Mount Taylor, an 11,300-foot, snow-capped peak in central New Mexico, will be protected as a traditional cultural property following the state Supreme Court’s ruling February 6 that upheld the mountain’s designation as a sacred site.
An extinct volcano, Mount Taylor is considered sacred by the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma and Laguna people and is an important pilgrimage site for as many as 30 tribes. The ruling, which came 17 months after the high court heard the case, is expected to set a precedent for similar cases across the nation that involve sites sacred to indigenous people.
“At the end of the day, it’s not just a piece of property with cultural or historical significance,” said James Zion, an attorney practicing law on the Navajo Nation since 1981. “There’s a human rights component here.”
The Pueblo of Acoma spearheaded an effort to get the site protected as a traditional cultural property under state law. Three pueblos and the Navajo and Hopi tribes submitted statements detailing the significance of the mountain, said Jan Biella, New Mexico state archaeologist.
“One of the things that is so outstanding about this nomination is that it was prepared by the tribes,” she said. “It told the story that the tribes had to tell.”
For the Navajo, Mount Taylor—or Tso Dzil—is one of the four sacred mountains. The Acoma Pueblo calls it Kaweshtima, or “place of snow.”
A nearly 700-square-mile area including the mountain earned a permanent designation from the state Cultural Properties Review Committee in 2009. That designation was challenged in February 2011 when ranchers and special interest groups—including uranium mining companies and descendants of early settlers who purchased land grants from the king of Spain—sued the state cultural agency and the tribes.
Plaintiffs claimed the area was too large to be protected and that the designation deprived them of property rights. Defendants claimed landowners and other special-interest groups failed to show damages. Because the tribes don’t have legal ownership of the land, the designation simply allows them to review proposed developments ahead of time.
The Fifth Judicial District Court overthrew the designation. The case bypassed appellate courts and went straight to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which heard the case in September 2012. The high court was charged with weighing the issue and deciding how much sway tribes should have over development of lands they don’t own but consider sacred.
Although tribes don’t have claims to the land now, the location contains a scattering of archaeological sites associated with early Chaco people, including religious shrines and a small village.
The Supreme Court’s 21-page opinion affirms the tribe’s convictions, said Theresa Pasqual, director of historic preservation for the Pueblo of Acoma. The court upheld the original designation of more than 400,000 acres of land as a traditional cultural property, minus a 19,000-acre parcel that is part of the private Cebolleta Land Grant and not eligible for state protection.
“The mountain—and not just the peak, but the mesas and valleys—is, by definition, a traditional cultural property,” Pasqual said. “Nationally, (the ruling) changes our perspective in terms of cultural resource management and preservation in that we can no longer look at places just as areas in small boundaries or small spaces. We have to see everything from the perspective of the indigenous people, and that perspective includes large views of rivers, lakes and mountains.”
In its opinion, the Supreme Court found that Mount Taylor met three of the four criteria for a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. The site is significant historically and archaeologically. It also is integral for tribal communities’ traditional practices, and the mountain physically produces life-sustaining resources like drinking water.
The state designation does not necessarily prohibit development around Mount Taylor, Biella said. It means the tribes have a seat at the table during discussions.
“Historic preservation is about bringing people to discuss a project and reach a consensus if they can and chart a way forward if they can,” she said. “It’s about doing everything you can to lessen the impact.”
Tribes can provide input into direct effects of development, or projects that directly affect the land, Biella said. They also can communicate indirect effects, or activities that disrupt tribes’ use of a property.
“The integrity of a place is important, so visual intrusions will affect the way the tribe relates to the cultural property,” she said.
The tribes and the state Historic Preservation Division are calling the ruling a victory. It comes as groups around the globe are emphasizing indigenous peoples’ rights to sacred or cultural sites.
The ruling “in many ways set precedent across the United States for tribes in their own states to seek similar landscape designations,” Pasqual said. “While we’re very happy here in New Mexico, I think there are many tribes looking at recent events to see what is possible within their own jurisdictions.”