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The fear of abandoned uranium mines is changing mutton diets in the Navajo town of Cameron

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

A symphony of shears crescendos from snipping through the thick, curly wool of 134 Navajo-Churro sheep as thunderclouds roll in. Diné creation stories tell of deities scooping clouds to form the bodies of sheep before the wind swept through, breathed first air and brought them to life.

Known as the Holy People, the deities used all types of clouds — from day and night, storms and dusk — to form different-hued sheep that Navajos would ultimately shepherd on Earth.

Now, Navajo sisters Denise Rosales and Lori Curley shear these sacred animals every Mother’s Day weekend. Theirs is one of the last sheep-herding families in Cameron, Arizona.

Navajo sisters Lori Curley (left) and Denise Rosales stand inside a pen with 48 sheared Navajo-Churro sheep, part of Flocks of Grace, an annual weekend gathering in honor of their late grandmother Grace Tsinnie Yellowmexican.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Navajo sisters Lori Curley (left) and Denise Rosales stand inside a pen with 48 sheared Navajo-Churro sheep, part of Flocks of Grace, an annual weekend gathering in honor of their late grandmother Grace Tsinnie Yellowmexican.

“People long ago had a lot of sheep, and most of them are gone,” said Cameron Chapter president Charlie Smith. “As far as livestock is concerned, I think there’s not that many owners anymore, like sheep, for sure.”

But each May, Curley and Rosales invite their family, closest friends and relatives from near and far to shear together. They call the group ‘Flocks of Grace,’ named as a tribute to their late grandmother Grace Tsinnie Yellowmexican, who passed away in 2017.

They’ve kept this centuries-old tradition alive at a time when raising sheep on the reservation has been in decline for several reasons.

Fewer and fewer Navajos, especially elders, are willing to herd flocks. It’s too laborsome, time-consuming and expensive. But here, in the Western Navajo Agency, there’s one toxic explanation above the rest.

“You have to be really careful,” said Curley, “because you don’t want the sheep to eat there. It’s a big concern, but I believe the younger generation don’t really wanna take care of it.”

More than 500 abandoned uranium mines are on the Navajo Nation, but more than a fifth of them can be found in Cameron, almost all of which have yet to be cleaned up.

There are no abandoned mines around her home site near the Little Colorado River, Rosales shared, so she feels safe. But some of her neighbors, who also own sheep, aren’t so lucky.

“If you go up, there’s, like, a hundred posts that say uranium,” said Rosales. “I was like, ‘Just to let you know, if you ever butcher, don’t ever invite me.’”

More than 500 abandoned uranium mines have been found on the Navajo Nation.
Environmental Protection Agency
More than 500 abandoned uranium mines have been found on the Navajo Nation.

That’s because the sheep are potentially ingesting this radioactive, heavy metal through the water they drink and the vegetation they eat. An estimated 8,000 Navajo-Churro sheep roam what is the largest reservation in the U.S. today.

For centuries, mutton has fed Navajo families and wool has kept them warm ever since these animals arrived at Diné Bikéyah in the Southwest with Spanish conquistadors during the 16th century.

The Diné Network for Environmental Health Project identified that herding and sheltering animals near abandoned uranium mines and waste sites increased health risks for livestock owners, like hypertension, diabetes and chronic kidney disease.

This fear of uranium contamination and exposure has shaped everyday life through food. Mutton, or meat from mature sheep, is a staple in Diné society, but also a dwindling tradition that has been shrinking in supply.

Raising livestock is risky. And rarely done for profit, with most Navajo sheep herders leading subsistence lifestyles, supplying just enough meat for themselves and their relatives, especially for ceremonies, special gatherings and holidays.

Grey Farrell is one of the Navajo Federally-Recognized Tribes Extension Program agents at the University of Arizona Cooperative Extension.

“People still raise livestock, and they still consume it, because nobody told them not to,” said Farrell. “I mean, they’re probably concerned, and then just hoping and wishing that the meat is safe, but they don’t have a choice, you know.”

Utco Uranium Corporation miners work to extract ore near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956.
Fronske Studio/Cline Library at Northern Arizona University
Utco Uranium Corporation miners work to extract ore near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956. 

Now, this tradition might be tainted and under threat.

“Years ago, when we didn’t have a lot of grocery stores, most people were completely dependent on sheep, cattle and goats,” Farrell explained. “There's really no full-time sheep herders anymore. Things have changed.”

He’s based in Tuba City, some 25 miles north of Cameron. This town used to be a thriving agricultural hub for sheep decades ago, with large lamb sales each fall, “but now, there’s, there’s nothing,” said Farrell.

Except for a handful of vendors, who sell meat to a roadside stand, affectionately referred to by Cameron locals as the Yummy Shack, along U.S. Highway 89.

Elsewise, there’s not much more to eat around there, in the town home to less than 900 residents, aside from a Burger King at a Chevron gas station and the Cameron Trading Post. This spring, its restaurant tried sampling something new: A mutton dish as a Saturday lunch special.

