Nuclear Aesthetic

A conversation with Thomas Dayzie from Nuclear Princeton.

I first met Thomas Dayzie at a webinar, hosted last year by Nuclear Princeton, meant to showcase the group’s work on often overlooked parts of America’s nuclear history. Thomas specifically focuses on the intersection of art and our nuclear legacy, and in his talk, he showcased some particular works by the late Japanese American artist Patrick Ryoichi Nagatani. Thomas’ work, as well as Nagatani’s, moved me for their beauty and poignancy. I immediately knew that I had to learn more, not only about Nagatani but about Thomas and Nuclear Princeton as well.

Thomas is a junior at Princeton University, a Research Fellow with Nuclear Princeton, as well as a citizen of the Navajo Nation. Nuclear Princeton aims to empower underrepresented groups of undergraduates, particularly Indigenous students. The group helps students take on leadership roles in constructing an alternative narrative of nuclear science and engineering. Together, they hope to generate a vision for actualizing a more diverse Princeton. The group saw a gap in the scholarship when it comes to how our nuclear history affects Indigenous communities in America and specifically how Princeton University contributed to the development of nuclear weapons through the resources, such as researchers or laboratories, the university put into the Manhattan Project. They also worked in collaboration with Natives at Princeton to establish an Indigenous Studies certificate program. All six student members of Nuclear Princeton come from Indigenous communities.

Although the time of COVID-19 has unfortunately limited us all to virtual interactions, it also facilitated my introduction to Thomas and his work.

What do you think the significance is of having the whole team come from Indigenous communities? Why is Nuclear Princeton’s work important?

Right now, academics researching American nuclear development are faced with the incontrovertible fact that American Indians were an essential part of this development and have been excluded from its narrative. People know that American nuclear development was never particularly humane, but most are unaware of the continuing effects of nuclear development in and around sovereign Native American Nations in the Southwest. There, the US government and their private contractors extracted and processed a huge amount of uranium for nuclear weapons — which they tested in close proximity to Native communities. Anthropology Professor Ryo Morimoto, a researcher of nuclear development, put together Nuclear Princeton with only Indigenous Princeton students to address this gap in knowledge. As a group of Indigenous students, we are working to overcome the indifference of the historical record. We ourselves cannot be indifferent to the abiding effects of nuclear development on our communities.

As a group of Indigenous students, we are working to overcome the indifference of the historical record. We ourselves cannot be indifferent to the abiding effects of nuclear development on our communities.

On top of this historical urgency, Nuclear Princeton is a way for Indigenous students to consolidate and pressure Princeton’s administration into paying Native students some attention. Princeton is by far the worst Ivy League institution to recruit Native Americans, provide Native Americans a space on campus, or have groups working specifically for Native Americans. The university makes the excuse that there are not enough Native students to necessitate specific allocation of resources. It would be more sensible to say it the other way — that there are not enough resources allocated to Natives for Natives to want to apply. A research group like Nuclear Princeton shows the university administration that Natives are contributing to Princeton’s research mission, and should not be treated with such indifference.

Could you give me some background on how you found yourself researching nuclear topics and history? As a citizen of the Navajo Nation, how is your personal history connected to the nation’s nuclear history?

As a member of the Navajo Nation, it is impossible to overlook the consequences of nuclear development in the United States. The Navajo Nation, as well as the other tribal nations in the southwest United States, had the uranium that the nuclear program needed, and the US government had no qualms with extracting it in the most careless and harmful manner. Navajos were hired to mine and process uranium ore in extremely unsafe conditions and were constantly exposed to radiation. Radiation sickness and radiation-caused diseases were not reserved to the workers only, but permeated entire communities built around mines and processing plants.

My grandfather worked at the uranium processing plant called the “Rare Metals Mill” just outside of Tuba City, AZ in 1956. In those days, employment opportunities on the Navajo Nation, other than mining, were virtually non-existent. The bosses would wear protective gear to protect from radiation but the native miners would just wear normal work clothes. So, there was an obvious imbalance. He worked there for eight months, refining the freshly-mined uranium ore into a “pollen-like powder.” He jokes now that getting fired from that job was the best thing that ever happened to him; everyone he knew that stayed on the job died young from various exposure-related illnesses. The processing plant has been closed for some time, the site has been overlaid with a mound of earth, and the housing developments around it have been torn down. Anyone driving north from Flagstaff through the Navajo Nation will see the ruins of the plant and its accompanying housing units. And it is just one of the many such sights in Southwestern tribal nations that have become part of the environment. These sights are the scar tissue of American nuclear development; for the American public, they are hidden in plain sight, but for the communities that they affected and continue to affect, they are impossible to overlook.

