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Dueling Claims

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

 

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.

From the top of Mount Taylor, mountains, valleys and mesas unfold into the hazy blue distance; on clear days, you can see all the way to Arizona. The Navajo call the 11,301-foot-tall peak Tsoodzil, and say it marks one of the four directional boundaries of their spiritual world. The Acoma, who call it Kaweshtima, believe it was created by two sisters who also gave life to plants and animals; it's still home to beings such as Shakak, the Spirit of Winter and the North. To the Zuni, the mountain is Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalannee.

"People may think it's just a physical entity, that it sits there, and Zunis or Acomas or others, they only go there sometimes," says Jim Enote, executive director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni. "But people only go to Mecca once in their life, or Mount Sinai once in their life, or the Vatican once in their life."

The mountain is sacred, he says, home to shrines and a place for gathering certain plants and minerals. "It is extremely important, and the people who go to Mount Taylor, to Dewankwin Kyaba:chu Yalanee, are doing so to help maintain an entire cosmological process," he says. "They are doing it for the benefit of all humanity."

So, two years ago, the Zuni joined the pueblos of Acoma and Laguna, Arizona's Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation in asking the state of New Mexico to protect this hodgepodge of federal, state and private lands as a traditional cultural property. 

The tribes were seeking official acknowledgement of their stake in the development of their sacred lands, particularly when it comes to the state's authority to issue uranium-mining permits. The uranium boom supported Grants and Milan from the 1950s through the 1980s, but it also left a legacy of contaminated waters and sickened workers. And the mills have proven particularly problematic: Despite more than two decades of cleanup work, contamination from the Homestake Mining Company mill site in Milan, just west of Grants, has spread to five aquifers.

The TCP designation seemed like the best way to protect the mountain because it doesn't restrict public access, says Theresa Pasqual, historic preservation officer for Acoma Pueblo, the lead sponsor. The mountain remains open for everything from grazing and wood-gathering to hiking, snowmobiling and mountain biking. Under the TCP designation, the state's Historic Preservation Division -- and its mining division -- are required to review permit requests for development on Mount Taylor. It also requires that developers consult with tribes during the permitting process. It does not, however, afford tribes veto power over projects. Final decision-making remains with the state and the U.S. Forest Service, which oversees most of the mountain's acreage. Under the law, TCPs -- or any other protected property, including archaeological sites or historical buildings -- can even be destroyed if development is in the public's best interest. Pasqual says that the tribes chose this option knowing full well that it didn't guarantee protection.

Even so, the proposal didn't sit right with many local landowners. It violates private property rights, says Joy Burns, whose family has been running cattle on Mount Taylor for generations. Today, her family's Elkins Ranch spreads across some 16,000 acres on the east side of the mountain, right below the summit --smack-dab within the TCP's boundaries.  "If I file the necessary papers and get the necessary permits, I don't think that any group should be able to tell us about my property," she says. The issue of uranium mining aside, she fears the designation will affect her family's ability to log or hunt on their own lands. It's not fair, she says. 

Indeed, as the process moved along, it started rumors of a "land grab." Tempers began to simmer. Then, into the midst of this growing furor, stepped a Christian self-help author who promotes energy development in the name of the Lord.

In early 2008, the five tribes submitted paperwork asking the state to consider temporary protection for Mount Taylor. The request became public a few weeks later, on Feb. 22. At an emergency meeting, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee announced that it would protect the mountain for one year while considering whether it merited permanent status as a protected traditional cultural property. The uranium industry, local landowners and the surrounding communities felt blindsided.

Marita Noon, who is executive director of the nonprofit Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy (CARE), attended that first meeting. "There were a bevy of (uranium company) attorneys who were against the TCP decision, who are normally articulate and able to present their case, and they were basically just begging for a two-week delay so that they could read the TCP nomination -- because no one had seen it," she says. "Then, you have Native Americans -- I may sound racist, but I don't mean to be -- but they are not the people who are naturally public speakers; they don't have a lot of experience at putting their thoughts together and articulating them. But they stood up with prepared, written-out statements." Something, she says, was fishy, and when the committee did not grant a two-week extension, Noon took up the cause with a vengeance. She left the meeting "outraged by the sham of democracy" she had witnessed. After a sleepless night, she pounded out the first of many op-eds.

