Salt Mother story


Many years ago, a Acoma hunting party followed Salt Mother's trail far into the desert wilds, going day by day over hills and dry gulches. The hunting party reached a large salt lake, and Salt Mother said, " this is my home". "All who travel here have their health and fortune in the water, and if ill in the body, will be made well." Salt was used by native people in healing, the Acoma's traded it, used it as a preservative and flavoring. An the Pueblo people revered Salt Mother for she gave herself freely to anyone seeking her.

Located in a remote region of western New Mexico, this salt lake and its surrounding area are considered sacred ground by no less than six Native American tribes. According to Zuni belief, the lake gives life to Ma'l Oyattsik'i, Salt Woman, one of the tribes' central deities, and has long been an important source of salt for domestic and ceremonial use. But now an Arizona utility - the Salt River Project (SRP) - wants to strip-mine coal on 18,000 acres of public and private land and build a 44-mile rail line from the mine to an existing power plant in Arizona. The project will have a disastrous impact on sacred sites: the rail line will cut a swath across the Sanctuary Zone, destroy many burial and cultural sites, and traverse pilgrimage trails used by the Zuni, Navajo, Hopi, Acoma and Laguna people. Groundwater pumping associated with the mine might even dry up the spring-fed lake. Opponents of the plan are waging a spirited battle, but it may take divine intervention by the deities who guard Salt Lake to prevent the desecration of this hallowed place.

The Sanctuary Zone (or "A:shiwi A:wan Ma'k'yay'a dap an'ullapna Dek'ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne") is a 182,000-acre culturally significant area where men from the Pueblo of Zuni -- as well as other neighboring tribes including Navajo, Acoma Pueblo and the Apache -- come to collect salt for ceremonial uses. The zone has been traditionally viewed as a neutral area where various tribes from the area would gather without conflict. The Sanctuary Area has been determined eligible for the National Register of Historic Places. Zuni Pueblo owns the lake; the Sanctuary Zone includes federal, state and private lands.

Permitting mining activities will undoubtedly disturb many of the hundreds of traditional cultural properties and religious sites in this area. However, last year -- despite continued opposition from tribal, community, environmental and indigenous groups, principally led by the Zuni Salt Lake Coalition -- the U.S. Department of the Interior approved a mining plan for the area. Among this plan's effects could be the significant drawing down of the lake's water levels. Although the federal permit restricts the mining company from using certain aquifers that feed the lake, hydrology studies indicate that limit will not be enough to protect this sacred place. Additionally, there is concern about building the railroad tracks that follow traditional pilgrimage trails that lead to the lake, as well as the effects of air pollution on the water and the salt.

SRP needs to drop its plans for the Fence Lake Coal Mine. In addition, the Department of the Interior should prepare a Supplemental Environmental Impact Statement to re-examine the approval of the permit as a result of the new hydrology studies, and the fact that the entire Sanctuary Area has been determined eligible for the National Register and State Register.

Zuni Salt Lake

Sixty miles south of the Zuni Pueblo in New Mexico lies Salt Lake, home of the Zuni's Salt Mother deity. When water evaporates in the summer, it leaves a layer of salt on the lake bottom, which is harvested by pilgrims, including medicine men coming from Zuni and other neighboring tribes. The Salt River Project, an Arizona-based public utility, wants to build a massive coal stripmine just 11 miles northeast of the lake. In May 2003, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed Zuni Salt Lake on their list of the Eleven Most Endangered Historic Places in America. Edward Wemytewa, a Zuni Tribal Councilman, states simply that "they will be pumping 85 gallons of water per minute from the same aquifer that feeds the Zuni Salt Lake."


Zuni Salt Lake is home to Salt Woman, called Ma'l Oyattsik'i by the Zunis. Sacred trails, like umbilical cords, tie the lake to the Zuni villages and to other sacred sites around the area. Zuni men follow these trails to gather the salt which embodies the flesh of the Salt Mother herself. Other pueblos, including the Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna use the salt for their ceremonies - as their clan ancestors from Chaco Canyon did a thousand years ago. Apache and Navajo also claim use. A 185,000 acre area around the lake, known as "The Sanctuary" or A:shiwi A:wan Ma'k'yay'a dap an'ullapna Dek'ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne, contains burial grounds and shrines and by tradition is a neutral zone where members of various tribes may come together without conflict. In 1985, the U.S. government returned the lake itself, and 5,000 acres surrounding it, to Zuni control. Following this, however, the Salt River Project (SRP), the nation's third- largest public utility, was permitted to start working in the Sanctuary Area, launching studies for a proposed 18,000-acre Fence Lake Coal Mine on state, federal and privately-owned land. SRP wants to stripmine 80 million tons of coal over the next 50 years, construct a 44-mile rail line to carry the coal to the Coronado Generating Station in St. Johns, Arizona, and sell the electricity to 190,000 Phoenix residents. SRP was granted a state mining permit to operate in 1996, but the company had to wait five years for a federal permit, which was finally granted by the Bush Administration's Department of the Interior on May 15, 2002, in spite of strong opposition from the Zuni Tribe.

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