Culture  /  Art History

Remembering the Future

Climate change, colonization, and the Navajo Nation.

Auto Immune Response comprises more than 65 artworks, all located within the Dinétah – the ancestral homelands of the Diné in the Four Corners region – and the Navajo Nation. In the 1930s federal incursions into Diné life and land increased rapidly. Navajo land was extensively surveyed and mapped by various arms of the federal government. The US Soil Conservation Service determined that the land which had long sustained the Diné and their livestock was unsuitable as pasture and instituted a stock reduction programme, forcibly slaughtering hundreds of thousands of sheep. The land was reclassified as ‘materially and ideologically suited for extractive industrialism’. Mineral, oil and mining surveys escalated. Surveyors, prospectors, mine operators and millers invaded Diné Bikéyah. The region became the battery powering cities in Arizona, California and Nevada, the source of power for the Cold War weapons industry and for commercial nuclear power: in short, it became central to the nuclear industrial complex.

The legacy has been death and disease. Uranium mining and processing, nuclear weapons production facilities and atomic test sites leave irradiated landscapes. As mines, mills, nuclear facilities and weapons production sites have been abandoned, the scale of contamination has become clear. Radioactive and toxic waste is too expensive to clean up. As early as 1988, engineers at the US Department of Energy were using the term ‘national sacrifice zones’ without referring to who or what was to be sacrificed. There are more than five hundred abandoned uranium mines in the Navajo Nation alone.

Like Smith, Wilson offers an alternative cartography. AIR 2 upsets familiar representations of the Grand Canyon, not only because the three figures are wearing breathing apparatus, but also because, as Wilson describes, they are looking over the ‘confluence of Little Colorado and Colorado Rivers … from the Navajo Nation side of Grand Canyon … a perspective that not a lot of people see, because it is remote and you have to travel through Navajo land to get there’. To Wilson this landscape is deeply familiar: this site represents home, family, a relationship to the land over multiple generations; it is close to where his family had their winter sheep camp.