Legacy. So many of us lead our lives everyday void of asking ourselves the question: What will you leave behind? This question has never been lost on John Waconda. A young man growing up on the Isleta Pueblo, John and his family leave quite a legacy behind. His mother, Josephine Waconda, was the assistant surgeon general, which also made her the highest-ranking Native woman in the Navy as rear admiral.
If those shoes weren’t big enough, John’s grandfather and Josephine’s father was Miguel Trujillo, the father of Native American voting rights in New Mexico. It was Trujillo who championed making it legal for Native people to vote in N.M., as recently as 1948.
John’s humble beginnings were baptized by the fire of the forest, as he came up as a young man working with the various pueblo fire crews. John, fresh out of NMSU, a degree in hand, started his journey. “I went to the BIA and started fighting fires during the summer. I thought this is like something I’d like to continue doing, being out in the forest and traveling.”
This work with tribes and state entities set the groundwork for a short stint in Washington, DC with the Forestry Service. But ultimately, his family brought him back to N.M. Waconda then took a position as Bureau of Indian Affairs superintendant of the Southern Ute Agency in Ignacio, Colorado. The resources at hand and the scope of work in the protection of resources often came into direct conflict with some tribal directives. How do you save an area, but at the same time develop it? That line of thinking steered Waconda toward the Nature Conservancy, where he now serves as its first-ever Indigenous Partnerships Program director.
The Nature Conservancy is a nonprofit organization built on legacy, both financially and in mission. Their endowments and research in science-based methods have helped protect and sustain fragile environments worldwide. Not only plants and wildlife, the Nature Conservancy also works with local and Indigenous communities. This relationship-building with the original stewards of the land is essential for everyone affected by climate change and/or development, because for decades those voices and ancestral knowledge were left unheard.
In Waconda’s words, “In the last, say, 10 years, we’re very interested in preserving the rights of Indigenous people across the world. The Nature Conservancy works in Indigenous communities to improve living conditions, but also to empower Indigenous people in their rights, human rights, to create sustainable living conditions where they can continue to practice culture and tradition. It’s all about conserving life, conserving nature and protecting the environment.”
Waconda hopes to unify the local tribes and bring their concerns to the table in hope of working collaboratively. “I’ve become very concerned about, you know, losing tradition and culture and being able to protect and preserve it by taking care of the forest and the resources. Especially being older now with kids and children, you want the best for them, and you want a better life than what you have. To make the path a little bit better for them than what we have.”