Protesters barricade a road on Sunday, June 11, 2023 near Chaco Canyon, New Mexico, holding signs and blocking cars from accessing the canyon. The barricade was erected to protest a public lands order banning new oil, gas and mining leases near the canyon. (Photo by Liam DeBonis for Source NM)
CHACO CANYON — Instead of the celebration planned on a sunny Sunday morning in northwestern New Mexico, Native American communities argued at a barricade set up by protesters from the Navajo Nation.
Their shouts telling non-Navajo people to go away emanated beyond a long line of cars unable to get through the roadblock to enter Chaco Culture National Historical Park, where U.S. Interior Sec. Deb Haaland (Laguna) planned to be that morning following a recent 20-year federal ban on new oil, gas and mining leases.
The protesters were mainly Navajo Nation citizens who are allotted land in the area that pays them royalties for oil and gas exploration around Chaco. Many said this moratorium undermines their sovereignty, something supported by Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren and some federal Republican officials.
Haaland later said she was heartbroken that anyone was denied entry into the public lands area, something other Native community members reiterated on their own with the site’s sacred ancestral value in mind.
A heated crowd faced each other on Sunday morning, one half lined up with signs in front of a row of small orange cones and the other looking on, occasionally trying to get through the barricade.
Navajo Nation Police arrived around when the celebration was supposed to start, stepping in when scuffles or arguments broke out. Police officials initially told protesters to take down the roadblock. However, Navajo Nation police officer Robert Williams told Source NM that the police didn’t know if the land where the protest was is under management by the federal government or Navajo Nation.
Some protesters threatened to slash or shoot tires.
“If they’re not going to leave, I’ve already loaded my gun,” one person told a police officer standing on the other side of a barricade shortly after police arrived. Source NM did not see any weapons.
Mario Atencio is the vice president of Torreon/Star Lake Chapter of Navajo Nation and a member of the Board of Directors for Diné Citizens Against Ruining our Environment. He’s also one of the plaintiffs suing New Mexico for its oil and gas allowance.
Atencio (Diné) was supposed to speak Sunday morning but watched on as the protesters didn’t allow anyone through their blockade. He told Source NM to document what was happening.
He said the oil and gas industry is damaging to people’s health and the environment. He’s an allottee as well, he said, but his family isn’t blocking the roads.
“Everyone has freedom of speech,” he said. “People express how they want to express.”
A safe space across the state instead
Six-and-a-half hours later, more than 150 miles away, those celebrating the moratorium gathered outside of the Bureau of Indian Affairs Southwest Regional Office in Albuquerque in the late afternoon instead, surrounded by federal police officers on the outskirts of the area.
Before tribal, state and federal officials spoke about the importance of this oil and gas ban, Haaland addressed what happened that morning. The nicest thing she could say, she said, was that it wasn’t an ideal morning.
She said there’s a long history between the Laguna Pueblo and the Navajo Nation, and her family personally has deep connections with the Navajo community.
“To see any road into any of our national parks or our public lands blocked was heartbreaking,” she said, “because our public lands belong to all Americans.”
Haaland said she comes from a matrilineal society, like Diné people, and has an obligation as a woman “to nurture our families, our homes and our communities.” She said she takes that seriously as Interior secretary.
“We can disagree on policy but we must be united in the protection of our children, our culture, our shared sacred spaces,” she said. “That is the most important thing.”
A protester at the barricade who identified herself as Delora Jesus, an oil and gas advocate, pointed to recent allegations made by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives that Haaland’s child, Somáh, is part of Pueblo Action Alliance, a New Mexico organization that advocated for the halt on oil and gas leases in the Chaco region.
Similarly, allottee Manuel Sales, a semi-retired veteran, said he feels betrayed by Haaland for his insistence that she is allowing the federal government to rule over Native American sovereignty.
“It’s not right the way they did it,” Sales (Diné) said.
Mark Mitchell, chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, said many Native communities call Chaco home and the federal government listened to Indigenous voices in enacting the moratorium.
Mitchell (Tesuque) thanked the Biden administration for protecting Chaco and other sacred sites.
“We did not do this work alone,” he said. “The voices of other tribal nations joined together with ours to call for these protections.”
An internal divide
Protesters yelled for people to learn more about the Navajo culture, and Diné people who wanted to attend the celebration shouted back.
“I am Diné, and what’s being said is wrong,” Janene Yazzie, southwest regional director of Indigenous environmental advocacy group NDN Collective, said to the crowd.
