CHACO NATIONAL HISTORIC CULTURE PARK, New Mexico – The stillness that enveloped Chaco Canyon was almost deafening, broken only by the sound of a crow’s wings flapping the air as it circled above.
Then a choir of chiefs from several Native American tribes began to speak, their voices echoing off the nearby sandstone cliffs. They spoke about 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 future generations.
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. -Mexico.
It is a fight they have been waging for years with several presidential administrations. They are optimistic that 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.
Haaland, a native of Laguna Pueblo and the first Native American to head a Cabinet agency, joined Chaco tribal chiefs on Monday in celebrating the start of a process to remove federal land holdings within 10 miles of the line. of the park, 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.
The perfect weather did not go unnoticed on Monday as tribal leaders spoke of their collective prayers being answered.
“It’s a beautiful day – a beautiful day that our father the sun has blessed us with. The creator laid the groundwork for today, ”said Hopi Vice President Clark Tenakhongva.
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 rise from the bottom of the canyon, 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 prowess of the first inhabitants of the Chaco. But for many indigenous peoples of the Southwest, Chaco Canyon has a more esoteric meaning.
The Hopi call it “Yupkoyvi”, which translates simply 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. “A lot 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 trip from there to that region. We know the importance of these areas.
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 Pueblo can all identify with song, prayer and pilgrimage,” he said. “Today more than ever, the links with the identity of our peoples are a source of strength in difficult times. We need to make sure that these connections will not be severed, but 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 the protective stewardship of this sacred place.”
The Obama and Trump administrations have also 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. Some 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 are already suggesting they are being ignored. The highest elected leaders of the tribe’s legislative and executive branches were conspicuously absent from Monday’s celebration.
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.
He told the story of a resident who wiped the dust off his kitchen table only to make it dirty again the next day due to oil traffic. He said the consequences have negative effects on the minds of residents and therefore on their ability to remain resilient.
“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 untouched landscape holds a lot of sacredness. It brings peace of mind, it brings a stable heart, and it gives good spiritual strength.
No matter which side they are on, many Navajo feel like their voices are not being heard.
Haaland on Monday invited everyone to participate in the listening sessions that will be held 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 working with ‘Honoring Chaco’, we have the ability to improve broken promises and right the wrongs of the consultation by being just a check mark,” said Rebecca Sobel of WildEarth Guardians group. “I hope this will be the start of a new relationship.”