Indigenous leaders in New Mexico celebrate federal efforts to protect Chaco

By: - November 16, 2021 5:10 am

U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland delivers remarks at the 2021 Tribal Nations Summit, at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building on Nov. 15. The summit, which coincides with national Native American Heritage Month, creates the opportunity for Tribal leaders to engage directly with officials from the Biden Administration. (Photo by Alex Wong / Getty Images)

The Biden administration’s announcement to begin the process that could impose mineral extraction protections around Chaco Culture National Historical Park was celebrated by Indigenous leaders in New Mexico on Monday, Nov. 15.

“Pueblo leadership is charged to protect our language, songs and lifeways so that we may maintain our sacred trust and instill the gifts of our Creator into each child and community member for all time,” said Wilfred Herrera (Laguna), chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors. “We cannot sustain our sacred trust when sacred sites like Chaco are destroyed—as the region is quintessential to our very existence.”

Biden made the announcement during the White House Tribal Summit. The proposal, led by the Interior Department, seeks a 20-year ban within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon that would prevent new federal oil and gas leasing in that area.

The Bureau of Land Management will conduct an environmental analysis and gather public comment on the leasing ban before any decision becomes official.

The federal effort follows a similar action by New Mexico in 2019 that withdrew state land in the area for future mineral, oil and gas leasing.

“We owe so much to the matriarchs who first demanded action to stop the destructive oil and gas fracking. These matriarchs’ prayers and songs are what sustained us when our efforts to protect the communities got hard and complicated.”

– Daniel Tso, Navaio Nation Council Delegate, chair of the Health, Education, and Human Services Committee

Acoma Pueblo Gov. Brian Vallo said Chaco is significant to the cultural identity of Pueblos and other tribes that descend from the area.

New Mexico, Chaco Culture National Historical Park, Pueblo Bonito, ancestral Puebloan great house ruins, AD 850 to AD 1150, UNESCO World Heritage Site

“When our ancestors left Chaco Canyon, their departure was not an abandonment but a purposeful part of their journey foretold to them,” Vallo said. “The cultural resources — evidenced by the structures, kivas, pottery, petroglyphs, and shrines — were purposefully placed and left there in the Greater Chaco Region and are the footprints of our ancestors.

Members of the multi-tribe group, The Greater Chaco Coalition also praised the announcement while also requesting the federal government look into repairing damage done by previous mineral extraction.

“For too many years, the Navajo Nation has been assaulted by waves of resource exploitation and legacies of sacrifice zones,” Navajo Nation Council Delegate Daniel Tso said. “We owe so much to the matriarchs who first demanded action to stop the destructive oil and gas fracking. These matriarchs’ prayers and songs are what sustained us when our efforts to protect the communities got hard and complicated.”

Tso helped establish the coalition with members of local Navajo Chapter House, New Mexico state leaders and leadership from state’s congressional delegation, including then-Rep. Deb Haaland. Today the secretary of the Interior Department, Haaland was at the signing and will lead the effort.

“Now is the time to consider more enduring protections for the living landscape that is Chaco, so that we can pass on this rich cultural legacy to future generations,” Haaland said. “I value and appreciate the many tribal leaders, elected officials, and stakeholders who have persisted in their work to conserve this special area.”

Vallo echoed the sentiment that protecting Chaco will help propel a future for Indigenous culture.

“By choosing to protect this landscape from future mineral development, we will ensure that our deeply held beliefs, songs, ceremonies, and ancient traditions, which emerged and are forever tied to this landscape, will continue. They must continue.”

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Shaun Griswold
Shaun Griswold

Shaun Griswold is a journalist in Albuquerque. He is a citizen of the Pueblo of Laguna, and his ancestry also includes Jemez and Zuni on the maternal side of his family. He grew up in Albuquerque and Gallup. He brings a decade of print and broadcast news experience. Shaun reports on issues important to Native Americans in urban and tribal communities throughout the state, including education and child welfare.