As Acoma people, deep within our collective memories are the experiences of our ancestors as they embarked on an epic journey into this world. Along this journey to our present-day home at Acoma, Haakú, our ancestors left the footprints and fingerprints that mark our existence.
At Chaco Canyon, just as at places like Mesa Verde and countless other Ancestral Puebloan landscapes, the many generations of our Ancestors lived the entirety of their natural lives. In those places, they formed the foundations of the cultural practices, traditions, beliefs and lifeways that maintain our cultural identity as Acoma people today.
Chaco Canyon and its surrounding area, the Greater Chaco Landscape, are of great importance to the Acoma and many other Pueblos who share a similar understanding and connection to these sacred places. Within the Greater Chaco Landscape are archaeological and natural features (with archaeological traces) that are our cultural resources. Remembered in song and prayer, by place-name in each of our Pueblos’ languages, by pilgrimages seen and unseen; Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Landscape are parts of our shared living history.
Currently, this sacred and fragile landscape is under immense pressure from oil and gas development. On March 28, the U.S. Department of the Interior Bureau of Land Management intends to sell an additional 10,000 acres of the Greater Chaco Landscape.
Under the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Protection Act, the BLM is required to identify and evaluate the impact on eligible historic properties that could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places. These historic properties include what are referred to as Traditional Cultural Properties and are often Pueblo cultural resources.
The sad reality is that much of the 10,000 acres remains unsurveyed, and the BLM does little to fill the gaps in the data. This is despite numerous Pueblo offers of assistance to allow for our own people to walk these lands, and with our cultural expertise (rooted in our Ancestral memory and ongoing cultural practice) to assist in identifying those cultural resources the BLM is unable, and oftentimes, unwilling to acknowledge.
The BLM has deferred two previous oil and gas leases because of concerns about the inability to identify Pueblo cultural resources and to protect them while offering access and use by Pueblo people. For arbitrary reasons, the same agency insists it must move forward with the sale of identified parcels of land located only steps away from areas that currently are semi-protected. We are left to sit helpless, while the laws intended to protect our cultural heritage are disregarded, and our Pueblos left with the uncertainty and the grave possibility of destruction of our cultural resources.
The importance of the greater Chaco Landscape is not lost on others as well. Last week, in an unprecedented meeting at the Pueblo of Acoma, the All Pueblo Council of Governors comprised of 20 tribes, the Navajo Nation, New Mexico Congressional delegates, the State of New Mexico’s Land Commissioner, and many allies equally committed to the protection of Chaco, gathered to reaffirm and state a collective resolve to protect Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Landscape. There, Chairman E. Paul Torres of the All Pueblo Council of Governors correctly observed that Chaco Canyon and Chaco Landscape is the “heart of Pueblo culture,” having never been abandoned, but in fact are “living sites because the spirits are still there.”
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s forthcoming reintroduction of the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act is an important step to protect a portion of the critical area surrounding Chaco Canyon, but it cannot protect everything. Adequate protection is only possible when the BLM complies with its responsibilities under federal law to identify and avoid, or mitigate damage to traditional cultural properties when federal action is proposed. When the agency does not do this, as is the case with the impending lease sale, it must defer action.
Lest we forget our journey, Chaco Canyon — and those places in between — connect us to our beginning and provide context for our future in the place we have called home for over a millenium. The March 28 oil and gas lease sale must be deferred until the opportunities required under federal law are provided.
As Pueblo people, for the sake of our Ancestors, our people, and those not yet born, we must be given the opportunity to protect Chaco Canyon.
Brian D. Vallo is the governor for the Pueblo of Acoma and a member of the All Pueblo Council of Governors.