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Kaweshtima (a.k.a. Mount Taylor) gains temporary protection
One month after being placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s most endangered historic places list, New Mexico’s majestic Mt. Taylor looks to have a new lease on life.
This past Friday, the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Cultural Properties Review Committee (CPRC) voted unanimously to give Mt. Taylor temporary Traditional Cultural Property (TCP) status. Once designated a TCP, a site is protected from new development.
The decision pitted uranium mining interests against local tribal nations that have considered the mountain a sacred site for millennia, and the new designation was seen by supporters as a confirmation of Mt. Taylor’s endangerment.
“I would like to thank the tribes for bringing the nomination forward, for sharing their closely held spiritual beliefs and making all of us more aware of the importance of Mount Taylor,” CPRC Chairman Alan “Mac” Watson said in a statement.
“In the same regard,” Watson continued, “the private property owners and others with rights to Mount Taylor who expressed their concerns deserve thanks for helping us achieve a balance that lets this committee help preserve the varied — and sometimes perceived as conflicting — interests of all the parties involved.”
Mt. Taylor is well known to most New Mexicans, situated in between Albuquerque and Gallup, with its 12,000-foot snow-capped peak visible for miles. Kaweshtima, as it is known to the people of neighboring Acoma Pueblo, is revered by more than 30 tribal nations as a sacred and ceremonial site.
Malcolm Bowekaty, former Zuni Pueblo governor and a associate director of the Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality (SAGE) council, describes Mt. Taylor in a recent interview with NMI as “a place that connects us to the spirit world. It is a source of life for Native people, a place where we go to gather materials for our ceremonies.”
But the threat to Mt. Taylor’s existence as an undisturbed sacred site is jeopardized by its value to another interest — uranium mining companies.
One of the richest known reserves of uranium ore in the United States, known as the Grants Uranium Belt, lies within the mountain, having been explored in mining booms during the 1950s and 1970s. As the prices for uranium have soared in the last decade, proposals for mining on Mt. Taylor have skyrocketed.
Bowekaty understands the arguments on both sides but objects to outsiders wanting to profit off Native land while excluding tribes from the process.
“These business interests never approach our Native people, asking what we feel about projects they are planning. And, to make it worse, we are often left out of the political process that makes final decisions about the future of our sacred sites. At least the latter we can change. We have to become involved in the political process in order to protect Mt. Taylor and our other ceremonial lands.”
Weighing both the spiritual and commercial value of Mt. Taylor is an issue that is not foreign to the southwest. In the recent years, construction plans in and around the Petroglyph Natural Monument, located on Albuquerque’s west side, and Flagstaff Arizona’s San Francisco Peaks, have pitted sacred and ceremonial values against commercial value of the sites to real estate developers and ski resort owners, respectively.
Among the historical concerns are the multitude of laws that largely protected recent commercial interests over the claims of cultural importance made by Native Americans.
Over a century ago, when Native peoples were not considered American citizens, the 1872 Mining Law was created, permitting mining regardless of its impact on cultural and natural resources.
Since then, laws have begun to move in the direction of recognizing the value of sacred sites from the perspective of tribes and as culturally important landmarks for America, including a resolution passed by the New Mexico Legislature earlier this year — HJM 50: Federal Protection of Native American Sites.
But there are other concerns with re-opening uranium mines of Mt. Taylor. In the times of the previous uranium mining booms at this site, the full health and environmental effects of such projects were not appreciated. Today, we know from the former workers and communities around such mines that exposure to uranium is associated with cancer and damage to the kidneys.
From an environmental vantage point, mines threaten local water sources, which in the case of Mt. Taylor includes Rio San Jose, the primary water source and another sacred element for Acoma Pueblo. The vast amount of waste from the mine, along the inevitable building of roads and infrastructure to support the mine, will also endanger the local environment.
“Mount Taylor is a significant part of the cultural history of the Acoma people and many other Native American tribes,” said Richard Moe, president of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. “We can’t allow an antiquated mining law — one that has no merit today — to forever scar a place that has tremendous historical and cultural significance to thousands of Americans.”
Will the decision by the CPRC to designate Mt. Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property set a precedent for how New Mexico sees the sacred lands within our midst? It is hard to say at this point, but what is clear is the importance of the state in arbitrating such matters, which are sure to continue.
And for the moment, we can all have confidence, whether we view Mt. Taylor as a sacred site or a beautiful New Mexico landmark, that with Friday’s vote it has passed one hurdle toward protection and preservation.