When I first heard about the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA), I wondered what the heck it was. I’d never heard of such a designation. I’ve come to understand it as a way for the federal government to recognize and give resources to local people within an area that has a unique cultural heritage in order to preserve those resources and share them with others. Unlike a national park or even a national monument, it is less about the land itself and more about how people have lived in an area. Most Heritage Areas celebrate historic cultures that no longer exist. The NRGNHA is different in that many of the cultural traditions continue to this day. People still farm using acequias; raise sheep, make yarn and weave according to age-old traditions; buildings are still built using adobe; stories are still told to each succeeding generation using oral traditions; ranchers still move cattle from winter to summer pastures and back each year; and native people still dance traditional dances, cook traditional foods and speak their own unique languages. While some traditions have been lost over time, those that remain are still practiced, even as with each succeeding generation more are lost.
Designation as a Heritage Area provides federal funding, which must then be matched by non-federal funds or in-kind contributions, to preserve, document and even teach the next generation so these rich traditions are not lost. The requirement of local partnerships means that communities keep ownership of the priorities and methods of that preservation.
I don’t personally share in the history of this land, which is my adopted home, though I have come to love the rich and varied traditions that comprise the mosaic of cultural traditions that make northern New Mexico unique and compelling. The deep rootedness that people who have lived here for generations have for this place is palpable in a way that I envy. Many of us who have chosen to make northern NM our home have developed strong attachments to this place because of the complex yet compelling history and traditions. I count myself among those who have found that the people of this region are the strongest pull that has compelled me to make this place my home.
So far most of the work of the Heritage Area has been to provide grants to people who are preserving, restoring, recreating or teaching cultural projects or practices unique to this area. We are finalizing a Management Plan that outlines our plans for expanding that work into more outreach and documentation as well as expanding the grant program. We have started to form partnerships with key organizations such as the Northern New Mexico College and the governments of the three counties and county seats, as well as the state government. Both the NM Senate and House of Representatives have recognized the unique contribution being made by the NRGNHA. We plan on expanding those partnerships and strengthening the ones we have in order to leverage the resources available to us to further the common goals we have with those partners.
The Board of Directors of the NRGNHA is a collection of residents who bring a wide understanding of much of the cultural heritage. The board includes those whose ancestors have been here for thousands of years, those descended from the Spanish who came here 400 years ago, and those who arrived in a Volkswagen van to a place they had never laid eyes on, looking for that place that seemed to be calling them home. The board is not complete. We still need representation from several Pueblos and the Jicarilla Apache Nation, as well as community members and city and county representatives from the three counties that make up the Heritage Area. People who want to contribute to the preservation and continuance of the rich cultural traditions of this region are encouraged to get involved, support the work of the Heritage Area and even become members of the board.
Katherine Mortimer is president of the board of directors of the NRGNHA.