Five New Mexico tribes are fighting ranchers and special-interest groups over an 11,300-foot, snow-capped peak about 80 miles west of Albuquerque.
Mount Taylor, a sacred and cultural site for the Navajo, Hopi, Zuni, Acoma Pueblo and Laguna people, is an extinct volcano designated in 2009 as a traditional cultural property under state law.
That designation is in danger, however, as the state Supreme Court considers whether to uphold it and protect a site that has been the home of Native people for more than 1,000 years. The decision is expected to set precedent in similar cases across the country.
“New Mexico has been a leader nationally in protecting the cultural heritage of all its citizens,” said William Cook, associate general counsel for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “Other states are looking to see how New Mexico resolves this issue. Mount Taylor is a tough case for how to protect comparable properties.”
The 700-square-mile site is a patchwork of property ownership, including federal, state, public and private owners who have claims to the land and its rich mining, ranching, logging and recreation resources. Among the landowners are descendants of early settlers who purchased land grants from the king of Spain during the colonial era.
“That’s a very old form of property ownership,” Cook said. “There’s still people in New Mexico who claim or can trace title to those colonial land grants.”
The mountain is also a significant site for Native cultures. As many as 30 tribes consider it an important pilgrimage site, and it is part of several tribes’ cultural identity. For the Navajo, Mount Taylor—or Tso Dzil—is one of the four sacred mountains. The Acoma Pueblo call it Kaweshtima, or “place of snow.”
“Mount Taylor is the mountain that is associated with the cardinal direction of north, which for us here at the Pueblo of Acoma is the direction for which all things began,” said Theresa Pasqual, director for the pueblo’s Historic Preservation Office. “There are a number of deities associated with that mountain.”
The Pueblo of Acoma, which led the crusade in 2009 to have the site designated, has thrived in the shadow of Mount Taylor since “time immemorial,” states a legal brief filed in June by a dozen entities supporting the designation. 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 designation, called “permanent” in 2009, meant cultural resources would be protected, Navajo President Ben Shelly said following the Cultural Properties Review Committee’s announcement of the designation.
“This designation ensures that the Tso Dzil, or Mount Taylor, will be protected from harmful development,” said Shelly, who in 2009 was serving as the tribe’s vice president. “Mount Taylor is the southern sacred mountain of the Navajo people and this designation establishes a process that will ensure the land, the water and the animals will be protected from harmful development.”
The permanent designation was overthrown in February 2011 in the Fifth Judicial District Court, after a group of landowners and uranium mining companies sued the state cultural agency and the tribes, claiming the area was too large to be protected as a historic site and that the designation deprived them of property rights. Landowners also cited fears that increased regulations would hinder even the most minor developments.
The case bypassed appellate courts and went straight to the New Mexico Supreme Court, which heard the case in September. The high court is expected to weigh the issue and decide how much sway tribes should have over development of lands they don’t own but consider sacred.
Tribes, backed by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the All Indian Pueblo Council, the Association on American Indian Affairs and half a dozen other allies, are pushing for the designation to be reinstated, Cook said.
The defendants in the case—the tribes and the Cultural Properties Review Committee—claim land owners 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, Cook said.
“State law merely imposes a notification requirement,” he said. Tribes will be “notified and consulted prior to the issuance of permits.”
The designation does not give tribes veto power over development, Cook said, yet landowners view the added regulations as “the first step at chipping away at their private property rights.”
The Pueblo of Acoma is simply asking for a voice, Pasqual said.
“The designation is sought after by the tribes as a tool because of the amount of development that is being proposed,” she said. “It’s more of a way to start a conversation that involves the tribes in whatever proposed development is going on. Tribes simply want a seat at the table to begin the dialogue over the site.”
The New Mexico Supreme Court did not give an indication of when a decision might be rendered.