Bureau of Land Management Auctions Off Land Near Chaco Canyon

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In late January, the United States’ Bureau of Land Management leased 843 acres of land for gas drilling and oil rights in New Mexico. The property, in Rio Arriba and Sandoval counties, is directly adjacent to Chaco Canyon National Historic Park, with only 20 miles’ distance from the boundaries of the National Parks site. It was sold for $3 million, despite various protests from archaeologists, environmentalists, and many local American Indian community coalitions. Even before this most recent sale, about 90% of the Greater Chaco region had already been seized for economic development, which makes this last 10% of land a “battleground between conservation and development interests.” The controversial sale of this particular set of land has been postponed on three separate occasions over the past five years.

Photo by author

Photo by author

Chaco Canyon and the Greater Chacoan Landscape holds some of the most significant remains of the Ancestral Puebloan, or Anasazi, archaeological culture. It is designed as a National Historic Park, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and an International Dark Sky Park. The Chaco Culture is a large network of archaeological sites that are centered around Chaco Canyon National Historic Park. These dwellings were most significantly inhabited between 850 and 1250 AD (Pueblo II-Pueblo III), and were significant sites for religious ceremonies and public activities. Chaco Canyon is known throughout the archaeological community for its monumental architecture, never-before seen social complexity, and far-reaching trade routes. The Chacoan architectural style centered around the construction of Great Houses, or large stone buildings, throughout the arid desert. These Great Houses held hundreds of rooms and kivas, or ceremonial chambers, and were meticulously planned in advance of construction. Additionally, Great Houses such as Pueblo Bonito, Una Vida, and Penasco Blanco were oriented around astrological markers, which situated the architecture within a vast cultural landscape. The National Trust for Historic Preservation stresses the importance of the Greater Chaco Landscape, not just the region protected by the National Parks Service: “it is the natural and cultural landscape as a whole, and not just individual sites that make this Chacoan region worthy of protection.” The sites that lie outside of Parks boundaries, such as dozens of satellite sites and Great North Road, are those that will be directly disturbed by gas drilling and oil. Much of the area still needs to be surveyed, and it is without a doubt that a significant amount of archaeological remains will be harmed if drilling and mining disturbs this land. In 2011, this Greater Chaco Landscape was designated as one of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places.

In addition to the archaeological destruction caused by mining and drilling, the remains of these complexes still holds immense religious and cultural meanings for many of the American Indians in the Four Corners region, such as the Navajo. In addition, many other Southwest Native American groups also make regular pilgrimages to Chaco, and it is estimated that 24 tribes hold some type of cultural and religious ties to the landscape and the archaeological ruins it holds.


Photo by author

These American Indian groups in the region have fought, and continue to fight, against the sale. Many argue that the drilling would harm public health, the environment, archaeological remains, and their cultural practices. Anthony Lee, a Navajo medicine man, explains that “[t]his is a place still sacred to those of us carrying on our tradition, those of us still connected to our culture. This is where we go to make offerings, prayers. And now I see a lot of destruction.” Many other Navajo argue that the BLM’s “environmental assessment does not fully evaluate the impact of drilling in the area.” For example, Tso and Shiprock Chapter President Duane “Chili” Yazzie said that the BLM did not take the opinions of the local residents into consideration. Yazzie explains: “It’s an amazing contradiction to me. They say they are getting input into the process from the local people, but at the same time, they seem to be proceeding with the sale, regardless of what comments they generate.” Similarly, Gloria Emerson, a local resident, “feel[s] hopeless.” In closing, Yazzie reiterates that the Navajo “are the original landlords, and we [Navajos] will retain that title for as long as we are here.”

Join the conversation and make your voice heard: the public comment period for the BLM lasts until February 20, 2017. To become further involved with archaeological and cultural preservation, consider donating to or working with SAFE.


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Lillia McEnaney

Lillia McEnaney

Content Coordinator & Web Editor at SAFE
Lillia McEnaney is a senior at Hamilton College and is double majoring in Archaeology and Religious Studies. Lillia has worked as an intern for various museums and cultural institutions across the United States, as a teaching and research assistant, and on field projects in Greece and Macedonia. She is interested in North American archaeology and anthropology, the U.S. Southwest, museum anthropology, digital archaeology, and indigenous rights, sovereignty, and representation. In her role at SAFE, Lillia aims to raise awareness about the widespread and unpublicized looting, trafficking, and sale of American Indian cultural patrimony.

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