There are several things that drive our society today to forget about America’s first people. Oftentimes it seems as though we have forgotten about them altogether. But the American Indian has not vanished. Don’t Mine Me is a documentary in progress about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation. The tragic history of uranium mining on the reservation has haunted the Navajo people for years. Not only are there extremely hazardous health and environmental effects as a result of the mining, but it’s a matter of questioning the humanity of the United States government and their blatant disregard for an entire group of people.
Native Americans and Alaska Natives make up less than 2% of the United States population; however, they have still managed to have the highest record of service per capita of any ethnic group in the United States. So why are they still being ignored? Native Americans, more than any other ethic group in the United States, have chosen to protect our country, yet we fail to protect them. The Navajo reservation in the Southwest United States, is the largest reservation, occupying parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah with a population just under 200,000 people. But being a small portion of the population doesn’t make you non-existent, it just makes you have to have a louder voice. A voice that the rest of us need to start listening to.
The Navajo reservation is home to more than 1,000 exposed, abandoned uranium mines. The United States government began to encourage uranium mining towards the end of World War II following the development of nuclear weapons. Large uranium deposits were found on and near the Navajo reservation, encouraging the government to begin mining there, and several Navajo men were employed to work in these mines. Disregarding the known health risks resulting from exposure to uranium, the United States failed to inform the Navajo miners about the dangers and to regulate the mining to minimize contamination.
My name is Ellen Downing and I am the director and producer of Don’t Mine Me. I first learned about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation at Powershift 2009 in Washington D.C., when I was a senior in high school. My family and I moved to the reservation when I was 11; however, I’d only learned about this subject 7 years later. This issue is not something that people are very aware of both on and off the reservation. That is why I believe this documentary is so important to make. People can’t change what they aren’t aware of, and I hope Don’t Mine Me will help create a consciousness about the problems surrounding this issue.
The health and environmental risks caused by uranium mining are extremely severe, not only contaminating the men who work in the mines, but numerous Navajos in the surrounding areas as well through contaminated groundwater and soil. Approximately 15,000 people on the Navajo reservation live without running water and rely on this groundwater for everyday life. The Navajo people have had to suffer with this misfortune for more than 40 years. It’s hard to believe that basic human rights are nonexistent for some people, even in the 21st century.
Although I am originally from Arizona, I’m currently living in Nashville, Tennessee where I met my fellow crew members that will accompany me out west. We plan on heading out to the Navajo reservation in the next couple months to film for about 2 weeks. Although the reservation is my home, I will be seeing a part of it that I have never experienced before. I’ve researched and read about this issue, but nothing compares to actually seeing it first hand. The excitement that comes from the filmmaking journey is one of the reasons why I’m passionate about documentary filmmaking.
The crew for Don’t Mine Me is made up of 3 females, myself included. Taylor Ingraham and Beth Berger are both starting out their film career in the Nashville area as well. Taylor is an experienced shooter/producer who is also interested in documentary filmmaking. Beth is a professional photographer looking to make her way into the music video industry in Nashville. An all female film crew? Absolutely! We’re out to break the standards of the typically male dominated industry.
The production of Don’t Mine Me has been a long yet exciting journey so far. The concept for this documentary came about on a trip back home to the reservation a couple months ago. A good friend of mine, Margeau Valteau, studies urban and environmental policy at Occidental College in California. As I was explaining to her that I was interested in making a documentary about the reservation, she suggested that I focus on the uranium mining issue. As a topic that has gained very little attention throughout history, I immediately realized that I had found the subject matter for my documentary. Research and preproduction soon followed.
My crew and I will head out to the Southwest at the end of this month and film for about two weeks. Our journey will take us to several different places, spanning a large portion of the reservation. We will have long days spent filming everything we need for this documentary. But with documentary filmmaking, or filmmaking in general, comes much planning. A lot has gone into the preproduction for this film, and we expect to get a lot out of it as well. We strongly agree that this is an issue that we need to call attention to; an issue we are all passionate about. The key ingredient for a great documentary is passion, and I hope this film will spark a passion in others as well.
Ellen Downing is the director and producer of Don’t Mine Me. Ellen is currently living in Nashville, Tennessee and is working toward becoming a documentary filmmaker. She grew up in Georgia, USA, but moved to the Navajo Indian Reservation in Arizona with her family when she was 11. She attended school there and still visits often. She has always been interested in environmental and social justice issues. Ellen first learned about uranium mining on the Navajo reservation when she was at Powershift 2009 in Washington D.C. She has since learned more about it from living on the reservation and doing her own research not only about the history but the present day situation as well.