Dueling Claims

A tribal attempt to protect Mount Taylor sparks a battle over ancient claims to the land

  • Everyone wants a piece of New Mexico’s Mount Taylor. For the moment, surprisingly, Native Americans have come out on top.

    Photos and photo illustration by Dave Arnold
  • Mount Taylor, sacred to Native Americans, rises behind Laguna Pueblo.

    Toby Jorrin
  • Marita Noon says the people of Grants, New Mexico, deserve the opportunities new energy development would bring. Zuni Pueblo Gov.

    Toby Jorrin
  • Norman Cooeyate helped get Mount Taylor designated a traditional cultural property.

    Toby Jorrin
  • Grants, New Mexico, was a uranium boomtown until the 1980s. Now one in five people lives below the federal poverty level.

    Toby Jorrin
  • Toby Jorrin
  • Toby Jorrin
  • The old Homestake Uranium Mill near Milan, New Mexico, lies at the foot of Mount Taylor. It's now on the EPA's Superfund NationalPriorities List.

    Toby Jorrin
  • Toby Jorrin

Over the course of 10 days last June, at least five Navajo men were brutally beaten in Grants, N.M. The attackers, described by some of the victims as "Mexicans," used rocks and baseball bats, ambushing one man with a pellet gun and hitting another with a brass-knuckle-handled knife. One victim -- who was found in an abandoned house, covered in dried blood and insects -- was airlifted to an Albuquerque hospital.

None of the victims lived in town, although they have homes and families on the nearby Navajo Reservation. As word of the attacks spread, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission broadcast public service announcements on the radio, urging Navajos to track down missing family members and make sure they were OK.

At first, the five victims, and two others who had not gone to the police, hesitated to talk. Some feared retaliation; others had had previous run-ins with the law. But with the human rights commission there to overcome the language barrier, the police uncovered some troubling clues. One of the men heard his attacker yell something to the effect of, "You got Mount Taylor, now you're mine."

Mount Taylor -- a dormant volcano northeast of the town -- is sacred to at least five Southwestern tribes, including the Navajo. Its lower reaches also host uranium ore, and the Grants Mineral Belt supported active mines from the 1950s through the 1980s, when mines were shuttered and mills demolished. But when uranium prices began climbing again, companies snatched up old leases and claims. Now, some are drilling exploration wells, and a few are planning new mines. This has kindled economic hope in struggling nearby towns like Grants and Milan. Some locals, however, recall a tragic history of environmental contamination and radiation illness and want nothing to do with yellowcake.

Just three days before the beatings began, the state of New Mexico had decided to place Mount Taylor and some of its surrounding lands on the State Register of Cultural Properties as a traditional cultural property, or TCP. The decision ended a 16-month-long process that became a battle pitting Native Americans and environmentalists against mining companies, Anglo ranchers and Spanish land grant communities. The new TCP covers 400,000 acres -- an unprecedented size -- and many locals worried that it would prevent uranium development and even restrict use of the mountain by anyone not Native American.

Then, at the end of June, police apprehended one of the alleged attackers: 22-year old Shawn Longoria was charged with six counts of aggravated battery as well as robbery and aggravated burglary -- all felony charges. Local TV and print reports noted that an anonymous caller had told officers that Longoria boasted of beating up the men "because the Native Americans had got Mount Taylor and now they owed him." 

With several unidentified assailants still at large, it's impossible to know exactly why the Navajos were attacked; the connection between Mount Taylor and the beatings is tenuous. But what's clear is that the tribes' attempt to protect the  mountain tapped into a dark reservoir of old tensions that underlies this busted  boomtown.

Anonymous says:
Dec 01, 2009 08:52 AM
Thank you for prying open this crack and letting us see through to what otherwise goes unseen, just another mountain on the horizon.
Anonymous says:
Dec 01, 2009 01:06 PM
Awesome piece of long-form journalism that is so lacking in local coverage today. Ms. Paskus continues to awe us here in Albuquerque with her great articles. She's not only a journalist, she's a story teller... excellent.
Anonymous says:
Dec 01, 2009 06:06 PM
I agree that this is an excellent article, presenting all sides of the issues. Very well done.

Thank you Laura.

