I went up to the Valles the other day.
The Valles Caldera. Located about 40 miles, west of Los Alamos. This beautiful, thirteen mile-wide crater, has a rich history; geologically, biologically, socially and politically. If you are interested in learning about the Valles Caldera, check out the National Park Services website.
My friend asked me to take her up there. She wanted to make a prayer. She told me that this is a very important place for her Tewa people. I do not know all the stories and importance of the Valles for the Tewa, so I will not attempt to recount that here. Thinking about it, even if I DID know those stories I would not tell them. They are not my stories to tell.
After a 45 minutes drive, which included passing through a LANL check point where I was asked if I would “vouch” for my passenger, we arrived at the gate around 9:30am, only to find it locked. The sign told us the Park is open from 9:00am to 5:00pm. Another car was waiting in front of the gate, and I saw the driver speaking with an employee on the other side. I left my truck running and went to speak with him.
Folks were running late, the call had been placed, the National Park Service was aware that people were awaiting access to the Park. We waited, and eventually a Park Service employee arrived, opened the gate, and we drove down to the visitors’ center. It was cold and windy out, with clouds skidding across the sky. My friend opted to wait in the truck while I got our passes.
Already at this point, we were up against the border. A locked gate and signage informing us to purchase visitors passes were the indicators that this land was in the control of the National Park Service, and by extension, the United States Government. No longer was access simply a matter of wandering out across the Caldera. Gates, fences, passes, money, were the hurdles that my friend needed to navigate to simply go pray in a place where her people had been praying for centuries; if not millennia.
The Park employee welcomed me into the visitors’ center, adorned with maps and pictures of the Caldera. One could read about the natural and political history of this place, as interpreted by the contemporary caretakers. I did not spend any time reading and viewing all this history. Some day I will return and take time to understand this interpretation. But on this day, my focus was simple and direct; take my friend to the Caldera for her prayer.
The first question asked was, “how can I help you?” And so I told the Park employee exactly what we needed; access to the Park. I told her that my friend wanted to come pray here, as her people have prayed here for millennia. I explained that she simply wanted to drive back into the Caldera, stop for a while by the side of the road, and make her prayer. She has pain when walking, so she was waiting in the truck.
The response was no. The Park had closed for the season just days before, and no access would be granted. Besides that, special use permit applications need to be filed two weeks in advance with a $100 application fee, and then signed by the Superintendent. Not only were we three days over the closing date, we were two weeks late for filing the application and the Superintendent was not in the office. So sorry, we were not going to be able to enter the Park.
Here were the multiple layers of borders. The first was the gate and fence. Then there was the pass, the special use permit, the closing date, the waiting period for the special use permit, the Superintendent’s approval, and the money. This web of human invented obstacles lay between my friend and her prayer. We had, by virtue of technology, overcome the most immediate obstacle of distance, only to be faced with a wall of physical, legal and financial barriers. None of these barriers took into account that my friend’s people had been praying at this place for thousands of years. None of these barriers acknowledged the relationship between an Indigenous person and the land that nourishes us all. All of these barriers were inspired by a history and legacy of supremacy.
Supremacy. That seems to be the word of year for me. Everywhere I turn, I bump up against it. I find it over and over within my own thoughts and feelings, as well as out in the world as I navigate daily life. Supremacy has marked this land and the people upon it for centuries. And here I was, face to face with it, yet again. All she wanted was to make a prayer.
I looked down at the map of the Caldera on the countertop. The line drawn around the Park was a graphic representation of supremacy. It followed no natural contour or demarcation. It was straight edged, with corners and long stretches crossing equally over mountains, valleys and rivers. We believe that our human needs are some how superior to the movements of the Earth, to such an extent, that we feel empowered to draw these lines declaring who has dominance on either side. For that is all the line can tell us about the land it is inscribed across. The line does not recognize how water flows across the land. It does not recognize the plants and animals that move freely across it. It does not recognize the slow and steady shifting of the earth through seismic and erosive activity. It does not recognize the lineage of peoples who have moved into and out of the Caldera, following spiritual and natural rhythms of this Earth. This line only answers to one master. The belief that humans have supremacy over the Earth.
This particular Park employee was sympathetic to my aim. I also tried to convey my understanding of her dilemma. She felt for my friend’s desire to make a prayer, but was caught herself in the labyrinths of maps and regulations. I pushed her, as much as I dared, to attempt a way to grant us access. Thankfully she was moved to call the Superintendent’s office and ask for permission that we drive into the Park.
Each one of our rules surrounding access to the Park is rooted in a justification. Each of these justifications makes sense when seen through the lens of supremacy. But if one removes those glasses, the justifications begin to deflate.
