Before the final TCP hearing in May 2009, the state prepared for controversy. Gov. Richardson's director of policy and issues, Bill Hume, sent an e-mail to the Historic Preservation Division, suggesting consultation with the secretary of New Mexico's Department of Public Safety: "I expect a comfortable -- but not oppressive -- showing of uniformed officers at the hearing would be appropriate," he wrote, "with possibly some reinforcements stashed out of sight nearby."
But the meeting went off without a hitch, and on June 5, 2009, the state announced that Mount Taylor had received permanent designation as a traditional cultural property. Some 89,000 acres of private lands within the boundary were exempted from protection. Still, the contentious process had left open wounds. In October, some local landowners and uranium mining companies -- including RayEllen Resources, Rio Grande Resources Corporation, Strathmore Resources, Laramide Resources, Roca Honda Resources and the Cebolleta Land Grant -- filed a legal challenge to the mountain's protected status. "The grounds are basically due process," says attorney Jon Indall. "It's not an appeal on whether they're cultural or not -- it's an appeal on the process that was undertaken to get there."
The suit came as a surprise to designation supporters. The tribes had expected opposition, but few TCP supporters anticipated how emotional and even hysterical things would become. Certainly no one could have guessed that the process would be implicated in the spate of violence against Navajos.
The June beatings prompted the Federal Bureau of Investigation to open a hate crimes investigation. But even on the surface, the situation was far from cut and dry. "We have Native blood in us," Longoria's mother told television news crews as she joined friends and family to protest outside the Cibola County Judicial Complex. "The fight was not racist-based."
The Grants Police Station resembles a strip mall and lies just off the road that leads from Grants to Mount Taylor. On a crystalline day in September, Grants Police Chief Steve Sena -- stocky, with a neat mustache and clean-shaven head -- talks about the beatings. Although the FBI investigation is ongoing, Sena says his department has determined that Longoria's actions were not racially motivated. They were "an act of stupidity," he says, that is all. Sena, who has more than two decades on the force, doesn't believe that the violence in his town was related to the TCP designation and the controversy that followed. Media hype and suggestions to the contrary don't help: "It's been very hurtful," he says, "very hurtful to the community."
Despite Sena's certainty, distrust remains. Some fault the tribes for seeking to protect Mount Taylor, while others blame an industry that never atoned for the sins of its past. And many locals say outsiders were responsible for the blow-ups, whether environmentalists or industry boosters like Marita Noon. But history has shown that life is seldom easy in a place like Grants, where four Indian reservations bump up against Spanish land grants and Anglo ranching towns. Old communities have long memories, and grudges are often passed down through the generations.
Violence is not unusual in the Southwest's reservation border towns. In the 1970s, Farmington, N.M., a community on the edge of the Navajo Nation, earned the moniker "the Selma, Ala., of the Southwest" after three white teenagers charged with beating three Navajos to death were sent to reform school instead of prison. Though things have vastly improved since then, the Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission -- which was founded, with the 1970s beatings in mind, after the fatal shooting of a Navajo man by a white Farmington police officer in June 2006 -- stays busy, tracking discrimination and organizing public hearings. At the same time, it tries to reach out to local police departments, as it did following last June's beatings.
The media's interest in the beatings may have faded, but the communities are left to grapple not only with the stigma of border-town violence, but also the cultural divisions so clearly and painfully revealed. The TCP process was clearly botched -- throughout the entire series of meetings, the state repeatedly fumbled or passed up opportunities to educate the public and keep the lines of communication open. Yet despite everything, Mount Taylor also offers an opportunity. The struggle has forced the communities to face their history -- their intertwined cultural heritage as well as their economic and environmental legacies -- giving them a chance to work together to decide what the future holds.
Outside Sena's office, officers take turns meeting with a Hispanic woman who has come to talk about her daughter's problems with other kids at the high school. A tall young Native American officer stands before the woman, who sits with her daughter and mother. As she talks about the problems, about her neighborhood, he murmurs in understanding and reminds her to remain respectful and calm, even in the face of threats of violence from the other family. If she stoops to their level, he says, she will be accused of escalating the situation. After a while, Sena comes out and, with words punctuated by easy smiles, reassures her. Everything, he says, is going to be fine.
Laura Paskus is a freelance writer and a former HCN editor. You can also listen to her audio interview about this story.
This story was funded by grants from the McCune Charitable Foundation and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.
For more information:
-The New Mexico Historic Preservation Division Department of Cultural Affairs: documents related to the nomination and designation of Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property.
-New York Times coverage of race-related violence in Farmington, N.M.