On Nov. 15, President Joe Biden announced the 10-mile area surrounding Chaco Canyon National Historical Park has been temporarily protected against oil and gas drilling. Permanent protection through congressional legislation is the next, logical step.
If there is no permanent protection, we are playing the game notoriously orchestrated by the Great Gambler, a historical figure among Indigenous peoples of the Southwest. Diné (Navajo) people know this historical and spiritual being as greedy and exploitative. Nááhwiilbiihi (“Winner of People”) kept people captive inside Chaco Canyon for gain and profit to eventually build the ancestral sites in and around the region.
Like the Great Gambler, we are gambling with the lives of people today by not providing permanent protection for the lands surrounding Chaco Canyon National Historical Park. This UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the ancestral homelands to pueblo and Diné people, has been threatened by oil and gas drilling for years – including in the Navajo chapters of Counselor, Pueblo Pintado and Torreon. Now, the landscape is in ruin, with flares from fracking, along with methane emissions from coal mining, that have now deemed the Four Corners region a hot spot for methane pollution.
This irresponsible development, made possible in 2014 by former N.M. Gov. Susana Martinez, has put thousands of lives at risk, causing an increase in health issues, pollution, water contamination and violent crime. All of which is attributed by industry to influence and manipulate our communities with greed and the exploitation of Nihima Nahasdzaan (Mother Earth).
Fortunately, Diné allottees, some of whom are my relatives, can change the narrative by standing against oil and gas development, and protecting the Greater Chaco region. Diné allottees are individuals from the Navajo Nation who have privately deeded lands. Over 20,000 Diné allottees have monetarily benefitted from allowing drilling on their lands.
These royalties matter to local communities, so any future policies to protect the Chaco region must also create compensation for economic losses as we transition away from fossil fuels to protect both health and well being.
By partnering with the unsustainable fossil fuel industry, we risk losing our mutual and protective cultural connections to the land as Diné. I first became interested in the region when I learned through a summer solstice visit that Diné clans, such as the Ashiihi and Tabaaha peoples, hold ancestral connections to Chaco. Both Diné and Jemez Pueblo also cite how Chaco Canyon was where one people became different peoples, according to the museum murals inside the park. The cross-cultural significance of Chaco is our homeland to most, if not all, Indigenous cultures in the Southwest.
As Diné, we must reflect on who we truly are as Holy Earth Surface People. For some Diné/Navajo allottees to discredit our cultural connections to Chaco for mere profit is a violation of our existence. This type of thinking aligns with the Great Gambler.
I urge my Diné leaders, Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez, Vice President Myron Lizer, and members of the 24th Navajo Nation Council to withdraw their opposition to the 10-mile buffer zone that would protect Chaco Canyon and permanently safeguard this living landscape. The preference for the 5-mile buffer zone harms our tangible and intangible cultural connections to Chaco and serves only the colonial exploitation of our peoples and homelands.