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Rolls Out Red Carpet : Tribe Fights to Preserve Sacred Land

Times Staff Writer

Stanley Paytiamo, 63, governor of the Acoma Nation, population 4,200, stood on a bluff overlooking a rugged wilderness of prehistoric lava beds, fumbling for words and looking shamed as he described aspects of the Acomas’ sacred fall Corn Dance to bring rain, an ancient religious ceremony that the tribe has always held in fiercest secrecy from the prying eyes of outsiders.

“We place, uh, certain articles, religious items out there (at distances of several miles) in a certain pattern . . . which we believe helps guide the rain spirits, the rain clouds, into Acoma from the West. It’s the same principle, sort of, as the runway lights at an airport.”

A few miles away, in one of the reservation’s two tiny villages down by the highway, the tribal cacique, or holy man, a shadowy figure invested with absolute authority over every Acoma man, woman and child, and who, by tradition, does not grant interviews to the white man, opened the door to his home and, with weary resignation, said, “Come on in.”

Exotica for the White Man

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Elsewhere, all across the reservation, ordinary Acomas, from the painfully shy to the openly resentful, did their part to hold the white man’s interest, speaking of their respect for tadpoles and frogs, their dread of owls and witches, and tossing out other exotic tidbits.

Picturesque, bewildered elders, bedecked in their best Indian finery, some carrying pictures of their sons in military uniforms, paraded before TV cameras in the first public protest demonstration in Acoma history.

And so it went, when one small band of Indians discovered itself directly at odds with the will of the United States Congress, and tried to fight back.

Historically, the Acomas have been near legendary for their determined, tight-knit isolation--and so touchy about their ancient religious practices in particular that most books on the subject have been little more than apologetic essays in guesswork, or based on the dubious data provided by paid snitches.

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Reject Radio Station

Two years ago, the Acomas even voted down plans to build a radio station on their reservation, partly out of fear that it would enable snoopy outsiders to learn more of their ways.

Then along came a bill to turn some 380,000 scenic acres adjacent to the Acoma reservation into the El Malpais (Badlands) National Monument and wilderness-conservation area. The whole New Mexico congressional delegation thought it was a fine idea. So did the environmentalists. Small towns around the Malpais began to count the ways they might cash in on the tourist boom.

The Acomas took one look at the map, however, and screamed.

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Never mind 96% of the area--it was the threatened loss of the remaining four, a sliver of 13,000 acres that the Acomas now lease from the government for grazing, that literally flushed them into the open, forcing them to frantically solicit as much national attention as they could get.

At issue, according to the Acomas, was no mere cattle pasture or squabble over water rights.

This area had also been their most sacred, secret religious site since time immemorial. And one reason they hadn’t mentioned it earlier, they said, was because the region is also a virtual museum of 1,000-year-old Acoma ruins, burial grounds, shrines, relics and secret caves crammed with priceless Indian artifacts. It gave them nightmares, just thinking about the desecrating thunder of tourist feet now about to be unleashed on the area--never mind the swarms of looters who would probably follow, carting off their ancestral treasures in moving vans.

But, said the Acomas, it wasn’t only for themselves that they were begging that the land be given back to them. They’re also worried about what fate may lay in store for non-Indians who intrude, however innocently, into an Indian temple.

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Threats From the Gods

“Indian religion is for Indians only,” said Regina Castillo, 45, an Acoma drug counselor. “Part of the reason for our secrecy is to protect our beliefs from disrespect--but it’s also to protect non-Indians from our gods.”

In fact, the Acomas worry that things may have gone too far, as it is.

“Already, our religious leaders inform us that an imbalance has been created in our oneness with nature,” Paytiamo ruminated darkly. “It’s against our beliefs to talk about our religion, even this much. It’s unnatural.”

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Nevertheless, the Acomas got the hang of it pretty fast.

In place of their former narrow-eyed, ill-concealed distrust, they began wooing the media with a passion, inviting reporters to drop by the reservation any time--and never mind yesterday’s unyielding rule that an official tribal escort must accompany them wherever they go.

They blitzed practically every politician in New Mexico and on Capitol Hill with urgent letters, telegrams and phone calls; they rolled out the red carpet for every delegation of concerned citizens passing through; they had wistful public visions of a visit by Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, if not the reverend himself; they catered blatantly to Illinois Sen. Paul Simon’s presidential ambitions; and they even tried to find Marlon Brando.

