About three months ago, staff members from the Santa Clara Pueblo Tribal Historic Preservation Office were doing a field research survey at Dalton Pass, a cultural site in McKinley County west of Crownpoint.
Staff members gazed in disbelief on a ceremonial kiva pit with a barbecue grill in the middle, along with tread marks going right over the site, said Ben Chavarria, tribal historic preservation officer for Santa Clara Pueblo.
What the preservation staff members witnessed “clearly evidenced no respect for the historic and cultural significance of the site,” Chavarria said. Kivas are a part of ceremonies for Santa Clara and other Pueblos.
“There is no other way to describe this treatment than as shameful,” he said. “Once damaged, these sites cannot be rebuilt or replaced. The spirit of these places, once the place is harmed by such disrespect, forever changes its character.”
They were at Dalton Pass doing work as part of the Navajo-Gallup Water Supply Project. The site was on private land, Chavarria said, so the office had to work with state agencies to report it.
“But it’s not just this site,” he told reporters on Tuesday. “There are other sites that are occurring all throughout this whole region.”
The Pueblos are the firsthand witnesses of the threat oil and gas development poses to the area, Chavarria said.
“Ancestral sites are being desecrated by development, otherwise damaged by debris, vehicle impacts and other man-made harms,” he said.
Chavarria was speaking during a news conference on Tuesday afternoon by Pueblo leaders to voice their support for a proposal that would ban mineral extraction for more than 351,000 acres around Chaco Canyon National Historical Park.
The U.S. Interior Department this week is conducting public hearings and consultations with tribal governments as part of a process needed to implement the ban, called an “administrative withdrawal.” Previous sales of land in the Greater Chaco region by the Bureau of Land Management drew protests.
If approved, the withdrawal would amount to a 20-year ban of new federal oil and gas leasing within a 10-mile radius around Chaco Canyon. The deadline for public comment on the proposal is May 6. There are two in-person meetings scheduled this week, one at the San Juan College Henderson Fine Arts Center on Wednesday in Farmington and at the National Indian Programs Training Center on Friday in Albuquerque.
Some Navajo Nation citizens that are allotted land and mineral rights under treaties with the U.S. government in the area around Chaco Canyon oppose the ban.
Zuni Pueblo Lt. Gov. Carleton Bowekaty said the ban will not affect those allottees.
Mark Mitchell, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors and former governor of Tesuque Pueblo, said the ban is narrow and will not affect or prevent development on lands owned privately or by tribal allotment. He said it also would not affect development already taking place on public lands.
More than 90% of the federal lands in the San Juan Basin have already been leased for oil and gas development.
As a result, Mitchell said, tens of thousands of wells have been developed in the Greater Chaco region, “almost always without significant tribal consultation or identification and consideration of impacts on tribal cultural resources.”
The area is an irreplaceable, sacred, interconnected landscape unlike any other, said Acoma Pueblo Gov. Randall Vicente.
“Over the past several decades, waves of oil and gas development have directly impacted and threatened our cultural resources and the sacred landscape at Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chaco region,” he said.
The ban “will help ensure that cultural resources important to our people and our way of life are protected for future generations,” he said.
Through the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association, Zuni cultural leaders have been visiting sites in the withdrawal zone, Bowekaty said, and they find a real personal connection to those places and the sacred sites within.
Zuni Pueblo has lost many cultural leaders to COVID-19 and along with them, irreplaceable cultural knowledge, Bowekaty said, affecting the longevity of Pueblo lifeways.
“We hope to provide not only our cultural leaders but our future generations that connection to place and why that is important,” he said. “It will allow us to lead to healing.”