Ácoma Opposition to the El Malpais National Monument

The Ácoma Pueblo voiced strong opposition over a the entire period that the creation of the El Malpais National Monument was under consideration. The Ácoma reservation not only bordered on but extended into the proposed National Monument area because of several recent land purchases which were made by the Pueblo specifically to acquire religious shrines and water sources.

Many times through the motions of the political world, we as the first inhabitants of this area are neglected by the greater society. We do not feel that the designation of wilderness can aid us as Ácoma people in any beneficial manner now or in the future. We urge that this postion [be] not accepted as one comment; but rather giving due consideration to the government to government relationship and the number of people that the tribal government is representative of. This information has been presented to our tribal members at various community meetings through the past three years and rest assured that they support our position. ¹
Nonetheless, in 1986 House Resolution 3684, to establish El Malpais National Monument was introduced, without even recognizing the existence of Ácoma objections. Hearings were held in Grants where local residents could comment upon the proposal. There were general comments on the additional tourism to be brought to the Grants area as a boost the local economy which was sagging due to the decreasing demand for uranium. Several large landowners in the area, notably former Governer Bruce King, requested that the land which they leased for grazing be exempted from the planned wilderness area. Other landowners requested that their homes and other lands be removed from the monument area.

During these meetings, Governor Paytiamo of Ácoma stated the Ácoma position:

The Pueblo of Ácoma people retain vested interest in these lands considered as a national monument. These lands always remain Ácoma's aboriginal lands in spite of its designation as Bureau of Land Management land and/or as state school lands. Federal and state laws may take away our lands under newly instituted laws but our people remain intact with the land, as our Ácoma elders say, "We are already underneath the land."
The Governor then listed the specific points disputed by the Ácoma Pueblo:
  1. Ácoma did not want to be constrained in any future development of its property adjacent to El Malpais.
  2. Ácoma must be assured continued access to the reservation.
  3. Ácoma would protect its water rights, both for her private deeded lands and for the surface and subsurface waters reaching the reservation.
  4. Ácoma wanted the religious shrines protected under the Indian Religious Freedom Act.
  5. Ácoma objected to attracting more tourists who would trespass on tribal lands or damage property.
  6. Ácoma considered the prehistoric ruins as sacred and objected to visitors disturbing them in any manner.
The bill was revised to exclude private and deeded lands, including those owned by the Ácoma Pueblo. However the boundary of the proposed monument extended to the Ácoma Reservation boundary, therefore preventing them from enlarging the reservation ant further toward the west. The Ácoma wished the monument boundary to end on the west side of State Road 117. The Ácoma offered to purchase the 12,385 acres east of State Road 117. The bill was passed by the House in the revised form without taking the Ácoma position into account.

Governor Paytiamo then took his case to Senator Pete Domenici, who saw the establishment of the monument as a boon to the economy of Grants. Ácoma had no response from the New Mexico senatorial delegation and the bill as it stood was submitted for "top priority" consideration in 1987. Hearings were again held in Grants where the new Governor of New Mexico, Garrey Carruthers, endorsed the bills, saying that they were "a cooperative effort among private sector, public federal sector, and public state sector" pointedly excluding the Native American population of New Mexico from consideration.

Ácoma received a chance to air its views in Washington before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands in February of 1987. Governor Paytiamo pointed out that the Ácoma Pueblo had lost 1.5 million acres out of 2.5 million acres of land that they had possessed in aboriginal times. Although the tribe had once voted to accept compensation for these lands, they had since decided that they must buy back the lands using the same money. The establishment of the El Malpais National Monument would block the tribe's efforts to the west of their current boundaries. There was also immediate concern over the possible loss of use of some of the grazing land they now leased within the proposed monument boundaries. Governor Paytiamo proposed that the grazing land they currently leased be placed in trust for the tribe and that they be granted funds to allow them to buy back more of their aboriginal lands and to be assured of their water rights. However, the point causing most uneasiness within the tribe was coming to be the question of management and protection of the religious sites within the proposed monument region.

