The Journey Toward Self-Determination: The Navajo Experience fro Livestock Reduction to Uranium Mining

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Jeffrey Park
Essay Abstract: 
This project is a two-part thesis dedicated to the exploration of Navajo “self-determinism” and its historical roots. Through independent research and on-site filmmaking, I examine how the Bureau of Indian Affairs’ 1930’s Livestock Reduction exemplified the failure of the government’s paternalism and the lack of respect for individual rights. Furthermore, I argue that the same policies that harmed the Navajo also forced and ultimately encouraged them to stand up for their individual liberties, participate in industry, and demand responsibility for themselves in a movement of “self-determination.” With the destruction of their livestock in the 1930’s, their economy in ruins, and their rights continually under assault, the Navajo began to turn to promising new work in the uranium mines during the 1950’s. For the film portion, I focus on this moment of decision-making that highlights the Navajo prospector experience not as an Indian or victim, but as a person addressing their economic needs and cultural desires while taking responsibility for their actions – a sense of life that the Navajo asked the government to respect. By selecting this moment, I am able to tell the story before the world realized, decades later, that uranium mining was disastrous to one’s health, so that memories of agency were realized to be complex histories of betrayal. I hope that readers of this thesis and viewers of the film will see two things: (a) the tension between tradition as a security against the government and individualism; and (b) economic independence as an effective response to paternalism.