A celebration originally planned to take place at Chaco Culture National Historical Park commemorating the withdrawal of federal lands from mineral leasing was rescheduled and relocated on Sunday after protestors shut down roads leading to the park.
The celebration came a little more than a week after Interior Secretary Deb Haaland withdrew federal lands within a 10-mile radius of the park from new mineral leasing, which includes oil and gas development, for a period of 20 years.
Haaland was expected to visit Chaco and speak about the withdrawal, but the event was rescheduled and relocated less than half an hour before it was supposed to begin.
The withdrawal will not stop any existing leases from being developed, but the Bureau of Land Management will not offer any parcels for lease within the buffer zone. It has been approximately a decade since the BLM last offered parcels for lease for oil and gas development within the 10-mile buffer zone.
The protestors were Navajo allottees who have allotments in the area. While the withdrawal does not include mineral leasing on allottee lands, they say the checkerboard nature of the land ownership means that shutting down new leasing on federal lands, such as lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management, will effectively close off oil and gas development in the entire area.
Ervin Chavez, an allottee who has been a vocal opponent of the withdrawal, described Haaland’s planned celebration at Chaco Canyon as rubbing salt in the wounds of the Navajo allottees.
During her speech later in the day in Albuquerque, Haaland said she wanted to express her gratitude for the “long history that has taken place between the Pueblo and the Diné people.”
“Back when Laguna was still a bartering economy, our Navajo neighbors would come to our villages and help us plaster our churches, before feast day they’d assist us in our harvest and they’d stay through our feast days to celebrate the endurance of our cultures,” she said.
She said the morning events where the roads to the park were blocked was heartbreaking “because our public lands belong to all Americans.”
“We can disagree on policy,” she said. “But we must be united in the protection of our children, our culture, our shared sacred spaces.”
While the Navajo Nation has previously supported some form of a buffer zone around Chaco Culture National Historical Park, the tribe has since withdrawn its support and President Buu Nygren decried the decision to stop new oil and gas development around Chaco.
“Despite the Navajo Nation’s position, Secretary Haaland proceeded to issue this decision one day after the Navajo Nation commemorated our Treaty Day, which recognizes the Treaty of 1868 and the start of the government-to-government relationship between the Navajo Nation and the United States. The Secretary’s action undermines our sovereignty and self-determination,” Nygren said in a press release earlier this month. “Despite my concerns and denunciation, the Department of Interior has moved forward which is very disappointing. Secretary Haaland’s decision impacts Navajo allottees but also disregards the tribe’s choice to lease lands for economic development. Ultimately, this decision jeopardizes future economic opportunities while at the same time placing some 5,600 Navajo allottees in dire financial constraints.”
Sunday’s protest resulted in a confrontation between Indigenous supporters and opponents when a group holding a banner that read, “Pueblo + Diné In Solidarity Supporting Honoring Chaco” came walking through the blockade. The protestors chased the supporters, yelling at them to go home and calling them trespassers, resulting in a lengthy argument in both English and Diné Bizaad, or the Navajo language.
Both sides exchanged insults, with the allottees calling the buffer zone supporters “city slickers” who didn’t understand life in rural New Mexico near Chaco. At one point, supporters said that the older allottees were not true elders because they don’t respect the environment.
Eventually, the discourse took a more civil tone after a woman who declined to speak with NM Political Report or give her name asked the protestors what they wanted.
The protestors said they want Haaland to come meet with them and listen to their concerns.
Some of them expressed sentiments that it wasn’t about oil and gas development for them, but rather about the ability for them to make decisions about what happens on their ancestral lands and in their communities.
The decision to withdraw the lands from future mineral leasing came after a lengthy process. Haaland first announced her intention in 2021 and there were many public meetings following the 2021 announcement and leading up to the withdrawal.
For Haaland, the protection of Chaco Canyon is personal. Haaland is a member of Laguna Pueblo and has been an advocate for protecting ancestral lands, including Chaco Canyon. Prior to being appointed to oversee the Department of the Interior, she served as a congresswoman and introduced legislation to create a buffer from oil and gas development around Chaco. This has led to some people—including Navajo allottees—accusing Haaland of having a conflict of interest.
The buffer zone has also divided members of the Navajo Nation. Some members of the Tribe are concerned that the oil and gas development will harm sacred sites, destroy scarce water resources, contaminate medicinal plants and put communities at risk.
Even before Haaland initiated the process in 2021 of withdrawing the federal lands from mineral leasing, there had been discussions about creating a buffer zone around the park. These discussions were central to the BLM’s Farmington Field Office’s resource management plan amendment dealing with oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin. This amendment came after concerns that the 2003 resource management plan did not adequately address the impact that horizontal drilling and hydraulic fracturing could have on Chaco Culture National Historical Park and outlying Chacoan sites.
In 2019, shortly after taking office, State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard issued a moratorium that halted new oil and gas leasing on state lands within 10 miles of the park.
Pueblo representatives and leaders were present at Chaco Culture National Historical Park on Sunday when, less than half an hour before the event was scheduled to begin, they were informed that Secretary Haaland and other federal leaders would not be coming.
Pueblo of Laguna Governor Wilfred Herrera gave a short speech at the park visitors center following a dance performed by the Pueblo of Acoma Enchantment Dancers.
Herrera spoke about how the Pueblo people believe the ancestors continue to exist in places like Chaco Canyon. He said landscapes transcend borders.
“In modern ways of looking at things, we look at countries, jurisdictions, states, counties. But we know way back in history, our Native people, our Indigenous people, freely roamed this earth,” he said. “We have a footprint that is all upon this earth. This is one of those places where that footprint continues to be strong, continues to exist, continues to guide us, continues to protect us, continues to remind us of where we came from, what we represent and what we have to try to encourage in our younger generations, encourage in our cultural ways, encourage in our leadership, in our people.”