Nuclearism and the Navajo: a Geopolitical Perspective of Native Land Use for the Nuclear Arms Race

Ellie Rubinger


The Nuclear Arms race between the United States and the Soviet Union was a battle for obtaining nuclear weapons. President Eisenhower’s speech, “Atoms of Peace,” was a call for the U.S. to gain these nuclear weapons in order to maintain dominance over the Communist USSR. In doing so, the environment, its people, and surrounding ecosystems had and continue to face severe repercussions from this. In this podcast, I explore how the claim of having nuclear energy is good for the overall well-being of America and how this story has affected Navajo country and their people. By looking through an environmental geopolitical lens, my podcast demonstrates what is and what is not discussed in this claim and how the United States favors nuclear pursuits over Indigenous land and peoples.



Does the U.S. Government care more about nuclear power or the lives and environment of Indigenous peoples?

Hello, my name is Ellie Rubinger, and welcome to my podcast, Nuclearism and the Navajo: a Geopolitical Perspective of Native Land Use for the Nuclear Arms Race.

[Intro Music]

The claim about the environment that I am examining for this podcast is from the Notes on Atoms for Peace and War, “In part, the resolution of the present crisis in the world, depends on the relative success of the free world, as contrasted with the totalitarian world, in building a quality of life that is good for all its people and I believe atomic energy can play a major role in this great enterprise.”

The person or organization making this claim is Jerry Voorhis 1954, who wanted to help develop nuclear power in the United States. He argues that attaining and capitalizing on nuclear power is beneficial to American society for our protection against the Soviet Union.

This claim is evident in the notes on Atoms For Peace and War, a speech regarding nuclear power given by President Dwight D. Eisenhower. This claim is about security because the United States during the nuclear arms race had a mission of mining nuclear power and uranium for their defense and through the taking of land, uranium, and other resources found in Native land through Native erasure and commodifying their land.

In this episode, I will examine this claim by asking three questions:


  1. How are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified in this claim.
  2. What is the role of human agency within this claim?
  3. What is the spatial focus of this particular claim?


I will use information from Traci Brynne Voyles’ Wastelanding and President Eisenhower’s “Atoms for Peace” speech to investigate these questions so that we have a better understanding of this claim and the view of the world that it promotes.

The first aspect of this story I will talk about is how are the role and meaning of the environment described and specified.

In my story, the role and meaning of the environment are to be used for resource extraction in their capitalist pursuit of nuclear and uranium resources. This issue can be seen on a national level as well as a local level. The government’s forced autonomy on the environment in Navajo country is a politically controlled issue. This claim does not consider the environment and the effects it will sustain.

From the claim, the role of the environment is strictly a resource extraction commodity. Interestingly, the claim regards how nuclearism is beneficial for the “free world,” but it does not specify that the environment is a part of that. It’s treated as useful for their securitization purposes. There is no physical “free world” that one could point to on a map, but this broadness is easily digestible for the American people but leaves much room for interpretation of what it is, and what it is not.

My claim is derived from notes of the “Atoms of Peace,” and going back to the original document of this speech, some interesting commentary from Eisenhower was mentioned. In this speech, given on December 8, 1953, to the 470th Plenary Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, he states, “On 16 July 1945, the United States set off the world’s biggest atomic explosion. Since that date in 1945, the United States of America has conducted forty-two test explosions.” This statement and the claim tie together to show the progression of nuclearism in the United States but neither address the role of the environment explicitly.

The role and meaning of the environment that is not described in this claim is the land being used is commodified and militarized for nuclear security. This claim, as mentioned previously, describes the “free world.” This “free world” does not include the environment and a place that had specifically been affected and will be the main focus of this podcast is Navajo country.

The misuse of Navajo land is prevalent in this story. It establishes a power dynamic between the government and its environment, which feeds into a harmful anthropocentric perspective. This dismay for the care of the environment from the “Atoms of Peace”, and Eisenhower’s call for nuclear securitization ignited the fire of this resource extraction and showed the U.S.’s forced to claim the Navajo’s land and the environment.

From Eisenhower’s speech, there is a fifth draft published on November 28th, 1952, and on page four of this document, he notes, “the United States set off the world’s first atomic test explosion at Alamogordo in New Mexico. Since that fateful day, the atomic age has moved forward at such a pace that today I consider that certain facts should be taken out of the realm of conjecture and stated officially.” The mentioning of where the test site is an insinuation of environmental damages was taken out of the official “Atoms of Peace” speech.

Eisenhower’s draft recognized this danger, and continues on the same page, “You must, however, bear in mind that no area of the world, no matter how remote, could consider itself completely immune to some of the results were atomic warfare to occur on our planet.”

This acknowledgement, along with the mention of the location of the test site, was taken out of the final speech. This inclusion could have somewhat changed the narrative of the role of the environment, but with it being cut from the final speech, the claim from Voorhis derived from Eisenhower’s final speech says nothing about the environment, encouraging nuclear and uranium mining to occur with no supposed environmental damage or repercussions.

