ITT: Land Arts, Visiting the Beautiful But Deadly

Oct 20, 2017

For two months, the seven students enrolled in Texas Tech’s Land Arts of the American West course travel to places in New Mexico, Nevada, Utah, Arizona and Texas where humankind’s imprint remains, often in detrimental ways.

The students emerge groggily from their tents. Chilly air helps them awaken following their first of almost 50 nights of camping over two months. Breakfast smells waft across the campsite.

The seven students in the Land Arts of the American West course today will travel to the Jackpile Mine, the first of 15 land sites across five states. The students and their teacher pile into one van and head toward what was once the world’s largest open-pit uranium mine near Laguna Pueblo.

First, though, they sit in the home of Curtis Francisco, a Laguna Pueblo member and a geologist, to listen to him detail the environmental damage done to the tribe’s land.

From 1953 to 1982 25 million tons of uranium ore were mined from land leased from the Laguna Pueblo tribe. Francisco says tribe members weren’t told of the dangers and high cancer rates are high among his people.

The Jackpile Mine, about an hour west of Albuquerque was declared a Superfund site in 2013.

Francisco says thunderous blasts three times a day allowed workers to get to the uranium ore. The dust from the blast contained uranium particles and spread for miles.

He details childhood warnings from his grandfather, who worked in the mine for a time, about a beautiful body of water within the mine’s acreage. Curtis Francisco recalls:

Because of our proximity to the uranium, we’ve always known that it was something there that was not good. It killed things. Up in the mine, it’s no longer there, there used to be this lake. I remember it. It was this beautiful turquoise-blue lake, but there was no life in it at all. There was nothing growing around the sides of it. There was some salt that would come from evaporation. There was no plants. There were no mosquitoes. No bugs. No birds. You wouldn’t see waterfowl in it. But it was this beautiful turquoise-blue water. I always wanted to go and get into it or drink there because it looked very inviting. But I remember my grandpa telling me, don’t ever go there. He said, ‘I just want you to see this.’ But the translation literally is, this is where death is. This is death’s home. It looked beautiful but it was deadly.

Inside Texas Tech: Land Arts, A Transformative Semester

Later in the day, the group tours several areas nearby the mine, including a water containment dam where vegetation was affected. Wild mustangs drink from a pond that likely is contaminated.

Elmer Arrieta, one of the students, says he is stunned how little the public knows about the site.

“It’s very insightful seeing the blatant disregard of the Native people here, in the Southwest especially, and in an attempt to bring so much advancement for the American existentialism that lead after the Cold War,” Arrieta says. “We are definitely seeing the consequences in the Southwest, unfortunately it’s not being publicized enough.”

Taylor, who got his master’s at Harvard, brought the Land Arts program to Texas Tech in 2008 from the University of Texas. There, he and artist Bill Gilbert of the University of New Mexico developed the program in 2000.

The students will visit other sites and return to Lubbock in early November to create projects that reflect how their experiences in the field impacted them. Those projects will be exhibited at the Museum of Texas Tech later this year.

Taylor says he is hopeful the trip to the sites shifts students’ focus.

“It’s about making that recalibration, that clicking into other forms of focus,” Taylor says. “The participants come out of this experience, pointed in a lot of different directions, but it’s something of their own making and it’s tied to a deep experience of land that marks them and they carry it with them for hopefully the rest of their time on the planet.”