Pick-up a map
“If you had a white pick-up, and I liked that pick-up, I would find a way to steal it from you. That’s what happened to the land—the land being the pick-up.” I was sitting at the kitchen table in Manuel Trujillo’s house, lost among piles of papers, magazines, and a few jars of mountain oregano he had collected the summer before. Manuel—a parciente, farmer, and water activist—grew up on the former Tierra Amarilla land grant in northern New Mexico. “Now I stole your pick-up,” he continued “and I decided that I was going to paint that pick-up green. Then I use it a bit, and soon, I sell it to John. John paints it yellow, and sells it to Joe. Who does the pick-up belong to? Now that truck has been painted so many colours, it’s hard to trace it back to the original owner. It was yours so what do I do? Do I give it back? Do I pay you for it?” Manuel left the question hanging, and got up to look out the window at the sun setting beyond a ruined adobe house.
I had met Manuel at his home in Enseñada, a hamlet in the northern part of the Chama River watershed. A friend and I were working on a documentary project mapping the social worlds occurring in the geographic space of the Chama River watershed. Our focus on the watershed allowed us to define our work according to boundaries defined by the movement of water, rather than political, social, or economic boundaries. We hoped that, by focusing on water, we would be able to talk to people from a range of backgrounds that might not often engage with each other.
Flowing south from the Colorado-New Mexico border, the Chama runs between high alpine meadows, through ponderosa forests, canyons, and flatlands before joining the Rio Grande in Okay Owinge pueblo. This watershed is a place of ecological, social, and economic transitions. It is a place where the past and present blend in stories that justify the storyteller’s relationship to the land. It is a site of conflicts that weave together land, class, history, morality, indigeneity, and state power as multiple people in the watershed try to create and maintain borders dividing the land. Land and landscape are not interchangeable terms. The land is the material you can touch and feel—the rocks, the trees, the fires, the water; the landscape is the arrangement of these materials by people or nature into particular forms that reflect their imagined maps of the land. Landscape is always becoming: it is in constant creation at the juxtaposition of the land—the material—and the imagined maps people living, working, and visiting the watershed draw to comprehend the land. Using stories and bulldozers, morality and law, they all try to make the land fit their map by directing its unending changes in their favor.
The Chama’s thin and silty stream is critical for life in arid New Mexico. This aridity makes the river a common thread running through all the maps of the region’s inhabitants. The watershed’s landscape is created as these maps are “superimposed in such a way that each map finds itself modified in the following map…from one map to the next.”[i] Thinking about the region, there is little point in searching for an original map; it is more important to evaluate how the landscape is created as multiple maps displace each other’s effects on the land.
- [i] Deleuze, Gilles. “What Children Say.” essays critical and clinical. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press. 1997. Print
“You don’t recognize racism because you’ve never faced it,” Manuel told me over coffee one morning. “I was raised in it, and I don’t have to see racism; I can smell it coming around the corner. You develop all these awareness mechanisms, and you’re aware of all the little innuendos and nuances that take place.” He sighed and turned away. Manuel was not the only person in the watershed who talked to me about daily racism; it is a common violence shaping the region’s cultural topography.
Violence here is born from change and transformation in social and physical topographies. It takes multiple forms ranging from racism to raids; wild fires to dam construction. These violences are the expressions of peoples’ maps onto the land; without them, landscape would never exist. People do not keep their maps of the regions surrounding them in the imagination; they try to change the land’s physical form to make their map correlate more closely with the land’s physicality. The encounter between the singular characteristics of the land—rocks,dust,trees—and the struggles between the multiplicity of maps trying to transform them is violent. Rocks and roots are ripped up as multiple maps try to make the singularity of the land reflect their vision over others. The landscape is produced in this violence, and its features reflect the distribution of is distributed among the mapmakers. Who has the social, political, and economic power to create a landscape that better reflects their map? How do they go about deciding whose map the landscape will reflect? In the Chama, these inequalities of power follow lines of race, class, gender, shared morals, and law. The racism Manuel talked about is one expression of the landscape’s creative violence; systemic poverty, drug abuse, fences, and gates are others.
