Two days after an abandoned mine blew in Colorado this past summer, Joe Ben Jr. was working a backhoe northwest of Shiprock, the Navajo Nation’s second most populous city, in New Mexico. On most days, what happened  outside the reservation was of little consequence on the sprawling “Naabeehó Bináhásdzo,” a 27,000-square-mile expanse marked by its strikingly divergent topographies: solitary mountains, desert scrub, and pine forests. As Ben dug into the hard earth, the cell phone in his son’s pocket rang.

During a federal cleanup on August 5, 2015, a backhoe operated by a contractor for the Environmental Protection Agency had accidentally punched a hole into the Gold King Mine, a 129-year-old abandoned site in Colorado’s San Juan Mountains. A mess of fetid water poured out of the mine—which was filled with minerals and pressurized from nearly a century of disuse—and cascaded down a mountainside and into the Animas River near Silverton. Three million gallons of the sludgy, SunnyD-hued water gushed into the river. It was a Technicolor disaster made for the digital age.

Joe Ben Jr., a Navajo Nation Farm Board representative and sand painter.

As photographs of the contaminated water made their ways across the Internet, the spill threatened a region famous for its outdoor recreation and environmentalism. Over the coming months, the accident would also create unrest between local residents and the federal government. More than 130 miles away, it would threaten the Navajo people’s psyche.

Ben is the Navajo Nation’s Farm Board representative for the Shiprock Chapter, one of 40 such chapters on the reservation. As part of his work as an elected tribal official, the 57-year-old oversees more than 450 farms in northwest New Mexico. With his omnipresent cap and silver whiskers that edge toward a Fu Manchu look, Ben is well-known across the reservation. A kind and thoughtful man, he is perhaps the Navajos’ most celebrated sand painter, an artist who uses his fingertips to mold grains of earth into intricate kaleidoscopes of color.

When he isn’t making his art, he tends his land—raising goats and sheep, growing corn. Over the years, Ben had come to count himself among the most faithful defenders of the Navajo way, a leader among a disappearing class of fluent Navajo speakers, a protector of his people’s land, art, and prayer.

While Ben worked the backhoe, his son answered the cell phone. The young man listened for a moment and then hung up. He relayed the message to his father: Colorado. Mine. Animas. From that information, it was easy for Ben to imagine the conclusion. Contaminated water in the Animas was making its way south from Colorado and through New Mexico, where it would eventually meet up with the San Juan River. From a spot near downtown Farmington, the San Juan meanders west into Navajo country.

Ben turned off his backhoe. “I knew,” he says now, “that was just the beginning.”

No Navajo story is complete without the land that links it to all the stories that have come before. The dry, brown earth near the reservation’s eastern border washes into thickets of piñon less than 50 miles south, which in turn wash into mesas and brush clustered off the remote roads that connect these tribal communities. The sky is a complement to Mother Earth, and the rivers are the veins that sustain the Navajo Nation: the San Juan. The Colorado. The Little Colorado. Over time, through generations, the water has endured. It is sacred to the Navajo in a way the rest of America perhaps cannot understand. It is the heart of a civilization.

The dramatic shiprock formation that gives the Navajo town in western New Mexico its name.

When you’re Navajo, you exist in a place foreign to the outside world. It’s amazing and challenging at the same time, being born into this culture of mysticism and beauty. This spirit enveloped the Navajo people well before a 17th-century Spanish missionary recorded their existence in present-day New Mexico. The tribe’s mythology, its legends and history, is at the soul of so many conflicts; it creates and destroys all at once. The San Juan River is just one expression of both the past and the future of the Navajo, a ribbon that ties people together through time.

By the evening of August 7, news of the spill had made its way across the reservation. Over the next few days, folks visited the river. The sludge that streamed through the Animas had now mixed with clear water in the San Juan River, which transformed into a milky plume as it flowed into Shiprock. What might have been viewed as good news elsewhere—the water was no longer yellow—instead was met with skepticism. Here, where the unseen is more of a threat than that which is visible, this was a bad sign. People prayed. Others simply stared into the water and cried. To some, the river smelled rotten.

Almost immediately, the Navajo Nation shut off the two irrigation systems that feed off the San Juan River. Severing that lifeline for ranchers and farmers so deep into the summer was disastrous. Hay was being cut. Alfalfa had just been planted. Corn and melons were already bursting from the land, a bounty that would usually make its way to tables of families and neighbors and to be sold at roadside stops on the reservation. But the San Juan was flowing with aluminum, arsenic, cadmium, copper, lead, and other heavy metals. The EPA warned people to stay away.

