Becoming a native

  • Paul Larmer

  There's nothing like spending time in New Mexico to make you contemplate the West's long and tumultuous history and confront the thorny question: Just who is a native?

William "Sonny" Weahkee qualifies. He's a Pueblo Indian and Albuquerque activist who directs the SAGE Council, which fought for a decade alongside Anglo environmentalists against a proposed road splitting Petroglyph National Monument in two. This fall, Weahkee showed me the recently completed road, as well as the basaltic bench where his ancestors carved petroglyphs hundreds of years ago.

The list of natives would also include Jerry Ortiz y Pino, a state senator and social worker from Albuquerque who traces his roots in New Mexico back to the 17th century. Ortiz y Pino told High Country News board member Luis Torres and me that his earliest known ancestor journeyed to Spain to meet with the king and report on how things were going in the New Mexico colony. His report, according to Jerry, went something like: "We are poor; please send more money and supplies."

On the surface, Malcolm Ebright, a ponytailed Anglo who has only lived in the state for decades, would seem to be a non-native. Yet he's dedicated his life to researching and writing about New Mexico's history. In his most recent book, The Witches of Abiquiu, Ebright writes about the yeasty cauldron of humanity that inhabited the northern part of the state in the 1700s, including Spanish settlers, Pueblo Indians, raiding and trading tribes from the Great Plains, and an overlooked group of Hispanicized Native Americans known as the Genizaros, who were caught in the middle.

Ebright has used his historic findings to help the descendents of these people establish their rights to land and water. I would consider Ebright a new native because, like so many others who have come to New Mexico, he has found a niche and settled in. The same could be said for the non-human exotic species that have come to the West and found a fertile place to thrive. Some 150 years ago, Anglo settlers in California introduced tamarisk, a water-loving shrub from Eurasia, to help stabilize river banks and railroad beds. As Michelle Nijhuis reports in our cover story, tamarisk has now spread to nearly every river drainage in the West, and become a scourge to water managers, recreational boaters and bird-watchers. Efforts to cut and poison it have had only limited success, so now scientists have placed their hopes on the introduction of another non-native species, a small tamarisk-eating beetle collected from the plant's native habitat in Kazakhstan.

The damage the beetles are now inflicting on tamarisk stands could lead one to hope that the shrub might soon be sent packing back to Kazakhstan, where it belongs. But, as Nijhuis reports, that's probably not going to happen. In fact, most scientists predict that the tamarisk and the beetles will eventually reach an accord of sorts - a balanced place of mutual survival, as predators and prey species tend to do.

So should we start calling the tamarisk a native? In human terms, 150 years is a long time to have lived in the West. Many third- and fourth-generation ranchers with "Colorado Native" license plates on their trucks cannot claim as much.

Like the weeds we long to eradicate, we are hardwired to seek better habitat. And once we find a place that works, and we stick around long enough to prove ourselves, we want to be considered natives. Maybe it's time to extend that courtesy to all inhabitants of the West.

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at [email protected].

High Country News Classifieds
  • WATER POLICY ANALYST WITH WRA (BOULDER)
    Position Summary: Western Resource Advocates seeks a passionate Water Policy Analyst with knowledge of western water issues to join our Healthy Rivers Team to strengthen...
  • GILA NATIONAL FOREST
    9+ acre inholding. Passive solar strawbale off the grid and next to the Continental Divide Trail in ponderosa pine/doug fir forest at 7400.
  • HIRING BEARS EARS EDUCATION CENTER DIRECTOR
    Conservation nonprofit Friends of Cedar Mesa in Bluff, Utah is hiring an Education Center Director to oversee the operation of the Bears Ears Education Center....
  • PROGRAM MANAGER, SUSTAINING FLOWS
    Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • PROGRAM ASSOCIATE - VERDE RIVER EXCHANGE
    Verde River Exchange - Friends of the Verde River, Cottonwood, AZ. Apply at https://verderiver.org/employment-opportunities/
  • CODE COMPLIANCE OFFICER
    Teton County Planning & Building is hiring! Our ideal candidate is a team-player, a problem-solver, pays attention to detail, and can clearly communicate technical material...
  • ARCHITECTURE DRAFTSPERSON/PROJECT MANAGER
    Studio Architects is seeking a full time Architectural drafts-person/project manager with1-3 years of experience to join our firm. At Studio Architects our mission is to...
  • ASSISTANT MANAGER/TRAINEE, COLORADO RANCH
    needed for 16,000+ acre conservation property in south central Colorado. Qualified candidate would have experience working on a ranch or wilderness property, general forestry/fire management...
  • FARM HAND &/OR NANNY IN ESCALANTE
    Nanny for 18-mnth-old. Yearly salary, vacation, health insurance. Spanish/other foreign-language native spkr prefrrd.
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    Washington Association of Land Trusts seeks an ED to build on WALTs significant success & to lead the association to new levels of achievement. See...
  • BEAUTIFUL CUSTOM STRAWBALE HOME IN WESTERN COLORADO!
    Secluded, energy efficient Southwestern home on 40 wooded acres. Broker - Rand Porter - United Country Real Colorado Properties. 970-261-1248, $425K
  • FORMER RETREAT CENTER/CONSERVATION PROPERTY FOR SALE
    57 acres in Skull Valley, AZ, 17 miles from Prescott, year-round creek, swimming holes, secluded canyon, hiking/meditation trails, oaks, pines, garden, greenhouse. House, office building,...
  • ARIZONA PUBLIC LANDS ORGANIZER
    Title: Public Lands Organizer About the Arizona Wildlife Federation (AWF) The AWF is a non-profit organization dedicated to educating, inspiring, and assisting individuals and organizations...
  • HISTORIC RANCH HOME W/ 20 ACRES
    Historic 1893 Ranch Headquarters. 4 Bdrm, 3.5 Ba, 4000 ft2. Remodeled 2002. Includes 2 studio apts, stables, arena, workshop, 5 RV hookups. Chirachua & Peloncillo...
  • VICE PRESIDENT OF RETAIL OPERATIONS
    The Vice President of Retail Operations will provide overall leadership and accountability for purchasing, product development, merchandising planning, visual merchandising, retail operational excellence, oversight and...
  • ASSOCIATE DIRECTOR
    Grand Staircase Escalante Partners seeks an experienced fundraiser with excellent communication and organizational skills.
  • PROGRAM MANAGER
    position in Phoenix with the Babbitt Center for Land and Water Policy.
  • ROADS END CABIN NEAR YELLOWSTONE
    Vaulted ceilings, two fireplaces, two bedrooms, loft, jetted tub, wifi. Forest, mountain views. Wildlife. [email protected]
  • ACCOUNTING CLERK
    Our director is seeking to employ the services of an Accounting Clerk to assist with various accounting and administrative tasks. This is a great opportunity...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR, COMMUNITY RADIO PROJECT
    Community Radio Project, Cortez, CO (KSJD & the Sunflower Theatre). Visit ksjd.org and click on the Executive Director search link. CRP is an EOE.