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The Planet
Zuni Salt Lake Saved

By Tom Valtin

In July, 500 people attended a "People’s Hearing" at New Mexico’s Zuni Pueblo. They gathered in opposition to a proposed coal mine on Zuni sacred lands by the Salt River Project (SRP), the nation’s third-largest electrical utility. At the conclusion of the hearing, the sky opened up and let loose a torrential downpour, which the Zuni took as a blessing from heaven. A month later, SRP cancelled plans for its massive strip mine near Zuni Salt Lake.

The Zuni didn’t rely on the blessing from heaven to gain their victory, however. Along with members of a coalition the Sierra Club helped create, tribe members ran a relay team from Zuni Pueblo to Phoenix—a distance of 350 miles—and back again, to deliver their message. Zunis and other coalition members ran for 24 continuous hours around SRP headquarters in Pheonix, and they rented a mobile billboard truck which they drove around Phoenix and elsewhere when other local billboard companies refused to display their sign. In the end, Zuni Salt Lake was saved.

"It has been a long 20-year struggle with lots of mental anguish and frustration for our people, but we have had our voices heard," said Zuni Pueblo head councilman Carlton Albert, Sr. "There is no word to express our appreciation to those who have given us help."

Zuni Salt Lake is a spring-fed body of water nestled amid purple mesas in western New Mexico, about 50 miles south of Zuni Pueblo. The lake is a gathering place for the Zuni and other southwestern tribes, who for centuries have made pilgrimages to the lake to collect salt for use in religious ceremonies. Salt harvested here is considered to be the flesh of Salt Woman, a central deity to the Zuni people.

In the 19th century the U.S. government put the territorial land commissioner in charge of Zuni Salt Lake, and it wasn’t until 1977 that Congress instructed the Interior Department to arrange for the lands to be returned to tribal control. The lake and its shoreline were not officially transferred back to the Zuni Tribe until 1986.

But in 1981 SRP proposed an 18,000-acre strip mine ten miles from Zuni Salt Lake, along with a 44-mile rail line to the nearest generating station that would have cut across Zuni burial grounds in the surrounding Sanctuary Zone. And to settle the coal dust the mining operation would have produced, the utility sought to pump 85 gallons of groundwater per minute for the 40 years of the mine’s planned operation.

Zunis feared that the draw on desert aquifers would dry up the spring-fed lake. "If they vent a lot of pressure that’s forcing the water up, we will no longer have the salt," former Zuni Pueblo Governor Malcolm Bowekaty told reporters last year.

In an effort to protect the lake and sanctuary, the Zuni Tribe spent millions of dollars over the last 20 years on legal help and on scientific data demonstrating the potential damage SRP’s mine would inflict. In 2001, the tribe’s efforts were bolstered by the formation of the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition, consisting of the Sierra Club, the Citizens Coal Council (a national organization that helps citizens living in communities impacted by coal mines), the Center for Biological Diversity, the Water Information Network, Friends of the Earth, Tonatierra (an indigenous community development organization), and the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development.

Andy Bessler, a Sierra Club environmental justice organizer based in Flagstaff, Arizona, was instrumental in putting the coalition together. "One of the tenets of the Club’s environmental justice program is that we don’t work on issues unless we’ve been invited by the community to do so," he says. "We consulted with the tribal council and developed a campaign strategy with tribal leaders and members."

Bessler says the Sierra Club’s relationship with the Zunis got jump-started a couple of years ago when the Club helped stop a pumice mine on the San Francisco Peaks, Arizona’s highest mountains and a place held sacred by several southwestern Indian tribes. "The Zunis were involved in that campaign and they asked for our help with Zuni Salt Lake," he recalls.

" Tribal members have a different approach," says Bessler, "which made us think ‘outside the box.’ Where the Sierra Club might air a radio spot to convey our message, the Zuni suggested sending runners. And when we did run radio ads, we had scripts in English, Spanish, Zuni, Navajo, Hopi, and Apache so the spots could run on tribal radio stations as well as on mainstream stations in Phoenix and Albuquerque."

Earlier this summer, the coalition secured funds to put up a billboard near SRP headquarters. "It was a photo of Zuni Salt Lake seen through rifle crosshairs," Bessler describes, "with the words ‘SRP is targeting our Sacred Lands’ next to the photo. Two billboard companies agreed to rent a billboard to us and then reneged. So we ended up using a mobile billboard company called VOX Communications that put our billboard on the back of a truck. We drove the truck around SRP headquarters and all over Arizona and New Mexico to tribal pueblos, and we got a lot of people to sign petitions."

On July 19, the coalition organized the People’s Hearing at the Zuni Pueblo. "Zunis, Navajos, representatives from other tribes, and coalition members attended," says Bessler, "including several folks from the Club’s Rio Grande Chapter. The hearing had no sooner concluded than the skies opened up. It rained like you wouldn’t believe, which the Zuni took to be a sign of reward from the heavens. They were pumped!"

Finally, on August 4, SRP announced that it was canceling plans for its proposed mine and would instead purchase coal from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin. "It seemed like a burden was lifted from my heart and shoulders," said Carmelita Sanchez, the Zuni Tribe’s lieutenant governor, after the decision was announced.

" This victory is a testament to the spirit of the Zuni people, other Native American tribes, and non-native supporters who would not relinquish Salt Woman in the name of cheap coal," Bessler says.

Three days after the SRP’s announcement, Zuni tribal councilman Arden Kucate stood at the edge of Zuni Salt Lake and made an offering of turquoise and bread to the Salt Mother and said his prayers. That night, back at Zuni Pueblo, when tribal members hoisted a banner that read "Zuni defeats SRP," Kucate told the sign painter to add the word "Elahkwa," meaning "thank you."

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