They hired lawyers, made dozens of pilgrimages to Washington and calculated that, within perhaps 18 months’ time, they had spent at least $300,000.

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Valuable Photo Opportunity

It didn’t take the Acomas long, either, to realize that their single most important resource was going to waste.

What better, more alluring place to stage their press conferences than in the dusty plaza of their spectacular adobe capitol--a virtual fortress sitting atop a 400-foot, sheer-faced, sandstone mesa, so starkly removed from the silent valley floor, so dramatically silhouetted against the wide desert sky that the Spaniards, upon first sighting it in 1540, wrote home in awe of “the greatest stronghold ever seen in the world.”

Called Sky City by locals, the Acoma pueblo is about 1,000 years old and widely thought to be the oldest continuously inhabited village in North America. Previously it was also so strictly off-limits to non-Indians (except for rigidly directed, miserably quick 45-minute guided tours) that an Acoma woman who once tried to bring her white boyfriend home for dinner was reportedly stopped by angry neighbors before she even got to her front door and ordered to get him off the mesa pronto.

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And so, where it was once taboo to even carry an Instamatic without special, paid permission, television and movie crews soon freely roamed, stringing up whatever equipment they might need. One night, a documentary team even staged a bonfire outside the majestic old Spanish church for special effect, while several Acomas donned ceremonial beads and feathers and danced about.

Humiliated, Disgraced, Angry

Some Acomas are humiliated, disgraced and angry at all of the above.

Others, however, applaud the whole show as a small price to pay if it shoves the tribe out of its secretive little world and into the mainstream of the 20th Century, bringing down the theocratic rule of the cacique in the process. They want elections.

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But the opposition is so dead-set determined to preserve tradition that the last time it was seriously challenged, in 1985, some of them even threatened to murder the culprit--their own governor, Merle Garcia, then in his sixth one-year term.

By comparison, the Malpais pales as an emotional issue--but, for the first time in memory everybody’s at least mad as hell over the same thing.

At first, reviving a century-old claim, the Acomas had asked that the government give them the 13,000 acres outright, on grounds that the property was rightfully theirs anyway, but that they had been swindled out of it in a fraudulent land survey in 1877. (True, they were compensated in 1977, to the tune of $6.2 million for a much larger parcel of property, including the area now at issue, but the Acomas insist they were given no choice: It was take the money or nothing.)

Failing that, they next begged that they at least be permitted to retain their current lease--hence, full control--over the area, behind fences and locked gates.

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And, finally, they tried to buy it.

But New Mexico legislators, after several futile attempts to satisfy the tribe with compromise plans, still refused to hand over the land, insisting that Acoma rights were fully protected, whether the Acomas agreed or not.

‘It’s a Land Issue’

“This isn’t a religious issue, it’s a land issue,” declared Sean Bersell, aide to Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), clearly annoyed at all the haggling, “and these lands are mine and yours, they belong to the whole country, not just the Acomas, and they are not for sale.”

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Not even the support of Acomas’ white neighbors had helped.

“The Acomas are our friends, and I really can’t see why they shouldn’t be allowed to have that land, since it matters so much to them. Let them buy it, or at least keep their lease. I mean, 13,000 acres isn’t that much--there’s still an awful lot of land left out there,” said Mayor Jackie Fisher of nearby Grants, population 8,500, one of the towns expected to benefit most from the Malpais monument.

Nevertheless, the Acomas had learned, the Malpais bill was headed for the Senate floor, and expected to pass handily. And so, in a unanimous vote at the end of one of the stormiest tribal council meetings on record, the Acoma Nation threatened to break its treaty with the United States government--that is, to secede from the union. (A medicine man also wanted to march the Catholic priest off the reservation, just for good measure, but nobody else could see any sense in taking it out on poor Father Galen, too.)

It fell to Stanley Paytiamo to bear news of these latest events to the outside world, via a media event next day at Sky City.

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Lincoln’s Walking Cane

He was dressed for the occasion in special, brilliant Indian garb, ropes of fine turquoise beads around his neck, his long, silvering hair formally bound in hand-embroidered felt and satin ribbons. In his arms, he carefully cradled an elegant silver-and-wood, hand-engraved walking cane, presented to the Acomas in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln as a symbol of their sovereign authority.

