News ID: 274926
Published: 1104 GMT September 30, 2020

Tribes, archeologists working to protect Greater Chaco from oil and gas development

Tribes, archeologists working to protect Greater Chaco from oil and gas development
Fajada Butte in Chaco Canyon region, New Mexico, US

Tribal governments are working with archeologists to identify thousands of culturally-sensitive sites and resources in the Greater Chaco region, northwestern New Mexico, the US, in hopes of preventing oil and gas development in the area from encroaching further onto the sacred landscape.

The studies are part of a multi-pronged strategy to protect the area amid increased oil and gas leasing on federal lands in New Mexico. Under the Trump administration, oil and gas leasing on federal lands, including land in the Greater Chaco region, has increased fourfold in the state, reported.

Last year, US Congress passed a bill granting a one-year moratorium on oil and gas leasing within 10 miles of the Chaco Culture Historical National Park. That moratorium expires later this week on September 30.

Meanwhile, the deadline for public comments on a proposal that could see as many as 3,000 new oil and gas leases sold in the Greater Chaco landscape passed September 25. The deadline took place amid repeated calls made by tribal governments and members of the New Mexico congressional delegation for the US Bureau of Land Management to halt the proceedings until after the COVID-19 pandemic had ended and the virus is contained.

Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo expressed disappointment that Black Lives Matter (BLM) and the US Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is also involved in the proposal, did not further delay the public comment period.

“We are very discouraged by the fact that these deadlines have remained in place, even while we have made numerous attempts, and have voiced even through our congressional delegations, the need to pause some of these activities as a result of the public health crisis,” Vallo said during a webinar about oil and gas development in the Greater Chaco region.

But Vallo added that he’s hopeful BLM and Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) will offer up more opportunities for tribal consultation on the proposal moving forward. Vallo said that, despite the pandemic and its impacts on tribal communities in the state, there was a great response from the Pueblos and other Indigenous nations who submitted comments expressing their concerns.

“What we hope to see, as a result of the submittal of additional statements to the agencies, is that there will be an opportunity to have additional consultation on the pending issues because there are many that are still left unresolved, and many issues that have not been afforded the time for meaningful discussion between the tribal representatives, experts and the federal trustees,” Vallo said. “We’re hopeful that there will be more opportunities to have those discussions and we will continue to advocate for that.”

Separately, several Pueblos are working on archeological and ethnographic studies to identify the thousands of culturally sensitive sites throughout the area.

Octavius Seowtewa, a cultural specialist, said these Indigenous-led cultural resource studies are crucial to better understanding the history and present-day importance of Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco Region to the Puebloan communities.

“A lot of information that is out there was put out by different archeologists, with their assumptions of what they found and with their own information,” Seowtewa said. “There’s a lot of books, a lot of literature out there that talks about Chaco Canyon, but we’ve never had an opportunity to put in our information.” 

Seowtewa said elders were once strict about keeping information about Pueblo connections to the landscape secret. But there’s a growing sense that that strategy has left Pueblo voices out of decision making processes around Chaco.

“We’re changing that, we want information out there,” he said. “We have information coming from all the Pueblo communities about Chaco, why we were there. This place was created as a hub of our people getting together and teaching information about the Pueblo people, the community lifespan, the sharing of religious activities, the cultural side of who the Pueblo people are, was all acquired and shared within Chaco.”

Paul Reed, preservation archeologist and Chaco scholar at Archaeology Southwest, a private non-profit organization based in Arizona, emphasized the importance of shifting perspectives on Chaco Canyon and the region away from settler-centric archeology.

“Too many times in the non-Indigenous world, we talk about Chaco as some kind of mysterious civilization. Chaco is an amazing place, certainly, but Chaco is the ancestral home of all the Pueblo villages,” Reed said. “We absolutely have been missing the Pueblo voices. I hope we can continue to have archeologists like me step out of the way, and elevate the voices of the people whose ancestors created Chaco.”

Vallo said the study will help correct the historic record about Chaco, its history and its relevance to today.

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