On what seemed like a great fall day for a Water Rally—Oct. 12, officially Indigenous Peoples Day in New Mexico COVID concerns thwarted the hopes of a public gathering. So when the going gets tough, the tough go virtual. NM Native Vote helped stream the information and call for action to the masses. The Zoom session was attended by upwards of 60 people, not including those joining in on Facebook. Song and prayer opened the event that brought together city and state leaders as well as tribal activists, supporters and To’Hajiilee community members.
Renee Aragon was a community member with a moving plea for help. Mrs. Aragon has been a To’Hajiilee resident for eight years and opened her comments by exclaiming how important Indigenous Peoples Day is. “This is an important message to share in front of my children that we are important. We are here, we need to be seen, and we need to be heard.” She went on to talk about the issues the community faces as it now subsides on only one working well. That one well is not providing nearly enough water for the community and is of such poor quality you could literally see the contaminants floating as she held up a glass bottle of her local water to the webcam. “There is thirsty livestock; the entire community is affected. We have a community school. When the water breaks, they don’t go to school. People get sick from the smell of the water.”
As Aragon mentioned, the entire community suffers. Caring for children and the elderly in an environment without safe water for cooking and cleaning during the midst of the most significant health pandemic in history is a continuous battle. But it is a battle that To’Hajiilee has spent the better half of a decade trying to find solutions for. Issues range from the financial to right-of-way easements and even just the water quality. The water is high in iron and corrodes water systems quicker than most. The constant replacement of pipes and equipment is not cost-effective. The last two years have seen active, positive involvement from the county and the city, but time is running out. Funds that To’Hajiilee has available to make this happen will expire with the rest of the CARES Act funding in December.
Ahzta Chavez, director of NAVA Education Project and NM Native Vote, informed the audience about their organization’s efforts to pressure the Bernalillo County Commission to continue to work quickly to condemn the stretch of land needed for the easement. “No one should have to worry about having clean water in their community. We need to do everything we can to help our neighbors in To’Hajiilee, said Chavez. “It costs nothing to them [Western Albuquerque Land Holdings] to move forward. This easement is on Indigenous land; and on Indigenous Peoples Day we need to recognize that and do everything we need to move this project forward.”
Chavez asked for all those in attendance to put pressure on Western Albuquerque Land Holdings (WALH). Western Albuquerque Land Holdings is a development company that originally sought to develop the Rio Puerco Valley with the Santolina planned community, a 22 square mile group of homes that will come to house 100,000 people in the next 50 years. Ultimately, a development is the reason water utilities like the water storage tank that To’Hajiilee has been given permission to tap into. But WALH doesn’t want to come to the negotiation table and have stalled the process for the last two years. Without an easement, the next step is for the Bernalillo County Commission to vote to condemn the 2.4 mile stretch owned by WALH and then provide To’Hajiilee access ro tap into. This seven-mile-long length of pipe would connect the 2,600 or so residents of To’Hajiilee with clean water via an Albuquerque/Bernalillo Country Water Utility Authority holding tank. Several landowners have already provided access and agreed to easements, all except for the Western Albuquerque Land Holdings Group. WALH originally had plans to develop in the area but have spent what seems like more time playing politics. In 2017 WALH donated $30,000 to a political action committee to oppose then mayoral candidate Tim Keller, which drew scrutiny from regulators.
Albuquerque Mayor Tim Keller was in attendance for this virtual meeting but stayed away from making any solid statements on the matters. However, he offered his willingness to help and took the opportunity to talk about the city’s continued efforts to work alongside local tribes and citizens. Keller mentioned how the stories of Renee Aragon caused a moment of reflection in him, considering their proximity to Albuquerque. He capped off his comments by reading a city proclamation asserting the continued celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day and recognizing the nearly 60,000 current Indigenous residents as well as their ancestral lands and cultures.
“It’s clear that this community is in crisis, and we need the support of everyone, especially the residents of this state, to advocate for the families in this community,” says BernCo Commissioner Debbie O’Malley. “We can only hope that the landowner, Western Albuquerque Land Holdings, is listening and will change their minds, and agree to provide the right of way necessary immediately to support our neighbors in need. Time is of the essence.”
Laurie Weahkee has been involved with the Friends of To’Hajiilee group for years; she expressed her concerns with WALH. “It’s shocking that a company would actually stall the process for 2,000 Navajo people, 2,000 Dine’, to have access to clean quality water. I want people to know To’Hajiilee has been extremely respectful of the company, of the political leaders, and they have relied on the scientists and engineers to go about this in a logical way. To’Hajiilee doesn’t have high-powered communication firms to create a new narrative, but what they have is us, all of you who were able to join us.: Weakee called for the respectful mobilization of calls to the county commission and more people to sign the petition, which is nearing its total goal of 1,600 signatures. Friends of To’Hajiilee hopes to take these petitions to state and congressional leaders as well as the county commission.
Mark Begay is the Chapter President for To’Hajiilee and a Marine Corps veteran. He was pleased to see so many people in attendance. He opened the day with a prayer and followed by saying, “Indigenous people here have always stressed that Earth is our mother and that we should take care of it: Water is life. Nothing can survive without water. Native Americans face obstacles as far as getting infrastructure and jobs, housing and whatnot. That’s what I based my prayers on.” Mr. Begay is right. On Indigenous Peoples Day in New Mexico, Native people hope to share and celebrate their cultures and, more importantly, make evident to the larger population that there are some large disparities in regards to infrastructure that exist in our tribal communities. Just 2.4 miles sit between a whole village of people and their everyday human right, which is clean water. Thirty thirsty miles from N.M.’s largest metro area, a community of people awaits an answer to their prayers.
Friends in high places.
Several local elected leaders joined advocates and Chapter leadership to bring fresh water and supplies to the To’Hajiilee people.
State Rep. Harry Garcia donated pallets of clean bottles water and Bernalillo County Commissioner Debbie O’Malley arranged for the donation of 30 fifty-pound bags of pinto beans. They were delivered by O’Malley and County Attorney Ken Martinez.