Los Alamos Monitor: Senator works with Pueblo youth

By:  Arin McKenna

Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) spent Wednesday afternoon getting his hands dirty in Bandelier National Monument.

Heinrich worked two hours with a preservation crew composed entirely of Puebloan youth who are helping to restore Tyuonyi Pueblo on the Main Loop Trail.

The Bandelier Preservation crew is a pilot program sponsored by AmeriCorps and the HandsOn Preservation Experience (HOPE), a National Trust for Historic Preservation program.

“The idea there is to give tribal members the opportunity to do this historic preservation work on ancestral lands,” said Leon Natker, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) coordinator for Bandelier crews.

RMYC is overseeing the Bandelier Preservation Crew as well as the Bandelier Conservation Corps, which has been in existence five years. The conservation crew draws on Anglo, Hispanic and Puebloan youth from the local area, including Los Alamos and Española.

Crew members earn a stipend somewhat better than minimum wage. If they complete a minimum of 300 hours they receive an educational award of $1,212 that can be applied to college or trade school.

Part of Heinrich’s interest stems from his own experience working for AmeriCorps, doing field work, education and construction for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, in the mid-1990s. Heinrich is the only member of Congress who has worked for AmeriCorps.

But his interest, he said, extends beyond his own involvement.

“Some of the most interesting people that I’ve met over the years have been the people who were in the CCC during the Depression,” Heinrich said. “Those CCC folk carried that ethic with them throughout their entire lifetime. And I think we’re realizing it’s a really important thing to have this kind of hands on conservation experience.”

As to why he wanted to actively participate during his visit, Heinrich said, “One of the things I wanted to do was just see some of these programs in action, and get a chance to connect to the individual corps members who are doing the work. Because I always learn so much from them about how we should be engaging youth, so that as we’re looking forward, we’re creating the right kind of corps programs that attract today’s youth and make them want to be the next generation of natural resource managers.”

Bandelier’s Preservation Specialist J.T. Stark is the permanent staff member overseeing the project, but he counts his success by how little he is involved.

“Since we’re trying to get this to the local Pueblo communities, I’ve intentionally tried to take as much of a hands-off approach as I can,” Stark said. “We have three very experienced masons here from San I Pueblo and I feel like I would get in the way.”

San Ildefonso Pueblo members Myron Gonzales, Earl Sanchez and Michael Martinez worked on preservation for San Ildefonso for 15 years and also contracted to assess and protect approximately 200 sites on Los Alamos National Laboratory property.

“The guys get together and they talk about traditional knowledge, traditional skills,” Stark said. “And that’s the whole point of it. You don’t want somebody from outside the community there, or traditional knowledge may not get passed on...If I were around more often, then what we’re trying to accomplish here would not happen.”

Both the crew leaders and the crews themselves value the work they are performing.

“I like the notion that I’m preserving what eventually my kids, our tribal members will be able to enjoy when they grow up,” Gonzales said.

Gonzales also likes the fact that the youth are developing skills they can take with them. He encourages those who have worked a couple of years for the youth corps to apply for positions at places like Bandelier.

“I’m always about making opportunities for people,” Gonzales said.

Assistant crew supervisor John Moya, from Ohkay Owingeh, agrees.

“A lot of these kids, this is steering them on a path for success, unlike a lot of jobs where they don’t care too much for their employees,” Moya said. “But over here it’s quite the opposite. They provide a lot of great opportunities for us. Every single one of our members enjoys working here, because they understand that this is where our ancestors lived, and it’s a really powerful thing for us to come out here and work on the houses of where our ancestors lived.”

For Moya, the learning opportunity is very important.

“We try to get elders from the pueblos come and speak to us about the history. This coming week we’re have some elders and the governor from Cochiti come speak to us and give us a little more of the history,” Moya said.

According to Moya, Gonzales, Sanchez and Martinez are also passing on a wealth of knowledge.

“And that aspect of it is such an amazing thing, because you can’t find it in textbooks, can’t find it anywhere. So coming to work, I enjoy it every day. I can’t wait.”

Santo Domingo member Daniel Bird is crew supervisor. Bird graduated from New Mexico State University in December with a degree in wildlife science.

Bird said it was a “great opportunity” he had to get leadership experience with tribal youth.

“And being out here at Bandelier…we’ve got cultural ties here, so it’s really important that we are here preserving our historic sites and all the other ecological and historical sites that are out here, as well.”

Crew members have been attending each other’s feast days and learning about the similarities as well as the differences between their pueblos.

“I always like sharing my culture with them and their culture with me,” Bird said.

Forming those friendships is also important to Vidal Gonzales’ from Santa Clara Pueblo.

“You get a really good family bonding. Like me and Dakota (Ami) are pretty close from this job,” Gonzales said.

This is Gonzales’ second year with RMYC. He spent last summer working on trails in Abiquiu.

“To me, since I am Native American, this means a lot,” Gonzales said. “It means you have to show respect for everything, and everything has to be left the way it is or better than when you found it. And everything deserves respect, because it’s my ancestors and it’s sacred.”

Gonzales’ friend Dakota Ami is Hopi, but his family moved to Los Alamos six years ago. Ami will be attending the University of New Mexico this fall to study architecture.

Ami called the work at Tyuonyi “a great experience.”

“It means a lot to me, coming from a tribal background,” Ami said. “These ruins mean a lot to us, because this is where our ancestors came from.”

Gonzales, Sanchez and Martinez sometimes pass on that knowledge to visitors as well.

“Last summer, we’d sit here and we’d start talking to a few people and before you’d know it we’d have a group of 30 people. ‘Wow, you people are the ones who built this place,’” Gonzales said. “It’s amazing how we can become mason helpers one minute and an interpretive person in the next instant.”

Bandelier Superintendent Jason Lott plans on utilizing the youth programs for years to come.

“These programs are about getting local youth working in our national parks and becoming advocates for Bandelier,” Lott said. “And in 20 years, we’ll have 40 to 60 people in each of these communities that lived and worked at Bandelier. What great advocates for the parks and for us, and what a great opportunity for them.

“I think Sen. Heinrich being out here today just shows how valuable a program these are, that it gets that kind of attention.”