This year there’s a good chance Mount Taylor, one of New Mexico’s most imposing and mysterious mountains, will be returned to the spiritual care of the pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Zuni; the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation; and, by extension, the rest of New Mexico’s Native American community.
This does not mean that Mount Taylor would be closed to the rest of us, or to property owners on the mountain. It does mean, though, that the mountain would be respected as a sacred realm by New Mexico law.
And that’s as it should be. Mount Taylor is a holy place of pilgrimage for Pueblo and Navajo people and has been since long before written history. It is theirs by right of tradition. It is as spiritually important to them as the shrines of any religion are to those who worship and believe.
Mount Taylor has been shamefully expropriated in the past, particularly during the Cold War when uranium mining dominated government thinking.
Last June, in a 4-2 decision, the state’s Cultural Properties Review Committee granted an emergency one-year listing to Mount Taylor above 8,000 feet as a Traditional Cultural Property.
This June the four Pueblos and the Navajo Nation will seek to make that status permanent.
The Cultural Properties Review Committee took a brave stand. In confronting heated economic arguments, it privileged deep cultural values and religious meanings over short-term economic gain.
The “emergency” that the tribes were trying to avert was another period of deadly pollution, cultural disrespect, and general destruction that would come to the Mount Taylor sanctuary with a new uranium boom in the Grants Mineral Belt where Mount Taylor is situated.
The emergency designation was met with fierce opposition. The Cibola County Commission voted 4-1 against the designation in April 2008. That meeting has been described as “very heated,” “sometimes racially charged … attended by hundreds of people.” The Traditional Cultural Property designation will require “mining interests to obtain a standard permit and a full review by the state Historic Preservation Division before exploratory drilling can begin.”
In June 2007, the All Indian Pueblo Council passed a resolution calling for the protection of sacred sites on the mountain, “deploring” drilling and exploration permitted by the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department without consulting the state’s 19 pueblos and other affected tribes.
After decades of open-pit uranium mining in the area around Acoma and Laguna pueblos and the town of Grants — decades spent of dealing with diseases associated with tailings; water discharges; and mine holes, most of which remain unmonitored and open to the winds — the pueblos had had enough.
And Acoma Pueblo had had enough as well, I’m sure. It was the victim of outright land theft some 30 years ago by the federal government, which created the Malpais National Monument out of Acoma land to benefit the slumping economy of Grants when the uranium boom petered out in the early 1980s.
When the pueblos and Navajos petitioned the state Historic Preservation Officer, Katherine Slick, for emergency traditional cultural property status, they wrote that “this emergency listing is necessary to give the nominating Tribes the ability to fulfill their sacred duty to protect the … mountain and the people.”
|Eons before the mountain was named for president Zachary Taylor, it was known to the Acoma as Kaweshtima, to the Hopi as Tsiipiya, to the Zuni as Dwankwi Kyabachu Yalanne, and to the Navajo Nation as Tsoodzil.|
In their petition, the tribes argued that “without a listing, it is impossible for them to protect vital cultural and natural resources.” They said that federal and state agencies issue mining permits on small parcels of land without consulting them. “Without notice there can be horrible consequences. This has already happened.” One permit was issued without notification at the site of “a reburial pursuant to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.”
The tribes said that exploratory mining and drilling causes greater harm to the land than it seems, by constructing roads for drilling equipment and the construction of the exploratory sites themselves. This work disturbs surface soil and various plant species used medicinally and for ritual purposes. “For many plant species growing in the wild, restoration is not an option,” the tribes said.
The tribes also contended that the “last mining boom brought disastrous consequences to the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna.”
Along with uranium sickness and death, the population boom at the time caused the pueblos to suffer “the contamination of their farmlands in the Rio San Jose Valley due to inadequate infrastructure in the city of Grants. Raw sewage contaminated the land and the major water storage facility on the river for Acoma and Laguna, Acomita Lake. It took a major lawsuit and several years of work to make the river, its associated aquatic resources, land and reservoir usable again.”
If the Traditional Cultural Property listing is made permanent this year, it will give all New Mexicans a boost in public confidence. There are things more important than money in this world, life itself for one, and what makes life both bearable and meaningful — the spiritual reality of our connectedness to the land and to each other.