The pueblo’s narrow streets were mostly deserted except for a large population of dogs sleeping in the dust. The sun was harsh. Nothing grows up here, not even weeds; few birds fly by.

Three children furtively scrambled up ladders to get better seats on the rooftops. A few old women basking in the sun alongside displays of their fine, bright pottery studied the scene with lazy eyes; a couple of housewives sweeping their door stoops gazed silently as their governor marched past with his small media procession; the war chief’s frisky 12-year-old daughter, Kimberly, darted up to a photographer, insisted he take her picture, then demanded a dollar.

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Otherwise few Acomas paid much attention, such scenes have become so routine.

A small gaggle of tourists, however, stared in fascination at the resplendent Indian in their midst. But they were herded onward so briskly by their tour guide that they barely had time to even snap Paytiamo’s picture. The Acomas remain singularly unsympathetic to tourist romanticism. Instead, at $4 per head, what the tourist here gets is a quick glimpse of many of the same contradictions and hypocrisies that beset any other community so small.

A few crumbling adobes remain, but most homes have been refurbished with everything from stucco siding and paint to sliding glass doors, and forget those quaint pueblo ladders--modern-day Pueblos travel by stairway. Although the mesa has neither electricity nor running water, residents make do with propane and generators, and nearly every home has a TV antenna. In another contemporary touch, many dwellings also feature iron grillwork guards on their front windows and doors--security, obviously not from outsiders, but from Sky City’s own juvenile delinquents.

And, in a final, minor measure of old ways colliding with the new, it’s a rare potter, however rickety her display table, or how sloppy her work, who doesn’t sport that familiar little red and gold placard reading, “Mastercard accepted here. “

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The largest building in the pueblo is the 17th-Century church, located within yards of several sacred kivas (religious meeting halls) the Spaniards tried so vainly to eliminate, along with every other vestige of Indian religion.

Today most Acomas call themselves Catholics, and they go to church. But Sky City’s grand old mission doesn’t get much use nowadays because, although all Acomas still maintain ancestral homes on the mesa, the permanent, year-round village population is no more than maybe 100--mostly kiva heads and war chiefs (sometimes called field commanders in these modern times), who are required to live there for performance of their (undisclosed) religious duties.

Priest Tends to His Flock

And so, the reservation’s garrulous Franciscan priest, Father Galen Hoffman, mostly tends to his flock in two churches down by the highway. And he doesn’t have the faintest notion, either, of what goes on at Sky City or in the Malpais on ceremonial occasions.

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But, whatever they’re doing in private, Hoffman, comfortably plump, maybe 40 and the resident priest for seven years, has faith that the Acomas are behaving like good Catholics should: “I know these people, I know they wouldn’t do anything really contrary to the Catholic faith. They’re praying--of course, they’re praying in their way--but they’re praying to God, the one and only God--I mean, after all these centuries of Christianity? Come on --no way do they still believe there’s more than one god! All those symbols, the sun, earth, the animals and stuff . . . those kachinas--all that was a long, long time ago, but now the Blessed Virgin has taken hold, I know it.”

Even so, Hoffman conceded, mustering a small chuckle: “Usually I have around 600 at Mass. But whenever they’re having a ceremony of some sort up there, I’m lucky if I get six.” And, he added, this time not even bothering to conceal his displeasure, the cacique almost never comes to church.

Paytiamo pointed out the cacique’s ancestral home in passing. It is no larger, nor more modern than that of any other ordinary Acoma.

Handpicks Every Leader

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By no stretch of the imagination, however, is the cacique an ordinary fellow. A religious leader unique to the Pueblo tribes, he personally handpicks every leader of consequence on the entire reservation, both religious and governmental. His is a lifetime, hereditary position, limited to members of one family bloodline, the Antelope Clan, for reasons so ancient that not even the Acomas can say why.

Not that it matters. When the cacique summons, all good Acomas respond. Even if it means quitting college, losing a job or leaving it to relatives to feed a large family, duty to the tribe comes first, the cacique’s wisdom is beyond challenge.

