In Midsummer 2016, on the outskirts of Albuquerque, NM, I sat at a red light with my Bureau of Land Management supervisor, [name redacted], a descendent of the Spanish Conquistadors who had battled the Pueblo Indians of New Mexico centuries prior. He now continued the legacy.
“These [expletives] don’t give a [expletive] about anything but money.”
A lot of people don’t know that New Mexico is full of pure-bred Spaniards, or at least those who consider themselves “pure-bred” — the legacy of colonialism by the European power in what is now the American Southwest.
My Conquistador-descendent supervisor was right about the money — although the history is a bit more complicated than the simplistic image he painted of the atavistic natives leeching off of the federal government.
Sometimes, to rile him up, I would remind him that the Cochiti Pueblo — whom we were forced to work with through the tribe’s partnership with the BLM — are a “sovereign nation.”
“They are ‘sovereign-dependent,’” he would reply like clockwork — a legal distinction from “fully sovereign” that has led to unfathomable bureaucratic confusion and legal wrangling.
The central battleground between the BLM and “sovereign-dependent” Cochiti is a surreal and beautiful strip of land called “Tent Rocks National Monument” that straddles the border of native and federal land.
Visitors to the monument pay an entrance fee that the Cochiti and BLM then squabble over.
More lucratively, the tribe also makes money selling “souvenirs” and water at a “welcome center” a few hundred yards from the main entrance. This is their bread and butter.
Accordingly, the tribal Cochiti government fights like hell against anything they view as threats to their revenue stream.
The previous summer, in 2015, at least three visitors to the Monument had become severely dehydrated and had to be airlifted to hospitals in nearby Albuquerque. These emergencies occurred due to combination of the unforgiving New Mexico summer sun and a lack of any water source on the land.
My supervisor, in response to near-fatal dehydrations within the Monument, attempted to push through plans to install a well. He jumped through all of the red-tape hoops, including required “environmental impact” studies.
It all checked out — except for one snag. The Cochiti, whose consent was required by statute to erect the well, worried about their water sales at the visitor center. They disguised their objections as deeply-held concerns about the inviable sanctity of their sacred ancestral homeland or whatever — but it was all 100% pure bullshit.
The tribe just wanted to keep selling overpriced plastic water bottles to hapless visitors — such was the alpha and omega of their true priorities. The gravy train had to roll on.
We had meetings and meetings — and endless series of fruitless, bad-faith conversations between the greatest minds of federal bureaucracy and green-eyed tribal leadership.
Their objections to common-sense projects like building a water well in the middle of the desert were always the same; you don’t understand, this is our sacred cultural homeland, you are modern-day colonialists, etc.
At one of these standoffs in the BLM Albuquerque office (incidentally, the location of the fictional law firm HHM of Better Call Saul fame), the Cochiti hired a “tribal rights consultant” from New York to represent their interests in negotiations.
This guy parroted the same talking points as the others about tribal sovereignty, colonial oppression, etc. He had all the trappings of Native American bona fides — even the long, intricately woven braids.
Things looked “off” with this guy. After the meeting, I asked my supervisor if he was a legitimate Native American.
“That guy?” my supervisor responded. “That guy’s a Chinese immigrant to Brooklyn. His last name’s Chang. Not a drop of Native American blood.”
Color me shocked.
Like many employees of the Kafka-esque bureaucracy. my workdays were mostly spent in a state of combined boredom and confusion.
What are we doing here? — the endless refrain of the federal contractor in Wonderland.
I ran the clock out on my federal contract, set to expire within a few months, by writing self-help literature — or some sub-species thereof — on the agency computers. One ditty, titled “Gravel Output Torch Function” — which I inadvertently printed two copies of and left one in the office printer and would prove to be my downfall — started like this:
” Join a Spanish Language and Cultural Appreciation Club.
That’s español for ‘hello, friends!.’
Buy an authentic mid-nineteenth-century nickel-plated Mexican revolver, with gemstone swirls hand-carved into the handle. Store it responsibly in a climate-controlled china cabinet next to your wife’s fine dinnerware.
Console her in her worry — assuage her concerns: ‘This is a collector’s item, Sugar Plum, a conversation piece. I’d never actually use it.’
Realize you hate your Sugar Plum and her sagging tits and her fine dinnerware and her manila-flavored dinner guests. Take back every promise you made about the whole just-for-show thing and end the charade, suicide-homicide-matching-headshots-Romeo-and-Juliet style.”
The portly, menopausal government employee who found it evidently found the content shocking enough to report to her superiors.
Unbeknownst to me at the time, her reporting of my misdeed spiraled into a subsequent investigation by a Homeland Security agent for being a “security threat.”
The day they dropped the hammer, the brass informed me that, despite the shocking content in my literature, they did not actually determine me to be a security threat. Nonetheless, the security guard escorted me off of the property.
The ranking official in the Albuquerque BLM field office, in our final moments together, told me I had earned a lifetime ban.
That was the last time I set foot in a US government office.
Not much has likely changed for the BLM employees in the Albuquerque field office, except their workload now that Tent Rocks National Monument is shuttered to the public “due to COVID-19.”
So much for “public lands.”
Bad news for Native American plastic water bottle sales and the fledgling, tension-filled federal-tribal partnership of rural New Mexico.