Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Mountain is symbolic to many

GRANTS - Tsoodzil, Kaweshtima, Turquoise Mountain and Mount Taylor are names that have been given over the years to the dormant volcano on the horizon. The mountain represents sacred sites and the home of gods to some Native American neighbors and a place for recreation, ranching, Land Grant communities and appreciation of nature for others. Currently there has been a growing interest in resuming uranium mining on Mount Taylor, coinciding with some designations of protection by both the U.S. Forest Service and the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee.

These state and federal designations have produced debate in Grants and led to allegations about how the measures would limit public activity on the mountain.

Some government leaders and the mining interests have reacted with hostility and many uninformed citizens have made dramatic, if incorrect, public statements on the situation.

At a Cibola County Commission meeting, local resident Ronnie Pynes questioned the legality of the meeting of the Cultural Properties Review Committee because it wasn't publicized in Grants, stating, “This isn't China. They want to take away our mountain, our forests, what's next?”

That statement doesn't remotely resemble what the committee has stated in respect to limitations on human activity on the mountain, although the legality of the committee's meeting is currently under investigation by Cibola County Attorney Joe Diaz.

In an editorial in the April 25 Beacon, Estevan Rael-Galvez, chairman of the committee, stated, “On publicly owned properties, any activity allowed by law or regulation continues to be allowed. However, listing in the State Register does provide a process for planning for projects or activities that might impact registered resources…so that state agencies can exercise due caution to avoid damage to cultural properties.”

He also pointed out that the designation does not affect the use of private property by the owner or his ability to sell, transfer or develop the property.

The emergency listing of Mount Taylor will be temporary for one year while the committee investigates the property and makes a determination if it should be permanently placed on the state register. The nominating parties - the Pueblos of Acoma, Zuni, Laguna, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi Tribe must spend that year documenting the importance of Mount Taylor as an archaeological site, the traditional values and the historic and prehistoric uses of the site.

The fact that that the nominating parties are all Native American has raised the question of real and imagined racism in those opposed to the measure.

Considering that the mountain was once part of Acoma aboriginal lands, this is a foreseeable reaction.

Also lost in the emotional debate is the fact that the cultural preservation area would only be located at an elevation of more than 8,000 ft. on mostly state and Bureau of Land Management land, according to Lt. Governor Mark Thompson of Acoma Pueblo.

“The pueblos don't want to shut down Mount Taylor because we hunt and recreate there too. But it is important for people to know that the mountain is sacred to us and mentioned in many of our prayers. Most importantly, we see it as a source of cultural continuity for our children.”

Thompson noted that there was some concern at the pueblo over the possibility of water contamination if uranium mining was resumed.

“I worked in the mines myself and I think we have to resume mining slowly and very carefully. We're not outright opposed to it,” Thompson said.

He pointed out that the beams in San Estevan Church at Sky City were carried by Acoma men from Mount Taylor to the church site when it was built during the Spanish Colonial era. “We take pride in our history and have suffered over the centuries, so it's important to us to keep our culture intact,” he said.

Deloris Becenti of the Navajo Nation explained the significance of the mountain to her people. “It is one of the four sacred mountains in our emergence story…the others are Blanca Peak and Mount Hesperus in Colorado and San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. Mount Taylor is mentioned in our prayers, chants, songs and stories,” she said. “Each peak has an animal totem which protects it from destruction.”

It is also the site where the mythological Monster Slayer twins killed a monster to protect the Navajo people. The monster's blood formed the lava beds, according to Navajo lore.

“Our medicine men go to Mount Taylor for medicinal and ceremonial plants. They must state their purpose and say prayers before they're led to the plants they need,” Becenti said.

She opposes any resumption of uranium mining because of the results she's seen from previous mining in the Crownpoint area where she lives. “The elders in our communities have been sickened by the polluted water and are suffering from kidney problems and cancers,” she reported.

“We really don't care that people can make money from uranium; we care about the integrity of Mount Taylor,” she concluded.

Also causing confusion in the current argument are Forest Service proposed designations regarding traditional cultural properties and travel management. These proposals will be outlined in a future Beacon story.

There will be a special Cibola County Commission meeting tonight at 6 p.m. to discuss the state Historic Preservation Committee's decision.

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