ON THE PACKED EARTH behind the Counselor Chapter House, the local tribal headquarters for a town-sized portion of Navajo-owned lands in northwestern New Mexico, the Tso family unfolded all the makings of a feast from the back of their trucks and trailers. While the sun bleached the nearby sandstone bluffs, they assembled tents, tables, grills, and pans. Their hands slapped flatbread to bake over open coals. From a horse trailer, two sheep emerged, hog-tied and hauled by wheelbarrow. Elder hands that had shown children how to knead the flatbread earlier now pointed where to cut and what to keep from touching the red dirt.
In a matter of hours, the blinking and bewildered sheep became food on the plates of dozens of family members, friends, and residents of this dry corner of New Mexico, as well as those of a contingent of activists. Mutton stew and blue cornmeal mush served as prelude to a conversation about native communities living on the frontlines of America’s campaign for energy independence. Tribal members from Arizona, North Dakota, and Canada gathered to talk about traffic, violence, and their worries for a younger generation growing up while breathing in what blows off an oil field.
Daniel Tso said it has been like facing a tidal wave.
“The tsunami of fracking has already come,” he commented at a Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) event. The center, which is representing Navajo and local advocates, is suing the U.S. Bureau of Land Management (BLM) for failing to protect the history, landscape, and residents living near Chaco Culture National Historical Park from oil and gas development in the San Juan Basin. The BLM itself has admitted that development near the park has proceeded with unanticipated fervor over recent years. Yet in April 2018, New Mexico’s district court ruled against WELC’s case. The center’s attorneys appealed, and one month later, New Mexico’s senators proposed legislation to buffer the area from drilling. The prospects of both of these efforts are unclear.
“We have no place to run,” Tso said. “We have no place to take shelter.”
Chaco Canyon, a pinnacle of Ancestral Puebloan culture, was perhaps once home to seventeen thousand people. The walls of a dozen stone “great houses,” though punched through and pillaged, still stand. Hike through the sinuous red canyons to great houses miles away, and Chaco’s central Pueblo Bonito is still visible. Traces of arrow-straight roads cut away from the canyon for miles, and along them are scattered “outlier” sites, a few heaped bricks and potsherds that could be missed in the hasty archaeological surveys commissioned by oil companies. The Navajo tell their creation stories by the surrounding landmarks and harvest their feasts from the hillsides. Members of New Mexico’s Pueblos still visit for ceremonies. To them, these are not emptied ruins but dwellings still inhabited by their ancestors.
Tso, recently re-elected to the Navajo Nation Council, routinely leads tours through the ribbed back roads, past drill rigs and flares, bobbing pumps, and shuttered well sites. There, gravel surrounds wellheads, their lids at times askew and plastic safety fencing adrift on land now so hard it is impenetrable to rain. For years, he has argued for a baseline health survey for people living in what has long been designated an energy sacrifice zone,
punctuated with coal-fired power plants, coal mines, uranium mines, and gas wells. His efforts have not always been warmly received in a community where some financially benefit from the leases. The Navajo Nation itself has received millions in revenue from drilling.
But conversations around whether the economic gains might be outweighed by the costs to the community shifted when, on a summer night in 2016, six oil and gas wells exploded. Kendra Pinto, a member of the Navajo Nation and Diné CARE, an indigenous environmental organization, approached the flames to check on neighbors and to photograph the plumes of black smoke. The oil company, WPX Energy, decided that attempting to extinguish the fire was too dangerous, so they let it burn. For days. More than fifty-five families were told to leave their homes and go to the Nageezi Chapter House, where they napped in their cars for hours while waiting for someone to unlock the doors. Maybe, Pinto said, people would now pay attention.
On the afternoon of the Tso family gathering, after hearing how tar sands poisoned waters upstream from native communities in Canada and the Bakken boom polluted air in the Dakotas, Grandma Rose took the microphone. Speaking in Navajo, she explained that this was the first time she realized people elsewhere shared her experiences and concerns living amid the oil and gas industry’s workings. The wrongness of it was cast more starkly.
In the Navajo tradition, when a sheep is killed for food, every piece is used. The flanks go to mutton stew, the organs are chopped and stir-fried with onions, and the blood is saved to make sausage — but only if the sheep was raised on Navajo land. The blood of those grazed elsewhere isn’t considered trustworthy. How does encroaching oil and gas development change perspective on what lives and dies on Navajo lands?
Last fall, when New Mexico’s oil conservation commission decided to allow drillers to double the density of wells in the San Juan Basin, Tso said he wasn’t about to quiet down about protecting Chaco. “The ancestors are still there,” he said. “They’re the ones telling us to speak up.”
Elizabeth Miller is an independent journalist based in New Mexico. Her work has been published by Backpacker, High Country News, and The Guardian.