Many Indigenous tribes have their own sites that they consider sacred. For the Zuni people, it is the salt lake in New Mexico where the Salt Mother rests. As the traditional story goes, the Salt Mother (Ma’lokyattsik’i) once lived near Black Rock and the present Zuni village in a spring from which salt was harvested for the people. But, the Zuni grew greedy and began to abuse the privileges of having access to the Salt Mother. They did not offer proper prayer before reaping salt and were wasteful in their use of it. To teach them a lesson, the Salt Woman left the Zuni and moved 60 miles south to the current Salt Lake, leaving a barren trail so that they could follow her. When the Zuni found her and begged her to come back, she told the people that if they disrespected her again, she would never return. Now the people take care to provide sacred offerings and prayers in exchange for salt and do not treat it lightly. The boys of the Zuni tribe must make a pilgrimage to the Salt Lake to learn the prayers to continue the traditional ceremonies. This site is also acknowledged as sacred to the Navajo, Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna people. The first recorded Dini recipes include meals that require the precious salt from the Zuni Salt Mother. They consider the salt to nourish life.
This sacred site has been endangered by mining projects that would strip mine coal in the area and threaten the sanctity of the Salt Lake. Despite the longstanding traditional connection that the Zuni people have to the lake, they have not consistently had control over it. In the 1800’s, instead of the tribes, the territorial land commissioner controlled the uses of the Salt Lake. It was not until 1977 that Congress established a process of land exchanges to return control back to the Zuni leaders. The Zunis did not regain the land officially until 1986 when the land was declared a neutral zone and given to Native people for their own uses of it. In 1999, the National Park Service declared the surround 185,000 acres as eligible for being on the National Register of Historic Places. However, this did not prevent the state of New Mexico in 2002 from giving the Salt River Project a permit for a mining operation that would disturb the 550 documented graves and archaeological sites near the Salt Lake and proposing a 44 mile rail line to transport the coal that would intersect the pilgrimage trails and 50 other important sites.
The Zuni decided to fight this proposal in federal court. The leaders, including the governor Malcolm Bowekaty, testified before the Senate Committee to Indian Affairs in an attempt to protect their site. Runners from five Southwestern tribes also organized a ceremonial run to draw attention to the struggle. The three-day, 270-mile run from Phoenix to the Zuni pueblo brought prayers to the leaders before their testimony. The leaders argued that through the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Zuni have the right to possess this sacred site. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act should also protect the 550 graves that lie within the proposed mining zone. The Zuni could not reconcile the thought of the displacement of the graves simply for the purpose of making money. Losing this culturally important site would be devastating to the tribe because of their deep spiritual connections. They believe the creation of this mine would drive the Salt Mother away. It is part of their duty to protect her and the mine would make that impossible. They worried that this would drive the Salt Mother away for good. There are also many environmental reasons to avoid the destruction of the site. There are two aquifers that feed the lake, the Dakota and the Atarque and the mine would utilize these aquifers with the risk of depleting the Salt Lake. The lake is considered a “high desert oasis” and tampering with its sources could destroy the delicate ecosystem. The lake is already only a few inches deep in the summer and pumping the aquifers would result in even less water for the lake. The pumping would also vent the pressure that causes the water to flow up, and so the salt would not be formed in the same way. New Mexico has been in the middle of a drought and cannot afford to lose more water.
The proponents of the mine argue that it would be beneficial to the state of New Mexico to mine and ship coal just 44 miles for the power station. The previously operating mines will be exhausted of coal in about five years. This area suffers from a 9.5 percent unemployment rate and 200 jobs would be created during the construction phase and 100 overall during the use of the mine. New Mexico would gain 60 to 70 million dollars in royalty payments and another 60 million in taxes. The Coronado plant supplies power to about 190,000 homes in Arizona. However, the claiming of this land to the Zuni people goes beyond issues of money and use. Arden Kucate, Zuni council member stated, “We have to start thinking in a traditional way… it is not the earth, it is Mother Earth. Zuni people will not sacrifice our Salt Woman for cheap coal to serve Arizona or California, because she is irreplaceable.” It is a matter of cultural survival, not just monetary.
In August of 2003, the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition learned that the Salt River Project utility halted their planes for the strip mine near the Salt Lake. The mining proponents relinquished their leases and permits for the mine and instead moved to purchase coal from Wyoming. The victory is due to the unrelenting efforts of the Zuni people and other Native and non-Native supporters who valued the environment and the cultural significance of the Salt Mother over monetary gain of a coalmine. This 20 year legal struggle supplemented by 24-hour prayer runs, radio ads, billboards, letters and support resolutions, and testimonies of the people finally succeeded.
This is a victory not only for the Zuni people but also for the struggles of many other Native peoples who are fighting for their rights to sacred lands. Religious freedom is often emphasized in the United States, but it is not a doctrine that translates well to Indigenous traditions. It took 200 years after the First Amendment to the Constitution was passed to extend those same rights to Native people. Even with the creation of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the proper protections are not always given to sacred lands, especially when it conflicts with governmental organizations. The success of the Zuni should encourage others who are struggling for tribal rights to continue their fight and not yield in their beliefs.
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