The Moab of the rez

Cove emerges from its mining legacy with much to offer

By Cindy Yurth
Tseyi' Bureau

COVE CHAPTER, Ariz., February 7, 2013

(Editor's note: In an effort to chronicle the beauty and diversity of the Navajo Nation, as well as its issues, the Navajo Times has committed to visiting all 110 chapters in alphabetical order. This is the 21st in the series.)

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(Times photo — Cindy Yurth)

Royal Arch, also known as Cove Arch, is one of many fantastic rock formations carved into the red sandstone of Cove by wind and water.

M oab has nothing on this place.

It has arches, great mountain biking, mountains, and some of the oldest Basketmaker sites in Arizona. If Cove were three feet off the reservation, these homesites sporting ramshackle single-wides would be million-dollar view lots.

But mention Cove to most people in the Four Corners, and one word comes to mind: uranium.

Millions of years ago, water percolated through the Salt Wash Sandstone of the Lukachukai Mountains, leaching uranium and other heavy metals out of the rock until it hit an impermeable layer of mudstone, where it stayed until the late 1940s.

Some local Navajos, who don't seem to be named in any of the geologic literature, reported finding a layer of yellow rock and word somehow made its way to the Atomic Energy Commission, which was frantically searching for domestic uranium deposits to fuel the nuclear bombs the U.S. was madly stockpiling in its escalating arms race with the Soviet Union.

By 1967, there were some 50 mines dotting the Lukachukais, many in Cove and Red Valley chapters. Most of the able-bodied males in Cove and Red Valley were employed by the mining companies in some capacity or another.

What many people don't know, said Tommy James, an 89-year-old retired miner, is that mining was already second nature to a lot of Navajos. It was known as a well-paying job that didn't require much education, and one that most white people didn't want to do.

The post-war economy was booming, devouring coal, iron and anything else that came out of the ground. By the time Kerr-McGee Oil Industries opened a series of mines near Cove in the early 1950s, James had already dug for copper in southern Arizona and gold in Alaska.

"Underground is the same as working above ground, once you get used to it," he shrugged.

The difference was, this mine was right here in Cove. It enabled the young veterans recently returned from World War II - and James, who had to sit out the war because of poor eyesight - to take brides and establish families. Cove was no longer a place you had to leave to make a living. A school was built for the Baby Boomers, eliminating the necessity of sending children to far-off boarding schools. A chapter house was built. A community was born.

Then, in the late 1970s, the bottom dropped out of the uranium market. People who had been making good wages were suddenly unemployed. And, recalled James, a lot of them were coughing.

"We didn't have all the city equipment, like respirators, goggles, even ear plugs," James said. "Nobody told us uranium was dangerous."

According to James, the local doctors didn't seem too concerned when a Navajo reported with a cough. Minor bronchial infections were common on the dusty rez.

"They'd give them an aspirin or a cough drop and send them home," he said.

But James, who had always been healthy as a horse, knew his lingering cough was more than just a cold. He went from clinic to clinic seeking treatment until he finally ended up in Leadville, Colo. Doctors in that high-altitude molybdenum-mining town were used to patching up miners. They knew what to look for.

"They found a spot on my lung," James recalled. "They gave me some medicine. It must have worked, because I'm still here."

These days, James wheezes a bit when he takes his cows to the summer pasture on the flanks of the Lukachukais, and again when he comes home. But he's not sure whether that's from the mining or being 89 years old.

"Getting old is tough," he sighs, although to watch him mount his tractor and move hay bales around until well after sunset, it doesn't seem to have slowed him down much.

Like many former miners here, James has received compensation from the government under the Uranium Exposure Compensation Program. He won't reveal how he spent it, other than to say, "I don't owe anything on any of this. It's paid in full."

The only thing he owes, he says, "is I owe that mama cow some feed." And he ambles off to move another bale. Conversation over.

To Tom Riggenbach, the social studies teacher at tiny Cove-Red Valley High School (home of the Miners), elders like James are the beating heart of this red chapter. Riggenbach uses every opportunity to connect his students with them, assigning them to collect oral histories and rallying them to bring Christmas packages to the elders over their winter break.

Riggenbach, the force behind the Tour de Rez, Chuska Challenge and, most recently, the Shiprock Kids' Marathon, thinks the future of Cove may lie in eco-tourism.

People would pay, he thinks, to learn the heartbreaking story behind the Cold War, and see things like the fenced off, partially reclaimed tailings pile across the street from Cove Day School.

Throw in some mountain biking on the old mining roads (many of them built by James while he was a heavy equipment operator), a hike into Mexican Cry Canyon (named for a long-ago ambush of Mexican raiders), a mutton feast and a night in an authentic Navajo hogan, maybe passing by the Pete family's place to see their pet bison, and you would have a package that adventurous, conscientious bilagáanas would find hard to resist, Riggenbach argues.

"I keep talking to people about eco-tourism, but I don't think they even know what it is," Riggenbach said. "They think to attract tourists, they have to build a luxury hotel."

So, like a beautiful girl who refuses to go out because she has a pimple, Cove languishes, unaware of its attractions and stuck in its atomic past. Only Riggenbach and a few of his disciples ply the old dirt roads on foot and bike, enjoying the treasures of a place that is far more Shangri-La than nuclear wasteland.

Cove at a glance

Name - The chapter is nestled in a "cove" of red rock between the Lukachukai and Carrizo mountains. The Navajo name, K'aabiizhii Nasdlah', means about the same thing.

Population - 430

Resources - uranium, scenery

Problems - unemployment since the mines closed down

Location - about 40 miles southwest of Shiprock

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