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Protecting the sacred — Chaco Canyon, a cultural landscape

August 6, 2018

There’s something serene and sacred about a place we’ve all come to know as Chaco Canyon — the site of an ancient civilization. Its grandeur is captured in the monumental structures, sandstone cliffs and untold mystery. For the People of Acoma, there’s nothing mysterious about Chaco — it’s woven into our remembered past.

Recently, as part of a summer youth program, Acoma children retraced our ancestors’ journey from Chaco to our present home at Haakú, known as Sky City. On this journey, our children visited places such as Mesa Verde, Hovenweep, the Aztec Ruins and other ancestral Puebloan villages — points along Acoma’s migration route. I joined them at Chaco Canyon. As we all stood in awe and wonder at the importance of this sacred place, I was reminded of what we stood to lose by the hurried pace and the impact created by the rapid oil and gas development within the San Juan Basin.

The Bureau of Land Management recently announced a new round of oil and gas leases set to be auctioned in December 2018. These additional leases come on the heels of leases, scheduled for sale in March 2018, but postponed until further analysis is done on the impact to historic properties surrounding Chaco Canyon.

What’s perplexing is the amount of existing oil and gas development in the BLM’s Farmington Field Office district. It currently stands at more than 91 percent of available mineral rights already leased or developed — hardly the balanced approach designated as “multiple use” that’s mandated by the Federal Land Policy and Management Act. Acoma, like the other 19 pueblos of New Mexico and Texas, has repeatedly objected to the pace of new oil and gas development. It has overwhelmed the Chaco Culture National Historic Park and its surrounding cultural landscapes.

The Chaco Culture National Historic Park contains significant cultural evidence of the first people who settled here and created a philosophical worldview, religious practices and a belief system that remain intact, and from which Acoma and its children draw direct value and identity. These cultural resources are not only archaeological findings but natural resources such as springs, buttes, mesas, rock cisterns, alluvial planes and any number of other physical markers etched with meaning and usage for the Acoma People. Together, these natural and archaeological resources interact as a cultural landscape, tying our present to our past.

The National Historic Preservation Act of 1966 memorialized and attached a national value on preserving historic places. These properties are not limited to common examples such as historic buildings or battlefields, but include places designated as “traditional cultural properties” important to American Indian Tribes. A prime example is Mount Taylor in Western New Mexico, which is important for a number of Pueblos, Hopi and the Navajo Nation. The Mount Taylor traditional cultural property is made up of many different cultural landscapes but designated as a single historic property.

Chaco Canyon contains the same traditional cultural properties as Mount Taylor significant to the Pueblo of Acoma and to the other pueblos. These two cultural landscapes are irreplaceable as cultural resources and are worthy of preservation and protection by the BLM as mandated by federal law.

Unfortunately, the Bureau of Land Management has forgone its responsibilities called for under federal law, namely to identify historic properties, evaluate the effect leasing has upon them, and resolve the impact upon Pueblo traditional cultural properties in the region. In December 2017, the All Pueblo Council of Governors passed a resolution calling upon the BLM to institute a moratorium on all oil and gas related permitting and leasing in the Greater Chaco Region until a comprehensive ethnographic study of the area’s Pueblo cultural landscapes could be completed. To date, our request has gone unfulfilled.

Our intent is not to stop all development, largely because we all rely upon the industry for energy and jobs. Instead, I want to make the Pueblos’ voice heard. Up to now, it has been silenced by a process meant for balancing the interests of other stakeholders. The BLM can no longer ignore or turn a deaf ear to the voices of Pueblo leadership. They will only get louder and become firmer until the process is honored and the threat to Chaco Canyon is abated.

Kurt Riley is the governor for the Pueblo of Acoma and a member of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.

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