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Former Acoma Pueblo governor welcomes new federal protections for Chaco Canyon area

 Brian Vallo, former governor of Acoma Pueblo, and chair of the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association discusses a recent 20-year ban on new oil and gas leases around Chaco Culture National Historical Park on New Mexico in Focus.
New Mexico PBS
Brian Vallo, former governor of Acoma Pueblo, and chair of the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association discusses a recent 20-year ban on new oil and gas leases around Chaco Culture National Historical Park on New Mexico in Focus.

Earlier this month, the federal government put a 20-year oil and gas leasing ban on the area around Chaco Canyon. And when Interior Secretary Deb Haaland came to celebrate, she was met with a protest by land allottees from the Navajo Nation.

Former Acoma Pueblo Governor Brian Vallo has worked for decades to push for protections for Chaco Canyon and now chairs the Chaco Heritage Tribal Association. He was at the celebration and recently sat down with New Mexico In Focus correspondent Antonia Gonzales to talk about the cultural significance of the site to his pueblo.

BRIAN VALLO: It was really a time for our ancestors to really engage in the science of things. And these monumental structures were built, there was a study of both the lunar and solar cycles that then informed the advancement of ceremony and other cultural and religious observances. So because of those things and other factors, it's a significant ancestral site. We have ties, either through clan or perhaps through some societies, that cause us to return to Chaco, make that physical return back to the place for prayer and the observance of our respective cultures.

NMPBS: And your work as governor advocating for the buffer, not only here in the state locally there, and also on a national level, share a little bit about that.

VALLO: Well, you know, my work with this issue began in the late 1990s, when I served as the director of the Pueblo’s historic preservation office. And during that time, the pueblos were already engaged, along with other tribes, in the advocating for the protection of Chaco because there was so much encroachment by the oil and gas industry, there was continued excavation, illegal excavation, of outlier sites associated with Chaco. And so there were some significant issues at that time that were causing this concern. You know, fast forward to my time as governor in 2019 through 2021. You know, I had the opportunity to represent my pueblo in the discussions with other pueblo leaders, the Navajo Nation, and other tribes, who have a cultural affinity to Chaco to further advance this need, really, to protect Chaco.

NMPBS: So then what was your reaction when you heard that Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland took this action?

VALLO: I was very grateful. And it's something that has been, you know, a long time coming. And it was really gratifying that the Biden administration recognized and finally heard the voices of the Native people and understood why we continue to insist upon these protections. But we also realize that there is still so much work to be done.

NMPBS: And Secretary Haaland did travel to New Mexico recently for an event that shifted from the site to here in New Mexico. You were there. What did she say to you and what did she say to the other guests?

VALLO: Well, Secretary Haaland had a bit of a day, you know, the intent was to have the event at Chaco Canyon. But because she and other tribal representatives were met with protesters, that included Navajo allottees. The event was canceled at Chaco and was rescheduled later in the day here in Albuquerque at the Bureau of Indian Affairs regional office. And it was a great occasion. Despite what happened earlier in the day, we came together to acknowledge this monumental decision of the federal government, and to give thanks to our ancestors, to everyone who has been involved in this effort. I did have a chance to speak with Secretary Haaland and I just said thank you. I asked her not to dwell on any of the negativity, and that she's in a tough place, that she has a very important but a very challenging job, and that she will have to deal with these types of situations. But I assured her, I reassured her, that everyone who was there and even those who could not be with us on Sunday, are praying for her and are wishing her well. We're all very hopeful that as this work continues, that our work and our contributions towards this effort will lessen the load for her.

You can watch the full interview from New Mexico in Focus online here.

Antonia Gonzales, anchor and producer of the radio program “National Native News,” is a member of the Navajo Nation and grew up in Arizona and New Mexico. She's reported for our media partner New Mexico PBS since 2016.
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