Cochiti Lake is located on the Cochiti Pueblo Reservation between Alberquerque, Santa Fe and Los Alamos, New Mexico. The reservoir is heralded as the tenth largest manmade lake in the world. While attending the Building Native Nations: Environment, Natural Resources and Governance Conference last week, I had the privilege of hearing the tale of how it came to be from the Governor of the Cochiti Pueblo people, Regis Pecos.
The Pueblo are American Indians that the government described in the 1800s as “peaceful, industrious, intelligent, honest and virtuous people.” Regis Pecos tells of how 400 years ago his people adopted Catholicism as a way of preserving their own religion and beliefs inside a familiar structure to the non-Indians. He talks of how they adopted white forms of government and judiciary but still retained their traditional ways of deciding issues and using peacemaking to repair wrongs.
In the 1950s the government came onto their reservation to f construct a large reservoir. The Pueblo Elders went to the site and pleaded with the engineers to leave just one area untouched as it was the oldest and most sacred site of the Pueblo culture and people. They left the site with promises and reassurances that it would be preserved. It was the first place to be dynamited. Indian tribes from across the state wept at the news of the loss and desecration of this sacred site, which represented a link with their Creator, land and culture. It would not be urrtil years later they would learn from government documents that this reservoir was created to be a posh recreation lake for upper class families from Santa Fe, Alberquerque and Los Alamos. The promises made to their Elders were never intended to be kept.
This would mark the beginning of their struggles. It was soon afterward that developers visited their land to push for economic development. Regis talks of how as a young man he would sit in council and watch developers come to some of his Elders, pat them on the back and tell them they were good men they could rely on. How even though it was against their culture and traditions, those leaders understood how they needed fast decisions as that is the way business is done. The next thing they knew a town of 40,000 was being built on their reservation next to their community. It was to be a retirement town for wealthy people of New Mexico.
The Pueblos banded together to form a Development Corporation to pool their resources to buy up leases to their own land. They launched a class action suit against the advertising campaign that sought to sell off most of their land to outsiders. They were fortunate enough to convince a judge in Texas that they should have the right to buy the 99-year leases to their own land first. Through this effort, they have now reduced the size of the town to small community encompassing only 600 acres. The proposed town would have surely absorbed their communities and destroyed their culture.
This was not the end of their struggles. The city of Los Alamos decided they would build a dam on the reservoir over the area that had been desecrated decades earlier by the government. Once again their beliefs and culture would be violated in the name of development. The Pueblo people managed to secure a closed-door judicial hearing to try to stop the construction of this dam. The challenge was that secrecy is of paramount importance to Pueblo beliefs and religion. Any of their tribe that testified would face banishment from their society. The Elders were gathered together and met in council for days. Who among them would sacrifice their culture, identity and way of life? After many tears and antagonizing deliberations, the Elders emerged to say they would not sacrifice one of their own and violate their duty to keep the ancient beliefs, knowledge and traditions of the Pueblo secret. This unholy affront to their people would proceed.
It was at this lowest of moments that a light appeared, Congressman Bill Richardson heard of their plight and dilemma and started working in Congress to get a bill passed to stop this work and prevent any future development on their land. The Pueblos and Congressman Richardson worked together to defeat the proposed dam project and went on to lower the level of the reservoir and restore 25,000 acres of land to the reserve.
The Army Corps of Engineers recently apologized at a public ceremony to the Pueblo nation on the site they had desecrated. The government requested permission to bring cameras and other devices to record this historic moment, the Pueblo said no they would bring their own.
To the surprise of the visitors, the Pueblo brought their elementary school classes to be the recording de- vices -their memories would preserve the significance of the occasion in accordance with the traditions of an oral culture.
What lays ahead in the future of the Cochiti Pueblo people? The leaders have decided that if they do not articulate a vision for their nation over the next hundred years, they face the danger of losing parts of their culture and heritage. Therefore they set up a survey of questions for their people to answer: 1) What do you want for our nation over the next 100 years? 2) What do you see happening in the communities? 3) What kind of caretakers are our children to become? 4) What responsibility are you willing to accept to accomplish questions 1 – 3?
A lesson for all of society to take from the Pueblo is that in deciding their future for the next 100 years, they surveyed all ages of Pueblos from children to Elders. They were rewarded with a pleasant surprise – the visions of the future for the youth and Elders were remarkably similar. Both wanted a safe community, a community where people interacted more, one that was free of drug and alcohol problems, a community free of violence, a tribal form of governance reestablished in the community, a return to a more traditional way of life where the culture was more respected and promoted and, finally, a vision that sought to preserve the beauty of their land and to protect their reservation.
Another unique characteristic of the Cochiti Pueblo is that they believe in making major decisions by consensus as it is the oldest and most respectful form of traditional decision-making. Although the process is exhaustive, it is includes everyone’s perspectives. Perhaps this responsible form of governance is what led to the use of referendums. A concern of referendums has been the circulation of information before the voting stage; however, with the size of Aboriginal nations and the increased use of community consultations the widespread dissemination of information can be accomplished with minimal effort.
Governor Regis Pecos of the Cochiti Pueblo sums up their struggles as the determination of the Pueblo not to compromise their way of life – “it is the typical David and Goliath story and we will gladly embrace the role of David any day.”