Salt Woman confronts a coal mine

Zuni Pueblo defends its sacred salt lake from a proposed strip mine

  • Map of Zuni Pueblo

    Diane Sylvain

ZUNI, N.M. - The sky turns red above Zuni Salt Lake as the sun drops behind the mesas in this lonely stretch of western New Mexico. From the crest of a nearby hill, Salt Lake is a pale purple and seems to glow with soft light.

This small, natural salt lake, cupped in the bowl of a shallow volcanic crater, is central to the Zuni religion, and is a holy site to nearly a dozen regional tribes.The Zunis consider the lake to be the embodiment of Salt Woman, an important deity. Following ancient paths through the hills, tribes make pilgrimages to the lake to retrieve salt crystals from its shore. For many Zuni families, the salt provides a daily connection to the sacred: It is used not only ritually in ceremonies, but also as a spice in regular meals.

Lately, Zuni Salt Lake has taken center stage in a clash over a secular endeavor: coal strip-mining. The Fence Lake mine, a project of the Arizona-based Salt River Project power company, is expected to extract 80 million tons of coal over 50 years. The mine would bring about 200 full-time jobs to a region that boasts little in the way of a local economy. It would also require pumping water out of several local aquifers, including the one that feeds Salt Lake.

That worries Zuni officials. They say studies done by both a geologist hired by the tribe, and a professor at New Mexico State University in Las Cruces, indicate pumping will lower the aquifer, resulting in less water for the rare desert lake.

But New Mexico regulators and company representatives say pumping will not disturb Salt Lake. This summer, the state awarded the mine a new permit. All that stands in the way of the Fence Lake Mine now is a federal permit, and a tribe that says it will do everything in its power to protect Salt Lake.

Enter: coal mining

Located about 30 miles south of Zuni Pueblo, Salt Lake was incorporated into the Zuni reservation in 1985, when the Zunis purchased the lake and the land immediately surrounding it. That makes the lake an island of tribal land in the midst of private, state and federal land.

About a decade ago, the Salt River Project power company began leasing and purchasing land about ten miles east of Salt Lake in order to open a coal mine. In 1996, the New Mexico Energy, Mining and Natural Resources Department granted the utility a state permit to operate the mine. But construction never began on Fence Lake. An application for a federal permit has languished for years in the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining.

Despite appeals by the Zunis and nearby Acoma Pueblo, the state permitting agency renewed the permit in July for another five years at the company's request. The new permit requires the Salt River Project to test the effect of pumping on the water table, and to stop using the Dakota aquifer if any effects on Salt Lake are indicated, explains Jim O'Hara, a coal-mine specialist in the office that granted the permit.

O'Hara thinks Zuni concerns about the lake are legitimate, but adds: "One thing that I often feel is left out of this debate is that the mine has done everything by the book. This is not reservation. This is land owned and leased by Salt River Project, and they have every right to build a mine there as long as they live under the law."

"At this point, months make a difference. We want to start construction," says Bob Barnard, project manager for the Fence Lake Mine. Currently, the Salt River Project gets the coal used to fuel its Arizona-based Coronado Generating Station from the McKinley Mine in Gallup, N.M. But coal reserves at McKinley are dwindling, and with the next-closest coal supply 1,200 rail miles away in Wyoming's Powder River Basin, Barnard says the Fence Lake Mine is the only economically sound option.

Zunis speak up

Economic and legal considerations are not forefront in Zuni Councilman Dan Simplicio's mind. History is. He says the Fence Lake Mine is another abomination in the long trail of abuses suffered by the tribe.

Several years ago, on a trip to Washington, D.C., to repatriate Zuni bones and artifacts, Simplicio found a Zuni priest's brain in a jar at the Smithsonian. The attached paperwork said the brain had been obtained legally.

"How do you take a brain legally? Can I have your brain?" asks Simplicio. He explains that repatriating Zuni artifacts and protecting Salt Lake are both essential to preserving the history of Zuni culture. "We can't risk losing Salt Woman again," Simplicio says. "If we lose her, we might never get her back, and we can't live without her."

Simplicio is referring to a Zuni oral tradition that explains how Salt Woman came to Salt Lake. Centuries ago, a moral decline in the Zuni people offended Salt Woman, and she retreated from their lives. The Zunis then entered a period of reflection, prayer and penitence, after which they were shown a new path to Salt Woman. Legend says they followed this new path south for 30 miles and found Salt Lake, where they resumed their worship of Salt Woman. Simplicio says construction of the mine will destroy some of the ancient trails that lead to the lake, and potentially disturb as many as 500 old grave sites.

Environmentalists fear that any tampering with the salty springs that feed the lake would devastate Salt Lake's delicate ecosystem. The lake, which is only inches deep in late summer, is a rare and unique example of a high desert oasis, says Brian Segee of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. He says little is known about the lake's biology and ecology, but he believes that if the lake is ever thoroughly studied, "it is a good bet" that several new species will be discovered.

Despite state assurances that Salt Lake will be unaffected by the mine, the people of Zuni Pueblo do not intend to yield. Along with the Center for Biological Diversity, they have appealed the renewed state permit, and plan to challenge the still-awaited federal permit. If that doesn't work, the tribe will attempt to stop the mine in court.

Says Simplicio, "When we were given Salt Lake, we were given an obligation as stewards, caretakers. That is (Salt Woman's) home, and we have to protect it."

Robert Struckman writes from Colorado's Front Range.


  • Dan Simplicio, Zuni Tribal Council, 505/782-7022;
  • Jim O'Hara, New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division, 505/476-3413;
  • Bob Barnard, Salt River Project, 602/236-2500.

Copyright © 2001 HCN and Robert Struckman