BERNALILLO, N.M. – Native American activists and tribal leaders from around New Mexico are joining the chorus of environmentalists who have been fighting for years to stop oil and gas development.
This time, opponents are spurred by a proposed ordinance that would regulate drilling in one sparsely populated county.
They are part of a groundswell as tribes across the U.S. organize around land issues, from a pipeline in North Dakota and the disputed boundaries of a national monument in Utah to concerns about the encroachment of energy development in an area of the Southwest dotted with archaeological sites tied to a civilization that gave rise to many of the region’s modern tribes.
At a contentious meeting late last week, Ahjani Yepa of Jemez Pueblo spoke about the connection between her people and the land, spurring fellow activists in the crowd to raise their fists in solidarity.
“As with many cultures and religions, we do not have a book to guide us. The land is our Bible. Once it is gone, you cannot print another copy,” she told members of the Sandoval County Commission.
Her almost breathless plea came as Native Americans wage their latest battle against policymakers over drilling regulations.
There are concerns that the Trump administration will relax rules that have provided a buffer around Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico, and that altering the boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah could lead to more development and compromise the aboriginal lands of the five tribes that sought the monument designation.
In the Dakotas, tribes are still pushing to bolster water protections following the completion of a pipeline that spurred months of protests and resulted in hundreds of arrests.
University of Colorado law professor Sarah Krakoff, who specializes in American Indian law and natural resources and public land law, said the protests, resolutions and other showings by tribal leaders and activists represent the latest manifestation of self-determination for Native Americans.
“What’s interesting about this next phase of tribal self-determination and self-governance is the recognition that a lot of what tribes care about and a lot of what affects them deeply are decisions about the land outside of their official reservation boundaries,” she said.
Sandoval County, home to a dozen tribes, currently doesn’t have any rules governing the oil and gas industry. The commission has been working for the past two years to craft regulations that would apply to drilling in unincorporated areas of the county. The rules would not usurp state or federal regulations already on the books.
It was decided at last week’s meeting that a final vote will be taken in January.
Tribal leaders are still demanding meaningful consultation with the county.
After offering a prayer for the commissioners in his native language, Santo Domingo Pueblo Gov. Robert Coriz said he was among those who weren’t consulted.
“We have to base this on honest, open, respectful communication,” he said.
County officials say they have met with tribes and other stakeholders over the course of drafting the ordinance. They argue it would fill a regulatory void and act as an extra layer of protection above requirements already imposed by state regulators and the federal government.
In New Mexico, the oil and gas industry employs tens of thousands of workers and contributes about one-third of the revenue used to fund education and other state government services each year.
For tribes with fossil fuel deposits on their lands, balancing development with environmental protection also is challenging. The Navajo Nation, for example, is grappling with the loss of coal mining jobs and revenues as utilities look to shutter power plants in New Mexico and Arizona. The tribe also is concerned about drilling in the Chaco region.
Krakoff said that while the challenges transcend jurisdictions, tribal leaders are looking for “a real voice” when it comes to setting policy.
“Tribes are tired of check-the-box kind of consultation,” she said. “What they want are convenings in which the tribe’s views are actually considered and taken into account.”