Chemistry & Ethnicity: Uranium and American Indians

Catherine Middlecamp, Department of Chemistry, and Omie Baldwin, University Health Services, University of Wisconsin-Madison, Madison, Wisconsin


In 2002, Environmental Chemistry & Ethnicity (3 credits) was created as a new course in the Department of Chemistry, the first in the department to meet the new Ethnic Studies requirement at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In both 2003 and 2004, the course was taught with a focus on "Uranium and American Indians" by a chemist and a clinical social worker/health professional who is also a member of the Navaho Nation. The course explores the connections between the presence of uranium and the native peoples of the Southwest who lived (and still are living) on the land where the uranium was extracted. Two key issues are addressed: 1.) How policies (public health, occupational safety, environmental protection, and cleanup) are established when national security, corporate interests and the needs of a community come into conflict, and 2.) How indigenous groups in the United States faced and continue to face challenges with respect to both their land and their culture.

The scientific and the cultural, historical, and policy strands of the course are equally weighted and woven together to the extent possible. The science topics covered include the composition of ores and naturally occurring isotopes, mining and milling technology, radioactivity and radioactive decay, radium and radon, ionizing radiation, and nuclear fission and fusion. The cultural and historical issues include the history of the Navaho, their role as workers in radium-based industries, and cancer incidence in the population. The policy questions through which the cultural and scientific factors intersect include the role of the Federal Government in Navaho tribal life, the importance of nuclear weapons and testing in national defense and national security, and environmental and public health problems related to radium. The course is organized around lectures, class discussion, guest speakers and individual projects that students present at the end of the course.

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