Anonymous says:
Dec 01, 2009 08:00 PM
"Fluffy blonde?" That wasn't meant to imply any of the dumb blonde stereotype to Ms. Noon, was it?

The attack from the writer was obvious and totally lacked any balance. Besides the "blonde" implication, there was the frequent reference to her "Christianity." I guess you can't be a blonde, female Christian and know what you're talking about.

Keep it up, Marita. When your detractors can only reference such things, you are obviously hitting a nerve. ...
Anonymous says:
Dec 01, 2009 09:59 PM
Although otherwise relatively fair, like David, I question the discriminatory comments regarding Ms. Noon being "fluffy blonde" and Christian. What the heck does that have to do with anything? How about we declare Santa Fe County a TCP because maybe a few native Americans were there first by a year or two; then force all those really nice houses to be "reclaimed". New Mexico is its own worst enemy because the vast majority of the state is increasingly off limits to real economic development, unless of course you include movies and spaceports and the odd solar panel or two. Compare this state to Arizona, for instance; both the same population and economy in the earlier part of the 1900's, now which one is more economically developed?
Anonymous says:
Dec 02, 2009 10:49 AM
I thought Ms. Paskus did a great job of covering the different sides of the issue. When I read about the TCP status in the Journal, I had no idea that it was contributing to so much community uproar just to the west; I thought it was just the mining companies that were miffed. Ms. Paskus' excellent article showed me a much more nuanced picture of the situation, painting the opponents of the TCP designation as people with many valid criticisms. Thanks again to HCN for letting me know what's going on in my own state!

All public lands are subject to bitter disputes about use, between different kinds of recreationists, environmentalists, and extractive industries. But the issues surrounding Mount Taylor & the San Francisco Peaks are different, because they are *major* religious sites for many groups (unlike the example of Santa Fe County). Mt. Taylor absolutely qualifies for TCP status (in fact, a textbook example of a traditional cultural property), but I can see how the SHPO's emergency decision could ruffle feathers.

Let's hope that the agencies involved learn some important lessons about the need for more openness and public input when making decisions about public lands.

P.S. to Bill: As far as economic development, Obama's stimulus package just gave millions to the Navajo Nation for building smart grid technology. Isn't that more the kind of development they need instead of uranium mining? And with film & tourism such a major segment of NM's economy, do you think uranium mining would enhance or detract from those industries?
Anonymous says:
Dec 02, 2009 01:01 PM
This powerful, lyrically written piece digs into facts, history, main characters, and cultural context with an archaeologist's precision, unearthing the complex and contentious issues that sparked last summer's violence against Navajos. Thank you for publishing this exemplary piece of investigative journalism.
Anonymous says:
Dec 02, 2009 04:19 PM
There is plenty else to say about Marita Noon. We at Clearly New Mexico have got her number!

Anonymous says:
Dec 11, 2009 10:23 AM
I read the blog at www.clearlynewmexico.com/journalwatch...and had to laugh. Really? Do you even know Marita Noon at all?

She is nothing like a stuck in time housewife you described except for the fact that she does like to bake sweets for just about anyone for any reason.

It is so easy to attack a person based upon assumptions rather than get to know them in real life.

Anonymous says:
Dec 29, 2009 02:25 PM
The Dueling Claims article in the December 7 issue of High Country News was a nice bit of puffery. However the tone of the article misses much of what the Mount Taylor issue is really about and why it has stirred such emotional response. This, despite the fact that readers have responded online with praise for the author’s “investigative journalism” and “presenting all sides of the issue.” Ms. Paskus may have looked into both the claims of the natives (sovereign nations unto themselves) and of the local residents in Grants, She may have even considered those of the mining companies who aim to strengthen America through true wealth creation that fuels economic growth. However, she missed several of the bigger points and what this designation really represents.

I was at several of the hearings the Cultural Property Review Committee (CPRC) held on the Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) designation of Mount Taylor. I do not live in Grants and I am not in the uranium business. I do not own property on the mountain, nor do I hunt there. The decision has no direct connection to my life except for the fact that I am an American and I value the uniquely American way of life. I have worked all over the world—living as an ex-pat for the last 40 years. In my senior years, I wanted to return to my homeland. Sadly much of what has made America great in the past has been eroded—one piece at a time. This decision is one example of how America has been undergoing incremental change.

