LAS CRUCES – Members of the Piro-Manso-Tiwa tribe and New Mexico State University faculty are speaking out to caution the university from developing sacred land without tribal consultation.
NMSU’s Aggie Uptown would be built on 36 acres of land east of Interstate 25 and south of University Avenue, close to the western edge of Tortugas Mountain — also known as “A” Mountain or Turtle Mountain — a pilgrimage site for the tribe that first settled the area.
Aggie Uptown would feature restaurants, cafes, retail and residential spaces.
Diego Medina, a member of PMT, sent a letter to NMSU asking the university to consult with the tribe before going forward with the development and to also support the tribe in its efforts to become federally recognized.
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He said the land should not be used for a “pointless mall.”
Tortugas Mountain is a sacred location for the Piro-Manso-Tiwa Tribe.
Medina explained that it’s where the tribe hath held rituals and ceremonies for generations.
“Turtle Mountain is an important mountain in the geo-cultural landscape of Las Cruces,” Medina said. “It’s one that played a significant role in our eco-spiritual connection to land here in the Mesilla Valley and the greater Borderland region for thousands of years.”
Today, the mountain is a popular hiking destination. On top are an observatory, an altar and telecommunication towers. Each year, students from NMSU climb the mountain to repaint the rocks that form a white “A” on its western slope.
Medina did not detail the rituals performed by the PMT Tribe on the mountain. But he did say there could be historical artifacts on the mountain and surrounding land.
“There’s so much archaeological and cultural history in the area that hasn’t been spoken to, especially in regards to the development,” Medina said. “If nothing else, before they develop, they have to do a full archaeological survey of the site. Also just make sure that our tribe is being consulted, so that way, our cultural livelihood is able to be preserved for future generations. I would think they wouldn’t want to develop on a really significant and special site either.”
Jeanette Haynes Writer, NMSU professor of curriculum and instruction is among the several university faculty members — both Indigenous and not — who have urged the upper administration at NMSU to connect with PMT.
“We see that at other institutions that are making connections to and have formed long term relationships with local communities, that the administrators know what it means when the institution sets on their traditional lands,” said Haynes Writer, who is Tsalagi. “This is an issue since Indigenous Peoples in this immediate area look to that mountain as significant — as historically significant and spiritually significant — they (need to be) consulted.”
Apart from Piro-Manso-Tiwa, there are many Indigenous nations around the main campus in Las Cruces and the branch campuses in Alamogordo and Grants, including Acoma, Zuni, Navajo, Mescalero Apache and more.
“As Native Peoples, even though we may not have legal title, which was a European-based concept, to a particular piece of land, it doesn’t diminish the relationship that we have with that land or those particular sacred sites,” Haynes Writer said. “There’s a duty of care, there’s a relationship that extends a recognition — a protection of, a care for, a relationship to that particular place. That needs to be something recognized by an institution.
“It may not be in the form of a church, which goes back to legal title to property, but those sites have a particular meaning, just as much as any building would, as any structure would.”
Morrill Act and acknowledgments
Haynes Writer also pointed to the nature of NMSU as a land-grant university.
She specifically referenced an article from High Country News, titled “Land-grab universities,” which discusses the history of land-grant universities and their ties to colonialism.
The article states that the “Morrill Act worked by turning land expropriated from tribal nations into seed money for higher education.” High Country News identified 10.7 million acres taken from nearly 250 tribes under the Morrill Act.
NMSU passed a land acknowledgment statement in mid-2020, which included “As the state’s Land-Grant University, we acknowledge and respect the sovereign Indian Nations and Indigenous Peoples. We pledge to have a meaningful and respectful relationship with the sovereign Indian Nations, Indigenous communities, and Native American Peoples within the institution.”
Medina stated that this acknowledgment is “hypocritical” without action to work with PMT.
“As a land-grant institution, the Morrill Act of 1862 took millions upon millions of acres of Indigenous lands to make land-grant institutions,” Haynes Writer said. “However, the Land has the history of the Peoples here. With the coming of and development of institutions where we are today, we are still living in a community (where) consultation is needed.”
NMSU plans to hear from PMT
NMSU has not yet had formal communication with the tribe. However, the dialogue is ongoing, according to NMSU spokesman Justin Bannister.
Chancellor Dan Arvizu has had two meetings with the faculty who are advocating for consultation and a third meeting is planned in upcoming weeks.
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“The university feels that they’re talking through some important items,” Bannister said. “The university’s intent is to continue that conversation with all the stakeholders to make sure that we are working toward a situation that would be beneficial to everyone.”
He said NMSU is interested in hearing from the local Indigenous communities.
By having acknowledgment from the university, not only would PMT have its desired consultation, but it could potentially aid the tribe’s process in attaining federal recognition.
Federal recognition is an important piece in getting government aid and most importantly, establishing tribal governments that allow sovereignty that is recognized on a national level.
PMT has been pursuing recognition since the 1960s.
PMT member and New Mexico Environmental Law Center lawyer Mia Montoya Hammersley said that federal recognition also makes a big difference in consultation requirements. A federally recognized tribal nation normally has more ground to stand on in these situations. But she said that although it might not be legally required, that doesn’t mean it’s ethical to bush off the indigenous communities.
“That’s not a reason to do the bare minimum, you know, we still deserve to be consulted,” Hammersley said. “A lot of our zoning requirements in Doña Ana County, like the Dona Ana comprehensive plan really emphasizes the importance of cultural heritage and diversity and the importance of involving community in development efforts.”
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On Indigenous People’s Day on Oct. 11, 2021, the City of Las Cruces acknowledged Piro-Manso-Tiwa as the original people, which was a huge step forward, according to Hammersley.
“Our sovereignty doesn’t come from the federal government, it’s inherent to our existence,” Hammersely said. “We have a right to be consulted on projects like this that do impact our ancestral territories, especially projects that could impact cultural resources and traditional cultural properties.”
The PMT Tribe’s petition for recognition can be found at www.bia.gov/sites/bia.gov/files/assets/as-ia/ofa/petition/005_pimati_NM/pet_narr/005_NARR_2010_PeititionofTiwaTribe.pdf.
PMT also has a GoFundMe page to support these efforts gofund.me/45439aa9.
Miranda Cyr, a Report for America corps member, can be reached at [email protected] or @mirandabcyr on Twitter. Show your support for the Report for America program at https://bit.ly/LCSNRFA.