Set on the western edge of the Chama watershed among yellow mesas and ponderosa forests, Dulce (NM) feels like a world apart. The town is guarded from other communities in the region by thirty miles of road running deep into the Jicarilla Apache Reservation. I came here to meet Wainwright Velarde, an elder and member of the Jicarilla Apache tribal council who could teach me about the lands on the western edge of the Chama watershed. He greeted me among patches of melting snow in the parking lot of the Dulce casino; after a quick handshake, I joined him in his SUV to tour the town. Dulce is a collection of houses scattered across a broad valley, separated by pasturelands, trailers, and fences. “That’s Bison Nation,” said Wainwright, grinning at a group of bison grazing in the midst of a pasture. “You know,” he said watching the animals, “there’s enough land and water for everybody, we just need to share.” I looked out the window at the snow-covered houses as his words tried to sink in. What did he mean by sharing?
As we were driving around the town, Wainwright went over some of the Jicarilla Apache Tribe’s history. Prior to American occupation in southwestern North America during the nineteenth century, the Jicarilla lived in a territory that extended from the Continental Divide to the western edge of the Great Plains, and between the San Juan Mountains to the upper reaches of the Rio Grande. Subsisting from hunting/gathering, agriculture, and raiding, the Jicarilla existed in a world of shifting political allegiances between the many indigenous groups spread across the West, and Spanish settlements in the south. By the 1830s, the US Army had established a strong presence in the area and forced the Jicarilla off their land and into dependence on the American government to meet their basic needs. After a forced migration to the Mescalero Apache reservation in the southern part of New Mexico, the Jicarilla were eventually permanently settled to the present-day Jicarilla Apache reservation. Life on the reservation was difficult for the first half of the twentieth century. Paltry wages, minimal political autonomy, and bad housing combined to propagate starvation and tuberculosis among the Jicarilla. Things started to look up for the tribe in the 1930s when Congress devolved more power to native tribes across the country. With this increased political autonomy, the Jicarilla could start to manage their own economic and political affairs; by the 1970s, oil and gas discoveries on the reservation had started to fill the Tribe’s coffers[i]. Funded through the royalties and taxes levied off the oil industry, the Tribe has been continuously increasing the reservation’s size through the private purchase of large, adjacent private lots. Most of the newly purchased land is used to support a lucrative luxury elk hunting industry, and give the tribe more direct access to the headwaters of the Navajo and Chama Rivers and their tributaries.
- [i] Tiller, Veronica E. Velarde. The Jicarilla Apache Tribe: A History. Lincoln: U of Nebraska, 1992. Print.
We climbed a bluff overlooking the creek running behind Dulce. Wainwright stopped the truck and cut the engine. We sat in silence, listening to the water flowing below us. “Water is one of the precious things we have in our world. We’re the only tribe…” he stopped and looked at me “This is unusual, because all Indian Country has water, but it’s paper water. Us we have wet water.” He was referring to the prior appropriation doctrine in western water law. Under prior appropriation, whoever can establish a senior claim on water will be allowed to use their full allotment before claimants with a junior rights (a later claim date), even if they are up-stream. Native Tribes generally have senior rights over all other claimants, but in many cases, these water rights do not translate into use, control, and ability to sell literal (wet) water. Instead, their rights give them access to abstracted volumes—water value instead of liquid water—that might be impossible to access because of the steep cost of drilling wells or overuse by upstream users. “When we got our water, our attorneys made sure that we could sell water.” Wainwright said. I must have shown my surprise at his comment. “Now that we’re in this predicament with the White civilization” he continued, “we have to sell it, we have to do it away to maintain our survival, so that’s how we look at it too” he said, shrugging as he lit the ignition. He told me later that the Tribe was already negotiating water sales to urban centers like Santa Fe and Albuquerque.
How do you share in a capitalist economy? The question arises for the Jicarilla as they try to navigate an American legal and economic system driven by capital accumulation while trying to maintain their cultural identity and political claim to land ownership, claims that revolve on the ideal of a common and equitable distribution of resources. The Jicarilla have used law, oil and gas, land, and water to “maintain what was there before, and then at the same time leave it as it is,” as Wainwright told us jokingly. They have used the legal and economic tools of American government to preserve a landscape that might attempt to reflect the map of a ‘sharing economy’ by reinforcing the borders between the reservation’s landscape, and the land surrounding it. “I get outside folks that tell me one day this is going to be the only zoo in the United States, cause you have your wild Indians, your wild game, and you can drive through and actually see it!”