Without any environmental protection, Navajo land has been completely nuclearized and plagued with radiation from their water, to their animals, and their bodies. In Traci Brynne Voyles’ Wastelanding, she describes that in 1970, there were homes being tested for radon levels in this area. These homes “had tested positive for radon at levels ranging from sixteen to over 700 times the recommended maximum.”

This radioactivity reached out to several different surrounding areas, named “hot spots” for their dangerous levels of radon. The toxicity from the radiation and damage to the environment had led to the breaking of a damn in Church Rock, NM. “Eleven hundred tons of radioactive waste and 94 million gallons of radioactive water and acid poured through and contaminated the Rio Puerco river nearby.”

This statement is from an archival ABC News clip from 1979, used in Céline Gounder’s podcast. This spill traveled down 100 miles and continued to Arizona. After this, a very slow cleanup occurred but did not mitigate the radiation levels and environmental damage.

Inconsideration of the role of the environment ties into a deep modern way of thinking, stemming from the Enlightenment era, of using land and resources for capitalist pursuit. In this case specifically, using the land to secure and capitalize on nuclear weapons.

The allowance of nuclear and uranium mining created a completely toxic environment that destroyed Navajo land, their drinking and irrigation water, and killed much livestock. Eisenhower’s speech that commended nuclear securitization as a means of protection and removal of environmental consideration, led to the narrative that the role of the environment is non-existent. Outside of Voorhis’s statement, it is evident that the role of the environment and environmental impacts is much stronger than implied, and is still facing these repercussions.

The next question that I will be answering in this podcast is what is the role of human agency within this claim or view of the world?

The role of human agency within my claim comes from statements of the government originating from President Eisenhower’s view that nuclear securitization can have drawbacks but nuclear securitization is more important to the government. Continuing throughout the decades, the U.S. continued to mine on Indigenous land.

These commodified perspectives of the environment from the United States government of nuclear power extraction, economic, political, and social benefits of nuclear pursuits, the disregard for the importance of the environment to the Navajo people, and how uranium securitization devalues Navajo people are the roles of human agency.

Within my story, the economic, political, and social benefits of nuclear pursuit are considered in the role of human agency.

A large consideration is made to the majority of the American public to ensure the social benefit of nuclear securitization in a peaceful way. This was a placation to the public to show how the government is in control and instill calamity into the public. Eisenhower says in his given speech, “I know that the American people share my deep belief that if a danger exists in the world, it is a danger shared by all; and equally, that if hope exists in the mind of one nation, that hope should be shared by all.”

From an economic standpoint, this condemnation progressed the Atomic Energy Commission in 1953, to commercialize nuclearism for private companies to create and distribute their own weaponry. This created the Power Demonstration Reactor Program in which private companies could secure and create their own weaponry. It was quickly approved and furthered the development of nuclear weapons.

In terms of politics, after this wanted and approved commercialization of nuclear weaponry, Eisenhower, “was determined to find ways to kick-start commercial nuclear power in a way that would bolster private industry and reduce the concentration of power and knowledge in the federal government.” (notes on atoms of peace). This helped Eisenhower’s presidency and was a launch for his political campaigns, and ultimately was re-elected for a second term in 1957.

Understanding the security of this claim is important to understand the human agency aspect. It demonstrates that the land and people of the U.S. were homogenized for nuclear security.

Within the role of human agency, mining companies and the government’s allowance of nuclear and uranium mining to occur are liable. Not only is this seen on this national level of the federal state, but the Navajo land’s people being coerced through job security have faced severe consequences.

The miners were the Navajo people and they were not made aware of all of the dangers of mining this resource, and the U.S. has documentation of these dangers but was made public to expose this injustice. Robert Alvarez from the Federation of American Scientists writes, “Withholding information about the hazards of the workplace was deeply embedded in the bureaucratic culture of the nuclear weapons program.”

With the inconsideration of the environment and who this really affects, this commercialization devalued the Navajo land and the people living there as a commodity. The story has little effect on middle-class Americans whose land is not being extracted and seen for its instrumental values.

This claim does not present a dichotomy in nuclear extraction, giving permissibility to the government and mining companies to degrade the Navajo land and its people. This destruction on the Navajo people is a clear example of slow violence. Through decades, the land and people have been destroyed, commodified, and capitalized through the erasure of their cultural significance to the land and resources.

After the cold war era, the demand for nuclear power significantly dropped leaving 160,000 abandoned mines all over the US. This abandonment does not mitigate radiation levels in the land, water, and people, which have all been victims of this boom of atomic securitization.

The Navajo people have considerable sacredness and respect for their land due to their rich embedded culture in it. In Voyles’ Wastelanding, she mentions how the first tested atomic bomb was on July 16, 1945. She states that “the ‘atomic age’ would indeed radically alter the already complex cultural, political, and physical geography of this surrounding area, Tsoodzil” . With this being completely disregarded, it was a nearby test site in 1967 for more nuclear weapons.

The different perspectives and relationships between the land and its people from the Navajo people and the U.S. is a clear power dynamic and how it is not a part of this, so-called, “free world.”

