Connecting Diné Suicides and Wastewater Pollution

Photo Credit: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald, AP
Photo Credit: Jerry McBride, The Durango Herald, AP

By: Shauna Osborn

For the last century, many people have had a reckless relationship with their environment. The kind of relationship that involves ignoring the Earth, botanicals and bodies of water outside their front door until some catalyst creates a change – a large damaging storm, an earthquake, wildfires, a drought or a health mandate from their therapist or spiritual advisor. You know, something powerful, potentially dangerous and out of the ordinary.

This is not the way Indigenous folks relate to their environment. Despite the inherent differences in the views from tribe to tribe, traditional tribal views all include a strong connection to the ecosystem that the tribe relies on to survive. This is especially true of tribes like the Diné, who celebrate their relationship with the Earth through agricultural practice and care of livestock.

Farming communities are emotionally attached to their land, plants and water. It is impossible to follow a calendar based on the life cycle of plants – to have your future, food and livelihood all related to the condition of these elements – and stay detached. So when Russell Begaye – the Navajo Nation’s president – made a media statement in which he expressed his concern that the destruction caused by the Colorado’s Gold King Mine spill last August may be contributing to the recent Diné suicides, it should not come as a surprise.

The disaster last August, when EPA personnel tried to clean out an abandoned mine, spilt millions of gallons of wastewater into Colorado’s Animas River. That spill turned the river a nasty yellow and caused widespread contamination on Navajo land. The prolonged conflict over funding clean-up efforts intensifies the daily struggles that members of the Diné community already face.

The Navajo Nation’s water has been poisoned since the 1950s by uranium mining, coal mining and dirty coal-fired power plants. With the additional wastewater contamination from the spill last August, the condition of the Navajo Nation’s water supply is more horrific than the current problems in Flint, Michigan. Yet, like most Indigenous environmental concerns, there is rarely any media coverage focused on Diné land and water pollution.

Without even knowing what side effects each of the pollutants in the wastewater will bring, it is not difficult to imagine the negative impacts that heavy pollution to your water supply will manifest in a poverty-stricken community with already existing high suicide rates. Crops will be negatively affected. All the livestock is at risk of illness or death. There is a lack of fresh water to drink, wash and cook. Mental and physical health of the community members will deteriorate.

Despite all of the above, the focus right now should be on clean water access and preventative care strategies for the depression that several Diné community member’s battle. The arguments fueled by several tribal representatives against Begaye’s statement surrounding why Diné suicide rates have increased are not solving anything.