With that said, Director of New Mexico's Historic Preservation Division, Ms. Slick, and the entire CPRC have committed near treason for their un-American acts. They have given control of state and federal lands—which should be held in trust for all of us—to foreign sovereign powers on the basis of religious and cultural bias. Slick has been rewarded for her lack of understanding of basic constitutional rights such as land and private property, and separation of church and state. She seems unaware that bureaucrats such as she are there to serve all the people. Also, she ignored the foundation set in the Mining Act. For this, she was rewarded with a higher, though similar, position in Washington, DC. One can presume that with this “success” behind her and the precedent set, we can expect more of this abuse on a national level.

Slick, a bureaucrat, and the CPRC, political appointments—both non-elected—have scrapped the notion of separation of church and state. The entire TCP is predicated on “religious” preference. The tribes claim the area has “spiritual” significance. I am surprised that a respected publication such as HCN would publish something such as Dueling Claims that favors one race and religion over another. Yet allows Ms. Noon to be scoffed because she believes that God put minerals in the ground for man to use. I am not a religious man and do not share Noon’s beliefs, but surely a double standard exists here. When did it become wrong to be a “Christian” in America?

Because of the spiritual relevance, the tribes want to protect the mountain—though the area has previously been mined. Yet, they say, as stated in the Dueling Claims article, that the TCP will not give the tribes “veto power over projects.” Then why did the tax-payer just underwrite this 16 month battle? Dueling Claims does acknowledge that the TCP will add requirements. More government employees will be required to review the permits—slowing the wealth creation process and adding more unproductive government jobs. And we wonder why the American economy is in decline.

If the scared locations are really the issue—not blocking development, if would be far more effective to designate the specific locations not the entire mountain. This would allow for all people to continue to use the mountain as they have in the past. With the TCP as it is written, Americans will have to go, hat in hand, to a foreign, sovereign power for permission to develop state and federal lands as well as the private land that are in the 400,000 acre TCP. The mere size of this area and the fact that it includes private land should alarm most Americans who believe their home and land rights are secure.

One has to wonder about the underlying truths; wonder for whom the Sierra Club (who involved themselves in this matter) is really working. The tribes were pushed by the Sierra Club, et al, to move forward with this action and have since forbidden them to enter tribal lands as they have seen the environmentalists’ desire to destroy jobs and low-cost coal-fueled energy. It appears to methat the goal was to stop the reopening of the Mount Taylor uranium mines and the exploration of the surrounding areas—including those on private property.

In the end, only the lawyers will really benefit as the decision will spend years in courts—important years. Years when new jobs and wealth could be created. Years when America’s economy is in dire need and New Mexico’s coffers are desperate for out-of-state investment and a balanced budget. Costs will be increased and will be borne by all Americans as tax payers.

I’d like to see Paskus, Slick and the CPRC face the people of New Mexico and explain how regulations such as the TCP have caused the state to cut funding for Medicaid services for severely emotionally disturbed Children, needy children, and all levels of education because revenues from natural resources are down. This is the reality we are facing here in New Mexico and funds have already been cut. Protecting a rock or a ruin will be much less attractive when looking at Native American children who cannot get the services they need.
Anonymous says:
Feb 07, 2010 12:55 PM
i think you may have missed the point.we as native american people who are directly affected by the uranium companies who destroy the air, water, land we live on or nearby. the minning companies never told people the minning uranium was was dangerous. Many people have become sick and died over the uranium companies who do not seem to care about people and only care about the profits they will be making. They are making profits over the peole who died from from previous exposure to contamination from the uranium and many more people, which includes children, who are still suffering from the effects over uranium. Navajo people live practically right next door to those mines which have yet to be cleaned up, and the pueblo people who are downwind are still being affected today. Once the uranium contaminates the water, the water can not be brought back to the pristene levels they once were. how do people survive in all that contamination? The problem is they don't. If money is the only issue you are thinking of, try living on these reservations and see what it does to you? Thousands of Native American Indians live on these reservations, these places are their homes.They have the right to live in a place that is not killing them. Tell me sir what would be your solution? Obvously you do not live near the uranium mines, maybe if you did you would not be so quick to judge. So please read up on the issues of minning and the effects the companies have done to Native American Indian people and i hope you come away with a better understanding of what is really going on.