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.

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