One hundred miles southwest of Shiprock, in the Navajo Nation capital of Window Rock, Arizona, tribal president Russell Begaye and his staff tried to grasp the scope of the disaster. “We are dealing with the livelihood of our people,” Begaye says now, “but we don’t want to give this land to our children and grandchildren because it’s tainted.” Protecting the reservation was the top priority, but there wasn’t a contingency plan for river contamination. To the Navajo, preparing for a terrible day is akin to asking for it, hoping it will happen. Now, here it was.
Begaye and his staff arrived at the base of the Colorado mine on August 9. By then the EPA had told Begaye the yellow water was already dissipating in the Animas River. “I was expecting to see the water clearing,” he says. As the group neared the mine, they realized that was not the case: Yellow sludge still lined the riverbanks. Begaye ordered his driver to pull off the road, and the group collected water samples. “[The EPA] lied to us,” Begaye says. “I couldn’t believe what I saw.” After collecting the Animas River water, Begaye and his staff walked up to the mine, becoming perhaps the first non–EPA officials to see the Gold King post-disaster. Near the site of the blowout, Begaye met the man who operated the backhoe that caused the spill, which ultimately released the mine water into the environment. “He said he was really sorry,” Begaye remembers. It was a surreal moment, being face-to-face with this man. “He was the only guy out of the EPA who apologized to us. Nobody else apologized for weeks. No one wanted to assume the responsibility.” A Navajo medicine man later traveled to the mine and performed a cleansing ceremony.

A map of the Four Corners region affected by the Gold King Mine spill

In one of her few public statements on the issue, during a Senate hearing this past summer, EPA administrator Gina McCarthy called the spill “tragic and unfortunate” but said her agency had engaged in a “robust” response to claim responsibility for the accident and its cleanup. An EPA spokeswoman added in an email to 5280 that water quality in the Navajo Nation portion of the San Juan River “returned to pre-event conditions” two weeks after the Gold King spill and that “state and local decision-makers both upstream and downstream from [the] Navajo Nation lifted water restrictions” around that time. The agency is in the midst of conducting a one-year study of the Animas–San Juan watershed to determine whether further action is needed and is “committed to working collaboratively with the tribe.”

In the weeks following the blowout, Governor John Hickenlooper declared a disaster emergency in Colorado, the EPA began directing thousands of gallons of nonpotable water per day onto Navajo land, and Begaye announced his intention to sue the federal government for damages related to the spill. (Last month, the state of New Mexico filed a notice of its intent to sue the EPA, Colorado, and others.) Begaye also advised Navajo farmers to refrain from filling out the EPA’s damage-claim request, which could eventually acquit the federal government from compensating farmers in the event of future damages. Although the EPA had declared the San Juan River water safe for irrigation two weeks after the spill, researchers from New Mexico State University, Texas Tech University, and the federal government’s Natural Resources Conservation Service discovered the federal cleanup in Colorado had been lacking. “I was shocked,” says David C. Weindorf, the associate dean for research at Texas Tech’s College of Agricultural Sciences and Natural Resources, who testified at the U.S. Senate hearing on the spill. “I was at the beach after the Deepwater Horizon spill, and there were guys all over the place in moon suits and contamination suits picking up stuff and washing it off. We went up and down the Animas River valley, and we didn’t see anybody, anywhere, doing anything. Nothing. It would be one thing if you looked for this stuff and you couldn’t see it because it was the same color as the sand, but you can see this just as plain as day. It’s a bright red sludge now, and it’s all over the riverbank. If you can see it, you should damn well clean it up.”
Weindorf adds that there’s a chance a “hydrologic pulse”—say, a massive spring snowmelt or a heavy rain—could stir up existing contaminants and trigger another environmental episode along the Animas and San Juan rivers.  In parts of New Mexico, lead levels in municipal water supplies have already spiked after storms, according to a Denver Post report. “It’s death by paper cuts,” Weindorf says. “You could have this temporal accumulation in the water, where these metals move downriver over two to 10 years. Regardless if the San Juan is polluted or not, there will be damage done to the public image of the Navajos’ crops. It’s the perception that’s the killer.”

Some Navajo farmers resorted to filling buckets with pot-able water from their homes to irrigate crops.

