Native Americans may have staked a claim to Mount Taylor, but the mesas and canyons below it have long been home to Spanish communities, as well. Throughout New Mexico, parcels of land were granted to Spanish individuals and communities as far back as 1598; they were recognized by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo and by Congress in the 19th century. Many of these remain community lands, although others have been privatized and incorporated.
On the Juan Tafoya Land Grant east of Grants, life has been bleak since the local uranium mine and mill closed. Ranching and farming no longer sustain families, and young people lack opportunities.
Some 15 families still live part-time in Marquez, a village in Juan Tafoya that no longer hosts its own post office. The nearest schools are 40 miles away on the Laguna Reservation. Life is difficult; James Martinez, one of the village's four full-time residents, spends two days a week in Albuquerque, seeking more lucrative work than ranching.
Though uranium prices are still fluctuating -- at $43 per pound as of Nov. 23, they're down from last year's $55 -- they're far above the $7 per pound they hit in 1991. And with the nuclear power industry poised to profit from federal climate-change policy, Martinez believes a mining resurgence could provide new opportunities for local young people. Uranium, after all, supported his father, who lived in Marquez until his death at 78.
For its part, the uranium industry is showing interest. Neutron Energy -- the company nearest to getting development under way in the area -- hopes to begin exploration at its Marquez Canyon Mine site on the Juan Tafoya, which is now a privatized corporation. The high-quality ore there is still mostly untouched, though the Tennessee Valley Authority, Kerr McGee and Exxon sank some 700 exploratory holes before the bust.
The industry isn't a threat, Martinez says, because the people here are good stewards of the land. He disputes the notion that Native Americans are the only ones with deep spiritual ties to the region. His family has lived on this land grant for eight or nine generations -- more than 300 years. "We have saints in the area," he says, "and my great-great-grandfather was born in the caves right below Mount Taylor, in Canon de Marquez. My father, and his father, distilled in us: Protect what you have. But also make it grow and prosper from what you have. We have some common sense, we will not let our stuff get destroyed." Today, his 20-year-old son, Amadeo Martinez, still runs cattle on the land grant. One of the last children baptized at the Catholic church in Marquez, he is majoring in earth and planetary sciences at the University of New Mexico and hopes to work in the mining industry.
The younger Martinez has a Native American girlfriend and believes the return of mining could actually heal some of the divisions that were so starkly revealed at the Grants meeting. The Marquez Mine proposal lies outside the TCP, after all: "When our people open the mine, it will provide jobs for their people." And then, he says, they can become a united community, rather than two cultures.
But here, too -- outside the TCP boundary -- mining has torn a deep rift. Worried that the mine will contaminate groundwater and harm culturally significant springs, the Pueblo of Acoma opposes the project.
During a November 2008 public hearing for Neutron's exploration permit, some of the crowd erupted again, recalls New Mexico Environmental Law Center attorney Eric Jantz, who has been working with the Acomas. "There's an element, I think, of revisionist history: One of the land grant people made a public comment to the effect that they were there first, and the tribal folks had no right," he says. "Then there were a number of Anglo ranchers who got up and testified, pretty angrily, about how their property rights were being infringed upon in various ways, and if there were minerals or any things that could make them money off their land, then they ought to have the right to exploit those resources without any government interference."
And then Marita Noon took the microphone. God placed mineral wealth under the earth for us to use, she preached, and the tribes were getting in the way of America's greatness by forcing us to rely on imported energy, including uranium from Russia. "That," says Jantz, "turned things particularly ugly."