The closing date, which we had missed by only four days, is established for a reason. I am speculating from my 46 year education into the ways of the modern, dominant paradigm, on what those reasons are. I imagine the date was picked to correspond with when visitors to Parks begin to decline with the season, as well as the time when the weather begins to get colder. This allows the Park Service to save money as well. With the Park closed, less staff and resources need to be committed for safety, maintenance, tours, transportation, insurance, education, etc. It makes sense.
But does it? It only makes sense when we believe that the Park Service, or any other entity, has the right to establish guidelines for people to move across the Earth. That somehow, the Park Service is responsible for “protecting” this piece of Earth from the people, or even the people from the Earth. Supremacy informs us that these justifications are Good and Right.
The special use permit, with its time frame and fee is established for a reason. Again, I speculate that the Park Service, in an attempt to protect both the land and the people, needs to know who will be moving across the Caldera, to where, and at what time. They want to have enough resources available to respond in the event of an emergency. They want to be able to guide people in ‘appropriate’ use of the space. They want a paper record of what happens on the land in the event someone chooses to file a lawsuit against them. They want to limit access in order to limit impact upon the land. They need time to review the request in order to determine if it will be harmful to the Caldera. They need a fee in order to pay for the expense of this deeper inquiry. Again, through the lens of supremacy, all this makes sense.
I get it. Today we have roads and cars. A one-hour trip up to the Caldera wasn’t even possible one hundred years ago, not to mention five hundred year ago. And yet, in this new age of technology, are not the human connections to our Earth just as poignant? Perhaps, they are even more important to recognize as our culture moves ever further away from right relationship to this place. Are not the footpaths of people walking up the mountain to pray as much a part of this life as the ravines carved by the water flowing down to the valley? Aren’t the songs sung in gratitude for all the gifts of life as important as the wind blowing the clouds through the sky? Who are WE to monitor the comings and goings of Indigenous peoples through a space that they have been accessing for as long as they have been on this land?
The Park employee asked me to show her on the map exactly where my friend wanted to go. I indicated my understanding of where that was. She spoke the map names into her phone. She hung up. They would call back in a minute.
During the time I was involved in these negotiations, two other people entered the visitors’ center. One was another Park employee with news of a “hot spot” that was being monitored near by. He had access based upon his job. He could come and go from the park as needed. The other was an Anglo gentleman of roughly seventy years. He explained that he had last been at the Caldera fifty-five years ago and was excited to return to a place that had impacted his younger years. He was denied access.
The Superintendent, apparently, reviewed the verbal request that was passed up the chain of command, for a Native woman to venture into the Park to make her prayer. I do not know who this person is, or how this person thinks or feels. I do not know the extent of his or her job description. I do not know the burdens and accountabilities that this person carries. For me, on that day, the Superintendent was a faceless, bodiless voice, only heard through a telephone by the Park employee standing before me.
Supremacy dictates that someone has responsibility. Someone is accountable. Someone must make decisions for the good of the rest. That day it was this Superintendent. For whatever reason, this person had understanding and granted the request for my friend to go and make her prayer.
I did not argue the twenty-dollar fee. At least three people, beginning with the employee at the visitors’ center, had conspired to grant access for my friend. I was not willing to push my luck or show a lack of gratitude for their efforts. I paid the fee willingly, feeling that it was a small price in exchange for these peoples’ actions. The conversation around this entrance fee, as well as the special use application fee, will wait for another day.
Once the prayer was complete and thanks had been given to the employee who had it in her heart to seek access for us, we drove back down to the valley. We passed through the checkpoint where I vouched for my passenger. We drove through Los Alamos, and my friend pointed out all the places she knew where The Manhattan Project had been conceived and experimented with. She showed me the places where toxic waste had been buried and burned. She pointed to the maternity ward, to which IHS had directed Native women for decades, that was built directly above a canyon where waste had been dumped. She told me about the skate park and housing complexes erected upon these radioactive graveyards.
The borders we cut across this land are no more than glyphs of our supposed supremacy. We measure and cut and draw upon our maps, certain that these arcane symbols represent what is best for the land and her people. Our rules and regulations are carefully crafted in committees steeped in the values of supremacy, informed by its legacy, and emboldened by its certainty. There remain no places that have not been overlaid with webs of jurisdiction, restricted access, and designated enforcement.
I am thankful to the people that granted access for us through that morass of supremacist ideology. I pray that we recognize we do not have the right, or the ability, to determine the movements of the Earth. Our borders and regulations are as fragile as the paper they are printed upon. They are held together by an illusion. The illusion that this land belongs to us.