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Women Warriors: Diné Protect Cultural Identity and Environmental Health

Navajo women want to curtail oil and gas drilling on Navajo Nation, alleging that allottees are ill-informed when selling leases.

Editor’s Note: On Sunday March 8, International Women’s Day, we introduced you to some of the women who are part of the effort to reign in oil and gas development on the Navajo Nation. In our third installment we return to Etta Arviso, who has long fought to retain Navajo identity and culture.

RELATED: On the Front Lines: Diné Women Stand Firm Against Increased, Unfettered Oil Development

Up in northern New Mexico and Arizona, Etta Arviso works with the last of the Navajo Code Talkers. She lobbies for their rights, including housing and veterans’ care, and organizes dinners that bring all the men together.

RELATED: Oil Leases Proliferate in Northwestern New Mexico as Diné and Pueblo Call for Oversight

For Arviso, history is alive. She talks not only of the crucial role the Code Talkers served in World War Two, but also of the Long Walk, the forced removal of Navajo people from Arizona and northwestern New Mexico in the 19th century. In 1864 the U.S. Army marched more than 8,000 Navajo men, women and children to the Bosque Redondo Reservation on Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico. Four years later the Navajo Nation and the U.S. government signed a treaty allowing the people to begin their “long walk” home.

Arviso’s family returned to these lands after the Long Walk. And she doesn’t want to see them lost. As an allottee herself—the owner of an allotment of land deeded by the federal government to individual Navajo families after the Long Walk—she’s worried about the new oil exploration has started taking place.

The eastern edge of the Navajo reservation is what’s called “checkerboard,” a mix of federal, tribal, state, and private lands. To further confuse matters, different state, federal and tribal agencies have jurisdiction over those adjoining lands.

To keep track of things, Arviso carries a collection of paperback books and pamphlets with her. She has booklets about New Mexico state government—lists of departments, state laws and officials—and the Navajo Nation. She also has a copy of the Indian Civil Rights Act and information on what different hazardous materials placards mean.

“What kind of wastes are next to these wells?” she asked. “Who is supposed to be in charge? That’s what we want to know. Are there any questions being asked by our leaders? Are there any questions being asked by our community people?”

Arviso waved a newspaper article, about how the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation plans to drill its own wells within the oil-rich Bakken formation in North Dakota. Although more than a thousand wells on the Fort Berthold Reservation have already been producing oil, by owning its own wells, the tribe would keep 82 percent of the revenues.

Arviso carries the newspaper clipping in her literary arsenal because she’d like to see the Navajo Nation exert more control over the drilling here, glean more revenues from the companies, and put that money toward helping more Navajo people.

Last year, the state of New Mexico stepped in to expedite drilling agreements between allottees and oil companies. In February 2014, Governor Susanna Martinez announced an agreement with San Juan College and the Federal Indian Management Office of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). Citing federal budget cuts as the reason behind a slowdown in lease negotiations, the state’s Energy Minerals and Natural Resources Department contracted the college to take over some of the BIA’s Federal Indian Minerals Office duties.

But some allottees, like Arviso, are not happy with the way things have played out.

“Some of the people who signed contracts, some of them couldn't read, couldn't understand, were just told ‘sign your name, we're raffling it off, you're going to be paid,’” she said, frustrated by the BIA’s lack of leadership. “That’s where they were supposed to come in and at least make sure that all these things are done, presentations, educating people, and making sure they know what they’re going to be faced with. Not just [telling them about] the money you’re going to get paid, now sign this contract. This is not what they’re supposed to do.”

Arviso said the Navajo Nation leadership, as well as chapter leadership, should be more involved in educating people and protecting them. They should listen to their elders instead of leapfrogging over their wisdom, she said. “Today, I wish that our leaders would really step back instead of getting ahead of their elder folks.”