Jack Loeffler


The bioregion of the northern Río Grande watershed has been recognized by the U.S. Congress as part of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA), thereby providing potential to nurture both the people of this area and the habitat itself. Geopolitically, the area is contained within Taos, Santa Fe and Río Arriba counties of northern New Mexico. The western reaches of Río Arriba County extend over the Continental Divide into the San Juan River watershed and include the Jicarilla Apache Reservation.


The meld of human ethnicities that culturally define this region is profound. The late cultural anthropologist, Edward T. Hall, was recorded saying, “…Ethnicity is one of the greatest resources if not THE greatest resource that we have in the world today. What we have here are stored solutions to common human problems. …The fact is that Nature is so extraordinarily complex that you can look at it from multiple dimensions, and come up with very different answers—and each one of them will be true. And we need all of those truths.”


According to the NRGNHA website, a very high percentage of the folks who live within the area are indigenous. They have been rooted to the soil of this homeland for many generations, be they Tiwa, Tewa, Jicarilla Apache or Hispano. They have survived here through the centuries, even though enormous changes have occurred in both global perspective and post-industrial revolution mono-cultural practices. And though each of these cultures has been deeply affected by the economically dominated mono-cultural paradigm that envelopes our planet, each has refrained from having been entirely subsumed, largely because of deep spiritual ties to both homeland and tradition.


A perspective that has prevailed among indigenous cultures of the northern Río Grande bioregion (and beyond) is the collective understanding that natural resources including land, water, firewood, piñon nuts, game for food, the air we breathe and far more—are common pool resources owned by no one, available to everyone by virtue of Natural Law. Using an example in Great Britain of four or so centuries past, human ecologist Garrett Hardin pointed out that the concept of “the commons” worked well until the carrying capacity was exceeded as a result of over-population, at which point the ecosystem crashed. He concluded that the “commons” must inevitably be controlled through governing agency or privatization. Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom disagreed with Hardin, citing controlled experiments she conducted using game theory to test human selfishness versus altruism. The deciding factor was the introduction of mutual cooperation, at which point altruism triumphed over individual greed. Of course this is a scientific peer debate citing miniscule examples within the overall continuum of human history. However the debate has captured a fair amount of attention.


Gradually over the centuries, the Pueblo Indians and their Hispano neighbors settled into a state of mutual cooperation over the use of the commons. Recalling the words of Santa Clara Pueblo elder Rina Swentzell, “From a Pueblo point of view, the commons is everything. It is the context that we live in. …The wind is blowing, the water’s flowing, and we’re actually walking around and talking. It’s all part of this idea that we all share. It’s that notion of sharing.”


Hispano elder Estévan Arellano writes the following about his cultural sense of querencia in his essay The Commons in the Acequia Landscape. “It [querencia] is that which gives us a sense of place, that which anchors us to the land, that which makes us a unique people, for it implies a deeply rooted knowledge of place, and for that reason we respect our place, for it is our home and we don’t want to violate our home in any way. We like it pristine, healthy and productive. Our philosophy is one borrowed from our Native American brothers, for we are brothers and sisters, ‘We do not inherit the land from our parents, we have borrowed it from our children and grandchildren.’”


The mestizaje, or mixture of customs and bloodlines between Pueblo Indians and Spanish colonists, began with the arrival of Spanish-speaking people in 1598 when, under the leadership of Juan de Oñate, they founded a village near Ohkay Owingeh (a.k.a. San Juan Pueblo) at the confluence of the Río Chama and Río Grande. The first century was marked by stiff resistance of the Pueblo Indians to the sons and daughters of the Iberian Peninsula and beyond, whose cultural mores and religious perspectives pummeled native traditions. Gradually, the Hispanos tapped roots into this harsh, beautiful habitat and began to develop that deep sense of querencia that comes only after the land welcomes you. Thus, a fragile sense of intercultural reciprocity resulted in the mestizaje.


Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, Puebloans and Hispanos had to defend themselves against raiding Navajo and Apache Indians. In the early 19th century, Anglo traders, many of whose ancestors hailed from northern Europe, wended westward in the name of Manifest Destiny and cast a new economic mantle over the land, whose shadow seeped into the soil. Author Paul Horgan provided excellent history in his Pulitzer prize-winning book, Great River: The Río Grande in North American History. In a recorded interview, he said, “Of course, the very first motive was commercial, the coming of the Anglos. And though not a wholly ignoble motive, it certainly was a selfish one. Therefore, something of that emotional commitment to a purpose had enduring effects on all relationships that resulted between the occupants—namely, the Indians and the Hispanos and the incoming Yankees, Anglos.” Between the late 16th and mid-19th centuries, the bioregion of the northern Río Grande had become part of a geo-political entity first claimed by Spain, then Mexico and finally the United States. The patina of several human cultures had shaded the hue of the sacred landscape that was now becoming secularized for profit.


The primary characteristic of this mythic landscape is aridity. What is now known as New Mexico has minimal surface water relative to land area. The Río Grande is the great oasis that bisects the landscape north to south. Estévan Arellano perceives the northern Río Grande bioregion as extending from the San Luis Valley of southern Colorado to the top of La Bajada Hill several miles southwest of Santa Fe, a region cradled by mountaintop ridgelines east and west of the Río Grande. This is the watershed of the northern Río Grande. Tributaries include the Conejos, Alamosa, Trinchera, Culebros, Costilla, and Taos rivers, Río Embudo, Río Chama, Santa Clara Creek, Rito de los Frijoles, and Río Santa Fe. The elevation varies roughly from 5,500 to 14,000 feet above sea level. The vegetation varies with altitude and includes piñon-juniper grassland, sagebrush flatland, ponderosa pine forests extending into aspen, then to high-elevation spruce, to peaks rising above the tree line. The animal kingdom is well represented throughout this bioregion, although the howl of the wolf has not been heard in the wild for many decades.


The Pueblo Indians and the Hispanos are historically master gardeners and expert hunters of wild game. However, Estévan Arellano from the Hispano village of Embudo, and Herman Agoyo, a respected elder from Ohkay Owingeh both tell me that the young people from their respective cultures are rarely practicing the agricultural traditions that sustained their peoples through the generations. Historically, both Puebloan and Hispano cultures practiced irrigation techniques that made large-scale gardening possible, returned surface water to the aquifer and expanded riparian habitat. Early Spanish colonists introduced domestic cattle, sheep and pigs. Bison that roamed the eastern plains for millennia were all but exterminated in the 19th century by Yankee riflemen who wanted to deprive Plains Indians of their primary food supply.


During the first years of the 20th century, bohemian culture began to settle into the bioregion as artists, writers, poets and musicians were rendered awe-stricken by the land of clear light, where Pueblo Indians, ever-urging the clouds to release moisture, danced in great ceremonials celebrating the seasonal cycles, thereby aligning themselves with the flow of Nature. Hispanos prayerfully marched in their own procesiones seeking blessings from their patron saint of the New World homeland, la Virgen de Guadalupe, or their patron saint of farmers, San Ysidro. And with each heartbeat and footstep, the sacred nature of homeland was ever restored.


America has become a warrior nation, an empire to be defended, a world power, the planet’s peacekeeper, a geo-political entity of such enormous magnitude and influence as to rise to the very top of the heap, its governing force casting such a blinding light as to relegate its components to the shadows. Once a self-proclaimed melting pot, it has of late had to tighten up the ports of entry in the face of a burgeoning planetary population that has grown from just over two billion human beings in the 1930s to seven billion today, an increase of over 300% in a single human lifetime.


During that same time span, we have emerged from a post agrarian/industrial revolution nation to a major participant in global culture inhabiting a biosphere now overlain by the Internet, wherein one may participate to the extent—according to my friend John Nichols—“that there’s no excuse for not knowing everything!”


