Jana Pfeiffer is the first Indigenous person to serve on Albuquerque’s Environmental Planning Commission (Photo by Shelby Kleinhans for Source NM)
Albuquerque councilors confirmed the appointment of the first Native person ever to serve on the city government’s Environmental Planning Commission, according to city sources. She’ll also be the only woman on the board.
But it was only after public pressure and a letter-writing campaign from numerous organizations in support of the candidate, who said she experienced discrimination during the vetting process.
Jana Pfeiffer (Diné) grew up in Farmington, N.M., an oil town. Her father Gilbert Kennedy Dee worked in the BHP Billiton coal mine.
As an Indigenous woman, Pfeiffer has had her fair share of older white men yelling racist slurs at her, she said in an interview. So she’s had to raise her own daughter to be mindful of that kind of discrimination.
As people of color, we tend to go in these social fields of assisting and advocating and fighting these injustices, because we know — we live them.
– Jana Pfeiffer, incoming board member of Albuquerque's Environmental Planning Commission
When Pfeiffer was a high school freshman, she was walking into Sam’s Club when a man in a large, white-colored oil truck yelled at her and called her a racist slur.
“Ever since that experience … I realized that we’re treated differently,” she said, “or maybe we’re spoken to differently, and that I’ve always had to have my guard up.”
But Pfeiffer said she was still caught off guard when some city councilors exhibited microaggressions toward her during a November meeting of the city’s Land Use, Planning & Zoning Commission. They questioned her qualifications, and one of them cut her off when she was explaining her employment and education history.
She left the meeting feeling low and thought: “Wow, I’ve never had to really defend my lived experience and my education until this day,” she said.
The more she thought about it, the more she realized that the councilors were being short with her, and she said their questioning came off as disrespectful, especially when she was interrupted.
“After the first meeting, the curt responses — and that opposition I experienced and felt — really diminished my abilities, almost doubting myself,” she said. “This is a form of discrimination and a larger conversation is needed on how Native Americans are subjected to this type of discrimination and gate-keeping from public office.”
Pfeiffer’s friends and family reminded her that change, innovation and creativity comes from diverse perspectives.
“I truly believe that is a very unique, special trait that we do have as Indigenous, Native peoples,” she said. “We live in this urban setting, but we do understand our deep relationship with the land and being the stewards of this land.” Native people, she said, can articulate and employ critical thinking to adapt to political and social positions and to address environmental issues.
“Since time immemorial, that’s how we’ve always been living,” she said.
Pfeiffer said she was grateful for Laura Harris, director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, who organized a letter-writing campaign in support of her confirmation. That helped show that the 60,000 Native people living in the city do have a voice, she said, and she is humbled that Indigenous people can support one another in pursuing public office, by thinking collectively rather than individually.
One such letter came from the All Pueblo Council of Governors, which said her confirmation would “add balance to the Environmental Planning Commission often dominated by special interests represented by those with vested interests in housing, business and real estate development.”
“At the heart of the planning process must be respecting the natural environment and the presence of significant cultural elements of the land,” Council Secretary David Toledo wrote to outgoing Albuquerque Councilor Lan Sena, who nominated Pfeiffer. That means careful decision-making with an eye on a balanced outcome, he wrote, sustaining the environment for future generations.
That can only be possible if the commission is inclusive, Toledo stated, and having a Native person with lived experience would bring invaluable knowledge to the process.
“Few if anyone on the commission has or would have such expertise required,” he wrote.
When Pfeiffer read the letter, she said it made her cry.
“It really kind of positioned myself to say, ‘Hey, you know, I’m going to move forward with this. I’m going to take a stance, and this is my stance as a Native Indigenous person.’ So that letter was very powerful.”
About a month after the strange meeting, the City Council voted unanimously in favor of her confirmation. Pfeiffer said she felt excited and ecstatic when the vote happened.
“We all live on this land together,” she said. “That was something to note to all the city councilors. And whether you’re Native or non-Native, or African American or Hispanic or Latino, we all are living on this land together, and we do need to have diverse representation within these committees and commissions.”
Terry Sloan (Diné, Hopi), is the intergovernmental tribal liaison for the city government. He said it is a groundbreaking, precedent-setting confirmation. Pfeiffer garnered support from the National Indian Youth Council, the Native Leaders Collective, the New Mexico Environmental Law Center, the Pueblo Action Alliance, the Sierra Club and his own organization, Southwest Native Cultures, he pointed out.
I think we're beginning to realize that in the city, the Native community has a powerful voice. We're now beginning to step up to be heard.
– Terry Sloan, intergovernmental tribal liason for Albuquerque
Pfeiffer will contribute Native concepts of sustainability in arid desert environments to the commission, he said — like the delicate aquifer under Albuquerque, which the city must be careful with.
“If there’s contamination at any point around the city, it’s going to make it to that aquifer, because our geologic makeup underneath the city is fractured,” he said. Pfeiffer will protect sacred sites within the city limits, Sloane said, as well as the air, land and water.
For her, it’s about connection: “It’s very personal and important to maintain that relationship with our environment, our space, our land, our mountains, because it provides healing,” she said.
An avid runner and hiker, she has an affinity for backpacking. A dream of hers is to hike all four sacred mountains within the Navajo Nation.
Pfeiffer is also on the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women’s Task Force. She also worked in the human trafficking unit in the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office until she stepped down in October. Her work there has strengthened her understanding that there is a direct correlation between violence against the land and violence against Native people. “It always has been that way, since colonization,” she said.
Fossil fuel, mining and logging companies come in, extract resources and set up man camps — short-term housing for workers. “They’re bringing in people that are not from the community and feel like they can come in and just exploit, also, the people that live in those communities,” she said.
Fossil fuels, pollution in the ground, the Rio Grande running low — those are all compound climate issues the commission can impact, Pfeiffer said.
The commission confirmation is a way for the city to address the compound climate issues it is facing: the Rio Grande running low, pollution in the ground and fossil fuels. She said she is inspired by the movement launched from the long fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.
“Us as Native people, we need to be put in these positions and spaces to really voice our importance in protecting and taking care of the land,” she said. “So I hope that I can do that for the City of Albuquerque.”
This story was updated on Monday, Dec. 13, at 12:30 p.m. to reflect that Pfeiffer is the first Indigenous person on the commission, sources say, and that she’ll be the only woman on the board.
It has been about two years since a woman was on the board, according to a spokesperson for the city, though women have served.
We apologize for the error.
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