Juanico Sanchez is the current Acoma cacique, said Paytiamo. But everybody calls him Nick. He is 61, and Paytiamo believed he had either recently retired or was maybe laid off from his job at a nearby uranium mill.

And that was enough. Most Acomas seem uncomfortable discussing the cacique even casually with outsiders. Paytiamo’s face closed down, no more prying.

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He finally brought his little band to a halt at the far edge of the mesa, a particularly dramatic site he has long since learned that photographers love, the pueblo to one side, another huge mesa looming lavender and mauve in the distance.

He arranged his beads, patted his hair, and gathered his bulk into stoic stance.

Stanley Paytiamo, the mildest of men, couldn’t look militant if he tried. But he did look immensely sorrowful as he gazed at the cane. Somebody had dolled it up for the occasion, too, with a purple Easter bow around its graceful neck.

Council Makes Decision

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The Acomas were so “insulted and hurt” at the way the government was treating them, Paytiamo began, that they had no choice. The cane must go.

“The council has directed me to take it back to Washington and tell them to break it, since they won’t respect our rights.” Paytiamo sighed. He isn’t cut out for grandstanding gestures either. But, by making a final, public scene, Paytiamo shrugged, they might “at least embarrass a few politicians.”

Nobody will ever accuse the Acomas of being radicals.

Some Acomas, in fact, have outright contempt for the council’s latest move. In their view the battle over the Malpais was lost months ago, and it’s high time the tribe turned its attentions back to the 410 square miles it already owns.

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By far the most outspoken of these is Merle Garcia, 63, the former governor who so offended traditionalists that he was evidently lucky to escape office alive. But no mere assassination threat has caused Garcia, now returned to his ranching operation, to hold his tongue.

Instead, he stands in the Sky City Plaza, within easy earshot of half a dozen of his tight-lipped neighbors, complaining for a solid hour to an outsider about everything from the current administration’s do-nothing attitude, to the senseless poverty on a reservation that could easily support itself in handsome style, to what he sees as the lazy, hypocritical and secretive ways of the Acomas themselves.

‘What’s In It for Us?’

“The Malpais monument is going to pass. It’s a fact ,” he declares. “So why aren’t we accepting it and asking what’s in it for us? Why aren’t we making plans to build our own motels, restaurants, gift shops, even a resort to attract tourists? But, no--we’re so stupid and lazy, we’ll just sit back and take our welfare checks while Grants and every other town around here make all the money!”

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A small, compact man with an open, animated face, Garcia is, unto the quiet, cautious Paytiamo, as day is to night. Even in appearance, no two men could better reflect reservation political extremes than Garcia, with his short hair and cowboy clothes, and Paytiamo, whose flowing tresses are a rarity even among tribal elders.

“Plus, . . . underneath almost every single project that’s failed here has been this overriding fear of the white man somehow learning too much about us. And just look where it’s got us--a reservation where absolutely nothing is happening!”

Which is almost literally true. Despite the fact that this is a relatively tiny reservation both in size and population, sitting on a major interstate highway with one of the country’s most interesting tourist attractions at its center, the Acomas have done little to capitalize on their potential.

There is one small gas station-cafe-gift shop-grocery store complex on the reservation, and a bingo parlor (both built during Garcia’s terms), and that’s it.

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65% Unemployment Rate

Accordingly, reservation statistics are nearly as dismal as those of any Indian tribe in the nation: Unemployment is about 65%, and, with a per capita income of around $1,200 per year, most Acomas live well below the national poverty line, primarily on federal assistance and food commodities; the alcoholism rate is 45%, at least; the major source of Acoma employment, as on every other Indian reservation, is tribal government. Once a nation of self-sufficient farmers, only 9% of the population now works the land.

During Garcia’s terms in office, plans were discussed to build everything from an Israeli-supported plant to manufacture hot water heaters--which would have employed at least 150 Acomas--to a flashlight factory (plus the ill-fated radio station). He is still incensed at their demise.

And, in the final analysis, Garcia places blame squarely on the cacique. The reservation will always be on the federal dole, in his opinion, unless the Acomas step out of the “dark ages” and take responsibility for electing their own government leaders, instead of leaving it to one family of mostly “uninformed, ill-qualified people.”

