"All we could say is, 'You got a problem.' "
Just 200 miles from the reservation, in Grand Junction, Colo., residents faced the same situation. But there, the government was moving with urgency to eliminate the health risk posed by homes, schools and churches made with tailings from the Climax Uranium Co.
State health authorities had armed themselves with research and demanded federal action. The local congressman, Democrat Wayne N. Aspinall, was chairman of the House Interior Committee. He held hearings and helped secure funds for a thorough cleanup, which ultimately cost more than $500 million.
The Navajos had no such champion. Nor did they mobilize politically around the issue. In their small, widely scattered settlements, people were only vaguely aware of a radiation problem.
In Grand Junction, canvassers went door to door, checking for contamination. Contractors replaced foundations and floors, uprooted trees and cleaned tainted soil. As a bonus, they upgraded substandard electrical systems.
The Navajos were left on their own.
Hans made one more try in 1977, two years after his first visit. He recommended that the Department of Energy clean or replace the nine most-contaminated houses in Cane Valley.
More than a decade later, the department fixed three. Drawing a technical distinction, it passed over the other six for lack of proof that the building materials came from Foote Mineral's mill, as opposed to the mine.
Juanita Jackson's house was one of those six. Despite Hans' warning, she stayed put, stringing beads for jewelry and weaving rugs until she died in 1992. She was 59. The cause was lung and breast cancer, her daughter said.
Jesse Black, his wife and their eight children remained in their uranium house for 15 years. Black died of lung cancer in 2000 at age 78. A daughter was diagnosed with breast cancer at 27.
Oscar Sloan, too, hung on in Cane Valley, raising three boys. One of them, Hoskey, now 54, says that both of his parents and his grandmother developed serious respiratory disease.
"If given a different place to live, we would have, I guess," he said. "But it was the only dwelling we had."
Similar problems soon became evident in other parts of the reservation. In 1979, employees of the tribe's newly created environmental commission escorted a television crew to the hamlet of Oaksprings, Ariz., to interview former miners.
In one house, a tribal staffer offhandedly stuck a Geiger counter against a wall. It screamed.
By April 1980, the tribe had found 16 more Oaksprings houses with uranium. The tribal chairman, Peter MacDonald, called together representatives of Navajo agencies, the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs and the Indian Health Service, and "directed that the homes be replaced immediately," recalled Harold Tso, then the Navajo environmental director. "We were to work together and get a plan."
Tso cobbled together enough federal money to replace a handful of houses. The tribe evicted the other families in the spring of 1981. They were left to find shelter wherever they could.
There was no money to dismantle the condemned structures. Many still stand, including the log cabin that Clifford Frank built in the early '60s for his family of eight. He mixed cement for the foundation with rocks from the uranium mine where he worked. Then he invited a Christian Reformed minister to bless the house.