Begaye does not apologize for the uproar he’s caused between the EPA and his tribe; in fact, he seems to enjoy the Navajo Nation’s status as the subversive entity over the mine spill. That role is now highlighted by the revelation that approximately 1,500 similarly dormant Colorado mines lie within the Animas watershed, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior—1,500 potential Gold King spills that could impact the Navajos’ land. Last month, officials in Silverton and San Juan County began talks with the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment and the EPA about a possible Superfund designation to hasten cleanup of leaking, inactive mines in the Upper Animas Mining District. Even if it happens, the Superfund designation, at least for now, would cover only a fraction of the mines in the region. “We are becoming a waste dump,” Begaye told U.S. senators at this summer’s federal hearing. “We are stressed out. Our people are stressed out.”

The San Juan flows under a bridge near where Highway 64 turns into Highway 491, just north of Uranium Boulevard. From Shiprock, the river cuts a northwesterly route, through Navajo farm and field, alongside bumpy roads and uplands of scrub and cottonwood. Its waters make up much of the Navajo Nation’s northern border, a swath of land that pushes into Utah then makes a slow arc to the west where the San Juan meets the Colorado River at Lake Powell.

Before U.S. troops defeated the Navajos and forced tribal members to endure the infamous Long Walk at gunpoint to eastern New Mexico’s Bosque Redondo reservation beginning in 1864, the Navajos’ traditional homeland encompassed a much larger area. Hemmed in by four sacred mountains—Blanca Peak and Hesperus Mountain in Colorado, Mt. Taylor in New Mexico, and Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks—the Navajo migrated throughout the land for centuries, tracking antelope, intermittently battling Spanish, Mexican, and American forces, and developing a network of peach orchards in the high-desert climate. Visitors had always been confounded by the Navajos’ ability to thrive on land that appeared to them to be worthless. William Tecumseh Sherman, the former Union general famous for his invasion of Atlanta, arrived in the area to help oversee a treaty with the Navajo and declared the land “utterly unfit for white civilization.” The Diné, as the Navajo call themselves, were looked upon by white settlers with equal parts terror and contempt. To the federal government, there was no way people could survive here unless they were created differently. These Native Americans were, the government decided, to be feared and controlled.

In 1868, the feds faced a problem. Dozens of forced walks had placed nearly 10,000 tribal members, of which an estimated 2,000 died from disease or starvation, onto a reservation near Fort Sumner hundreds of miles from their native land. Those who lived became wholly dependent on their captors for survival, an untenable situation for an outpost in the American Southwest. On June 1, 1868, Sherman signed the Treaty of Bosque Redondo, which established the beginnings of the Navajo reservation in Arizona and New Mexico. The agreement required compulsory education for Navajo children and created a resident Indian Agency that would oversee much of the reservation’s activities. Before the tribe’s return, Sherman ominously foreshadowed the Navajos’ future. This tribal land, he thought, would “sooner or later be interfered with by people from Colorado and New Mexico in search of treasure.”

Today, the reservation counts more than 300,000 people as residents and depends heavily on the extraction of natural resources. Hardly the wasteland the federal government imagined 150 years ago, the reservation once was among the country’s most prodigious producers of uranium: Half the United States’ domestic reserves came from Navajo land between the 1940s and 1980s. For the past several decades, coal has been the reservation’s economic cornerstone. Today, semitrucks rumble along dirt roads to one of two coal plants outside Shiprock. Chimneys belch columns of white smoke that can be seen from miles away.

Environmentalist Sarah White (right); her daughter, Victoria Gutierrez; and Gutierrez’s son

South of downtown this past fall, Victoria Gutierrez and her mother, Sarah White, bump along a rocky road in their Hyundai Tucson and park on a former uranium tailings site, which overlooks an abandoned elementary school. Signs warning of radioactive waste line a wire fence. The San Juan River flows below where Gutierrez stands. “The Yellow Water has devastated us,” she says, using the reservation’s shorthand for the Gold King aftermath. “It’s still trying to ruin us.”

Gutierrez grew up a half mile from here, on land that once belonged to her grandparents. Today, she raises her five-year-old son in a three-bedroom house with her mother, who is the community outreach coordinator for the group Diné Citizens Against Ruining Our Environment (Diné CARE). White joined the alliance in 1995 after seeing what she considered to be deteriorating environmental conditions on the reservation. Long before the Gold King disaster, the reservation had been the site of countless catastrophes, some of which had to do with the uranium industry. Researchers in the mid-1980s discovered that uranium miners on the reservation were 200 times more likely than the average American to get liver cancer, 50 times more likely to develop prostate cancer, and more than 60 percent more likely to have cancers of the bladder or pancreas. Uranium miners on the reservation got stomach cancer at a rate 82 times the national average and lung cancer at a rate 56 times higher. The average life expectancy of a uranium miner on Navajo land was just 46 years.

