New protections for Chaco Culture National Historical Park have ignited a debate among Indigenous groups. While some view it as the preservation of their ancestral home, others argue that it hampers economic opportunities, underscoring the challenge of balancing cultural heritage preservation with economic needs.
This story originally appeared at KUNM News, a non-profit public news outlet. It is published here with permission as a part of our commitment to sharing the best in New Mexico local news, even if we did not write it. Thank you to KUNM for sharing this story with our readers.
There are a number of roads into Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, and all of them will rattle your bones for miles.
But at the end, visitors are rewarded with a craggy expanse of rust-colored cliffs and high desert grasslands, cradling remnants of massive, elaborate stone buildings left by a culture that thrived here a millennium ago.
Standing in the largest of them, now known as Pueblo Bonito, geographer Phillip Tuwaletstiwa walks through a honeycomb of small rectangular rooms, and larger circular structures known as kivas. Some of the walls align with the cycles of the sun and the moon.
“I hate to say a number,” he says, “but it has 600-plus rooms in it. And it was probably four storeys high.”
A single burial chamber within this structure, discovered in 1896, contained thousands of turquoise beads and sculptures. Other artifacts found in the structure, like copper bells and remains of macaws, came from far away and indicate extensive regional relationships.
Tuwaletstiwa says the people who lived in Pueblo Bonito were likely an elite population. “Apparently they were a repository for astronomic and other esoteric knowledge,” he says.
Tuwaletstiwa is from the Hopi tribe, and says DNA testing linked his own genetics with some of the people buried in the sumptuous tomb at Pueblo Bonito.
The link affirms for him oral history and archaeological records tracing many of the tribes in today’s Southwest back to origins in a highly developed civilization in Chaco Canyon and its hinterlands that flourished between about 800 A.D. and 1150 A.D.
“This is a spiritual place, it’s a sacred place, it should be treated with great reverence and respect,” he says.
Tuwaletstiwa was among many who celebrated this June when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced new protections for the canyon and thousands of other documented sites nearby.
A public land order withdrew public lands from new oil and gas leasing and mining claims within a 10-mile of the park for 20 years.
For many members of the tribal groups known as Pueblos, spread mainly across New Mexico and Arizona, the moratorium was the culmination of years of campaigning to protect a place they see as their ancestral home, to which they make physical and spiritual pilgrimages.
“We make those visits on a daily basis through prayer, and asking for blessings of world peace and such where we feel that is our origination point as Puebloan people,” said Gaylord Siow, first lieutenant governor of Laguna Pueblo.
When Secretary Haaland, the first Indigenous cabinet secretary and also a member of Laguna Pueblo, announced the new rule, he was delighted.
“It was a great day for all Pueblos, all tribes of this area,” he said.
But not all tribes in the area agree with that.
This remote, ancient landscape has become the center of a debate among Indigenous groups weighing the value of ancestral sites against the economic potential of their future, and coming to very different conclusions.
“The federal freeze on any more oil and gas leases is taking away from the economic opportunities for our Navajo people,” said Brenda Jesus, who heads the Navajo Nation Resources and Development Committee.
Chaco Canyon is surrounded by a patchwork of land, known as the checkerboard, with some patches allotted to Navajo families. Some of those allotments are already leased for fossil fuel extraction, and under the rule, others still could be.
But some allottees and Navajo politicians argue the withdrawal of leasing rights on public land, right next to Navajo allotments, could make it harder for them to sell their drilling rights. And Jesus said the population living in the area is in desperate need of income.
“Some of our constituents out there,” she said, “still don’t have the infrastructure of water and wastewater. There are still constituents out there that still don’t have electric to this very day.”
Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren said his government respects ancient sites but that his responsibility is to help his people get out of poverty.
He said he has witnessed first-hand the impact of the hopelessness that comes with intractable poverty.