We are so centralized that biodiversity, cultural diversity, cognitive diversity define an endangered characteristic required by Nature for every kind of healthy and balanced state of coherence. We find ourselves in such a state of economically dominated, digitized, undernourished, chaotic, fragile, global cohesion, largely manned by those who hunger for power, that we are fast losing our sense of coherence. Coherence runs deeper than cohesion and is fragile in a different way. We find true coherence in a healthy bioregion wherein all the characteristics occur in relative balance, whether or not they are understood by the conscious mind. However, conscious understanding of how a bioregion works reflects a model of perception that occurs through intellect, intuition and instinct, with a bit of emotional reaction that may help or hinder. Hence, human consciousness is itself a commons. Thus are we equipped to understand the bioregion of the northern Río Grande——prepped as we are by our myriad cultural biases.


Advice is a dangerous gift, even from the wise to the wise.” So said Gandalf in The Lord of the Rings. Thus, it is with no mean trepidation that I humbly offer a few tidbits of uninvited advice to those who are manning the NRGNHA committee and website.


First, I would put the northern Río Grande bioregion, the habitat itself, at the head of the table, and let that be the model for self-governance. The habitat “knows” what’s best for itself and has evolved over many millennia into its current incarnation.


I would strongly suggest recording lore recollected by the elders of each community, gathering information regarding not only how to culturally and individually sustain in the traditional ways, but also what systems of attitudes are vital to maintain proper relationship to homeland.


The NRGNHA is mostly contained within a clearly definable watershed wherein aridity is the primary characteristic. Research reveals that due to global warming and climate instability, water is likely to become ever less abundant, and that practices such as showering golf courses with precious drinking water are unacceptable. Watersheds are once again being recognized as foodsheds, and it is clearly possible that in the near future, we will come to rely on the yield of our home bioregion for much more of our food.


Traditionally, the cultures indigenous to this region have regarded water as one of many common pool resources. The concept of privatization of water rights violates Natural Law and must be thwarted.


Our current system of economics is based on unlimited growth. This system has been transplanted into this region that obviously cannot sustain limitless growth. Steady state systems prevailed here in the past and should gradually re-emerge and serve as models of future cultural conduct. This does not necessarily mean relinquishing everything that the modern world has given us. My friend Roy Kady is a Navajo who is trying to restore appropriate native practices to his community at Teec Nos Pas near Four Corners. When asked about returning to the old ways, he replied, “Well, it’s not really to go back because we can’t go back. It’s more to get the intention back. It’s really to take those tools that were very effective, that had made our people the way they were, to go back and get them, to bring them up at this time and to utilize them again. Because they worked then, and they can work here, too.”


We live in an age of applied science and technology. Science is a remarkable and valuable culture of practice responding to human curiosity that cannot be denied. But there is far more to wisdom than technological application of science. Indigenous-minded people are aghast that scientists in Los Alamos would have ever even considered dumping toxic waste to ultimately drain into the sacred waters of homeland. And that scientific culture of practice that thrives in Los Alamos lies within the home bioregion.


Geo-political boundaries empower bureaucracy that may toll the knell for grassroots activism. Politics thrives on bureaucracy, itself a novel human invention designed to defend often ill-conceived procedure, and thus becomes self-fulfilling. Beware bureaucracy!


There is an invaluable opportunity to respond to Congressional Act, Public Law 109-338 designating this bioregion as the NRGNHA. In part, it reinvigorates the grassroots approach to sustainability. It provides an opportunity to gradually decentralize prevailing political governance while generating a growing level of self-governance. And perhaps most important of all, it serves as a potential model for conveying the vastly important role of Indigenous Mind in restoring a sadly ailing mega-culture to balance, a culture that mandates turning habitat into money, a culture that eternally turns to the entertainment industry as the alternative to contemplating the mystery of existence, a culture that has secularized the landscape and now has little inkling of the importance of querencia.


A true sense of coherence is only possible within a clearly defined and well understood homeland wherein the flow of Nature is the study of a lifetime. The bioregion of the northern Río Grande watershed is a natural masterpiece of every kind of diversity. Those who understand it best have tapped their feet to its heartbeat for generations and take great joy in celebrating the Spirit of this Place. They get it. The rest of us have a lot to learn.



Jack Loeffler is the author of numerous books, including Healing the West: Voices of Culture and Habitat. Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler are contributors to and co-editors of Thinking Like a Watershed, an anthology of essays published by the University of New Mexico Press intended for release October 15, 2012. For more info, visit www.loreoftheland.org




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