The degradation of Navajo land is parallel to the people. The toxicity emitted from the mines, water, and the exposed environment, has created lasting health effects. Heightened levels of radiation in bodies, birth defects, and doubled cancer rates are only some of what Navajo people have faced from this. From a research paper and statistics provided by the National Center for Health Statistics, the Navajo Epidemiology Center conducted their experiment from 2005-2013 and found cancer to be, “the leading cause of death among Navajo females, and the second leading cause of death regardless of sex.”

The effects of the U.S. government prioritizing nuclear security for public placation, political campaigns, and economic benefits has outweighed environmental and human health risks continuing through the current day.

The last question I will be answering in this podcast is what is the spatial focus of this particular claim?

From the claim, the spatial focus is on the United States and its position in the world in comparison to the USSR. It was seen on a global and national scale during the Cold War, demonstrating the power dynamic and sought-after nuclear dominance between the “free world” and the totalitarian world. It also focuses on how we will draw on our own resources to win the nuclear arms race to establish power.

The interaction between the people and the environment is, as previously stated, commodifying the land and using it for this power and arms race, but it is not included in the claim. It does not reach out to the effects of this over consumption of energy and the ecosystemic implications. This story involves the arms race globally and our own national reaction and security.

This claim’s spatial focus, however, is too broad to examine and is generalized. The unspoken impacts of this claim are inequitably localized to the Navajo Nation and the environment surrounding it.

In this more specified spatial focus, we’re able to investigate how the ecosystem and dynamics of the environment have been affected by nuclearism.

The United States has made nuclear weapons a symbol of power in the world, which was complacent in the destruction of the environment. The claim is in regards to the cold war era, but this is a continuation for the Navajo people and their land in the current day. Environmental and health repercussions are persistent and do not go away with the ending of extraction. The atomic particles don’t go away once mining has stopped. Radioactive waste remains, although somewhat mitigated due to the EPA, and still has long-term effects.

As mentioned before, the Rio Puerco River was completely infested with toxicity and regarded as “Pig River,” as historically, they thought this river was, as Fray Francisco Dominguez describes, quoted in Wastelanding, “as dirty as the gutters of the streets.” The colonialist naming and the disregard of how the ecosystem affects the land and its people feed into modernity perspectives of land. In 1979, the 1,100 tons of radioactive waste and 95 million gallons of polluted effluent in this river is only outranked in the worst toxic spills, preceding Chernobyl. Mills were still in production as this contamination spread. The river and entire ecosystem that used it to survive was disregarded in the 18th century and is still not one to this day.

To close out this podcast, I want to remind the audience that procedures for this nuclear cleanup are still in the works, and as of 2022, the U.S. Department of Energy has made plans to move the toxic fallout somewhere else. This still does not resolve the issues that the Navajo people have faced and brings it to another group with their own land that the government “seems fit” with coercion and reciprocity.

Themes of capitalist interest trumping Native people, land, and culture; modernity, and slow violence have been and continued to be prominent in this story. Claims that nuclear pursuits for the greater good of America have only brought plague and destruction for the land and the people it inhibits and will not stop until the government conceptualizes this.

My name is Ellie Rubinger, and thank you for listening to Nuclearism and the Navajo: a Geopolitical Perspective of Native Land Use for the Nuclear Arms Race.

[Outro Music]


“Relax Intro” by Sergei Chetvertnykh is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0

“We Did It” by eardear is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0


Alvarez, Robert. 2014. “Uranium mining and the U.S. Nuclear Weapons Program.” Federation of American Scientists, November 14, 2013.

Atoms for Peace – Evolution (5). 1953. C.D. Jackson Papers. Eisenhower Presidential Library. or-peace/atoms-for-peace-draft.pdf.

Benally, Christine J.,  et al. 2018. Cancer Among the Navajo. Arizona: Navajo Epidemiology Center, Navajo Department of Health, Navajo Nation.

Brugge, Doug, Rob Goble. “The History of Uranium Mining and the Navajo People”,  American Journal of Public Health92(9): 1410-1419.

Gerke, Sarah. “Navajo Reservation.” Arizona State University Grand Canyon Conservancy.

Gounder, Dr. Céline, “American Diagnosis, Feb. 15, 2022, in “Abandoned Mines, Abandoned Health”, produced by Dr. Céline Gounder, podcast, 35 minutes, nd-and-people-in-need-of-healing

Morales, Laurel, “For The Navajo Nation, Uranium Mining’s Deadly Legacy Lingers,” April 10, 2016, in Health News from NPR, produced by Rachel Martin, podcast, MP3 audio, 3 min,,

O’Lear, Shannon. 2018. Environmental Geopolitics. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman & Littlefield.

Touran, Nick. 2019. “Notes on Atoms for Peace and War” What Is Nuclear (blog), December 7, 2019.

U.S. Department of Energy. 2022. DOE Announces $35 Million To Deploy Clean Energy on Tribal Lands and Power Unelectrified Tribal Buildings. Washington, DC: Department of Energy. nds-and-power-unelectrified-tribal

Voyles, Traci Brynne. 2015.  Wastelanding : Legacies of Uranium Mining in Navajo Country . Minneapolis: U of Minnesota Press.