The covered-over ruins of the Rare Metals Mill, via the Energy Employees Claimant Assistance Project.

A picture of the ruins of the Mill housing. From the ariel view, you can see the housing units on either side of the road to the right of the mill, via Thomas Dayzie.

How did you decide on your topic to look at art and the intersection of these issues?

Partly because I’m interested in art and partly because no one was doing it or paying attention to it in the group so far.

What the group mostly does is look at different regions of America or aspects of Princeton’s nuclear history and investigate it sociologically or ethnographically. But we were missing some other perspectives. It’s one thing to educate oneself about statistics or historical movements and so on, but it doesn’t always make much of a connection with people. There are so many historical documents, so many numbers, and so many charts that it’s hard for people to relate to the fact that there are 3,000 uranium mines in the American southwest. The reaction is something like, “wow, that’s a staggering amount,” but I think the prevalence of shocking statistics nowadays dulls the effect of hearing them. It’s different to look at a picture of a uranium mine 20 years after, and it hasn’t been cleaned up yet, or to hear the stories of the people who lived nearby, people who sickened and died from radiation exposure, and so on. Art can tell these stories and build those more personal connections for people so that they better understand the weight of the issues we explore in the group. I think that that perspective is essential, which is why I try to integrate it into my research. 

I completely agree with your assessment of the power of artwork. Can you also talk about your work specifically on Patrick Ryoichi Nagatani? Which piece really stands out to you and why?

The one that stands out the most for me is “Japanese Children’s Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine UraniumTailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico,” from Nagatani’s Nuclear Enchantment series. It depicts the Laguna Pueblo cemetery in Laguna, NM. I think this image expresses perfectly the potential of art to convey an understanding of the hidden political and transcultural impacts of nuclear topics. Transposed over the photograph of the cemetery are Japanese Children’s Day Carp Banners and edited into the background are uranium tailings from a nearby uranium mine. The addition of the uranium tailings is technically dishonest because they do not really exist where they are placed in the photograph. But this dishonesty, which is really an intentional artistic decision, works to depict in one frame an aspect of village life that looms invisible over the village itself; namely that many of the villagers worked in the mine, were exposed to radiation, and have died or could have died consequently. The effects of exposure loom over their daily lives unceasingly, as the uranium tailings loom over the village in the photograph. The carp banners are a similar presence overhanging the town, overhanging the cemetery. But, these overhanging presences are traditional symbols of celebration and life. Nagatani placement of these Japanese symbols over a Laguna cemetery points to the fact that uranium mined by the US from Laguna territory was weaponized and twice deployed over Japan. The enduring legacy of the mines contains the enduring trauma of nuclear holocaust in Japan. The legacy endures for the villagers in the form of ruined land and radiation sickness as it endures for the survivors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The celebratory carp banners are completely incongruous with the looming uranium tailings, the cemetery, and the village — that is, until one recognizes the historical forces that have always been present, though never visible. The incongruity makes way for an understanding of the traumatic connections nuclear developments has made between cultures otherwise removed from each other, looming unceasingly in both life and death. Hanging over the cemetery is a real abiding legacy of those affected, but only through this artificed image can this reality be made visible.

Patrick Nagatani. Japanese Children’s Day Carp Banners, Paguate Village, Jackpile Mine UraniumTailings, Laguna Pueblo Reservation, New Mexico.

The same graveyard site in Nagatani’s photo, taken by Thomas but without the other transposed images.

Molly Hurley is a Nuclear Program Fellow with The Prospect Hill Foundation and Fellowship Associate with Beyond the Bomb. She is a recipient of the Wagoner Fellowship allowing her to research nuclear weapons issues, their intersectionality, and how art can help build the movement for disarmament.