Boom, bust experience tests tribal resilience

LINDA Romero says she didn't know how to cook in the traditional adobe ovens of her people until a few years ago. Now, she says, it's a matter of necessity. Mrs. Romero's husband used to work at the uranium mine on the reservation. He brought home $300 or more a week, and ``we got used to all that money,'' she says.

But Anaconda Minerals, a division of the Atlantic Richfield Company, closed the mine in 1982. Anthony Romero and 584 other tribal members were out of work.

There's not a lot of work available right now in this part of New Mexico. Other mines in the region have also shut down -- evidence of the plight of the nuclear-power industry. There are some jobs in Albuquerque, but the 50-mile commute from Laguna Pueblo to the city deters many. The jobless rate at Laguna hit 80 percent right after the mine closed, and it still hovers between 60 and 70 percent.

For the Romero family, the way to get through these hard times is to get back to the old ways.

Mrs. Romero now bakes perfectly rounded loaves of Indian bread in her mother-in-law's oven and produces pottery in the style of the neighboring Acoma tribe, of which she was a member before her marriage.

Mr. Romero makes beaded moccasins, and all these products are sold to passers-by at the nearby rest stop off Interstate 40.

``It's a matter of survival,'' Mrs. Romero says, determinedly facing the oven's hot blast to check on the bread. ``No one is just going to walk up to us out here and give us money. We've got to do it ourselves.''

It's no surprise that she had never learned to cook with the traditional ovens. In her lifetime, there had been no need.

The Laguna experience shows what can happen to a culture under the pressures of rapid economic development. The mine, which opened in 1953, had provided money for all. It made residents of Laguna the richest Indians in New Mexico.

In 1979 median family income at the pueblo was $16,675, almost $3,000 more a year than the national median for Indians.

Royalties from the uranium mine (a percentage of Anaconda's sales) were invested by the tribal government, which spent only the interest earned on those investments.

Uranium money paid for a new housing complex for the elderly and for paved roads, sewer systems, and new homes. People who had before been subsistence farmers could afford cars, televisions, and microwave ovens.

``But our culture was not being emphasized that much,'' says tribal secretary Gerald Pedro. Both parents in many families were working, and ``we saw some of our culture . . . not being taught.''

Abandonment of traditional ways, followed by the mine's closing, resulted in increased alcoholism, abuse in families, and suicides, Mr. Pedro says. The tribe's response has been twofold. First, it is reemphasizing the old ways. Minutes of tribal council meetings are read to the pueblo residents in both English and the native Keresan. Residents are urged ``to live a more prayerful life'' and attend religious services of their choosing, Pedro says.

Second, a strong effort is being made to bring new jobs to the reservation.

Even the closed mine could provide some jobs. The tribe is negotiating a settlement with Anaconda to reclaim the land ravaged by what was once the largest open-pit mining operation in the world, employing more than 800 Indians. Now it is a 2,600-acre scar on the reservation's topography.

Tribal officials say Anaconda is offering only a third of what it promised for reclamation. Determination of what is fair will be made by the United States Bureau of Indian Affairs, which is the tribe's trustee.

Meanwhile, Laguna has made some recent economic gains. Last year it opened a grocery store that employs 45 tribal members. The real coup, though, was winning a $10.5 million contract to build portable communications shelters for the military. The tribe has established a company, Laguna Industries Inc., to handle the contract and to separate tribal-council politics from tribal business.

``We knew of President Reagan's trickle-down theory, and we wanted to be at the end of the trickle,'' Ron Solimon, president of Laguna Industries, told Indian leaders this spring at a national conference in Kansas City, Mo. ``In the end, the Republican administration came through, but it took six years to get everything together.''

The irony now is that the US Small Business Administration, the agency through which the tribe was able to compete for the contract, is slated for elimination.

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