“My family has been in Abiquiu since 1750…and we’re still here!” said Virgil Trujillo as he leaned against his scratched blue truck. “And you know, it might be easy for some people to move away, but it isn’t easy for me.” He looked to the pinon-pine dotted hills lifting up and away to the west of town. “When you actually put your hands to labor in a certain place, or how you become a part of it. Then it’s not as easy for you just to uproot and get rid of your land and go someplace else. Yes there are many places in the world I could go to, but I choose to stay here. This is where my parents have been from, and a lot of my ancestors.”
I was in Abiquiu, high up on a bluff above Highway 84. Across the valley in the east rose a brown, rocky mesa while behind the house the pinon-covered slopes of the Jemez Mountains National Forest disappeared into the sky. Most people coming through the town never pass here; they stop for a few minutes at Bode’s—a renowned pit stop—gas station-general store-restaurant-liquor store on the highway—without heading up the hill, and into the town’s adobe plaza. Built from the ground up in the mid-1700s, Abiquiu was the first Spanish settlement in the Chama watershed. It was a border town under constant threat from Ute, Navajo, and Apache raids from the north, and a vibrant trading site where goods, captives, and ideas moved between the Spanish empire to the south and the tribes who lived to the north ans west. Abiquiu was also the population and administrative bases for Spanish and Mexican colonial expansion further north along the Chama during the mid-nineteenth century.
Spanish settlement in New Mexico roughly followed the structure outlined in the Leyes de los Indios—the Laws of the Indies[i]. These laws provided legal validation to Spanish settlers to impose colonial rule on the Pueblo, Navajo, and Apache peoples already living in the Rio Grande and Chama watersheds. The Leyes prescribed a settlement pattern that revolved on establishing a large, communal land grant—a merced—that guaranteed the material needs of small, subsistence agricultural communities. The merced protected the right of all settlers to collect firewood, hunt, graze their livestock, and use the water drawn from the mountains by the acequia—a community irrigation system whose structure was outlined in the Spanish empire’s settlement plans.[ii] Abiquiu was no exception; it had been granted to a group of génizaro Indians—people of mixed indigenous and Spanish heritage—by the Spanish administration in the 1730s.
- [i] Correia, David. Properties of Violence: Law and Land Grant Struggle in Northern New Mexico. Athens, GA: U of Georgia, 2013. Print.
- [ii] Ebright, Malcolm. Land Grants and Lawsuits in Northern New Mexico. Santa Fe, NM: Center for Land Grant Studies, 2008. Print.
Virgil is the mayordomo of the Abiquiu acequia. As mayordomo, he is the person responsible for distributing water and mediating irrigation disputes in the community. An energetic, wry man in his forties wearing a patched canvas jacket and a dusty ten-gallon hat, Virgil is one of the few people in the community who still makes a living fully from agriculture. To survive economically and culturally, he has become a vocal spokesperson for increasing the management capabilities and access rights of small hispanic farmers in New Mexico’s National Forests.
Virgil nodded towards the Jemez mountains: “I call it the For-Rest service. They want to put everything into wilderness, they want to kick the people off the land, they want to make it a playground, and they want to forget about the people who use the land. Now we only view land as a playground. The worst thing is when individuals in your community start to believe this playground idea, so then they’re also against you. Then you end up with tough situations where you’re still trying to make a living, and they’re out there like ‘Lone Ranger’ on the land. It’s just tough; it’s a tough situation to be in.” Beyond the house, a jacked-up truck drove by beating a bass rhythm into the otherwise still air “We have no management capabilities whatsoever. We’re just at the whim of what they decide. That’s our American government at work, believe it or not.” he ended in frustration.