The effects—both physical and psychological—still loom large among members of the tribe. Perhaps the most devastating uranium-related disaster was the 1979 spill near the town of Church Rock in western New Mexico. That summer, a mill tailings disposal pond on private land breached its dam and dumped 1,100 tons of wastewater and 93 million gallons of radioactive waste into the Puerco River. From there, it traveled through reservation land. The spill—for which the Navajo Nation received a $525,000 settlement—is among the largest radioactive accidents in history.

A few miles off the San Juan River, Gutierrez and her mother speed through a maze of unnamed dirt roads. They point to stretches of now-inaccessible Navajo land. Families lived here just a few years ago. In the distance, a massive excavator runs a dragline across the shredded brush, kicking up enormous clouds of dust.

Much like uranium before it, coal has become a linchpin of the Navajo economy. The first plant on the reservation debuted in the mid-1960s; its opening incited a rush to extract the valuable resource from the land. Today, the Four Corners Power Plant outside Shiprock supplies power for cities from Phoenix to El Paso, Texas. The plant—owned by Arizona Public Service Company, Public Service Company of New Mexico, Tucson Electric Power, and others—generates $40 million a year in taxes and royalties for the tribe and employs hundreds of Navajo workers. Astronauts once reported they could see two man-made entities from space: the Great Wall of China and the smoke plume from the Four Corners plant.

“We had eagles nesting around here, but they vanished,” White says after she and her daughter stop to point out a coal pit. “The birds, the coyotes, they all vanished. Even the lizards are thinking about moving away.”

“This is not just a physical ailment we’re facing,” Gutierrez adds. “It’s a spiritual one.”

Later, at an area marked by a sign that reads “Blasting Zone Ahead,” Gutierrez parks the SUV. An old Navajo burial site is slowly being scraped away here in the rush for more coal. In many ways, White says, the Yellow Water is simply part of a greater issue facing the tribe. “You put out one wildfire and then watch another start up,” she says. “It doesn’t end.” She imagines her tribe losing part of itself—its history, its culture, its land.

Throughout the summer and fall, the spill gave a peek into an uncertain future. Nearly half of the reservation’s residents are unemployed; drug and alcohol abuse are rampant. Those things aren’t going away. Neither are the environmental implications of everything happening on the reservation. When the contaminants slipped down the Animas and into the San Juan River this past summer, the fallout became a microcosm of everything terrible that’s happened to the tribe—the forced walks and suffering that make up such a large part of who they are.

“We are killing our land,” White says. “We’re allowing it to happen. It’s time for us to wake up.” Her daughter gives an approving nod. “The Navajo people,” she says, “we don’t give up.”

Three Navajos died by suicide in the month after the spill, which Begaye blamed on the psychological effects of the Gold King Mine blowout. The disaster contaminated the tribe’s mind, Begaye says, and the lack of federal accountability only reinforced to the Navajo that they are an afterthought.

Among those with the heaviest burdens was Joe Ben Jr. One of the most vocal old-guard Navajos on the reservation, Ben learned tribal traditions and farming from his grandmother, Julia Ben-Begay, the daughter of a medicine man who died a decade before Ben was born. Ben spent summers at his grandmother’s house about 15 miles outside Shiprock and learned to tend sheep and cultivate the land. It was there that Ben developed his deep connection to the reservation. When he was a child, Ben remembers, his grandmother once led him by horseback into a field and then ordered him to kneel on the ground and look into the setting sun. “She told me, ‘Grandson, one day you will make this like it used to be,’?” Ben recalls. “She taught me the prayers of her father. Those prayers came from the fields.”

In the late 1970s, Ben briefly attended college in Gallup, New Mexico, then returned to the reservation, where he became known for his sand paintings. He married a Navajo woman, had three children, and by 1992 had moved to Paris. Ben went on to teach art across Europe over the next decade. He got divorced in 1994 but returned often to the reservation. In 1997, he married another Navajo woman, and they had two sons. A few years later, Ben and his new family were living in Geneva when he brought his boys home to New Mexico, where they saw a traditional Navajo dance.

The performance—which happened during a snowstorm—had been so moving that his children begged to remain on the reservation and learn tribal customs. They wanted their father to teach them the Navajo way. “I couldn’t deny them their chance to connect with the land,” Ben says. He moved his family out of an apartment in Switzerland and returned to Shiprock, where Ben homeschooled his boys, continued to make his sand paintings, and started a small farm on a piece of family land. “I found something in myself,” he says. “It was like all of this was meant to be. I couldn’t fail. I had to be 100 percent invested.” By 2012, he decided he had more to give. He wanted to be the Shiprock Chapter’s Farm Board representative. Friends and neighboring farmers came up with $200 to cover the cost of Ben’s candidacy. He won handily.