Atencio said on Sunday he represents 4,000-6,000 allottees and the protest wasn’t representative of all of them.
“What you do to the Earth, you do to the people,” he said. “Something must be done.”
Jade Begay is the director of policy and advocacy for the NDN Collective. Begay (Diné / Tesuque) told Source NM this split between Navajo people is affecting her as someone who is half Pueblo and half Diné.
“To hear my Diné community say no Pueblos allowed on our own ancestral sacred site is beyond heartbreaking,” she said.
Jesus (Diné) said the northwestern area of the state, so heavily dominated by the oil and gas industry, has adequate safety measures in place for any potential health risks, though she didn’t get into specifics. Advocates for stalling energy production have said it’s doing widespread damage to both humans and the land.
Jesus went to an elementary school in Counselor, New Mexico that had an oil and gas operations rig across the way, and she said she didn’t get sick from any potential pollution from production.
Environmental advocates specifically brought up her school, Lybrook Elementary, when asking New Mexico to limit the oil and gas pollution this year, voicing concern for children breathing in the poor air. Earlier this month, the New Mexico Public Lands Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard temporarily banned new oil and gas leases near schools.
There’s also a moratorium on oil and gas leasing near Chaco that Garcia Richard enacted in 2019.
Garcia Richards said Sunday afternoon that she’s committed to extending that ban without an expiration date. Her office’s spokesperson Joey Keefe said the state still needs to finish consultation with tribal governments in New Mexico.
Kendra Pinto (Diné), another plaintiff in the oil and gas lawsuit against New Mexico and a field advocate at EarthWorks, lives near Chaco. She described invisible dangers like greenhouse gas emissions and the more obvious ones like wellheads caked in oil.
She said it makes her sad, rather than angry, that her neighbors aren’t aware of the threats.
“A huge majority of the dangers are invisible, which is why it’s not like a widespread problem in this area,” she said. “It’s going to be something we worry about in five years, 10 years, like we did with uranium and coal.”
Pinto said allottees could’ve pushed to have been part of federal conversations on the oil and gas issues, “instead of just sort of showing up when something big is happening.” She said they took up that responsibility when they agreed to a lease for their land.
“This all didn’t magically happen,” she said.
Jesus said allottees did ask Haaland to prevent this moratorium.
“She’s not listening to us,” Jesus said. “I mean, it’s our livelihoods that we’re defending.”
Begay said Navajo Nation police didn’t prepare for this situation.
“Sadly, I did not see the Navajo Nation police prepared for this day,” she said.
Nygren, Navajo Nation president, told Fox News that people were planning to protest.
Nygren last week urged the federal leaders to cancel the Sunday celebration. In April, the Navajo Nation Council’s Naabik’íyatí Committee rescinded an order under the previous administration supporting a five-mile oil and gas buffer zone.
Nygren’s office did not respond on Sunday to a request for comment about the protest from Source NM.
Danny Simpson is a Navajo Nation council delegate that attended as a protester. He told the crowd they’re going to draft legislation this week that the road blocked off on Sunday can only be used for local traffic by Navajo Nation citizens.
“This is our way to say that the federal government is not going to push us around,” he said. “This is our land.”
Jesus and others cheered when they heard this. An oil and gas advocate, Jesus said she believes this moratorium will affect Navajo allottees, though the federal government’s current buffer does not apply to existing leases.
She said the allottees are standing up for their rights now and should be able to defend their land.
“I didn’t really want it to get this loud and everything,” she said. “But we have every right to be here.”
Begay said there’s a lot of misinformation about the Chaco moratorium, signaling that the ban is actually a win for not only Indigenous people but all communities. Begay pointed out the new policy will not stop existing leases held by the protesting allottees.
The order only temporarily bans new oil and gas or mining leases.
“The Navajo Nation needs to really assess the amount of conflict and harm and tension that they’re creating with these lies,” she said.
Jennifer Marley, Red Nation organizer, said a lot of people protesting don’t understand that their allotment rights won’t be impacted.
Marley (San Ildefonso) added that splits between Native American communities aren’t often reported in the media, although she said Pueblo nations — which include 19 different sovereign nations in New Mexico — aren’t divided like the Navajo Nation is on this issue.
“I’m pretty shocked to see it,” she said, looking at the shouting crowd.
This story was originally produced by Source New Mexico which is part of States Newsroom, a network of news bureaus, including the Daily Montanan, supported by grants and a coalition of donors as a 501c(3) public charity.
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