In New Mexico, the debate around the access to the commons of the mercedes—wood, water, game, and pasture—is symbolic of a much larger social, economic, and racial struggle. The mercedes were more than tracts of land; they were the material foundation of northern New Mexico’s distinct Hispanic identity well into the twentieth century. They were built on a legal and religious foundation that expected the settlers to establish a claim to the land by transforming it, through physical labor, into a community that reflected the model outlined in the Leyes de los Indios—Spain’s legal framework for colonizing the Americas. They relied on establishing strong communal bonds tying these farmers into social and economic co-dependence.
The villages of the mercedes were places of social and cultural mixing as indigenous peoples from across western North America, and self-funded Spanish or Mexican settlers inter-married and settled in these small mountain towns, developing modes of subsistence that wove together knowledge from Spain and North America. Lost at the edge of the Spanish colonies, Nuevo México had considerable political autonomy until the American government acquired it in 1848.
Enacted in the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the American possession of New Mexico marked a major transition in the region. The growing nation was driven to exploit the West’s natural resources as fast as possible, and was willing to justify contentious actions on the basis of manifest destiny—the idea that the western part of North America was given to the United States by God. In this climate of unregulated growth, a group of American and élite Hispanic politicians, bureaucrats, and lawyers collectively known as the Santa Fe Ring colluded to turn most of the mercedes into private or federal land without community-wide knowledge or consent of the people living there. Deprived of the land’s sustenance, the merced communities fought vigorously against these transformations, yet for the most part still needed to work low-paying jobs for their survival.
Manuel told me that throughout the first half of the twentieth century, it was common to hear the wealthy landowners and sheep barons employing Hispanic land grant heirs in the Chama watershed argue that, “to educate a Mexican [Hispanic villager] is to lose a good shepherd.” Pushed by a family who wished him to become more than a shepherd, he and many others left the community for school, to serve in the Vietnam War, and to find work. For the most part, people like Manuel have spent significant parts of their working lives outside of the Chama watershed region, and have only recently returned to retire. The out-migration continues and takes a severe toll on many of northern New Mexico’s rural communities. The practices foundational to subsistence life on the mercedes are now mostly memories; as the material practices of the heirs to these grants have changed and adapted to new social and economic realities, they have moved questions of identity and historical violence into New Mexican land and water political debates.
“A better part of a half million acres in the upper San Juan-Chama watersheds fall into private ownership. What’s very inspiring to me is that the common plight of the land and resources is well understood today by the private landowner community in this area. The critical role we play is our duty to lead by example.” Frank Simms leaned back into his plush leather chair and took a sip of whiskey. He is the Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Chama Peak Land Alliance, a group of conservation-minded landowners in the San Juan-Chama region who have collectively pledged to protect their 1.4 million acres of land from residential and industrial development. “We’re not asking for anything, we are demonstrating a commitment to our communities at large. We’re contributing because we care.”
Frank took another sip of whiskey. New Mexican by birth, he dressed in a full Wrangler denim outfit, crowned with a ten-gallon hat, a necktie and cowboy boots. Lining his office wall were antique guns and saddles dating from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In the corner of the room, a giraffe’s head and neck were mounted to the floor next to an original Gustav Bauman woodblock. Outside, his new F-450 Ford truck was parked at the ready, a pistol stuck in the crack beneath the steering wheel. On the coffee table, Times Magazines mingled with private jet sales catalogues.
“My land ethic,” Frank continued, ”becomes a religious experience because you are so impassioned, because you recognize that what you do and are able to provide are inextricably tied to the land” He paused and looked out the window at the mountains in the distance. “The collective of the Chama Peak Land Alliance forms a stewardship ethic where, not even for money, would I sacrifice one of my core values. This is the sanctity of the land; without the land, we are nothing, we are products of the land. As landowners, we really need to embrace how we can manage the landscape at large.”
