Where Community Defines Tradition as Sustainability


Camilla Bustamante



Established by Congress, National Heritage Areas are intended to be a grassroots and community-driven approach to heritage conservation and economic development, according to the National Parks Service website. The NPS is the federal entity that has oversight of the establishment of these areas. The NPS website further states that NHAs are not national park units. Rather, NPS partners with, provides technical assistance, and distributes matching federal funds from Congress to NHA entities. The Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area (NRGNHA) is one such entity that benefits from this legislation in the interest of supporting community-defined heritage conservation and economic development.


Concepts of heritage conservation and economic development can be discordant, particularly where core values between cultures collide. Consider for example, the European colonization, where common lands became commoditized and inaccessible to the commons, and to indigenous peoples who had accessed the land freely, often times for sustenance. Consider cultural differences among Native peoples and how notions of “economy” and societal value were determined. Most academicians agree that information regarding the economic history of Native Americans is sparse and that differences in values among tribal communities abound. It is not enough to ask how an area with a diverse identity that includes European settlers predominantly identified to be of Spanish decent (and all that entails), as well as multiple tribes of Tewa, Tiwa, Towa, Keres and Apache, can begin to conserve heritage while fostering economic development that is meaningful and on terms consistent with cultural identity. It is shared responsibilityin that, in the process of conserving heritage, and as economic identity is defined, it is not concurrently unraveling the heritage it seeks to conserve. An economy based on the exchange of goods and services is as old as humankind anywhere. But whether the exchange has been on civil terms or coercion requires ongoing consideration. Such a community-driven approach requires community members, tribal, county and city governments, and those who serve to evaluate and recommend funding for community defined projects to collectively participate in defining and respecting core values.


A basis for the development of the Sostenga Center at Northern New Mexico College in Española is the comprehensive evaluation of tradition as sustainability. Traditions, by definition, are practices, beliefs and behaviors that have been handed down through generations—essentially sustained. The NRGNHA is rich with traditions that provide a heritage of resilience, value for family and community, fortitude in working with respect for the land—all of which are strong indicators for sustainability. The NRGNHA, Inc., a non-profit corporation chartered in the State of New Mexico, serves as the local coordinating body for the heritage area. The opportunity provided by Congress that will remain with the non-profit is to provide seed funding to help support community-defined efforts of heritage conservation. The NRGNHA has an established grant program that serves to foster locally driven community development in the tri-county heritage area region. This initiative serves to protect local community interests since the local community defines projects. Who better to actively participate in culturally defined economic development than those deeply familiar with the dynamics of the local economy, who have been actively participating in it for generations? The dynamics of democracy must play out at the most local level before any external entity, such as the Heritage Area, could support it, particularly where issues of identity, culture and potential for exploitation may occur. It is incumbent that any effort that is supported, is done so con Respeto y Permiso—with Respect and Permission, a value taught by activist Ernesto Galarza and brought to the NRGNHA by one of the early founders of the Heritage Area, José Luz Villa. Respect and permission are crucial to ensuring that the harm and pain of colonization that continues to this day are reduced if not eliminated.


The NRGNHA encompasses an area that has seen migration of peoples since the end of the Ice Age, where the economy was defined by families of hunters who found large and small game in the mountains and along the run-off waterways. In time indigenous farming practices developed, which have held for centuries and were further supported with the introduction of the ancient acequia systems brought by Spanish settlers. When English law confronted Spanish law, centuries-old traditions continued, and only traditions proven to be sustainable continue to survive; economic practices that are unstable and unsupportive devolve out of societal practice, in some cases when harm has already been done.


Dr. Gregory Cajete’s indigenous metaphor for sustainability in A People’s Ecology (another founding premise of the Sostenga Center), “healthy environment, healthy culture, healthy people,” continues to provide basic guidance for evaluating and better understanding the heritage along the northern Río Grande. It requires that collectively we review relatively new practices and how they might supplant traditions of community health. As the early indigenous peoples served as early adopters of practices from one tribe to the next, using what made sense and discarding what did not, the NRGNHA, Inc. is poised to assist efforts that illuminate and support the fostering of the heritage that community defines as valuable.




Camilla Bustamante is a dean at Northern New Mexico College, director of the Sostenga Center and a board member of the Northern Río Grande National Heritage Area.



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