Mount Taylor, the high point of the San Mateo Mountains, is considered a sacred place to many native tribes. Once an active volcano, the mountain now rises above the mesas and plains near Grants, New Mexico. However, in the last five years, it has become an endangered area, threatened by the risk of uranium mining. While there have been little victories in the ongoing battle between native peoples and environmentalists against mining companies, white ranchers and Spanish land grant communities, the threat of the desecration of the land still remains.
The Hopi, Zuni, Laguna, Acoma and Navajo Nations have all identified the mountain as a sacred place. For four of the tribes, they view Mount Taylor as a place to connect to their ancestral past. For the Navajo, the mountain is an integral part of their creation story. They believe that First Man created four mountains with the sacred soil from the Fourth World to mark the four cardinal directions (with Mount Taylor representing the south) and that the spirits of the Black God, Turquoise Boy and Turquoise Girl continue to reside in the mountain. However, to mining communities in the area, Mount Taylor stands for something different. The mountain contains large pockets of uranium-vanadium and since 1945 has produced thirteen million tons of uranium ore. The mining of these minerals was discontinued in 1990, but has continued to be a hot topic among local communities.
In 2008, the issue resurfaced as the potential for future mining endeavors was rekindled. On June 19th, leaders from the five tribes nominated Mount Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property (Davis). The tribes asked for an emergency listing, one that would effectively prevent the proposed uranium mining before any official action to be taken. Then, the tribes were required to produce and present information about the historical and cultural significance of the site in relation to their religious beliefs. Norman J. Cooeyate, the governor of the Zuni tribe, identifying it as an “origin, cultural and pilgrimage site for tribal members” (Davis). He went on further to explain that the grounds were “still visited today on a regular basis by the Zuni religious leaders, for the collection of water, plants, feathers and minerals, which are important elements in our cultural and religious activities and beliefs” (Davis).
In 2009, Mount Taylor was placed on the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s list of 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, making it the largest property ever on a state or national registers (Paskus). Then later in the year on June 5th, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee agreed to extend permanent protection to Mount Taylor (Paskus). This decision was not only a win for Indians, but also for environmentalists and historical space advocates.
It seems that in disputes over sacred lands and mining or modification of the land, groups aren’t explicitly affiliated banning together. In the case of Mount Taylor, First Nations and environmental and historical advocates came together in defense of the space. But while the First Nations emphasized the religious and cultural importance of the site, they also agreed and worked with environmentalist who feared the physical impact of uranium mining on the land. Earl Tulley, vice president of a Navajo environmental group, stated that the proposed uranium mining “has multi-generational effects. I won’t even live long enough to see what it does to people in 500 years” (Lydersen). These points were brought up in the Indigenous Uranium Forum, a group of many First Nations from all over North and South America. The forum “discussed the severe health problems uranium mining has caused their communities, including high rates of cancer and kidney disease” (Lydersen).
However, that is not to say that the decision to protect Mount Taylor was made easily and without dispute. The company, Rio Grande Resources, instigated the emergency status of the natives’ proposal for Mount Taylor to become a Traditional Cultural Property, because of its desire to reopen former mines on the mountain that previously yielded millions of pounds of uranium (Lydersen). That, juxtaposed with another company’s proposal to begin fracking in nearby Navajo towns. The sudden threat to the indigenous communities surrounding Mount Taylor created the sense of urgency that helped push Mount Taylor to the status of an endangered space.
But while environmentalists and Indian tribes banned together, so did mining companies and Anglo ranchers in the area. After Mount Taylor was identified as a preserved site, landowners sued both the state cultural agency and the tribes (Campoy). In this legal battle, the landowners won initially, but later the case moved onto the New Mexico Supreme Court by a state appellate court. Landowners in the area disagreed with the loss of agency over the land, with one stating that it “cease[d] to be [his] private property” (Campoy). With the site preserved, landowner and mining companies felt the review process for new projects was too difficult, despite their private land being unaffected by the laws protecting Mount Taylor.
When the courts held up the ruling of Mount Taylor as a sacred space, the legal disagreement turned physical. Seven Navajo tribesmen were attacked three days after the ruling that designated Mount Taylor as a Traditional Cultural Property (Paskus). This created an outcry throughout indigenous communities. However, the reaction of the victims was incredibly telling of the tensions in between the two communities. Five of the people attacked filed claims with the police, while at least two others were attacked and chose not to come forward (Paskus). All were hesitant initially citing fears of retaliation or previous run-ins with the law (Paskus). Perhaps most troubling was that one victim heard his attacker say, “You got Mount Taylor, now you’re mine,” which explicitly linked the violence to the recent disputes over the land (Paskus).
And while the dispute may have seemed to have been resolved legally, in actuality mining companies and Anglo ranchers continue to fight against the protective acts defending Mount Taylor. In July of 2013, a district judge ruled that the state had “failed to provide adequate opportunities for comment” on the renewal permit for an inactive mine on the Traditional Cultural Area of Mount Taylor. Now, the renewal of the mine is open to the public for comment, but still shows the hostility and tension surround the two sides and Mount Taylor.
– Ming Lee Newcomb
Campoy, Ana. “A Tussle Over Sacred Land.” The Wall Street Journal [New York] 17 Oct. 2012: n. pag. The Wall Street Journal. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Davis, Helen. “Zuni leader talks about Mt Taylor Comments.” Protect Sacred Sites. N.p., n.d. Web. 30 Oct. 2013. <http://protectsacredsites.org/2008/07/zuni-leader-talks-about-mt-taylor/>.
Langlois, Krista. “The Latest: Mt. Taylor mines still haunt Navajo communities.” High Country News [Paonia] 2 Sept. 2013: n. pag. High Country News. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Lydersen, Kari. “A new demand for uranium power brings concerns for Navajo groups; Mining planned at a mountain considered sacred.” The Washington Post 25 Oct. 2009: 1. The Washington Post. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Paskus, Laura. “Dueling Claims.” High Country News [Paonia] 7 Dec. 2009: n. pag. High Country New. Web. 30 Oct. 2013.
Paskus, Laura. “Mount Taylor Granted Protected Status.” New Mexico Magazine 12 July 2012: 1. Print.