“Conservation is the opposite of development. It’s not going out and trying to sell this land; it’s trying to keep it in it’s natural state, and it’s also trying to improve the land, to make it better than when we got there” Dan Perry, an active member of the Chama Peak Land Alliance told us as we looked north from a bluff on his ranch towards the deep blue storm clouds gliding across Chama Peak. Dan’s ranch was stunning; set in the Chama valley, trees and open fields frame the river as it runs through the property. Modern art installations dot the fields and forests, making every turn a surprise. “We donated 300 acres of the ranch to a conservation easement. People benefit from this easement because they get to see open space, there’s not development there; it’s a place for native species to propagate, and I think people really benefit from that. There are a lot of like-minded private ranch owners in this area, because there’s a lot of private property in this area, and this group of private landowners really try to inspire each other to do conservation.” I followed him down to the river and he pointed out some of the riffles, “We did some substantial watershed work. The Chama River has been abused over the years. There was a lot of livestock grazing, and a lot of erosion that’s never been tended to.”
Dan is a fly-fisherman and a mineral rights lawyer in Santa Fe. He bought the ranch as a fishing retreat and conservation project. “We took a section of the Chama that runs through our property and we did a lot of analysis of it. We hired River Bend engineering and they came up with a six-figure quote of how we could really improve our river, and we really took them up on it. They did a great job: they put back some of the meandering stretches of the river, they put back in the meanders and the riffles that were there years ago, they built up some of the banks that had eroded away, they deepened holes so that the water temperature is cooler for the trout, we put in vegetation, we put in some waterfalls…that really helped the fishing; it is a much better habitat for the fish.” Dan turned around, and we walked back to my car talking more about the restoration work he had done. The Chama Peak Land Alliance had provided a framework that helped him change his land to make it more beneficial for the trout. Originally from Texas, he had bought the ranch a few years earlier, and had rapidly developed a sense of responsibility for ensuring the land was protected for generation to come. The organization had helped him and other owners of large private ranches in the area increase manage their properties to become landscapes advantageous to fish and wildlife.
“I guess you could consider this subdivision in the upper-end or the upper-class demographics” Joe Carrillo, the Timber Manager for New Mexico State Forestry told me as we rolled to a stop in front of a wrought-iron electronic gate blocking the road ahead. Leaning out the window, he punched a code into a small black box planted near the road. The gate opened slowly, letting us into the subdivision. We were high up in the Brazos watershed following the road as it twisted through thick ponderosa forests. Occasionally, we passed a driveway and I could glimpse the outline of large houses hidden among the pines. “This property was owned by a man called Jim Mundy, who managed it mostly for natural resources. Eventually, he decided to subdivide and sell off parcels touted as a high-end real estate product.” Pausing for a moment, he focused on driving the truck through a two-foot high snow bank. “In this subdivision, maybe 20% live here full-time; it’s mostly summer homes. It’s gotten away from really the local aspect.” He paused for a second as we passed the last house on the road, and continued up into the hills. “There’s always the misnomer that it’s all the rich people up here, but there’s a lot of really nice folks.” We drove for a bit longer before parking at the edge of a large puddle of melt water that marked the end of the road.
Jumping out of the truck, I followed Joe along a muddy road for a half-mile before the forest opened up onto the massive cliffs of the Chavez canyon. Joe smiled, “Growing up in this area, I never would have imagined being able to peek behind some of these mountains and some of these properties, but working for State Forestry, I can and it’s a blessing. Being able to see the area that I grew up in, and to see behind these peaks; see what’s behind the fence so to speak.” He looked up the canyon, and then back down the road “It’s private up here, so most people wouldn’t come up, and if they do they’re trespassing.” I had asked about the land grants during the drive, but he had blown my question aside to navigate a muddy patch. He was the only local I had met who was in the midst of his working career.
Most of the people in the small towns and hamlets of northern New Mexico were retired; they had returned after working elsewhere. “That’s the other thing; being part of an old land grant you have this mindset that it’s still public land. It may have been taken away from the folks that it was granted to way back when…and that begets a sore subject with some folks but then you add that to the notion that ‘well, this was our land at one point, and we can still go up on the mountain, and hunt, and do whatever’—you end up with a sore subject.” He did not seem to be particularly regretful of the access boundaries imposed by private property, “you’re trespassing. Regardless of how the current landowners acquired their property, it was what happened way back when that created the issue and that is past.”