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At which point his neighbors began to drift away, their faces dark with anger, to a man. There is no touchier issue among these Indians than whether or not to strip the cacique of his authority to appoint the tribal government. Of New Mexico’s 19 Pueblo tribes, four have so far gone the election route--and two recently elected female governors, which only horrified hard-core traditionalists all the more.

“Most of the caciques don’t go to tribal meetings,” Garcia says. “They don’t travel, they’re not informed--so they’re not equipped to appoint competent officials.”

As for his successor, Paytiamo, Garcia only shrugs. “Stanley’s a nice man, but he’s done nothing for two years except talk about the Malpais.”

Puts Health, Culture First

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For his own part, Stanley Paytiamo thinks talking about the Malpais is plenty. To Paytiamo, a veteran tribal official who served one previous term as governor in 1977, winning back the Acoma’s sacred grounds is more important than any material gain. He doesn’t even pretend to have an aggressive economic agenda. Of Garcia’s proposals, he says simply,: “Those were all non-Indian ideas. Besides, economic development isn’t everything, there’s health and culture, too.”

But, Paytiamo added unexpectedly, and with surprising vehemence, he does agree with Merle Garcia on one matter: He, too, firmly favors elections on the Acoma reservation.

“Administration and religion is too interwoven. It doesn’t produce efficient government. We’ve had business deals fall through here because nobody shows up to sign the papers on feast days,” he said, genuinely disgusted.

Equally unexpected, at least to an outsider, several tribal elders, just finishing lunch at the senior citizens’ center, also thought it was past time for some changes around the reservation.

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“Of course , we should have the right to vote!” declared Juana Chavez, 83, a spry mite of a woman with sharp, lively eyes and a mind to match. She looked a little insulted at the very question, in fact. “Acomas need people who will go to Washington for us, smart people who can get things done . Why, just look at us (the reservation),” she continued indignantly. “We’re so backward, we don’t even have a senior citizens’ home, we have to take our people to Grants!”

Even more galling, a wizened old man sitting beside her added: “Just look at that fine shopping center the Lagunas (a neighboring pueblo) have. How come we let the Lagunas outsmart

Reasons for Backing System

Among those most dedicated to retaining the cacique system of rule are the younger, educated set, typified by Regina Castillo and tribal land coordinator Gil Ortiz, 43. And they have trouble explaining why.

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Castillo, for example, doesn’t even live on the reservation; she lives in Grants because she finds the economic stagnation among the Acomas “too depressing, there’s nothing there .” But she respects tribal tradition. And the caciques, like the Acoma language, are part of tradition. “So, no matter what my brain tells me, I just can’t bring myself emotionally to support anything that will further weaken us as a people,” she says.

“Sure, we may wind up with bad leaders occasionally, but so what? So do you (voters),” declares Ortiz, in brief stab at militancy. “I don’t care what outsiders think. It may be a crazy system, but it’s ours .”

But even he would modify the current system, he reluctantly concedes, “broadening the base” of power to give more religious leaders a say-so in appointments, instead of limiting all advisory power to the head cacique’s Antelope Clan, a family of maybe 100 members.

Even the most hard-core traditionalist would probably go along with Ortiz on that much.

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In fact--with the undoubted exception of all the other Antelopes--about the only Acoma around who sees no room for any improvement whatsoever is the chief Antelope himself.

The cacique was home alone on a Sunday afternoon, watching the Denver Broncos on TV. He’s a big John Elway fan. He came to the door barefooted, in a T-shirt and jeans, with the two-day stubble of a man who sees no sense in shaving on weekends. In appearance, he was ordinary in every respect--average size, modest paunch, pleasant face, nice smile, full head of black hair, cut short, barely touched by gray. He hesitated momentarily, on the verge of refusing, then reconsidered and, in the name of the Malpais, invited an outsider into his home.

The place was small and cozy, similar to dozens of other government units on the reservation. The living room was crammed to overflowing with splendid Acoma pots, gifts from the people. Mostly, though, it was a shrine to Elvis Presley.

One entire wall was covered with a huge, eye-popping velour hanging of the King in the garish gem-studded white jump suit he wore during his last Hawaiian tour. On the opposite wall, bracketing the room in dazzling, stupefying redundancy, was another identical hanging, only slightly smaller.

