come across an old film clip from the 1950s, and was curious about what had happened to the people in the movie.

But when he got to Monument Valley, he found a story no one could make up - a missing relative who had been adopted by missionaries as a baby, houses built out of waste rock from uranium mines, children who had grown up playing in the tailings, elders who had never been compensated for the damage done to their health.

The resulting film garnered Spitz armloads of awards and an entrée into the prestigious 2000 Sundance Film Festival, but it also gave him a mission. For years, the Cly family had been photographed and filmed and never had a voice. Spitz wanted his film to let them speak and bolster them in their struggle for justice.

A decade after the film was released, many would say, "mission accomplished."

The elder who had been that long-lost baby read about Spitz's film in a newspaper and came home. Because of information documented in the movie, some Cly relatives got their government compensation for uranium exposure.

And, if you drive past Elsie Mae Cly Begay's compound north of Goulding's Trading Post, you will see a long cable extending from her yard to the top of the mesa behind her home, sending bucket after bucket of radioactive mine tailings back to the old Skyline mine whence it came, to be buried in a sealed pit.

But Spitz, and the Clys, too, doesn't feel the satisfaction of a goal reached. For them, the work is just beginning.

"Monument Valley is not the only community impacted by uranium mining," Spitz said in a telephone interview, "and the Clys certainly aren't the only family. It's a huge problem that very few people in this country are aware of."

On the film's Web site, (http://navajoboy.com) Spitz vows, "We will continue filming and raising awareness until all Navajo communities impacted by more than one thousand abandoned uranium mines are cleaned up."

He has allies in the Clys, who aren't going to stop advocating just because their compound is finally being decontaminated.

"People say, 'You're lucky, you got a movie made about you and now people are helping you,'" said Mary Helen Begay, Elsie's daughter-in-law who has become the family spokesperson.

"I say, 'Yes, I know we're lucky. I get to travel all over and tell my story. Now tell me what you need so I can tell them.'"

Begay says she's not capitalizing on the film for her own family, or even Monument Valley.

"I speak for every Navajo across the reservation who has been affected by uranium," she said.

Just Tuesday, in fact, Mary was at the 2011 Tribal Lands and Environment Forum in Green Bay, Wis., showing "The Return of Navajo Boy" and a "webisode" about the cleanup taking place in Monument Valley.

Mary herself has learned to wield a camera and produced the series of webisodes - video clips available online - detailing the cleanup of Elsie's compound. You can see them at http://navajoboy.com/webisodes.

For her, "The Return of Navajo Boy" paved the way to a long-held dream.

"When I was small," said the middle-aged jewelry maker and vendor, "I heard about Annie Wauneka going all over the place advocating for her people's health. I thought, 'I'd like to do that some day, speak on behalf of my people.' So now I'm doing that with the uranium issue."

Mary Begay lost her father, an uncle and a niece to what she believes was radiation-caused cancer, and she herself has patches of red, rough skin that never heal which she believes are a souvenir of all those years playing in the uranium tailings.

And she's well aware she's not the only one.

"If you start asking around Monument Valley, you'll find every single family has lost people," she said. "If you watch 'The Return of Navajo Boy,' a lot of the people in that movie have since passed away."

Both she and Elsie credit "The Return of Navajo Boy" for raising the awareness they needed to get the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up the family's compound. Elsie went with Spitz to show the movie to members of Congress in 2008, after which the cleanup was authorized.

And while they're grateful the area is finally getting the attention it deserves, neither woman is sure the rugged mesa really can be cleansed.

"If you look at the mesa where the machine is, there's lots of little cracks where the machine can't reach," Mary said. "I don't know why they're calling it a cleanup. There's no way to completely clean it up."

And Elsie, who turns 71 this month and so far has had no adverse health effects from the uranium, says she's not budging from the Kayenta trailer the government is renting for her until she's convinced its safe.

"They're going to have to test it and show me the test," she stated.

"The Return of Navajo Boy" will be screened at the Phil in Shiprock on Oct. 21, followed by a public forum on the uranium issue sponsored by the Farmington Public Library.

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