We got out of Manuel’s truck next to a metal pole set in concrete lining a few feet of the Porvenir acequia’s grassy banks. In the water was a metal plate smoothing out the stream’s flow into a small waterfall. “The old mayordomo used to look a lot like me,” he said, turning to face me. Beneath his floppy garden hat, his eyes shone out from his face’s deep brown creases. “This,” he wrapped an arm around the metal pole, “is the new mayordomo!” We were looking at a newly installed water meter on the acequia. Installed across the state, and funded by the New Mexico State Engineer, these meters send flow data back to the office of the State Engineer. They have generally not been well received by many in the acequia community; by providing the State with numerical data about water use in the acequia, the metering system has forced water distribution patterns previously managed by the community by the mayordomo into one dictated by water rights defined in American law, and managed and regulated outside the community. The meters are the mechanism through which the state can transform community rights into individual rights, and in the process leave the individual alone against the state’s legal strength in the case of a water dispute.
“You can’t really conserve what you’re not really aware of, or how much you’re using, so I think everybody should have some type of metering, although I know that for many of our traditional communities, the idea of metering…is unpleasant.” I was standing next to the non-potable water pumping station of the city of Albuquerque, talking to Katherine Yuhas, the city’s water utility conservation officer. A few hundred miles downstream from the Chama along the Rio Grande, Albuquerque gets almost a third of its drinking water from the San Juan-Chama project, a diversion tunnel that runs beneath the Continental Divide in the headwaters of the Chama. This tunnel supplies New Mexico’s allocation of the Colorado River, sending it down the Chama to augment the Rio Grande’s flow. In effect, it turns the Chama into a massive plumbing system for the cities and farms of the Rio Grande.
“Here in Albuquerque, we are metering every single drop of water. We have very expensive, highly accurate meters on everything we do, and we’re reporting to multiple agencies.” Katherine told me as we toured the pumping station. I thought back to a meeting I had had with Lee Stewart, the district ranger for the Coyote Office of the Santa Fe National Forest. We had met deep in the Chama canyon, between crumbly walls of yellow, red, green, and blue earth. A Louisiana Cajun, he had just moved to New Mexico and was not used to arid climates. “I didn’t realize how many partners we had in this river. Just federally, the Bureau of Reclamation, the Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Corps of Engineers; and then we have the City of Albuquerque, all the various pueblos downstream, Santa Fe, and then there’s a couple of other municipalities; and they all have water rights.”
For Albuquerque and the other urban and agricultural centers along the Rio Grande, the ability to numerically control the volume of water flowing into and out of the river is critical, as they try to balance water use between thousands of different users and claimants. “The biggest threat to the upriver acequias is going to be people in Santa Fe and Albuquerque who rely on water from the Chama, and into the Rio Grande, for their drinking water and their use in their homes, and that’s going to have a higher priority, I think, than traditional users upstream.” Dan Perry told me as we were touring his ranch. “Now, I’m not saying it’s going to be taken from them without compensation, but it’s going to happen.” As Katherine told me, “the issue isn’t really about water, it’s about a culture and a heritage, and the way that people have done things on your land for a long time.”
A landscape never stays the same. Clouds pass, roads appear and disappear, sheep move into the mountains, trees replace them—then, a fire turns the forest to ash swept to the sea in summer rain. Trying to understand these changes, people living in, working, and visiting the land make maps. These are representations of the mapmaker’s imagined image of the land. The landscape is the space between the land and the maps; it is produced through the constant juxtaposition of the real and the imaginary. Change in landscape is constant, and the act of charting new territory creates a new landscape, which must in turn be charted. Creating landscapes is a violent process, as maps displace one another’s ability to be expressed on the land. This violence runs along lines wealth, race, morals, political authority, and radical ecological change. A landscape’s formation continuously creates and brakes affective bonds between people, places, communities, traditions, and ideals.
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This project was made in partnership with Galen Hecht. Galen and I studied human ecology together at the College of the Atlantic, and conceived, and executed this project in tight collaboration over the 2015-2016 academic year. After months of highly collaborative work researching, interviewing, filming, and photographing this project in New Mexico, we decided to crete distinct final products for the project. I focused on writing the article above, while Galen made the documentary film below. Both address the same geography, mention the same people, and are reference the same historical context; however, our personal histories and interests lead us along slightly different paths as we created a portrait of the Rio Chama watershed.