Pablo Padilla is lying low right now, but don’t expect him to remain quiet for long. The 29-year-old law student at the University of New Mexico and member of the Zuni Tribe was an instrumental player in his tribe’s recent victory against an Arizona energy company (HCN, 8/18/03: Follow-up).
He’s now trying to be
just your average law student — albeit one who grew up on a
reservation, attended Harvard, earned his stripes in a triumphant
fight for a American Indian sacred site, and has not ruled out
running for political office. "I think of it as taking a little
break, getting some energy for the next round," Padilla says.
Padilla and his fellow activists — American Indians
and environmental groups aligned in the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition
— battled Salt River Project, a company that provides power
to Phoenix. SRP planned to build an 18,000-acre strip mine to
extract coal from a site 10 miles from Zuni Salt Lake, a focal
point of the spiritual life of the Zuni and other tribes. The
coalition argued that the proposed mine would ultimately drain the
lake by tapping underground aquifers.
After pushing its
proposal for nearly two decades, SRP abandoned its plans in late
July last year. SRP claimed it had found a cheaper alternative in
Wyoming, though company officials acknowledged that a letter of
opposition from New Mexico’s congressional delegation may
have played a part.
representative to the coalition — and as the
tribe’s first environmental protection specialist —
Padilla served as liaison between the tribe and the environmental
groups and lawyers working on the case, and also coordinated the
efforts of the 22 tribes that united to fight the mine. He authored
the written testimony about Zuni Salt Lake given to both the Senate
Indian Affairs Committee and the United Nations Permanent Forum on
Indigenous Peoples, and was on the negotiating team that met
unsuccessfully eight times with SRP to attempt to resolve the
"There wasn’t any task I assigned him that
he didn’t deliver on," says former Zuni Governor Malcolm
For Padilla, the fight was about more than a
strip mine and a lake. "This was not a battle between Salt River
Project and the Zuni Tribe," Padilla says. "This was a battle of
values. It just happened to play itself out between a coal mine
company and a tribe. (On one side there were) energy resources,
security, those sorts of things that are involved in producing
electricity, and then (there were) the other values — having
something sacred and holding onto it."
Padilla says the
values conflict was a powerful communication tool. "Once we
realized it was about bigger things going on, we were able to get a
lot more people on board and change the minds of decision-makers,"
One of the coalition’s most successful
efforts was a campaign — spearheaded by environmental groups
— that targeted SRP’s energy customers in Phoenix. The
coalition sent out letters to SRP customers about the dispute,
explaining that they might save a few cents on their electricity
bill, but at the expense of a sacred site. "That was a brilliant
strategy," says Padilla. The coalition also outfitted
Padilla’s uncle, Calbert Seciwa, with a truck (donated by the
Sierra Club) emblazoned with the message, "SRP is targeting Salt
Lake," which Seciwa drove around Phoenix.
that within the coalition — which included groups such as the
Sierra Club, the Citizens Coal Council, and the Water Information
Network — there was a crucial recognition of differences in
approach. "The tribe, the indigenous part of this campaign was
geared toward protecting the sacred site," says Padilla. "We had a
whole other part of the campaign that was trying to protect the
natural resources. When we realized we were coming at it from these
two separate angles, we were able to work together, realizing we
As an American
Indian and a law student, Padilla also struggles with
conflicting modes of thought. In law, he says, "there’s
always this emphasis on breaking things down, looking at the world
through a microscope. But as Indians, as Zunis, our way is to look
outward, to say, ‘How is this going to affect us four
generations down the line?’ It’s a very different way
of seeing things."
Padilla spent the summer working as an
intern at Environmental Defense in Boulder, Colo., focusing on
tribal water rights. "It was a time for me to distance myself from
the tribe and law school physically," he says, "to get away so I
could work on my thinking, developing personally."
in Albuquerque, he is concentrating on Indian and water law, and
trying to spend as much time as he can with his wife, Mila, and
4-year-old son, Charles. "He’s an urban Indian transplant,"
Padilla says of his son growing up in Albuquerque. "But the great
thing about New Mexico is there are 22 tribes here, so we have
friends in all the tribes, and we go to all their feast days. The
other day we went to the Jemez feast day. They made it rain."