Uranium study has implications for tribes

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A photo from the top of Mount Taylor, a mountain that is sacred to nearby Native communities. Protection of such sites has long been of concern to Native communities worried about uranium mining in the area.

Laura Paskus/New Mexico In Depth

A photo from the top of Mount Taylor, a mountain that is sacred to nearby Native communities. Protection of such sites has long been of concern to Native communities worried about uranium mining in the area.

Recently, the online newspaper La Jicarita noted that the U.S. Forest Service has released its draft study for a uranium mine on U.S. Forest Service lands near Grants.

The proposed Roca Honda Mine would include almost 2,000 acres and operate for at least 13 years. The project is funded by Strathmore Minerals Corporation and Sumitomo Corporation of Japan.

I realize how easy it is to skip over news like this. A study was released? How un-exciting, right? But this is big news, especially for some of New Mexico’s tribes.

From the boom in the 1950s until the bust in the 1980s, uranium mines and mills dotted the mesas and grasslands near Grants. When the prices began rising a few years ago, the Forest Service started fielding more project proposals. And local tribes felt their concerns about uranium were going unheard.

In particular, they worried how uranium mining would affect Mount Taylor, an area sacred to the Pueblo of Acoma, the Pueblo of Laguna, the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and the Pueblo of Zuni.

As Jim Enote, executive director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center at Zuni, told me a few years ago while I was reporting on Mount Taylor for High Country News:

“People may think it’s just a physical entity, that it sits there, and Zunis or Acomas or others, they only go there sometimes. 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 told me — 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,” I quoted him in the High Country News article as saying. “They are doing it for the benefit of all humanity.”

Overcoming reluctance and perhaps even taboo, in 2008, the five tribes released a report to the government detailing their ancestral and spiritual connections with the 11,301-foot tall Mount Taylor. As Theresa Pasqual, the director of the Acoma Pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office, told me earlier this year, that public sharing of sacred stories was unprecedented. But the tribes were determined to protect their sacred mountain from what they consider desecration.

At the time, the five tribes also requested that 400,000 acres on and surrounding Mt. Taylor be designated a “traditional cultural property” (TCP).

A state or federal TCP designation does not stop development from occurring, noted Pasqual. Rather, it allows the tribes a stronger voice during the decision-making process.

When the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee first approved the tribes’ request and temporarily declared the area a TCP in 2008, mining companies, local ranchers and businesses, and some Spanish Land Grant communities protested. After the designation was made permanent, in 2009, mining companies, landowners and the Cebolleta Land Grant filed a suit in the Fifth Judicial Court in Lea County to overturn the designation.

It’s a dicey issue and oftentimes divides the community. But when I interviewed her earlier this year, Pasqual said she still holds out hope that everyone living in the area might come together:

“Ultimately, whether you’re from the (Spanish Land Grant communities), the communities of Grants or Milan or San Rafael, or the pueblos of Acoma or Laguna, they all live at the base of the mountain. Those people who have been there for generations are not going to go anywhere. We are bound to that land and to the resources that the mountain gives us. So it is in all our best interest to put forth a long-term plan for that mountain. And it just can’t be us as pueblo people. We need the people from Grants and San Rafael and San Fidel and the land grants, from Cubero and San Mateo and Cebolleta, to say ‘We all have a vested interest in this mountain because we’re not going anywhere.’

“We had hoped that as part of that traditional cultural property designation that the communities would have contributed to the designation with their own history; the people who came and settled in the land grants and the homesteads all have a history that’s tied to Mount Taylor. One history is not more important than the other. It’s all history together. And all those stories bind us to the mountain. I still envision that for our community: That one day, we’ll have the full story — as much as people are willing to share — and out of that story might come a long-term plan for Mount Taylor. It’s still my hope, my dream.”

In 2011, Judge William Shoobridge overturned the TCP designation, but his decision was appealed. The case is still working its way through the court system; in September, the state Supreme Court heard arguments.

To read the Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Roca Honda Mine, visit the Forest Service website. According to the agency’s Diane Tafoya, the public comment period for the project has just been extended another 30 days, until June 13.

This article has been updated to state that the public comment period had been extended to June 13, not June 15 as an earlier version stated.

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