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Fried Bread Nation: A Deadly Legacy

Andee Lister and other NAU students ask Cameron residents how often they eat mutton in this undated photo.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
Andee Lister and other NAU students ask Cameron residents how often they eat mutton in this undated photo.

This is part two of a three part series. Click here for part one.

Three Northern Arizona University researchers set up a table outside a church event in Cameron. They were surveying people to find out how often they eat mutton.

“We want to know how much sheep you’re eating,” graduate student Andee Lister explained. “If you’re still eating it every day and it’s from an area affected by uranium mining, that could be potentially a problem.”

Mining companies blasted 4 million tons of uranium out of Navajo land between 1944 and 1986. The federal government bought the ore to make atomic weapons. When the Cold War threat diminished in the 1980s, companies left and abandoned more than 500 mines.

For centuries the Navajo herded sheep all across the rolling hills and mesas that make up the vast reservation. Over the last three decades, many of those sheep have grazed on abandoned uranium mines that are still toxic today.

Inside the church kitchen, Marlena Jones and Rose Johnson made lunch. And guess what was on the menu — mutton stew — a big pot of squash, onions and cubed mutton in a bubbling broth. Johnson said the sheep came from her nephew’s land not far from the church.

The women cut the purple flesh off the bone and put it into two pots. Like most Navajos, their mothers and grandmothers taught them how to butcher sheep.

“There’s always a certain part of the bone where you cut it,” Jones said.

Outside the kitchen, Nona Johnson said she’s worried about the uranium and said she usually buys her mutton from the Flagstaff grocery store an hour away.

“Right now I’m concerned for the whole community,” Nona Johnson said.

Johnson said she used to buy mutton from a nearby roadside stand. The couple who herded, butchered and sold their sheep there have both died from cancer. Nona worries their mutton was contaminated.

“And we didn’t know,” Nona Johnson said. “We didn’t have no idea!”

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked uranium to kidney and respiratory failure. Lister is trying to find out if it’s the mutton that is killing people.

“It’s kind of scary because you don’t know what you’re going to find and how people are going to be affected,” Lister said.

NAU researchers have found uranium traces in the water and plants the sheep consumed.

Lister and a group of graduate students have butchered six sheep from Cameron, six sheep from Leupp and another five from a control area off the reservation in the White Mountains.

“It’s an assembly line,” Lister said. “We take out the organ or the tissue, we slice it up as thin as possible and we hang them up and air dry them. We had a janitor coming in every day to take out the trash. But after a while they stopped coming so we had to start taking out our own trash.”

The students tested every part of the animal because nothing goes to waste among the Navajo. Jani Ingram is an analytical chemistry professor at NAU. She has overseen the group’s research.

NAU analytical chemistry professor Jani Ingram poses in her lab in this undated photo.
Laurel Morales/KJZZ
NAU analytical chemistry professor Jani Ingram poses in her lab in this undated photo.

“They identify 15 different organs and tissues so that we can specifically look at the uranium in each of those and not just in general,” Ingram said, “so we can help to understand is there certain organs and tissues that accumulate more uranium than others because the Navajo people tend to eat the whole sheep.”

Initial results show higher levels of uranium in the sheep on the Navajo Nation. Ingram, who is Navajo, said not only is mutton a staple part of the Navajo diet, it’s also used in ceremony.

“It’s different than just eating a pork chop or a burger,” Ingram said. “There’s this connection to the sheep because people do raise them themselves. So it’s got this spiritual connection and so the thought of it being contaminated is not just ‘OK, well I won’t eat that anymore. I’ll eat something different.’ Because it’s a part of ceremony. It’s a part of celebration for sure. So there’s a lot more connection to it than just meat on the table.”

The group is finalizing their results. Then they’ll share what they find with the communities where the sheep grazed. They also plan to test more sheep on different parts of the Navajo Nation in the coming months.