Native American Leaders Say Chaco Prayers Are Being Answered

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It’s a fight they’ve been waging for years with multiple presidential administrations. They’re optimistic the needle is moving now that one of their own — U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland — holds the reins of the federal agency that oversees energy development and tribal affairs. Haaland, who is from Laguna Pueblo and is the first Native American to lead a Cabinet agency, joined tribal leaders at Chaco on Monday to celebrate the beginning of a process that aims to withdraw federal land holdings within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park boundary, making the area off-limits to oil and gas leasing for 20 years.

Then a chorus of leaders from several Native American tribes began to speak, their voices echoing off the nearby sandstone cliffs. They spoke of a deep connection to the canyon — the heart of Chaco Culture National Historic Park — and the importance of ensuring that oil and gas development beyond the park’s boundaries does not sever that tie for future generations. The Indigenous leaders from the Hopi Tribe in Arizona and several New Mexico pueblos were beyond grateful that the federal government is taking what they believe to be more meaningful steps toward permanent protections for cultural resources in northwestern New Mexico. New leases on federal land in the area will be halted for the next two years while the withdrawal proposal is considered.

Haaland also committed to taking a broader look at how federal land across the region can be better managed while taking into account environmental effects and cultural preservation. The perfect weather did not go unnoticed Monday, as tribal leaders talked about their collective prayers being answered.

“It’s a nice day — a beautiful day that our father the sun blessed us with. The creator laid out the groundwork for today,” said Hopi Vice Chairman Clark Tenakhongva. A World Heritage site, Chaco is thought to be the center of what was once a hub of Indigenous civilization with many tribes from the Southwest tracing their roots to the high desert outpost. Within the park, walls of stacked stone jut up from the bottom of the canyon, some perfectly aligned with the seasonal movements of the sun and moon. Circular subterranean rooms called kivas are cut into the desert floor, and archaeologists have found evidence of great roads that stretched across what are now New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado.

Visitors often marvel at the architectural prowess of Chaco’s early residents. But for many Indigenous people in the Southwest, Chaco Canyon holds a more esoteric significance. The Hopi call it “Yupkoyvi,” simply translated as way beyond the other side of the mountains. “Whose land do we all occupy? We walk the land of the creator. That’s what was told to us at the beginning — at the bottom of the Grand Canyon,” Tenakhongva said. “Many of us have that connection. Many of us can relate to how important the Grand Canyon is. Ask the Zuni, the Laguna, the Acoma. They made their trip from there to this region. We know the importance of these areas.”

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