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Pueblo leaders travel to D.C. to defend Chaco buffer zone

Pueblo Bonito at Chaco Culture National Historical Park is pictured in March 2022. Hannah Grover
Republicans introduce bill to end moratorium

Pueblo leaders traveled to Washington, D.C., this week to meet with federal officials in an effort to prevent the federal government from overturning a buffer zone preventing new oil and gas, or uranium, leases within a 10-mile radius of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Following the announcement of a 20-year moratorium on mineral leasing on federal lands near Chaco, Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced a bill that would essentially end that moratorium.

Pueblo of Acoma Gov. Randall Vicente said that it is “hard to accept somebody just coming in for the purpose of money to try to take it away and do away with it.”

He asked how long the energy resources will last.

“It’s going to deplete and it’s going to go,” he said. “One of these days, there won’t be anything. And then what are you going to stand on?”

The Pueblo leaders say the buffer zone is important to protecting their ancestral lands.

“I believe that it’s been pretty positive in terms of the reception and giving us their time and attention to have us elaborate on our primary concerns of why we’re here. And our connection to Chaco Canyon,” Pueblo of Zuni Gov. Arden Kucate told NM Political Report about the visit to D.C.

Kucate said there is a lot of inaccurate information circulating about the mineral withdrawal.

Vicente said the reason the Pueblo leaders traveled to D.C. was to meet with federal agencies and offices and to dispel misinformation that is circulating about the mineral withdrawal. He said Pueblo people, as well as other tribes, look to Chaco as part of their emergence story and as part of their daily prayers.

Despite that, Vicente said that the Pueblo people have been asked to prove that they are part of Chaco.

“Well, we’ve always had it in our emergence stories,” he said. “We’ve always had it in our origin stories, that Chaco was one of the places that we stopped off before going to our final, current homes.”

He said Pueblo ceremonies name places like Chaco where the Pueblo people lived.

But now, Vicente said, people are asking the Pueblo people to prove their ancestral ties to Chaco.

Kucate is a traditional practitioner and religious leader as well as being governor of the Pueblo of Zuni. For him, Chaco is a special place.

“It’s been within us as part of our Indigenous upbringing like an umbilical cord to our emergence and migration history,” he said.

He said it is important to protect the lands for generations to come.

“These places are looked upon as natural wonders for people of this country, but it continues to be our sacred lands that we’re still deeply connected to through our rituals or ceremonies and what have you,” he said.

Chaco Culture National Historical Park is also considered a UNESCO World Heritage Site and attracts visitors from all over the world.

Other world heritage sites include the Cathedral of Notre-Dame in France, Vatican City and the Statue of Liberty.

The ancestral Puebloan influence can be seen far beyond the reaches of Chaco Culture National Historical Park.

Kucate noted that the Pueblos have ancestral ties to sites throughout the Four Corners region and the Pueblo people still have spiritual ties to those sites.

Vicente listed some of those places including Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah and Mesa Verde National Park in southwest Colorado.

He said other areas where the Pueblos have ancestral ties are also impacted by the threat of extractive industries, including uranium, oil and gas.

“You never put back what you take,” Vicente said.

He said the extraction of oil or gas from the subsurface may damage the structures at sites like Chaco Culture National Historical Park. Although the Pueblo people no longer occupy those buildings, Vicente said they continue to pray for them so that they do not fall down.

“That’s in our words and our prayers,” he said. “We still continue to pray for it because we still do our pilgrimages, pay homage to those places that we consider our homeland.”

The moratorium has divided Indigenous communities. Navajo allottees who live near Chaco Culture National Historical Park are among the most vocal opponents of the buffer zone.

The moratorium will have little impact on the region because there has not been new federal leasing of oil and gas within 10 miles of Chaco Culture National Historical Park for years. But it could impact future leasing that might occur.

While the moratorium does not apply to their allotment lands, allottees say the checkerboard nature of land ownership makes it harder for them to lease out their mineral rights if the federal lands are withdrawn from leasing.

The Navajo Nation, which previously lobbied for the buffer zone alongside the Pueblos, has since changed its position to officially stand in opposition of the moratorium on new leasing. The tribe under its current presidential administration has cited concerns about the economic impacts to allottees.

In the remote area of northwest New Mexico, there are few opportunities for economic growth outside of energy development.

Both Kucate and Vicente expressed disappointment in that change from the Navajo Nation.

Former Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez remains in support of the buffer zone and has sent a letter to President Joe Biden in support of the buffer zone.

In the letter, Nez said he “vehemently opposes” the federal legislation that attempts to end the moratorium on new leasing near Chaco Culture National Historical Park. He said the withdrawal of mineral leasing came as a result of “decades of efforts from Tribes, elected officials, and the public to better protect the sacred and historic sites.”

Vicente said that Nez is not the only former Navajo Nation president who advocated alongside the Pueblos for the buffer zone. He said former President Russell Begaye and Nez were “strong leaders who understood protection of our cultural resources, which includes Chaco Canyon” as well as other sites in the southwest.

Pueblo leaders say they want to engage with the Navajo Nation and are hopeful that the Nation will once again join them in support of the buffer zone. The Pueblos and Navajo Nation have worked together successfully in the past to protect other shared cultural places such as the Bears Ears National Monument in southeast Utah.

Vicente said the visit to D.C. is only the beginning of the efforts to correct misinformation.

“We’re here to make sure that our voices are heard and we’re dependent on legislation to see what natural resources can be ruined and altered all because of digging for oil, gas and uranium in some areas,” he said.