Following the canal shutoffs in early August, the government in Window Rock asked its Farm Board members to take things a step further. The seven chapters along the San Juan River needed to reach individual consensuses on whether to keep their canals shut, and for how long. At a meeting in late August, Ben made a dramatic proposal: Farmers in his region should keep their canal closed for at least a year. He told them they needed to honor their ancestral ground. Allowing one drop of that river’s water onto their land would be like polluting every Navajo field; they would be spitting on their tribal heritage. He knew the farmers desperately needed river water for their farms and cattle. They relied on the food they cultivated for their families, for income, for prayer ceremonies. But what was the residual impact? Put the San Juan water on the land, and there wasn’t anything the tribe wouldn’t do to risk its soul. Ben asked for a vote. The farmers were unanimous. In Shiprock, at least, the water would remain off for an entire year.

The farm is the spirit of the reservation, a direct tie to the generations who cultivated the earth, cared for it, and passed it down. It is love. The land matures slowly until it becomes its own entity, with its own humanity. It gives and takes and hurts and rejoices. For many on the reservation, the farm is all they have. They are pulled into the land. Their roots are sunk into the ground deeper than anyone might imagine.

Cheryle and Earl Yazzie outside of their farm near Shiprock.

Cheryle and Earl Yazzie began working their property seven years ago, when Earl’s family could no longer care for the 11-acre farm just off Highway 64 across from the 7-2-11 filling station. Most years, the Yazzie farm is framed by rows of corn, with melons forming a wide column from the house to the road. Their home, a small ranch-style structure, stands alone in the field; the hum of passing traffic sounds like the tide rolling onto the shore. There’s a New Holland tractor parked out front. “This is our life,” Earl says. “It’s not much, but it’s ours.”

It’s early fall—two days before the start of the Northern Navajo Nation Fair, a celebration that marks the fall harvest—and the Yazzie farm hasn’t seen San Juan water in more than two months. The corn stalks aren’t much more than shoulder high. The melons look like softball-size cashews atop the dirt. “Sad doesn’t come close to describing this,” Cheryle says. Every dawn, when Cheryle and Earl step outside to pray, the shadows of their broken farm peer back at them, a monument to their disappointment. Like almost everyone else here, they have nothing to sell.

The Yazzies supported cutting off the San Juan water. It’s important for the Navajos not to let the almighty dollar get in the way of what this land means to their tribe.  Protecting their ancestors’ land—passing it down to the tribe’s future generations—is more valuable than anything that might come from the earth in their lifetimes.

Crops, like this corn grown near the San Juan River, suffered throughout the Navajo reservation from lack of water.

Adversity is an unfortunate part of reservation life, but it builds emotional callouses. “It makes you appreciate what you’ve got,” Cheryle says. So the water stays off, and the Yazzies don’t complain when Earl has to turn on the spigot outside their home, fill up a five-gallon container, and carry it around the farm. Every few days he splashes a few gallons at a time onto each plant with the hope that something, anything, might live.

Morning light breaks low over the cottonwoods east of Cheryle and Earl’s land. Trucks clatter along the highway; headlights flash off the asphalt.

Cheryle steps out the front door of the house, her face puffy from sleep. She’s wearing blue jeans and a black T-shirt. Her hair, dark as midnight, slips far down her back. She’s holding a woven basket of sacred items: three eagle feathers and a small shell that contains a lump of yellow corn pollen harvested from the farm. She steps onto her driveway and faces the lighted horizon.

“The Holy People are out,” she whispers. “They’re listening.”

She sets the basket on the ground, holds one of the feathers in her hand, and closes her eyes. She rolls the feather across her  feet, her legs, her chest, her arms, her face. She prays toward Tsisnaasjini’—the sacred mountain to the east—then to the south, to the west, to the north, and to the east again. She grabs the basket, holds it up to her chest. She pinches some pollen between her thumb and index finger, and then sprinkles the pollen onto her driveway.

She prays to her Creator: for her children, for her grandchildren, for her clan. She is thankful for the moon and the stars. She is thankful for the sun, which is growing brighter in the distance. She pinches more pollen in her fingers, dusts the ground. She is thankful for her people, for the land of her ancestors.

Cheryle stands quietly in the coolness of the Navajo morning and looks into the dawn. The light envelops the land; soon the white beam floods the reservation. It is blinding. Cheryle shields her eyes, and then turns away.

—Photography by Matt Slaby