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Fort Wingate Back to Indian Country: Pueblo Say ‘Yes,’ Navajo Nation Says ‘Maybe’

Two congressmen want to return a defunct New Mexico Army depot to the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni.
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Two congressmen want to return a defunct New Mexico Army depot to the Navajo Nation and the Pueblo of Zuni. The Pueblo is on board, but the Navajo Nation is opposed.

The proposed bill is HR 1028, “To provide for the implementation of the negotiated property division regarding Former Fort Wingate Depot Activity in McKinley County, New Mexico, and for other purposes.” Rep. Stevan Pearce, R-N.M., introduced it on behalf of himself and Rep. Don Young, R-Alaska, in February. The House Natural Resources Subcommittee on Indian and Alaska Native Affairs conducted hearings earlier this month, but so far the bill hasn’t passed the House or Senate.

The bill would divide approximately 21,000 acres of land and infrastructure in the former Fort Wingate Depot, which lies near Gallup, New Mexico, between the Navajo Nation and the Zuni Pueblo. Each tribe could choose whether to accept the land in trust or enter into a restricted fee arrangement so that the land could not be sold without Congressional authorization. Both tribes have ancestral ties to the area.

The depot was used by the military off and on between the 1860s and 1993, when it was declared inactive and closed under the Base Closure and Realignment Act. During its active period, the Depot supported the storage and testing of explosives, including ballistic missiles. Unexploded ordnance is just one contaminant being addressed by the state of New Mexico under the federal Superfund program and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.

Navajo Nation Speaker LoRenzo Bates and Zuni Governor Val Panteah both testified at the hearings, conveying very different perspectives.

Bates told committee members that the bill is insufficient because it lacks easement provisions for access to tribal religious and burial sites, there is no assurance that the federal government will continue to fund environmental cleanup operations, the bill doesn’t restrict the development of gaming facilities and it does not affirm the Navajo Nation’s authority to negotiate existing or new rights-of-way on the lands.

On April 16, the Navajo Nation Council endorsed a resolution withholding support for any Fort Wingate land division legislation unless those issues are addressed.

Bates added in his testimony that Fort Wingate is where Navajo ancestors were interned before they were forcibly marched across the desert on the Navajo Long Walk in 1864.

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“It is also the place our grandfathers first stopped after joining the Marines on their way to California to be trained as Code Talkers,” he said. “It is a place of great cultural importance to our people—a place the Navajos call “Shush bi’toh.”

Matthew N. Shuckerow, spokesman for Rep. Young, released only a short statement about the Congressman’s position on the bill: “Congressman Young and the Subcommittee will review the testimony and concerns of the Zuni and the Navajo, the Administration, and other interested parties, as they work to advance this legislation.”

Panteah agrees that the legislation should move forward. “This has gone on long enough, over 15 years,” he said during a recent phone interview. “As far as the Zuni Tribe is concerned, we’re being denied the opportunity to develop those lands to bring in additional resources and funding for our tribe as well as putting our people to work.”

Panteah also said he believes the division of land is equitable, even though the Navajo Nation is slated to get a bit more acreage. In his testimony to Congress, Panteah said the parcels that Zuni is to receive “contain invaluable archaeological and sacred sites. The lands also contain certain natural resources that we continue to use today in our cultural activities.”

Panteah noted that while Zuni culture has likely benefitted from the Pueblo’s relative isolation, the Zuni economy has not. “The division of the Fort Wingate parcels that was negotiated splits, almost evenly, the economically valuable I-40 frontage lands. These lands also have access to BNSF Railroad’s major east-west line, as well as to electric transmission and natural gas lines,” he testified. “Well-planned, market-driven, economic development of these lands will enable our tribe to begin to address our huge unemployment problem, as well as providing our tribal government with much-needed revenues.”

He added that the Pueblo hasn’t made firm economic development plans because of the long-running dispute.

Zuni has signed onto a gaming compact with the state of New Mexico, but “at this point the Zuni Tribe doesn’t have concrete plans for gaming on Fort Wingate or anywhere else,” Panteah said. “We signed on just to basically have that compact, in case our people want to develop a gaming option.” One of the Navajo Nation’s major casinos, Fire Rock, is just a few minutes’ drive from Fort Wingate’s Interstate 40 frontage land.

Bates indicated that the Navajo Nation hopes to negotiate further with the Pueblo, and Panteah has said he’s willing – even though the tribes negotiated in 2012 and 2013 to come up with the currently proposed division.

“I don’t really want to re-open any negotiations, except to hear their concerns,” Panteah said. “As far as I’m concerned, if they want additional parts of Fort Wingate, it’s going to have to be a give-and-take.”