Meet Theresa Pasqual. She's the director of Acoma Pueblo's Historic Preservation Office. A mesa-top settlement in western New Mexico, Acoma is known as the oldest continuously inhabited community in North America and, because of its elevation, is often referred to as "Sky City." A tireless advocate, Pasqual has dedicated her career to protecting what matters most to the people of the pueblo, including one cherished resource that rises into the piercing blue of the desert sky right outside her office.
Located 17 miles north of the sandstone bluff that boosts Acoma's adobe pueblos some 367 feet above a vast valley, Mount Taylor is a stunning place that means many different things to many different people. For the Acoma people, the mountain is a sacred living, breathing entity because of its association with the elements and the cardinal direction north, the starting point for all things. Referred to as Kaweshtima, or "place of snow," its fertile lands provide various plants and herbs used by traditional practitioners, and its spring runoff provides the water that is regarded as the physical and cultural life blood of their community. For these reasons and so many more that our words can't explain, Mount Taylor is more than a mountain: It's both an explanation for and a sustaining force in life.
"Kaweshtima holds a special place in the hearts and lives of the Acoma people," Pasqual said. "It has been intertwined with the traditions, the culture, and the history of our people since time immemorial. We have a responsibility to protect Mount Taylor not just because of its importance to us, but because of its importance to many other tribes and communities."
Unfortunately, the view of Mount Taylor that the Acoma see through the lens of their reverence is not the same as that of another group with significant interests in the mountain: The uranium industry.
Also known as "yellow cake," the price of uranium ore has exploded as our country's need for energy has increased right alongside of fears about the adverse effects of coal- and oil-fired powers plants on global warming. Estimates as to how many raw pounds of the resource lie untapped beneath New Mexico's sandy soil easily reach into the upper hundred millions, with Mount Taylor rising above one of the richest known reserves in the country. To date, the uranium-rich mountain has spawned two mining booms, one in the 1950s and another in the 1970s. It should come as no surprise that, with uranium's per-pound price tag getting more attractive by the minute, the number of applications to conduct mining has increased exponentially as companies eager for a better bottom line prepare for the third coming of Mount Taylor.
This whirlwind paved the way for unimpeded development irrespective of the special bond between Mount Taylor and the Acoma. To the tribe, the ill-informed drilling is a violation of a sacred trust between human and nature. And with historians dating their society back to 1150 A.D., they know better than anyone that when the industrial trucks come, so do immediate and long-term threats to places of special historical and cultural significance, and to their vital water supply. The cumulative effects of mining on the water supply derived from Mount Taylor’s springs are among the Acoma’s chief concerns. Many companies are proposing to do in-situ mining, which draws on an enormous amount of water to be treated with chemicals attracting the uranium for collection. The water is then retreated and pumped back into the same aquifers that feed the rivers and springs the Acoma rely on as a source of drinking water and for the irrigation of their crops."Undoubtedly, there is a cost…in human health, in quality of the environment, in economic sustainability with uranium mining," Pasqual said. "It is a tough lesson that the Pueblos and the surrounding cities have had to learn."
Aware that history has a cruel way of repeating itself when it comes to Native Americans and the lands they cherish, Pasqual knew that deliberate action was needed to bring the voices that mattered most into the conversation about Mount Taylor's stewardship. She formed a coalition of preservation professionals from the Hopi Tribe, the Navajo Nation, and the pueblos of Zuni and Laguna, all of which are groups with similar cultural connections to the mountain. Together, they advocated for and eventually earned a one-year emergency listing for Mount Taylor as a traditional cultural property on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. This ensures that tribes finally have a seat at the table during the critical consultation processes that determine how lands like Mount Taylor are used.
"In many instances, this is the first time that Tribes have come forth willingly to discuss their relationship both historically and culturally with Mount Taylor," Pasqual said. "Tribes have taken a great risk to get their voices heard, but it does not compare to the even greater risk to remain silent."
Despite the win, the struggle to protect Mount Taylor is just beginning. The temporary designation will expire in June 2009 if the Tribes are not successful in submitting supporting documentation needed for a permanent listing on the New Mexico State Register of Cultural Properties. Should the permanent designation not be granted, a re-listing cannot occur for five years, thus potentially opening the door for misguided, unilateral land-use decisions that could jeopardize Mount Taylor.
“We must remind ourselves of the history of this country and the strong cultural and historical connections that Native Americans have to this land,” Pasqual said. “Our history is not contained in textbooks; it is contained within the landscape. Protecting Mount Taylor and other cultural landscapes is more than ‘environmentalism;’ it is protecting places we continue to visit with our children to show them where we came from, who we are and who we will continue to be. Without that, we are Indians only in name.”