SANTA FE, N.M. — New Mexico lawmakers on Friday embarked on a new effort to limit oil and natural gas drilling in the northwestern corner of the state over concerns about archaeological and Native American cultural sites.
State officials also marked the 15th anniversary of Indian educational reforms that are the subject of a high stakes legal dispute.
The 2003 Indian Education Act was designed to provide equitable access to public education and help maintain indigenous languages. Navajo Nation delegate and former state Sen. Leonard Tsosie says the act was a call to action that has given Native American parents and tribes a greater say in their children’s education.
At the same time, a pending lawsuit accuses the state of not following through with the reforms and failing to provide an adequate education for all students. The ongoing trial could result in sweeping changes to state funding and oversight of Native American education.
On Friday, Assistant Secretary for Indian Education Latifah Phillips told a gathering of Native American leaders and student performers that the Public Education Department strives to be responsive and respectful of tribal interests as it develops indigenous language programs.
She said high school history classes across the state will begin weaving in more information about pueblo, Apache and Navajo tribes starting this summer.
About one in 10 New Mexico residents identify themselves as Native American. Of the state’s 112 legislators, two senators and at least four representatives have tribal affiliation.
State lawmakers may put new pressure on federal authorities to help maintain a buffer zone between new natural gas drilling rigs and the Chaco Culture National Historical Park in northwestern New Mexico.
Pre-colonial ruins at Chaco Canyon are a popular tourist attraction and hold ancestral and spiritual significance for some Native Americans. An upcoming sale of drilling rights in March by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management is stoking tensions about gas development in the area.
A Senate committee on Friday endorsed a measure that would urge the Bureau of Land Management not to allow hydraulic fracturing within 10 miles of the Chaco archaeological site.
The nonbinding legislation sponsored by Democratic state Sen. George Munoz of Gallup also would pressure federal agencies to consult with the Navajo Nation before allowing new natural gas production in the area.
Navajo President Russell Begaye testified in support of the measure and cautioned that restrictions beyond a 10-mile radius of Chaco could infringe on income opportunities for Navajo families.
The New Mexico Oil and Gas Association says the proposed guidance is overly prohibitive to responsible natural resource development.