A lay of the land, an assault on parks and a powerful moment in Los Alamos

My first week as an NPCA intern has been filled with park visits and student tours, as well as conferences with other NPCA staff. I’ve been focused on getting a lay of the land and building relationships.

I meet José in a restaurant at the base of Taos Mountain. Laid back in a checkered shirt with a friendly expression, he is eloquently spoken. His family emigrated from Spain nearly 400 years ago in the 17th century, a time characterized by violent colonization with attacks on Pueblo and Navajo tribes, and eventually the Pueblo revolt in the 1680s. Having pursued environmental anthropology, and being so passionate about this land and its opulent history and people, José may be one of the most knowledgeable individuals North of Albuquerque.

We speak of New Mexico’s historical and religious conquest, and inter-tribal relations for several hours. Eventually we hone in on our Manhattan Project (MAPR) plans. We will focus on the local communities sourced for labor directly downwind of the project site, including Española, Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, Dixon, Tesuque, Pojoaque and potentially several others. We map out the relationships we have in the communities, which we hope will be indispensable in identifying consultants, those we plan to interview. Building these kinds of relationships takes time and patience, and we will begin next week in Española, making connections and trying to build trust within communities that have a reputation for being closed-off.

Until I begin my foray into the communities that supported the Manhattan Project, I want to share some insights and experiences that provide context to this area of the Southwest and to its people and their struggles, both past and present.

Over lunch, José tells me about the Mobile Matanza—a fitting name for such a revolutionary invention. After lunch we head to meet one of the two founders of this large metallic beast. The Mobile Matanza is a slaughterhouse on wheels, one which, for a while, helped underserved cattle ranchers make a more profitable living. In its glory days, the Mobile Matanza allowed the small-scale rancher to avoid commercial slaughterhouses, which drastically cut into their earnings. The Mobile Matanza would be driven anywhere within a 50 mile radius of Taos, and only charged small-scale ranchers operating costs. With increased grazing restrictions, drought, land use changes and land grabs by large companies, it has become nearly impossible for ranchers to maintain a profitable livelihood here in the high desert. Despite these difficulties, ranchers continue to engage in ranching because it is their tradition, a way to maintain a culture that has existed for hundreds of year.

This mobile slaughterhouse was a local nonprofit invention, created by two indigenous women, one from the Lakhóta tribe. With the ability to humanely slaughter 12 animals at a time, including bison, it revolutionized local ranching to the benefit of small-scale ranchers. However, struggling under the demands placed upon it by the USDA and FDA, the Matanza eventually ceased its operations. It sits now in a parking lot in an industrial part of town, slowly ceding to the elements. The owners still receive calls from old customers in the hopes something has changed, only to be let down time and again. If state and federal agencies recognized the positive impacts of such an invention, and willingly facilitated infrastructural and certification processes, New Mexican ranchers would finally have a shot at moving beyond the systemic poverty in which they have lived for decades, and even centuries.

Abiqui reservoir, halfway to Chaco

Through the limestone and clay tablelands we drove, so early the sun barely sparkled over the hills. What alerted me to our arrival at Chaco was not the signs along the side of the road, but a sharp increase in drill rigs dotting the landscape, like tall metallic birds pecking hundreds of feet beneath the hard earth. Over the last two years, drilling leases for oil and natural gas have increased exponentially in the Southwest. José refers to this as ground zero. He points out an enormous drill and storage facility behind the Chaco National Monument sign, which did not exist two years ago.

Under the current administration’s energy dominance policy, hundreds more leases have been proposed frightfully close to park perimeters. Such leases hug the perimeter of a 10-mile diameter around Chaco’s borders. But the culturally- and historically-significant ruins, petroglyphs and ancient roadways within Chaco extend beyond this boundary. There is evidence that roads over one thousand years old from the peak of the Chacoan civilization extend in all directions and into neighboring states. There is a widespread understanding that dozens of un-excavated ruins exist in the Chaco area, though the Lidar technology to map each of these is costly. The three-story ruins and underground ceremonial kevas that decorate Chaco’s most visited sites are only a part of the story of an ancient city that was once the center of all trade in the Southwest. Chaco is still a sacred ceremonial place to several Pueblo and Navajo tribes. The proposed oil and gas leases threaten to eradicate the history, culture, and natural resources associated with Chaco in a destructive and irreparable way.

Pueblo Bonito, Chaco National Historical Park
A keva, ceremonial place for Chacoans

Beyond this damage to a landscape and a peoples’ history, this drilling activity is likely to have adverse health effects on local communities. Already, the Navajo communities in close proximity to oil and gas wells experience the highest rates of child asthma, and a variety of other illnesses related to the methane leaks by these wells. An increase in oil and gas drilling will only contribute to enduring hardships for communities that have already been disadvantaged historically. Whereas oil and gas are inevitably important resources, drilling in a more environmentally, culturally, and socially responsible manner is critical.

