Fracking Tour on the Navajo Rez

“Looks like this is where they’re coming from,” said Daniel Tso, a local Navajo environmental watchdog and locally known as ‘the feisty old man.’ “We’ll find them don’t worry,” he said about the oil truck tracks that were laid out in front of us, along a deep muddy road leading north across the Navajo reservation in New Mexico.

We were on what Daniel calls his “unofficial fracking tour of the Navajo reservation.” Nearby is Chaco Canyon, a world heritage site where massive buildings of the ancestral Pueblo peoples still stand. While Chaco Canyon and its ruins are protected from development, as is a 10-mile buffer around the park, surrounding areas are not. Chaco is the core of a much larger ancestral network of Native Americans that extended for hundreds of miles in the central San Juan Basin, and was used as a main trading hub from about 900 to 1300 A.D. 

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Chaco canyon ancestral site remains in the northern part of the Navajo reservation.

The land here today is held sacred by the Hopi, Apache, Navajo, Zuni, and Pueblo peoples. Nonetheless 91% of the Greater Chaco area has been leased to the oil and gas industry.

“We can’t travel down this road today because of the mud,” said Daniel, leaning out his white pickup truck window to check out the road. “The school bus still has to come back down this road later tonight,” he explained that the road is shared with the casually about the oil riggers road with which was currently under a a few inches of mud created by the snow from the night before.

Walking was found to be quite difficult after 4 inches of snow the night before.

“They originally proposed 50,000 acres at this site, now its 850 because we found out. They also never gave us public notice,” said Daniel looking out over Greater Chaco with a sense of reverence. These fracking allotments were just put on hold by Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke last week.

Daniel, like his ancestors before him, grew up here in an area that artist Georgia O’Keefe once explained described as “a beautiful untouched lonely-feeling place,” a land that has been inhabited for hundreds of year. As the snow melted throughout the day and we found that the rocks were dripping with every color of the rainbow as we drove across the reservation slinging mud this way and that, driving to different pipelines across the Morrison formation. 

Georgia O'Keefe nicknamed these hills, the black hills, locals still try and find the right hill that was used for inspiration for her paintings.

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 Daniel pointed out mountains along the way explaining the Navajo origin story of where people and horses emerged.“White bell mountain is a 20-mile mesa above Counselor, New Mexico where the horse was born. Our creation story says that the creator scooped up the foam of those hills to make the lungs of the horse, and they took an arrowhead to be on the bottoms of their feet. The creation story says that rain came down to make the mane of the horse. The creation story says that kernels of corn were used for the teeth, and the stars for their eyes so they could see at night.”

Daniel's un-named stallion, the white truck, that drove us through thick and thin.

We drove to a monthly Tri-chapter meeting where members of the local communities voiced opinions on meetings they had attended from school boards to oil and gas. Most of the meeting was held in the Navajo language. A woman approached us and asked if we wanted a piece of frozen wheat bread. She explained that it is made in the earth all day by older women in the community to celebrate the passing into womanhood or puberty of a young girl.

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We munched on frozen wheat bread and watched as members of the community entered through the door to join in on conversation, sometimes bearing foods. One man walked in with a few bundles of bananas and as he handed them out to everyone around the circle he shook their hands.

Daniel Tso, overlooking the terribly structured wire fence surrounding the exposed mechanisms which in turn can affect livestock.

“We’re invisible to these people,” said George, Torreon Chapter President, “These are all just gentlemen’s agreements--all handshakes and no written letters with signatures -- we want something in writing, we want consultation, what we need is a coordinator someone to go between the BLM and the tribe- they just added another 30 million to the BLM budget for horizontal drilling.”

To understand what is going on in this meeting, even if you don’t speak Navajo, you must understand the history of land grabbing in the Greater Chaco Region, which is encompasses over 2,000 square miles of high desert situated in a rich area for oil and gas known as the San Juan Basin. You must also understand the term ‘checkerboard landscape,’ which describes the melting pot of federal, tribal, state, private, and Indian allotment land.

A local mission provides water to some families around the area for a small fee.

In 1863, Kit Carson, field commander for the US army, led troops across Navajo country, burning down peach orchards, slaughtering livestock, and torching cornfields. Forcing Navajos on what is called the “Long Walk” to Native American concentration camps. The army decided they were spending too much money ($1.5 million a year) on feeding people and too many people were dying.  In 1868 Gen William Sherman decided that the Navajo would be allowed to return to their homelands- which was essentially one-eighth of the original land size, but is now known as the Greater Chaco region. The federal government suggested that each Navajos claim a 160 acre plot on the reservation under the 1887 Dawes Act, which was amended in 1891, 1906, and 1910 until it included nearly every tribe in the country. The basic idea of this the act was to make the Native American conform to the social and economic structure of rural America by bestowing private property.

