Earth Notes: Pueblo Riparian Alliance

May 30, 2012

For centuries, New Mexico’s Pueblo peoples have relied on the plants and animals of the Río Grande to sustain their lifestyles and traditions. But in recent times the river has been impacted by development, diversion, and flood control. That can make it difficult to maintain some key cultural practices. What is the purpose of a deer dance, for example, if there are no deer?

Not content to sit idly by, three pueblos near Española, in northern New Mexico, have formed an unprecedented alliance to mitigate damage along a dozen miles of river corridor.

Santa Clara, San Ildefonso, and Ohkay Owingeh are working with the Army Corps of Engineers to reduce flood hazards and with Audubon New Mexico to improve bird habitat. The latter groups agree that the tribes’ long history of coexistence with the river is an important tool in restoring its health.

Audubon grants of over $30,000 allowed Santa Clara Pueblo, for example, to plant hundreds of willow trees along a Río Grande tributary. The willows attract beavers that build small dams. Those in turn slow erosion, reduce flooding, and improve the ecosystem for medicinal plants as well as songbirds.

Related outreach projects educate tribal members in their native Tewa language about the importance of Río Grande restoration. Guided field trips take elementary schoolchildren into the riverside forest. Through their manual labor, and their connection to place, Native American kids and adults have already helped lower flood risk and restore more than 450 acres of wetlands in their homelands.