At Chaco, we first met a group of students from the University of New Mexico Taos, where we explored lease problems in the park and the health effects of ubiquitous methane leaks. They passed around a map with so many red dots marking proposed drill sites it made you wonder whether Chaco land would even exist beneath so many holes. The second group we met was a seventh-grade class from Taos, with whom we toured the various excavated ruins. I was struck by their knowledge of Chacoan culture. As I walked past petroglyphs students enthusiastically explained their astronomical significance to me.

On the road again, this time to Albuquerque for the NPCA’s Southwest Regional Council meeting, which I am grateful for the opportunity to attend. As I meet each council member, I am struck by their passion, their enthusiasm and their candor. Organizational culture does not have the best reputation for being a human space, a space of expression and passion. I would learn over the next few days with these folks that all of these aspects can co-exist in a high-capacity organization. In fact, I theorize that part of the reason NPCA’s Southwest division is so motivated and dedicated is because these members truly value each others’ perspectives and wellbeing. Having always been put off by the rigid and sterile atmospheres that can characterize larger organizations, I am impressed it does not always have to be so.

Quarai ruins, Salinas Pueblo Missions

Red bricks lay stacked forming the skeleton of an old structure, and I know we are at Abó, one of three ruins comprising the Salinas Pueblo Missions National Monument. As we meander through the crumbling walls to the remnants of the old mission church we are told about early Puebloan and Hispanic encounters. We learn of initial religion-based leniency between the Franciscans and the Pueblos, portrayed by the Native American keva, or ceremonial place, below the Franciscan Church. Then we hear of starvation, of migration, of abandonment.

We shuffle around the park ranger, nearly holding our breaths in anticipation. As the towel is slowly folded off of the cooler-sized rock, the bronzed imprint of a body is revealed. Patella bones, a tail, and wings are apparent, though not even archeologists can confirm what we are looking at. Presented with only the lower half of the body, it is impossible to identify this pre-Permian reptile, predecessor of the dinosaurs. Regardless, we know this find is significant given that a fossil from this period has never before been found in layers of this clay-like material. I try to wrap my head around how significant this organism is, unable to even conceive of this planet dozens of millions of years before humans developed. A conference attendee from the Navajo Nation pipes in: this fossil resembles the fossil of a “water monster”, a creature of enormous cultural significance to the Navajo, found recently in a different national monument bordering Navajo land.

Welcome to the Darkest Hour. It is the last day of the conference here in Albuquerque. The air is heavy with frustration, solemnity painted on the faces of those in the room belonging to all walks of life. Rosie recounts her days on the National Park Advisory Board, a time where curiosity and mutual respect characterized this group of intellectuals, whose input was elicited and valued by those in charge of national policy. And so our morning begins. Rosie beings to describe the decay of this congressionally-mandated organization, catalyzed by the dramatic policies of this new administration. Like a childhood trinket collecting dust on a shelf, the National Park Advisory Board is forgotten. Despite repetitive efforts to communicate with congressmen and the Secretary of Interior, the board reaches out to the public and ultimately, disbands. The current administration doesn’t even blink an eye, eager to hire scientists and experts dedicated to the administration’s special interests. This is the first of many challenges expressed on this last day of the conference describing this administration’s assault on the citizens and lands of this country.

The current administration’s “Energy Dominance” policy stands to jeopardize the future of both our parks and political processes. Bear’s Ears National Monument may sound familiar to many of you, but what about Mesa Verde and Dinosaur National Monument? These are just a few of the American parks imperiled by the administration’s oil and natural gas-intensive production policies. Most of the remainder of the conference focused on the hundreds proposed leases bordering national parks and monuments all over the Southwest. At Carlsbad National Caverns, the administration seeks to allow drilling in areas surrounding the boundary of the park, beyond which the system of caverns is believed to continue. Without certainty as to the geographical spread of the caverns, opening these areas to drilling could result in drilling into the cave system, threatening the structural integrity of the caverns as well as their ecosystem functions.

This is an environment issue, a culture issue and a social justice issue, as described in my briefing of Chaco’s proposed leases. Now, it is also a process issue. Prior to this administration the public was allotted 30 days to comment on a federally-proposed project. Currently, the public has a meager 10-day period to submit comments based on an insufficient quantity and quality of information. An environmental impact assessment does not have to be carried out before public commenting, thus essentially requiring the public to comment upon something without adequate information. When this assessment is finally carried out, the public does not have a meaningful chance to comment. If such destructive policies do not mark a violent assault on the public’s ability to have a voice, to improve and regulate agencies, then I don’t know what is.