As no response to this testimony was received by the Pueblo, in May Governor Paytiamo appealed to the entire United States Senate, sending them a copy of a petition discussing the Ácoma Pueblo's aboriginal and traditional rights, their economic concerns, and their concerns over the preservation of traditional religious uses of the land. No response was received by the Governor. Upon hearing that the legislation had received the approval of the Interior and Insular Affairs Committe of the House, the Ácoma tribe conducted its first ever public demonstration. On May 21, 1987 approximately 100 members of the Ácoma Pueblo demonstrated along the west side of State Road 117 along the lava beds. In response to the publicity over the demonstration, the local congressman's office claimed that all the charges were unfounded and that his office had been in constant contact with the Pueblo. On June 1 the House passed the bill unanimously.

As a compromise, Senator Domenici offered to work out a land exchange for those lands the Ácoma Pueblo would lose to the monument. The Ácoma considered this possibility very seriously, but, as religious considerations had played a major part in the acquisition of that land, they decided against a trade. In a vain attempt to gain control over their religious sites, they made public, for the first time, the importance of these sites to their tribe.

They informed the New Mexico Congressional delegation that these sites held importance to them comparable to that of the Wailing Wall in the Jewish religion. The ranch lands that they would be forced to give up contained shrines where Ácoma religious leaders offered prayers so that rain clouds from the west would bring water and sustenance to Ácoma lands. According to ancient instructions, annual religious ceremonies at a series of shrines beginning west of St. John's, AZ, established a pathway for rain clouds across the Zuñi Salt Lake, across the El Malpais, through the shrines and natural rock formations in the ranch area and on to the pueblo on the mesa top. The tenets of the Ácoma religion taught that the ceremonies at these shrines created a pathway for the rain clouds, assuring their return to the Pueblo lands.

When there was no response to this last appeal, the Ácoma Tribal Council authorized the Governor to take the Abraham Lincoln cane, the symbol of trust between the tribe and the federal government, back to Washington and break it. The Council concluded that the federal government felt that their tribal lands were all public domain, that their religious shrines were no longer accepted as sacred, and that their water rights had no protection. The Council felt that the return of the Lincoln cane would best demonstrate the way they felt they had been treated yet again. Although there was some last minute activity attempting to placate the Ácoma people, the answer was always that the bill was too far along for any changes to be made at this point. President Reagan refused to see Governor Paytiamo. The Tribal Council again complained to the New Mexico delegation:

Ácoma is hurt by the fact that laws made by the dominant society continue to oppress native people. We can no longer be pushed and required to yield to the injustice being done to us. We can only see how the whiteman's laws are so often used to the detriment of our sacred lands. We must insist that this act is unjust.
The Council then again repeated their request that the 12,385 acres east of State Road 117 be returned to the tribe.

Last minute help from Senator Daniel Inouye was unavailing due to the opposition of the New Mexico Congressional delegation. The Senate unanimously approved the bill on December 17, 1987. President Reagan signed the bill on Governor Paytiamo's last day in office, Dec. 31, after ignoring a letter form the Governor requesting an audience to discuss the bill in the presence of the Lincoln cane.

1Quoted in Malpais Lava Flow Belongs to the Ácoma Pueblo, Indian Leaders Tell BLM in the Albuquerque Tribune, May 23, 1979.
This discussion is condensed from the Epilogue: Toward Self-Determination in Ácoma, Pueblo in the Sky by Ward Alan Minge © 1991, University of New Mexico Press. Since this time the U.S. Senate has again taken up the issue of Native American Free Exercise of Religion.

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Native Roads : The Complete Motoring Guide to the Navajo and Hopi Nations,
Fran Kosik, George Hardeen, Creative Solutions Pub.
A Guide Book to Highway 66, Jack D. Rittenhouse, Univ of New Mexico Press.
Basin and Range, John McPhee, Noonday Press.
The Colorado Plateau : A Geologic History, Donald L. Baars, Univ of New Mexico Press.
Navajo Country : A Geology and Natural History of the Four Corners Region, Donald Baars, Univ. New Mexico Press.
Roadside Geology of New Mexico, Halka Chronic, Mountain Press.

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