In July of 1979, a breached dam at Church Rock, New Mexico, sent more than a thousand tons of radioactive waste tumbling into the Puerco River. Despite being the largest release of radioactive material in US history, the incident received almost no media coverage. Many residents who used the river for irrigation weren't even notified, and the governor denied local requests to declare Church Rock a federal disaster area.
Nearly three decades later, a team of public-health researchers linked the negligence to racism. The Puerco River flows through what settlers call the Navajo Nation—known in the Diné language as Dinétah—and the spill primarily affected rural communities on the reservation.
Today, abandoned uranium mines dot the landscape like open wounds along what was once Route 66, lit up by garish neon signs advertising "Indian jewelry" to non-indigenous tourists. Many of these sites have not been cleaned up, and probably won't be cleaned up.
There are two pieces in the current exhibition by Demian DinéYazhi' at the Henry Art Gallery that address this ongoing history head-on. The first is in beauty it is restored, a circular neon sign that glows like uranium but also reflects the balance of Navajo cosmology and the power of ceremony to make things whole again. The second is Hey Jolene, a visual poem projected from an analog slide projector onto a billboard-shaped screen. Its text extends the metaphor of toxic phosphorescence to the warm glow of an alcohol-soaked liver. Unlike many of the artist's pieces, which pair texts with family photos and images of landscapes, the background behind these words is crimson.
"I use red a lot as a way to maintain an indigenous aesthetic," says DinéYazhi'. "This is actually my finger pressing against the camera lens pointed toward the sun."
As for the text: "It's about a friend who passed away a few years ago on her reservation. It's one of the only pieces that addresses a specific individual, but this story line is very similar to every other indigenous person's story within the Gallup region."
The artist's hometown of Gallup sits just outside the Navajo Nation, some 17 miles south of Church Rock. DinéYahzi' describes it as a colonized border town, a place where indigenous and Western worldviews intersect.
"The way land art has been constructed within contemporary art practice is to usually leave a mark against the land," says DinéYahzi'. "Within an indigenous framework, it's not about leaving your mark on the land, it's about honoring a region as much as possible. Photography is a safe site to have an experience of the land that isn't necessarily continuing in this legacy of taking or extracting."
Another site of colonization that the artist's work addresses is gender. "The Navajo tribe had four to five different gender systems," they explain, adding that now there are elders who side with the assimilationist agenda as an expression of trauma incurred through settler violence. "Coming back to the ceremonial framework is a way to heal as a community."