Almost 90 orders sold out in a couple of hours.

“And it did pretty good. A lot of locals came out,” said restaurant manager Treva Walker, who gave this disclaimer: “The [Cameron] Trading Post does not get their mutton from the local livestock here.”

In fact, they’re proud it’s not a locally-sourced farm-to-table meal, since uranium could be contaminating that source of protein.

Inside the Cameron Trading Post dining room.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
Inside the Cameron Trading Post dining room.

Instead, the restaurant has relied on the Phoenix-based Shamrock Foods Company for shipments, some 200 miles away, in part because of that radioactive legacy. Sysco was the foodservice purveyor that preceded them.

“And I think that’s kind of sad,” admitted Walker, “but you know, we have to look out for the safety of our customers first.”

Importing is seen as a safer alternative to actually raising sheep for consumption on Navajoland, so this trend of trucking in mutton is not new either.

“There’s a lot of sheep consumed on the Navajo Nation,” Farrell elaborated, “but most of it is imported from Nevada, Utah and Colorado.”

Within the last decade, the local Cameron Chapter approached Northern Arizona University and asked them to research this problem. The Cameron Chapter also passed a resolution to conduct a community survey about personal mutton consumption and this staple food’s cultural significance.

Among the survey’s 72 respondents, almost half weren’t worried whether it’s safe to eat mutton, but nearly a fourth were. Only a quarter shared that mutton was a regular part of their diet.

NAU researchers also tested the kidneys of five sheep in Cameron for uranium bioaccumulation. They found 120 parts per billion, or four times as much compared to another five sheep grazing at a control site in Eager, 100 miles south of the closest abandoned uranium mine.

Navajo miners, part of the Utco Uranium Corporation, pose near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956.
Fronske Studio/Cline Library at Northern Arizona University
Navajo miners, part of the Utco Uranium Corporation, pose near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956. 

For context, the Environmental Protection Agency determined that so-called safe levels of uranium in public drinking water should be less than 30 parts per billion.

The FDA and U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service both told KJZZ News that neither federal agency established standards for consumption to specify how much uranium is actually safe to eat.

Navajo toxicologist Monica Yellowhair is the University of Arizona Cancer Center’s outreach program director.

“I’m not surprised about both entities pointing back and forth, of who’s monitoring this for food, because a lot of people butcher their own meat, so there’s no looking at the amount of uranium in the muscle,” said Yellowhair. “It’s interesting to see if that should be considered, especially in the Cameron area, where there are areas of high amounts of uranium.”

Similarly, the Navajo Birth Cohort Study, conducted by the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, found that more than a fourth of participants had high levels of uranium in their urine, compared to 5% of the U.S. population nationwide.

The Yummy Shack is located in Cameron along U.S. Highway 89.
Gabriel Pietrorazio/KJZZ
The Yummy Shack is located in Cameron along U.S. Highway 89.

The same can apply to sheep.

“The amount of uranium NAU is finding in their kidneys is a lot, and a part of that is the process to excrete uranium out of the system is through the urine,” added Yellowair. “It would be also interesting to see how much is actually getting excreted versus what’s being retained in the sheep kidneys.”

“We did a second survey up in Cove, so that’s another comparator between Cove and Cameron as far as consumption,” said NAU Diné biochemistry professor Jani Ingram, who conducted the Cameron sheep study.

Now, they’re wrapping up another project where they’ve gathered sheep from the Four Corners area to be studied. In Cove, underground mining occurred whereas open-pit mining took place in Cameron some 215 miles away.

Ingram specializes in studying environmental pollutants, especially arsenic and uranium, both of which are heavily prevalent contaminants on the Navajo Nation.

Her next step on the sheep-research front is to test different organs and tissues for uranium —before and after cooking the meat to discover any discrepancies.

Those findings aren’t finished yet, but Ingram shared that initial scientific observations suggest how the meat is prepared — even certain cooking methods like stewing and grilling — may also be factors.

Given the fact that fewer and fewer Navajos are eating mutton as part of their daily diets, Ingram said people “still should eat their mutton, when they can get it.”

“There’s certainly some tissues and organs that have higher levels,” she elaborated, “so to be more cautious about that, but I think, you know, the amount of fast food that people eat is much worse for us.”

However, NAU Navajo assistant research professor Tommy Rock, who also helped author this study, is still worried that elevated uranium levels pose a serious public health problem.

“Because in order to preserve our traditional way of life, then we also need to take care of the sheep [from] places that had legacy mining or milling,” said Rock. “There still needs to be some more studies done, such as the one we’re talking about, within the Navajo Nation to understand the overall impact.”

Uranium ore is loaded onto dump trucks by the Utco Uranium Corporation near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956.
Fronske Studio/Cline Library at Northern Arizona University
Uranium ore is loaded onto dump trucks by the Utco Uranium Corporation near Cameron, Arizona, in 1956. 

Gabriel Pietrorazio is a correspondent who reports on tribal natural resources for KJZZ.
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