The Greater Chaco Region, an irreplaceable tapestry of history and sacred significance to the Pueblos and other tribes, stands threatened by the newly introduced H.R. 4374 “Energy Opportunities for All Act.” Veiled as a measure to create economic opportunities, this act seeks to nullify the Department of the Interior’s Public Land Order No. 7923, which withdrew federal land and minerals within an approximately 10-mile withdrawal area encircling the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in New Mexico from new mineral leasing and development for 20 years.
The Greater Chaco Region is not merely a tract on a map; it is a sacred repository of our shared cultural heritage. Our ancestors lived and thrived there, establishing intricate ceremonial roads, astronomical observatories and a vast trade network that spread across the continent. The ancestral remnants, petroglyphs and countless other cultural and archaeological resources within the region tell us their stories and form a vital link to our past. We continue to visit this sacred place through song, prayer and pilgrimage and important spiritual beings remain rooted there.
Until recently, the Pueblos and the Navajo Nation were united in protecting our cultural heritage within the Greater Chaco Region. In fact, the Navajo Nation approached the Pueblos at the behest of local Navajo citizens who were concerned about the effects of oil and gas development on their physical health and their sacred places. Pueblo governors and former Navajo Nation Presidents negotiated in good faith for several years, arriving at the agreed upon protections first encompassed within the Chaco Cultural Heritage Area Protection Act and then integrated into Public Land Order No. 7923.
United, we testified before the very congressional committee where H.R. 4374 was heard. So, it was with deep regret that we observed the sudden pivot by the Navajo Nation.
This abrupt shift overlooks that the Public Land Order protects tribal sovereignty and individual allottees’ rights, while simultaneously protecting the health and environment of the surrounding community and safeguards the sacred landscape. The order explicitly applies only to federal lands and minerals, permitting continued development of Navajo Nation and Navajo allottee lands and ongoing development already taking place on federal lands. Thus, the status quo remains unchanged.
The real economic threat to the interests of Navajo allottees comes not from the withdrawal but from the oil and gas industry itself. Even a key oil and gas developer testified that leasing or developing only allottee lands is “uneconomic and infeasible.” In fact, this same entity acknowledged that, even despite the department’s past pauses, congressionally enacted moratoriums against federal leases, and the state of New Mexico’s withdrawal of state lands within the withdrawal area, Navajo allottees’ revenue from development remains steady.
H.R. 4374 presents a false choice: economic prosperity through mineral extraction but at the expense of our sacred sites and shared cultural landscape. It falsely claims the withdrawal will harm the Navajo allottees’ existing oil and gas payments, while sidestepping the enormous environmental and health impacts already affecting those local communities. The recent lawsuit filed by Navajo individuals against the state of New Mexico, alleging violation of their constitutional rights due to oil and gas development, attests to this. Echoing this message are the Navajo people supportive of the withdrawal, depicted in the testimony provided by Mario Atencio, vice president of the Torreon/Starlake Chapter of the Navajo Nation, at the hearing on H.R. 4374.
The pivot by the Navajo Nation disregards their long history of engagement and foundational work with the Pueblos to preserve these lands. The turnabout not only betrays our collective cultural heritage, but also erodes the trust and unity of the coalition that fought so hard to protect Chaco. We have stood alongside the Navajo Nation in other significant landscape protection efforts, including Mt. Taylor in New Mexico, Bears Ears in Utah, and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. We urge the Navajo Nation leadership and its people to recall these efforts and return to the path of collective action. We must remember the centuries-old ties that bind us and the shared commitments we made during our collaboration to protect our sacred spaces.
Preserving the Greater Chaco Region isn’t only about safeguarding our past, it’s about protecting our future. We implore Congress to recognize H.R. 4374 for what it truly is: a misguided pursuit of fleeting economic gains that compromise our long-term cultural, environmental and physical wellbeing. We call on the Navajo Nation to look beyond the political and oil and gas industry rhetoric and rejoin our shared commitment to protecting our sacred spaces and cultural legacy.
The time to reaffirm our commitment to preserving the Greater Chaco Region is now. Economic prosperity should not come at the expense of sacred site desecration or community health and environmental degradation. Communities around Chaco should not have to choose between economic survival and sacred land protection. They have the right to expect, and indeed demand, both.
As the descendants of those who built and lived at Chaco Canyon and shaped the Greater Chaco Region, we have the responsibility and the right to protect this sacred landscape, not only for our generation but for all those yet to come. We owe it to them to leave a legacy of protection, respect and preservation that can be shared by all. Tribal leaders across this country must stand firm in their resolve, now more than ever, and unite in the face of the existential threat to undo Public Land Order No. 7923.
If a significant cultural site like Chaco Canyon is at risk, so are other sites held sacred by America’s first people. Only by standing united can we truly honor the past, serve the present and safeguard the future.
Mark Mitchell is chairman of the All Pueblo Council of Governors, comprised of the 20 federally recognized Indian tribes in New Mexico. He is also a former governor of the Pueblo of Tesuque.
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