“Having grown up with a mom who I lost to alcoholism, relatives, even as of this past week, really close relatives that I grew up with, losing them to alcoholism and seeing them lose hope that there’s not enough jobs, they can’t build a family, they can’t build a home.
“They just feel a lot of the helplessness that we’re never going to get anywhere on the Navajo Nation.”
The Department of the Interior says there was extensive consultation on the new rule, including with tribes. But President Nygren said he personally wasn’t consulted enough.
“Tribal sovereignty should be honored, even though it’s tough,” he said.
A fossil fuel history
President Nygren points out mining and extraction are nothing new on the Navajo Nation. He said today about 40% of its revenues come from coal, oil and natural gas, and that fossil fuels were integral to the development of the administration there.
“The initial development of our government was based on oil and gas production,” he said.
A century ago, oil companies were hugely influential, said University of Arizona historian Andrew Curley, also a member of the Navajo Nation.
“Often people date the origin of our tribal council to 1923,” he said. In Window Rock, where the Navajo administration is based, banners currently flutter celebrating 100 years of the Navajo Nation’s Council. This summer, as delegates gathered for the session, they celebrated the centenary with speeches and ceremonies.
“The origin of that has to do with oil exploration,” said Curley.
In his recent book Carbon Sovereignty, Curley writes that oil was found near Shiprock in 1922. Oil companies wanted to drill on tribal land and federal officials worked with tribal leaders to set up a Navajo Nation business council so there was a body to sign deals. Curley notes over the decades that followed, jobs in mines and plants were among the best-paid on the reservation.
“So those are some of the benefits: employment and revenues for the tribal government,” he said. Plus, some of the workers he interviewed said that jobs on the reservation allowed them to stay on their land, in their community. When workers were laid off from closing plants and mines, fears grew of an exodus of people and dip in revenues.
But Curley adds detriments of the industry include impacts on miners’ health, and the environment. In addition to fossil fuels, tens of millions of tons of uranium were mined on the Nation, contaminating land and water.
While the Navajo Nation government opposes the new restrictions, it does not speak for all Navajo people.
Navajo activist Mario Atencio campaigned for years with the group Diné Citizens Against Ruining the Environment (Diné CARE) to end drilling around Chaco Canyon, citing concerns like contaminated wells.
“We’re actually protecting the people,” he said. “But it is environmental, public health, environmental health, environmental justice.”
Protests and legal avenues
Some Navajo allottees, politicians and their allies are trying by various means to overturn the ban on drilling.
In a Navajo Nation Resources and Development Committee meeting in August, lawyer Troy Eid said that his firm Greenberg Traurig represented 190 individual Navajo Nation citizens who own allotments.
He said that there are 53 allotments currently leased in the land withdrawal area, benefiting more than 5,000 allottees. He added that there are another 418 unleased allotments with resources that could be developed, representing another 22,000 allottees.
Eid said that he planned to sue to overturn the public lands order.
Meanwhile, in Washington, DC, Republican Congressmen Eli Crane and Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced legislation to do the same. President Nygren, a Democrat, spoke in support of the bill at a hearing of the House Committee on Natural Resources in July.
And on the ground, Navajo protesters turned back Secretary Haaland when she tried to hold a ceremony in the canyon this summer.
Meantime, tribal leaders say relationships are strained.
“It’s really disheartening, the divisiveness that has been caused now between Navajo Nation and Pueblo tribes,” said Gaylord Siow of Laguna Pueblo.
He says he understands the Navajo Nation situation, but to him, some things are more important than money
“These traditional cultural places, once they’re disturbed, and once they’re desecrated, that we can never return them back to their original the way they were built in, by hands of our ancestors.”
Despite the protests, lawyers and legislators, the Navajo Nation itself is unlikely to file a lawsuit. President Nygren said the administration needs to focus limited resources on other priorities like water disputes, and he doesn’t think Secretary Haaland’s action was necessarily illegal.
For now, Chaco seems likely to be left in peace.