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Vine Deloria, a Native American activist and author, explains this act perfectly in his book Custer Died for our Sins, “there was more behind the act than the simple desire to help the individual Indian. White settlers had been clamoring for Indian land. The Indian tribes controlled nearly 135 million acres. If, the argument went, that land were divided on a per capita basis of 160 acres per Indian, the Indians would have sufficient land to farm and the surplus would be available to white settlement. By 1934 Indians had lost nearly 90 million acres through land sales, many of them fraudulent. The basic device for holding individual lands was the trust, under which an Indian was declared to be incompetent.”

This act in turn fractured local communities, which is seen today in the ‘checkerboard landscape’. The remaining Indian allotments are scattered across Bureau of Land Management acreage and when the native “allottee” dies, mineral rights and ownership is divided up between their heirs.

These tribal lands now sit in what is considered “energy sacrifice zones,” with the environmental integrity of this sacred land being torn apart everyday to harvest coal, oil, and gas which lies beneath native homes that sit above these minerals without electricity or running water. The Navajo Nation owns the surface but the federal government controls the mineral rights. These scared landscapes and resources have fallen short to supply someone else’s basic comforts since the 1950’s.

Kendra Pinto's environmental justice signs can be seen all over the reservation.

Beginning in the mid-2000’s everything changed when hydraulic fracturing became more common. This is a process of shooting a high-pressured mix of water, sand, and chemicals into wells dug far into shale formations to push out fossil fuels. Navajos are increasingly asked for permission to drill wells on their lands which results in royalties and bonuses based on how much is extracted from the wells each month.

Because this process can extend over two miles horizontally it is normally a combination of allotment lands from federal to native but only the allotee land where the drilling is taking place is the person who is paid in royalties’. This is where the real fracturing takes place, between the neighbors and families on the reservation.

“A lot of these families don’t know the health and environmental impacts that drilling has,” said Daniel, “One old grandma told me she thought it was like the old movies where oil gushes from the ground. We’ll We’re all fighting and trying to stand up for the community.”

Daniel explained that a local environmental defense group is trying to focus on health and safety of the community and the unborn. They have given testimonies to the EPA about wanting to regulate the amounts of methane released nearby and into communities and also to receive more health impact assessments. “We want to present to policy makers and for our methane regulations to be on par with California,” Daniel said.

As our fracking tour continued we stopped at a muddy crossroads to get out and examine a plot of land that was situated between a few houses where cow troughs dotted the landscape. “This is the parcel that was sold and it will have large community impact. The polluted air knows no bounds and these families will be affected,” Daniel said.

We jumped back in and continued on, splishing and splashing through the mud. Daniel pointed out a family situated near a well whose sheep gave birth to a lamb with no anus and another family whose corn used to grow seven feet and now it only grows to about three.

“Tribal consultation is not better,” explained, Samuel Sage, community services coordinator for the Counselor Chapter, one of more than 100 regional administrative and community centers for tribal members that serve as a venue for providing input to the Navajo Nation's governing body.

 “I saw two caterpillars chaining the landscape over burial sights a few years back…it wiped out sage and nothing grew back except cactuses,” he said. Chaining is a technique used by the BLM where they take old battleship chains and drag them behind tractors to wipe out Piñon and Juniper forests for more cattle grazing.

Pellets are dropped from helicopters to kill off sage roots, leaving shrubs behind to feed the wild horses,

We stayed at the Counselor Chapter for a few days and were also introduced to Kendra Pinto, a local environmental activist who also works for Dine Care, a Navajo nonprofit, highlighting local voices on environmental injustices. “Our issues are pushed under the rug because we’re native, we’re rural, and sometimes people ask how could anyone do this to us. Our history and our land has been erased for Manifest Destiny- for the white ‘American Dream’”, she said as we munched on what was left of our dinner rations that we found at the bottom of my bike trailer.

Chaco canyon "Kiva" a ceremonial structure that was normally covered in logs and situated underground.

Kendra explained to me that she was invited to go on an “Indigenous Tour” a few years ago, through a chain of emails sent to different indigenous rights organizations. She was picked up by a bus of other Native Americans and they traveled the country looking at different environmental issues on each reservation of people on the tour. “I just remember thinking to myself, wow you guys have extraction issues here too?" she explained.

Chaco Canyon cultural remains still in tact.

At the end of our tour we were lucky enough to have Daniel drive drove us into Chaco Canyon to see the ancient architecture with him, his thousandth time, and our first, each of us still viewing the same place with such reverence and respect. After ducking under ancient archways, and running our fingers over the small sandstone walls we drove away and stopped at the entrance. He handed us some ‘corn pollen’ or what he calls ‘spirit food’.

“We need to give something back to the ancestors, their still here, give corn pollen to the plants that are still growing. Grow it, grind it, pray with it, it’s an offering for the ancestors,.” Daniel explains. “I offered it to you girls to have a safe trip and to spread the word about our issues here in the Greater Chaco Region.”