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Preserving Mount Taylor and a way of life

New Mexico tribes work together to safeguard sacred site from potential uranium mining

ANADARKO, Okla. - For many Native people in the Southwest, New Mexico's Mount Taylor, within the Cibola National Forest west of Albuquerque, N.M., holds a great deal of sacred significance. One of these tribes who hold Mount Taylor sacred is the Pueblo of Acoma. Its people call this mountain K'aweshtima, which means ''being a place of snow'' in their Keres language.

''Acoma has maintained this connection to Mount Taylor for a number of years and for many different reasons,'' said Theresa Pasqual, director of the Pueblo of Acoma Historic Preservation Office. ''Through our stories, our songs, our prayers, the people have always referred to Acoma as being a sacred place. It's the home of several of our spiritual beings. It's a place that we go to regularly to gather traditional herbs and medicines. Historically, our people have hunted there. There are ancestral settlements in the area. It's a place where our people continue to make a pilgrimage to this very day.''

It only seemed fitting that it would be a place of prayer as part of the 2008 National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places.

In addition to being a sacred site, it is also a recreational area enjoyed by Native and non-Native alike, including athletes who travel to the area each winter to participate in a quadrathalon - an event that involves running, biking, cross-country skiing and snowshoeing.

Yet mining companies over the years have had quite a different interest when viewing Mount Taylor, eyeing it for its uranium underneath the surface.

''Currently, there is no mining activity on Mount Taylor per se,'' Pasqual said. ''But there's a number of permits for uranium exploration, which are in process with the U.S. Forest Service and the New Mexico Department of Mining and Minerals. That is where the concern lies.''

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Recently, five tribes that hold Mount Taylor sacred - the Hopi Nation, Navajo Nation, and the Zuni, Laguna and Acoma pueblos - formed the first steps in forcing a dialogue with mining companies regarding the mountain.

On June 14, the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee gave Mount Taylor a one-year designation as a traditional cultural property, or TCP, which Pasqual said will be applied to lands in the area above 8,000 feet. Although this designation is currently temporary and will not prevent mining, development or recreational use, it will halt the issuing of exploratory mining permits and give pueblos and tribes a voice, with mining companies required to consult with the tribes.

In order to bring public attention to the tribes' efforts to keep Mount Taylor preserved as a sacred site, the tribes involved in getting the TCP designation created a multi-tribal run to the summit of Mount Taylor June 22. The run began with Hopi runners leaving their reservation to meet with the runners of Zuni Pueblo. Joining the Hopi and Zuni runners were a contingent from outside of Albuquerque and then Laguna Pueblo. A final contingent met the runners at Acoma Pueblo, with the entire group then coming together to make their way to the top.

For Pasqual, if there ever was a day where uranium mining did take place on Mount Taylor, the damage would be two-fold - not only would it devastate the Pueblo of Acoma's way of life, but it would also destroy the life forces and spiritual beings that are a part of Mount Taylor and are at the core of Acoma beliefs.

''If there was a day that came that a company was able to get through the entire process and start to do mining on Mount Taylor, it would in essence destroy literally the soul of that mountain,'' she said. ''It would literally disrupt the lives of the spiritual beings that are housed there. We have a number of deities that make their home there. It is also a mountain that is referenced in song as being the place from where the rains and the waters come from.

''It would literally mean the destruction of the people here in this community because we rely on that mountain for its runoff in the spring, its snowmelt. We rely on it for its water to feed our streams and our springs that the people continue to use today to farm and to draw water from. We have a number of plants and things that people gather from that mountain.

''All of those, in essence, would be contaminated by the effects of uranium mining. It literally would mean the destruction of a way of life for our people.''