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Saving a sacred lake: Zuni activist Pablo Padilla

  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.


As tribal 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 dispute.

"There wasn’t any task I assigned him that he didn’t deliver on," says former Zuni Governor Malcolm Bowekaty.

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," he says.

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.

Padilla feels 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 could disagree."


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."

Back 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."

The author is a writer living in Boulder, Colorado.