Journal Press: Conflicting voices and passions flare in Chaco Canyon as a new federal ban on oil and gas leases ignites a standoff between Native American communities and the federal government.
The Morning that Shook Chaco Canyon
CHACO CANYON, NM — Tensions reached boiling point on a sun-drenched Sunday morning in northwestern New Mexico as members of the Navajo Nation barricaded the entrance to the Chaco Culture National Historical Park. The intent was to hold a celebration following the recently enacted 20-year federal ban on new oil, gas, and mining leases. However, the day took an unexpected turn.
The protesters, largely Navajo Nation citizens, receive royalties for oil and gas exploration around Chaco Canyon and were vocal in their opposition to the ban, claiming it undermines their sovereignty. Their sentiments were echoed by the Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and some federal Republican officials.
U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, who was scheduled to attend the celebration, expressed disappointment that the public lands area was blocked. She emphasized the importance of public lands for all Americans and the sacred ancestral value of the site to Native communities.
A Barricade of Emotions and Uncertainty
The crowd, comprising of protesters and supporters of the ban, grew heated. A barricade made of small orange cones and signs was the focal point of emotions as people shouted across the divide.
Navajo Nation Police were deployed to maintain order but confusion arose as to whether the land under protest was managed by the federal government or the Navajo Nation. Some protesters made threats to damage cars trying to cross the barricade.
Mario Atencio, vice president of the Torreon/Star Lake Chapter of the Navajo Nation, expressed concern about the impact of the oil and gas industry on health and the environment. He urged for the documentation of the events taking place and highlighted the freedom of speech exercised by the protesters.
A Different Venue But The Same Passion
Over 150 miles away, the celebration was relocated outside the Bureau of Indian Affairs Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque. Here, tribal, state, and federal officials spoke about the significance of the oil and gas ban.
Haaland, in her address, spoke of her deep connections with the Navajo community and her commitment to nurture families, homes, and communities as a part of her matrilineal society.
The Voices of Opposition
Among the protesters at Chaco Canyon was Delora Jesus, an oil and gas advocate, who felt that the federal ban would adversely affect the livelihoods of Navajo allottees. Jesus, along with others, accused Haaland of not listening to their concerns.
Similarly, Manuel Sales, a Navajo allottee and semi-retired veteran, felt betrayed by what he saw as an encroachment on Native American sovereignty by the federal government.
Danny Simpson, a Navajo Nation council delegate, roused the crowd by announcing plans to draft legislation restricting the road access to local traffic by Navajo Nation citizens.
An Internal Rift Amidst A Bigger Picture
The protest not only reflected a clash between the Navajo Nation and the federal government but also an internal divide within the Navajo community. Jade Begay of the NDN Collective found it heart-wrenching to hear people from her community being barred from sacred ancestral sites.
Kendra Pinto, an environmental advocate, brought attention to the invisible dangers of the oil and gas industry, such as greenhouse gas emissions. Pinto and other advocates such as Jennifer Marley of the Red Nation emphasized that existing leases held by the Navajo allottees will not be affected by the new ban, which only temporarily prohibits new oil and gas or mining leases.
As the day ended, it was clear that the newly enacted ban on oil and gas leasing in Chaco Canyon has struck a chord in a community that is both deeply connected to the land and reliant on it for economic sustenance.
The federal government and the Navajo Nation leadership will need to engage in dialogue to address the concerns and aspirations of the Navajo people. The involvement of grassroots activists, environmental advocates, and those whose livelihoods are tied to the oil and gas industry is essential to shape policies that are both respectful of indigenous sovereignty and protective of sacred and ecologically sensitive lands.
Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, being the first Native American to hold this position, has an important role in this dialogue, as her actions and decisions could have long-lasting impacts on both the Navajo community and the preservation of the Chaco Canyon area.
With the 20-year ban on new leases now in place, there is an opportunity for all stakeholders to reflect on the values and priorities that will guide the management and use of this land for generations to come. This will necessitate collaborative and inclusive approaches to decision-making, balancing economic, environmental, and cultural considerations.
Chaco Canyon, with its rich cultural history and fragile ecosystem, stands as a reminder of the intricate relationship that indigenous communities have with their ancestral lands, and the challenges they face in navigating modern economic pressures and environmental concerns.
As the Navajo Nation and the federal government look to the future, the events at Chaco Canyon serve as a call to action for mindful stewardship, respect for indigenous rights, and a commitment to sustainable development that honors the legacy of the land and the people who call it home.