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“My wife,” the cacique remarked, hurrying back to his chair in front of a big color console, “was a fan.”

Easy Spontaneity

He didn’t seem to mind the intrusion and talked with easy, albeit sometimes absent-minded spontaneity, depending on what the Broncos were doing. He cussed, slapped his thighs and otherwise interrupted himself from time to time with assorted small grunts and giggles.

As it turned out, Juanico Sanchez, 62, is an unusual mix of a man. Amiable, unaffected and circumspect one minute, sly, cynical and crude the next. His verbal skills are spotty.

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“On this voting business, I don’t think it would ever work, not at all,” he said. “You start having elections and some of those guys are gonna be running all over the place, doing their own thing. They wouldn’t work with the religious side, people wouldn’t like each other, everything will just fall apart. . . . “

There was no telling what Sanchez actually thinks of his own immense personal role in the present system.

“It’s sort of like being the king, I guess you’d say,” he offered vaguely. “But I don’t feel, uh, well over everybody, you know? I mean, it’s my job. They (the Antelope Clan) picked me, so I’m stuck with it, whether I like it or not.”

Likes It at the Top

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On the other hand, he likes it, too, being the tribe’s top guy, he said with a little grin. “I get treated nice wherever I go, and I’ve never had anybody, uh, harass me.”

He enjoys the power, too. He wanted to make it clear, for instance, that, while he listens to the advice of the Antelope Clan, “The final decisions are mine, nobody else’s.”

And, when it comes to “that business with Garcia,” the cacique’s placid expression turns positively mean. It was the first time in memory that any Acoma had dared tell any cacique how to do his job, and Juanico Sanchez didn’t like it a bit, being the first.

Besides that, Sanchez liked Garcia, and wanted to name him governor again. “He was smart, he had ideas, and he knows how to handle the gringos.”

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Anyway, he had no choice except to dump Garcia. “People are always against whoever’s progressing a little bit, at least here. And a few people stirred everybody else up, . . . so one night some guys came over here and said, ‘if you keep Garcia on (for the ’86 term), we’re gonna kill him,’ and, well, I didn’t want that burden on my shoulders,” Sanchez shrugged, “so I had to take him out.”

He was vague about how he settled on Paytiamo, although, judging from his expression, Stanley is not Nick’s kind of guy by a long shot. “The priest here loves him,” said Sanchez with a sarcastic little grin, “because he goes to church two or three times a week.”

Not Aware of Blight

He wouldn’t say what criteria guide him in his gubernatorial selections, which he announces to the tribe at then end of each year, but the reservation’s social and economic problems are evidently not among them--the cacique himself hardly seemed aware of the blight upon his kingdom. He was surprised to hear that the unemployment rate is so high, and after thinking for a few seconds, decided that “I guess alcoholism is our biggest problem.”

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On the other hand, he chortled, he himself is far from a teetotaler. “I like a beer now and then, and every once in a while, I’ll lose my head and drink a six-pack or two.”

But he quit smoking two years ago. It was no big deal either, he says. “You got a craving for a man? It’s just like sex. You put your foot down, and you can go without.”

The cacique seemed largely bored by the Malpais dispute, it’s been going on for so long. He thinks the battle is lost anyway. He didn’t sound particularly bitter.

“But I don’t think they ought to return the cane. I mean, Abraham Lincoln was there before we were. He’s older than we are.” He didn’t elaborate. “But I guess the council must be pretty mad, I haven’t heard. . . . “

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At the door, the cacique toyed with the notion of being photographed, then decided against it. Some Pueblo tribes won’t even tell outsiders their cacique’s name, and Sanchez thought he had already sacrificed enough of his mystique in behalf of the Malpais.

ADDENDUM: Last week, Senate Bill 56, establishing the El Malpais National Monument and wilderness-conservation area, to be administered by the Bureau of Land Management and the National Park Service, was passed on a voice vote by both the Senate and the House. President Reagan is expected to sign it into law any day.

According to Domenici’s office, the measure “guarantees the Acomas full access to the area for their private religious ceremonies, and the strong federal presence will protect the site forevermore against any destruction and looting.” The Acomas angrily disagreed and, at last report, Paytiamo was preparing for his journey to Washington to return the cane of sovereignty presented to his ancestors by Abraham Lincoln.


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