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Not all tribes agree with drilling ban around New Mexico's Chaco Canyon


This summer, Interior Secretary Deb Haaland announced new protections for an extraordinary archaeological site in New Mexico. The department put a 10-mile buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, forbidding drilling for oil and natural gas. Many Native Americans consider Chaco Canyon sacred, but Native communities are divided on the new rule, as Alice Fordham with member station KUNM reports.

ALICE FORDHAM, BYLINE: Chaco Canyon is a craggy expanse of rust-colored cliffs and high desert grasslands stretching for miles across northwestern New Mexico. There's a bone-rattling road in, but at the end there are remnants of massive, elaborate stone buildings. This UNESCO World Heritage site formed the center of a thriving culture a thousand years ago.

PHILLIP TUWALETSTIWA: OK, we're in Pueblo Bonito. I kind of hate to say a number, but it has 600-plus rooms, and it was probably four stories high.

FORDHAM: Geographer Phillip Tuwaletstiwa shows me round a honeycomb of small square rooms and larger round structures, probably for ceremonies. Their walls align with the cycles of the sun and moon. He tells me what we know about the inhabitants.

TUWALETSTIWA: They tended to be what we might call in English an elite population. Apparently they were repository for astronomic and other esoteric knowledge.

FORDHAM: Among Native communities, the Chacoans are often referred to as ancestors. Tuwaletstiwa is from the Hopi tribe, which he celebrates with a hat.

TUWALETSTIWA: It says, don't worry, be Hopi.

FORDHAM: Oral history and the archaeological records suggest the roots of many tribes of the Southwest lie in this canyon and its hinterlands.

TUWALETSTIWA: This is a spiritual place. It's a sacred place. It should be treated with great reverence and respect.

FORDHAM: Among those who revere the canyon are tribal groups spread mainly across New Mexico and Arizona. They're known as the Pueblo Tribes. Gaylord Siow is first lieutenant governor of the Pueblo of Laguna and makes physical and spiritual pilgrimages to Chaco.

GAYLORD SIOW: 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.

FORDHAM: Siow was among many who celebrated in June when Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland banned new oil and gas leasing and mining on public land in a 10-mile radius of the park. Haaland, the first Indigenous Cabinet secretary, is also from Laguna Pueblo.

SIOW: It was a great day for all Pueblos, all tribes of this area.

FORDHAM: But not all tribes in the area agree with that.

BRENDA JESUS: The federal freeze on any more oil and gas leases is taking away from the economic opportunities for our Navajo people.

FORDHAM: Brenda Jesus heads the Navajo Nation's Resources and Development Committee. Chaco Canyon is surrounded by a patchwork of land allotted to some Navajo families, land they could potentially lease for oil and gas drilling. The freeze makes it harder for them to do that. Many Navajos who live here, Jesus says, are poor.

JESUS: Some of our constituents out there that still don't have the infrastructure of water and wastewater - there's still constituents out there that still don't have electric to this very day.

FORDHAM: Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren says his government respects ancient sites but that his responsibility is to help people get out of poverty.

PRESIDENT BUU NYGREN: Having grown up with very little, having grown up with a mom who had lost to alcoholism, relatives even as of this past week, really close relatives that I grew up losing 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.

FORDHAM: The Department of the Interior says there was extensive consultation on the new rule, including with tribes. But Navajo President Nygren says he personally wasn't consulted enough.

NYGREN: Tribal sovereignty should be honored, even though it's tough.

FORDHAM: Plus, he says, fossil fuel has been integral to the history of the Navajo Nation.

NYGREN: So that was the initial development of our government, was based on oil and gas production.

FORDHAM: Oil companies were hugely influential, says University of Arizona historian Andrew Curley, who's a member of the Navajo Nation.

ANDREW CURLEY: So often people date the origin of our tribal council to 1923. There are these banners hanging up on our solar-powered signposts that say, you know, 100 years of Navajo Nation Council. But the origin of that has to do with oil exploration.

FORDHAM: Oil companies wanted to drill on tribal land, and federal officials set up a Navajo Nation Business Council so there was a body to sign deals. More than 40% of Navajo government income comes from coal, oil and gas. And Curley notes well-paid jobs in mines and plants kept tribal people on their ancestral lands.

CURLEY: So those are some of the benefits, employment and revenues for the tribal government. The detriments are health and environment.

FORDHAM: While the Navajo Nation government opposes the new restrictions, it doesn't speak for all Navajo people. Navajo activist Mario Atencio campaigned for years to end drilling around Chaco Canyon, worrying about things like contaminated wells.

MARIO ATENCIO: We're actually protecting the people, but it is environmental and public health, environmental health, environmental justice.

FORDHAM: A lawyer representing some Navajo allotment holders says he plans to sue the federal government to overturn the new rule. Republican Congressmen Eli Crane and Paul Gosar of Arizona introduced legislation to do the same. Meantime, relationships between tribes have suffered. Here's Gaylord Siow from Laguna Pueblo again.

SIOW: It's really disheartening, again, that divisiveness that has been caused now between Navajo Nation and Pueblo tribes.

FORDHAM: When Secretary Haaland tried to hold a ceremony in Chaco this summer, she was turned back by angry Navajo protesters.


FORDHAM: Siow says he understands the Navajo Nation's situation, but to him, some things are more important than money.

SIOW: 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 - you know, by hands of our ancestors.

FORDHAM: Despite the noisy protests, lawyers and legislators, the Navajo Nation itself doesn't have a lot of cards to play. It's unlikely to file a lawsuit. For now, Chaco seems likely to be left in peace.

For NPR News, I'm Alice Fordham in Chaco Canyon, N.M.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Alice Fordham is an NPR International Correspondent based in Beirut, Lebanon.