Saving Sacred Sites: What's Next on the Hit List?

Rafael Gomez Jr. and Deborah Gangloff

On Sunday, September 21, we celebrate the one-year anniversary of President Obama’s designation of Chimney Rock National Monument, which gave this sacred place the national recognition it deserves. Chimney Rock has strong local, tribal and small business support, as well as bipartisan, bicameral support in Congress. When the authorizing bill was caught in congressional gridlock, the President used his authorities under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect the national monument.

National monument designation provides increased preservation of the area and greater benefit to the tribes who consider the area sacred. Archaeologists and scientists can conduct additional research, and most importantly, the public is now aware of what this spectacular place has to offer. Research confirms that the buildings at Chimney Rock line up with astronomical phenomena and their location affords a perfect view of the lunar standstill; a phenomena that occurs every 18.6 years. This is no accident; the buildings were reconstructed for every lunar standstill. Monument designation also bolstered southwest Colorado's vital tourist industry, encouraging visitors to add Chimney Rock to their list of must-see parks and monuments in the Four Corners area.

Deborah GangloffEarlier this year, the President also responded to community concerns to protect the Rio Grande del Norte National Monument in New Mexico. This new monument reflects the Obama Administration’s renewed effort to balance conservation with development of our public lands—a goal that requires leadership from the president and the continued engagement of Native Americans in efforts to protect our shared human heritage.

Tribes are often at the forefront of efforts to conserve important public lands, and tribal support of Chimney Rock and Rio Grande del Norte was integral to their protection. These lands have been appreciated and respected for centuries by many tribes. National monument status can honor the long and significant contributions of Native Americans to the United States and the Four Corners region.

However, there is more to do to protect public lands in New Mexico. Like the local community, we too believe that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region of Dona Ana County also deserves to be designated as a national monument. This summer we traveled together to Washington, DC, to thank the Administration for listening to tribal concerns for our public lands and to stress to the White House and Congress that the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks need that same level of protection.

In addition to the natural beauty of what is southern New Mexico's mountains and valleys, many people rely on these lands for hunting, hiking, and recreation. But more importantly, this area holds tremendous cultural significance for Native Americans of not only our present generation, but of past generations, with all generations having the deepest respect for these lands. Past and current use of these lands by native peoples, including members of Ysleta del Sur Pueblo and other Puebloan peoples, attest to Organ Mountains Desert Peaks region’s significance as a traditional cultural property.

The feeling of awe and reverence that many people feel upon entering a cathedral, temple or mosque is the best way we can describe the experience Native peoples feel in these special areas. Protecting Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks will allow our children and grandchildren to know and appreciate its beauty and spiritual significance. If we fail to protect these lands, we let down future generations.

We strongly encourage the President and Congress to consult with tribal leaders so that they can better understand the significance of Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks. Tribal input was welcomed on Rio Grande del Norte and Chimney Rock, as it was at Kasha Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument by the Cochiti Pueblo in 2001. Working together to protect these spiritual lands strengthens the United States’ relationship with American Indian tribes.

There is also an economic benefit to National Monument status. A recent study by BBC Research & Consulting has shown that designating the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks as a national monument would contribute more than $7.4 million in additional annual economic activity.

There is strong support for an Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument among tribes, locally and in the business community, and in Congress. We urge quick movement to protect this unique region for its economic, recreational, and cultural importance. This will be a legacy that will benefit all Americans, and like Chimney Rock, Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument will be a place where together we can celebrate our shared human heritage and natural bounty.

Rafael Gomez, Jr. is a member of the Pueblo of Ysleta del Sur and serves on its tribal council.

Deborah Gangloff is the President and CEO of the Crow Canyon Archaeological Center.


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Michael Madrid's picture
Thank you for this article, Mr. Gomez and Ms. Gangloff. I live at the foot of the Organ Mountains as have my family for generations. The current trend is for the extremely wealthy here in Las Cruces to build closer and closer to the mountains. I'm sure they're picturing themselves with mountaintop vistas of the Mesilla Valley, but this would mean the destruction of wildlife habitat for the sake of retirees moving here to live the "western dream." This would be costly for native Las Cruceans and nature especially. We need to do more to preserve the lands we hold dear. Hopefully wisdom will cancel out the apparently White Man's need to "improve" on the land by turning it into a polluting wasteland.
Michael Madrid
Klee Benally's picture
Thank you for your work. We struggled for more than 15 years to stop ski area expansion and wastewater snowmaking on the San Francisco Peaks and realized very quickly that there are no secure options for protecting these places that are integral for our cultural survival & vitality. This issue is further evidence of the critical need for guaranteed protection on a federal lever for places held sacred by Indigenous Peoples in the US.
Klee Benally