Native Americans see progress and work to protect cultural lands

The stillness that enveloped Chaco Canyon was only broken by the sound of a crow’s wings as it circled above us.

Then a choir of chiefs from several Native American tribes began to speak, their voices echoing off the nearby sandstone cliffs.

Indigenous leaders of the Hopi tribe in Arizona and several pueblos in New Mexico were more than grateful that the federal government took what they believe to be more meaningful steps toward the continued protection of cultural resources in Northwestern New. -Mexico.

They spoke of a deep connection to the canyon – the heart of Chaco Culture National Historic Park – and the importance of ensuring that oil and gas development beyond the park’s boundaries does not sever that connection for people. future generations.

After fighting for years with several presidential administrations, they are optimistic the needle is moving now that one of their own – US Home Secretary Deb Haaland – holds the reins of the federal agency that oversees energy development. and tribal affairs.

U.S. Home Secretary Deb Haaland addresses a crowd during a celebration at Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico on November 22, 2021.

Haaland, a native of Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency, joined Chaco tribal chiefs this week to celebrate the start of a process to remove federal lands within 10 miles of the park. border, making the area closed to leasing of oil and gas for 20 years.

New leases on federal lands in the region will be suspended for the next two years while the withdrawal proposal is considered.

Haaland is also committed to looking more broadly at how federal lands in the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation.

“It’s a beautiful day, a beautiful day that our father has blessed us with. The creator laid the groundwork for today,” Hopi vice president Clark Tenakhongva said on Monday.

Indigenous Civilization Center

A World Heritage Site, the Chaco is considered the center of what was once a hub of indigenous civilization with many tribes in the southwest tracing their roots back to the high desert outpost.

In the park, stacked stone walls jut out from the canyon floor, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular underground rooms called kivas are carved into the desert floor, and archaeologists have found evidence of major roads that stretched through what is now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, and Colorado.

Visitors often marvel at the architectural feats of the first inhabitants of Chaco. But for many indigenous peoples of the Southwest, Chaco Canyon has a more esoteric meaning.

The Hopi call it “Yupkoyvi”, simply translated as far beyond the other side of the mountains.

“What land do we all occupy? We are walking on the land of the creator. That’s what we were told at the start – at the bottom of the Grand Canyon, ”Tenakhongva said. “Many of us have that connection. Many of us can understand how important the Grand Canyon is. Ask the Zuni, the Laguna, the Acoma. They made their journey from there to this area. We know the area. importance of these areas. ”

Visitors approach Pueblo Bonito, the largest archaeological site in Chaco Culture National Historic Park, in northwestern New Mexico, August 28, 2021.

Visitors approach Pueblo Bonito, the largest archaeological site in Chaco Culture National Historic Park, in northwestern New Mexico, August 28, 2021.

Source of strength

Pueblo leaders also spoke about areas near Zuni Pueblo in western New Mexico and Bears Ears National Monument in Utah that are linked to the Chaco Civilization.

Laguna Governor Martin Kowemy Jr. has said the Chaco is an essential part of his people.

“The people of Pueblo can all relate to themselves through song, prayer and pilgrimage,” he said. “Today more than ever, the ties to the identity of our peoples are a source of strength in difficult times. We must ensure that these ties are not severed, but that they will remain intact for future generations. “

Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo said the beliefs, songs, ceremonies and other traditions that have defined generations of Pueblo originate from the Chaco.

“Our fight to protect this sacred place is rooted in what our elders teach us and what we know as descendants of those who have settled here,” Vallo said. “It is our responsibility – to maintain our connection, our deep obligation and our protective stewardship of this sacred place.”

Development pressure

The Obama and Trump administrations have suspended leases adjacent to the park through agency actions, but some tribes, archaeologists and environmentalists have pushed for permanent protections.

Legislation from Congress is pending, but there has been disagreement over the size of the buffer.

The Navajo Nation oversees much of the land that makes up the jurisdictional framework surrounding the national park. Parts of it are owned by individual Navajo who received land from the federal government generations ago.

Navajo leaders support the preservation of parts of the area, but said individual beneficiaries risk losing an important source of income if the land is closed for development. Millions of dollars in royalties are at stake for tribal members struggling with poverty and high unemployment rates.

Haaland’s agency has vowed to consult with the tribes over the next two years as the withdrawal proposal is considered, but key Navajo leaders suggest they are being ignored. The highest elected leaders of the tribe’s legislative and executive branches were conspicuously absent from Monday’s celebration.

Navajo Council Delegate Daniel Tso speaks about pollution issues related to oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico on November 22, 2021.

Navajo Council Delegate Daniel Tso speaks about pollution issues related to oil and gas development near Chaco Culture National Historic Park in northwestern New Mexico on November 22, 2021.

Navajo Nation Council delegate Daniel Tso is part of a minority in the tribal government denouncing development in the region. He said communities east of the Chaco are “besieged” by increased drilling.

“Yes, we want the landscape to be protected, we want better air quality, we want to protect the water aquifer, we want to protect the sacred,” he said. “The unspoiled landscape holds a lot of sacredness. It brings peace of mind, it brings a steady heart and it gives good spiritual strength.”

No matter which side they are on, many Navajo feel their voices are not being heard.

Listening sessions

Haaland on Monday invited everyone to participate in the listening sessions that will take place as part of the process, which she dubbed “Honoring Chaco.”

Environmentalists say the area is a prime example of tribal consultation issues and that Haaland’s efforts could mark a shift towards greater tribal involvement in future decision-making when it comes to identifying and protecting. cultural resources.

“By creating a new process of collaboration with ‘Honoring Chaco’, we have the ability to improve broken promises and right the wrongs of consultation by being just a check mark exercise,” said Rebecca Sobel, of the WildEarth Guardians group. “I hope this will be the start of a new relationship.”

Nohemi M. Moore