Noon, an ebullient woman with fluffy blonde hair, is a popular speaker and the author of 19 books on Christianity and relationships under the pen name Marita Littauer, including The Praying Wives Club, Talking So People Will Listen and Tailor-Made Marriage. Her organization, CARE, seeks to communicate "the positive side of the energy industry to the media and the public." Founded by Mark Mathis, a consultant to the Independent Petroleum Association of New Mexico, it receives funding from oil and gas producers. The Albuquerque Journal frequently runs Noon's commentaries calling for the elimination of the state's Oil Conservation Division or dismissing the creation of green jobs as "happy talk."

Noon lacks a professional background in energy issues or science. "But as I've learned and understood the issue, it has clearly become a passion for me," she says. "And I really have studied the issue:  That everything we hold dear in America is threatened by threats to energy."

She claims that 90 percent of the uranium currently used in the U.S. is imported, most of it from Russia -- "an increasingly unfriendly Russia," at that. That's why it's so important for mining to proceed near Grants, she says in her speeches. "When we have sources to get the base fuel supplies in America, why on earth are we giving our money to foreign countries?"

The TCP designation may not totally block uranium mining, but, she argues, it adds an extra layer of regulation that has driven some companies out. And the people of Grants, which she compares to a Third World country, can't afford to lose this chance for economic development.

Noon has a knack for galvanizing crowds, but her rhetoric has a tendency to be somewhat loose with the facts. According to the federal Energy Information Administration, for example, 86 percent of the uranium used in the U.S. is indeed imported. But nearly half of that, comes from Australia and Canada, while 33 percent comes from Kazakhstan, Russia and Uzbekistan. The Farmington Daily Times and the blog Heath Haussamen on New Mexico Politics have recently pulled Noon's commentaries, citing inaccuracies.

In the case of the TCP, though, Noon didn't need to twist the facts to win people to her cause. The state had botched the process badly enough to help do the job for her.

Three months after the February meeting, the New Mexico attorney general's office announced that the state's Office of Cultural Affairs had failed to adequately notify nearby private property owners about the meeting, although it did provide proper notice in the media. The meeting -- and by default, the designation -- had therefore violated the state's Open Meetings Act.

The Historic Preservation Division scheduled a new meeting for June 14, 2008, at Grants High School. By then, both sides were up to speed on the proposal. But rumors about everything from the number of acres involved to how the designation might affect local land-users were stoking anger and suspicion. The state police attended the meeting; officers from local departments came as well.

When the day came, protesters gathered with hand-lettered signs bearing slogans that ranged from "Mount Taylor is public land, not reservation" to "Save Our Sacred Mountain."

Following a Cibola County commissioners meeting in April, the governor of Zuni Pueblo, Norman Cooeyate, and the governor of Laguna had written to New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson, requesting a neutral location for the meeting due to the "level of hostility and potential air of racism experienced by our council/community members and as exhibited by local community members of Grants and Milan."

But that request was denied. And as an estimated 700 people filed into the gymnasium and took seats in facing bleachers, the divisions became all too clear: There was "an eerie sense of cowboys and Indians facing off," Gallup Independent reporter Helen Davis wrote, "because many Native observers wore traditional clothing and cowboy hats dominated head gear in the stands across the gym." Those were the "pro-uranium people," says Cooeyate. "And you had all the people who were against uranium on the other side -- and that included a lot of what we call ourselves, the brown faces."

As the five hours of testimony unfolded, opponents repeatedly disrupted statements by Native Americans, Cooeyate says. "They jeered, they sneered, they booed every time there was a comment that was made from the tribal leadership or any of the people that supported us."