I will leave you with one more note on this incredibly eye-opening conference. One Native American speaker courageously  expressed her dismay at how Native Americans were displaced from the regional dialogue by the political elite and commercial interests. She said “When people think about Native Americans, they think about their culture as being past, residing in history… when we are very much alive today”. Perhaps this woman hit upon another “inconvenient truth” leading to the lack of responsibility, concern and apathy.

Back to the Untold Stories of the Manhattan Project

I saw Amarante through the glass as we approached the restaurant, sporting an old-fashioned straw hat, posters were laid out on the table in front of him. Amarante would be the first contact I would meet with for the “Untold Stories” project. A native of Española and a descendant of the Spaniards that migrated over in the 1600s, he has an amazing network of acquaintances that once worked for the Los Alamos National Lab (LANL). He helped carry out 15 existing Hispanic oral history interviews on the Atomic Heritage Foundation website about the experiences of local men and women in the Manhattan Project. He estimates that at least half of those people are since deceased. José and I seek to carry out several hundred more interviews of those directly involved in MAPR and their close family members to add to this collection of oral histories. I was surprised to learn from Amarante that there were still many individuals he knew still living that would like to share their experiences working in the Manhattan Project. After lunch, he brought us to the Misíon and Convento in Española where I was struck by saturated paintings depicting New Mexico’s history painted on displays several stories high.



I met with several other contacts early this week to identify consultants for interviews and good sources of existing archives for this project. After meeting Amarante, we met with Archuleta who is in charge of organization Los Alamos National Lab’s 75th anniversary. I will be attending this celebration in the hopes of connecting with retirees that worked on MAPR and will likely be presenting some information on my project. I also met with the director and gallery curator of the Northern Rio Grande National Heritage Area who still had pictures depicting Hispanics and Pueblo tribes from the MAPR hanging on their walls. They hosted a conference last year on the topic, entitled “Querencia Interrupted”, which inspired the idea behind the idea of this project. I was grateful for their help in identifying future contacts and consultants to interview, as they have contacts in places like Pojoaque, Tesuque and San Ildefonso pueblos where we lack existing relationships.

Standing in the room on creaky floorboards at Los Alamos History Museum, I stared at the picture of Oppenheimer as a one-year-old child and I cannot begin to describe to you how sick I felt. I could do nothing but stare. This child would grow up and revolutionize the world at the grave cost of thousands of lives and innumerable suffering, yet paving the way for an Allied victory in World War II and saving the lives of thousands of American soldiers. This child would grow up to oversee the creation of “the gadget”, a nickname given to the first nuclear bomb. I wanted to cry and to run out of there as fast as I could just thinking about the magnitude, the monstrosity of this creation. As I continued through the exhibits at the museum, seeing videos of the detonation at Trinity and hearing the oral testimony of many of the scientists on the project, I became amazed, fearful, agitated.

The wall in the museum’s backroom was lined with clipboards stating:

“We all continue to live with the legacy of the Manhattan Project. Please share your reflections and contribute your voice. What responsibility to scientists have for how their work is used?”

The “gadget”, photographed from the history museum

Peoples’ reflections were all over the spectrum. Several simply stated “none”, several called for “world peace”. One noted that we were all responsible. I must admit that in my anxiety-ladden state it was a little difficult to organize my thoughts on this profound question. I would be curious to hear your reflections on this question.

Before my visit to the museum I met with Francesca, one of the historians, who shared stories with me about folks mobilizing around the Manhattan Project legacy today. She spoke to me about Charlie, a scientist who worked in explosives at the lab and who has done a lot of work around one of the explosions that happened at the lab during MAPR. In this explosion, seven workers lost their lives, all Hispano and Pueblo workers. Charlie held a conference several months ago about this explosion which many of the victim’s family members attended. They had previously been in the dark about what exactly transpired. I plan to reach out to Charlie in the coming days in the hopes of  accessing some of the oral histories he has collected as part his work.

The arid strawberry mesas of Los Alamos


As you read through this blog, I would like to remind you that it is important to tell the OTHER story of the Manhattan Project, the story of the commitment and contributions of local communities as well as the unintended consequences on these families. These are the stories that I will tell. I had to remind myself this morning that the hundreds that suffered and perished as a consequences of this project in Los Alamos were also invaluable not only to the work being done, but also to enhancing safety awareness on the project. For some, working on the Manhattan Project provided access to unrivaled employment and educational opportunities that previously did not exist for local communities around Los Alamos. For many it was synonymous with livelihood security. For others, it meant crippling pain and the loss of loved ones, perpetual denial from the laboratory of any neglect or wrongdoing, and the loss of familial lands appropriated by the government for the creation of the Los Alamos site.