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The drive into Red Valley, Arizona is nothing but awe inspiring. First you drive through the tail of Shiprock, a volcanic plug towering 1000 feet in the middle of the desert. The tail is a four to six foot wide and some thirty to forty foot high volcanic wall — yes, literally a wall of lava rock. Here lava found or formed a crack in the earth to fill. Later the ground around it eroded away, leaving this massive wall. After driving through the wall, you eventually come to a scenic high spot where the entire Red Valley is spread out before you in all its glorious splendor. Miles and miles of red rock cliffs. If the sun is on your back, you can hardly imagine a more spectacular site. 

That is what it was like on the particular morning that I traveled to Red Valley to visit with Floyd Frank. Floyd had recently retired from pastoring Toadlena Christian Reformed Church, along with the daughter congregation in Newcome. There, he had formed and built the modest church building himself. Like most other Native pastors in the CRC, Floyd had risen through the ranks, from interpreter to missionary and then, eventually to pastoring a church himself. Floyd wanted to take me to his land where he had grown up, twelve miles or so north of Red Valley in an area called Oak Springs. 

Driving to his place we followed the red cliffs north until we came to a summit, or at least a high spot in the road (I use the term “road” loosely) filled with scrub oak trees, juniper, and lush green grass in the valley before us. Oak Springs was living up to its name. Floyd’s dad had built their home on the edge of the summit overlooking this lush valley. His “cabin” was lovingly and no less painstakingly built out of stone from their land with a picturesque front porch overlooking the valley. A natural spring above the cabin drained into a swimming hole he and his father had made. Farther down, it watered a garden area and an orchard. The valley below ended a mile or so to the north where the red rocks met a rock wall that served as a natural place for their sheep to graze but not drift away. Impressive. 

But neither Floyd nor any members of his family live in this paradise!

Floyd pointed high up on the cliffs across from their home to an open uranium shaft. The air we were breathing was contaminated, unfit for human existence. A short visit was all anyone was allowed to risk. In retirement Floyd stayed in a small, run down home near Toadlena, still preaching and pastoring to make ends meet. Floyd and his abandoned family home really put a face on the atrocities done on the reservation in the name of progress, avarice, and “not in my back yard.” 

Approximately 300 million tons of uranium ore have been extracted from the Navajo reservation. It is estimated that there are over 500 abandoned mines. Since 1994, 230 sites have been processed and closed by the EPA in conjunction with the Navajo Nation through a Superfund program.

One of these sites is the Churchrock mine, 13 miles north and east of Gallup, New Mexico. In 1979 Churchrock was the site of the worst environmental radioactive disaster ever in the US. Shortly after the highly publicized Three Mile Island breach in Pennsylvania, the Churchrock mine’s lagoon burst. Basically, an earthen dam that held back the nuclear waste from mining, gave way. Ninety-four million gallons of nuclear waste poured down the valley into the Rio Puerco wash. It was either absorbed into the soil or ended up in the Rio Grande. Five months after the spill and clean up, mining was resumed. Today, the mine is closed, but you can still see the hundreds of markers in the valley where the soil had been tested for radioactive material.

The Obama administration set into place policies to hold financially accountable the mining companies responsible for the pollution. The Trump administration backtracked so the companies were not liable. The Biden administration once again renewed the process of accountability to pay for clean up, health issues, and some reparations. To my knowledge, only taxpayer money has been used to close sites as well as clean up the huge Churchrock spill. 

Floyd is gone now. He never was able to retire in his beautiful homestead at Oak Springs. What a shame. And I can’t help but wonder how many more Navajo people have been similarly affected by this misuse of their land.

Don Tamminga

Don Tamminga spent 20 years as a counselor at Rehobeth Christian School in Rehobeth, New Mexico. He recently retired as the Leadership Training Coordinator for Classis Red Mesa of the Christian Reformed Church. Don now spends his time wood working, birding, biking, baby sitting, playing music, and helping others with projects. He and his wife live in Gallup, New Mexico.  


  • Tom Boogaart says:

    Don, You have a unique life experience and perspective. I hope we can hear more from you. Are you still running?. I had to give it up for walking/hiking but have discovered that walking has its own spirituality.

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Such a sad story and especially for a man who is so tied to the land of his anchestors. To have had the beauty of this and other places ruined for generations because so many advances in our world of goods have bespoiled precious places where people lived is grevious. We, and the industries involved, did not do very well or did nothing to understand the long term damage that could occur.

  • David E Stravers says:

    Thanks for putting a face on the suffering of Navajo people. It’s hard for those of us who do not live in or around Gallup to appreciate the human cost of allowing the commercial exploitation of their beautiful environment.

  • Gordon Kamps says:

    I don’t think that the Rio Puerco flows uphill over the continental divcde into the Rio Grande, rather, whatever is left of it flows into the Little Colorado!

  • James L VandeLune says:

    Spent 8 beautiful years in Farmington & CRM. Sadly, other than the exceptional geography and views, I don’t think I knew any of the specifics re: the war we have continued to wage on Native lands and people. How sad! J. Vandelune

  • Al Mulder says:

    Don, your love of the land and of the people shine through, just as the active and passive damage inflicted by government and business on the land and the people is so agregious.

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