But other locals complained that the state was giving Native Americans preferential treatment. Opponents also criticized the involvement of environmental groups, saying it proved that the tribes were using religion and tradition to block mining altogether. They expressed fears that the tribes were trying to take over public lands.

After the meeting, Cooeyate says, some TCP opponents yelled obscenities at tribal elders in the parking lot.

As the final meeting -- set for May 15, 2009, in Santa Fe -- approached, even the all-weather notebook at the summit of Mount Taylor reflected community anxiety. Many of the comments simply described trips up the mountain -- JR and Douglas cleared trees off the trail while riding their Arctic Cat 700 ATVs, folks on New Year's Eve braved the wind, and one man and his 6-year-old son took six hours and 13 minutes to snowshoe up the trail in March. Others, however, denounced the designation. "TCP still sucks, mountain belongs to us all, not just the Indians," was not an uncommon sentiment.

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."

Marquez is unique for its long history and geographic isolation, but the town of Grants has also seen better days. Double-stacked trains tear through town, barely slowing. A few modern motels greet travelers pulling off the highway for the night, but the road into downtown hosts a string of shuttered motor lodges -- the Franciscan, the Desert Sun, the Wayside -- with cracked doors and weedy lots. Streets and sewers are crumbling as the tax base shrinks, and the town now relies on prisons, including the Cibola County Detention Center and the state women's correctional facility.

Visitors to the mining museum can ride an elevator underground to a mock uranium mineshaft, but there's little else to explore within the town itself. There is, in fact, little in Grants to conjure even a whiff of nostalgia for those boom days. Grants never truly built itself up in the first place, and like Marquez, it has never recovered from the bust.

George Byers, vice president of Neutron Energy, believes all that could change. In addition to the Marquez Mine site, Neutron has acquired leases on the Cebolleta Land Grant on the east side of Mount Taylor and on private lands west of it, all in the last few years. The Marquez Mine alone could bring more than 225 jobs to Grants, Byers says, while a complete resurgence of the industry in the area could create about 8,000 jobs, with an economic impact of about a billion dollars.

Byers' company fought the TCP designation, testifying in 2008 that the emergency listing was unwarranted, given the fact that there were no immediate plans for mining within its boundaries. Most of his company's plans are slated for private land, including Spanish land grants.

And although he now says the designation shouldn't affect Neutron's plans, it does add another layer of regulation and consultation. "Instead of getting a permit to do exploration in several weeks -- which you can do in any other state -- on private land, it took us over 14 months" for the Marquez site, he says. "That was unnecessary. It wasted a lot of time, it wasted a lot of money."

Before the TCP designation, most projects were able to go through a streamlined "minimal impact" permit process, explains New Mexico Mining and Minerals Division director Bill Brancard. Now, projects -- even those on private lands -- within the TCP boundary no longer qualify for that. Instead, they must undergo the regular exploration permitting process, which takes longer.

For the most part, however, the designation changes little because almost all the projects are planned for U.S. Forest Service lands. The state's TCP process was more controversial because it became public first, says Brancard, but the Forest Service was already planning to add its Mount Taylor lands to the National Register of Historic Places. Now, any projects proposed for those federal lands must undergo a thorough environmental impact analysis.

Ultimately, though, despite all the fuss, it may not matter what kind of designation the mountain receives.

Companies are "proceeding fairly deliberately because New Mexico has some real pluses and minuses when it comes to uranium mining," says Brancard. The resources are here, he says, but developing them would require significant front-end investments. Most importantly, someone would need to build a mill -- an expensive commitment that no one appears willing to make at this point.

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 Mexico's mineral industry, annually

-New Mexico mining permit applications

-General information on uranium in the U.S.

-The Navajo Nation Human Rights Commission site

 -Citizens' Alliance for Responsible Energy

-The Southwest Research and Information Center

-New York Times coverage of race-related violence in Farmington, N.M.