Photo: Morgan Lee (AP Photo)

On Tuesday night, the House passed an appropriations package that included funding for the Department of the Interior. The bill was never going to lead the nightly news, but for the Native population in New Mexico, its success in the House—though just the first step—is the most promising legislative development in respecting tribal heritage and sovereignty they have been afforded in years.

The reason this otherwise mundane bill is worth noting is because attached to the funding package was an amendment sponsored by Rep. Ben Ray Luján, the Assistant Speaker of the House and the No. 4 Democrat in the chamber, which was widely supported by Democratic leaders across New Mexico. The amendment officially codified a declaration made by David Bernhardt, the Secretary of the Interior (and a walking conflict-of-interest due to his ties to the oil and gas industries), in late May—that, for one year, Interior would not allow the sacred land surrounding Chaco Canyon to be drilled or mined.

The appropriations bill still has to clear the Senate before it can head to Trump’s desk. Speaking with Splinter on Wednesday over the phone, Luján simply said that he, “hopes Mitch McConnell will take his responsibility seriously to fund the federal government.”

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But the fact that the amendment exists at all is proof that Indian Country is slowly but surely solidifying its foothold in Congress. Luján is not a tribal nation member, but he explained to Splinter that his willingness to fight for Chaco Canyon and other Indian Country issues stems from a lifetime spent around his Native friends and neighbors. (Luján’s Third District contains most of the New Mexico portion of the Navajo Nation, as well as the Jicarilla Apache and 15 Pueblo tribes.)

“My relationship with the pueblo leaders and tribal leaders did not start in Congress, it’s been lifelong,” Luján told Splinter. “The community I was raised in, a small farming community by the name of Nambe, is adjacent to Nambe Pueblo and Pojoaque Pueblo. Many of the friends I grew up playing high school sports with—that were family friends, whose parents were leaders within their respective pueblos, either as governors or on the tribal councils—are now also leaders.”

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Luján’s mother and his father—who served in the New Mexico House of Representatives for three decades, including 12 years as House speaker—also grew up as “friends and neighbors” of New Mexico’s Native community. His father’s former chief of staff, Regis Pecos, was a former governor of the Pueblo of Cochita.

Having now served in the House for a decade, and eyeing retiring Sen. Tom Udall’s soon-to-be open Senate seat, Luján has established his fair share of political connections on Capitol Hill. But when it comes to transmitting the crucial nature of protecting sacred lands to most of his fellow members of Congress, he admitted that there was a general lack of knowledge regarding Indigenous culture, and so he has to frame the issue in terms they’d understand.

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“One thing I do appreciate is the willingness of members of Congress in the House and their staffs to being open to learning more about our responsibility and obligations with sovereignty, our trust responsibilities, which are inherently part of our Constitution as well,” Luján told Splinter. “When I’m explaining the importance of sacred sites, what I am able to do is help members understand and relate to what a sacred site is. What I explain to members of Congress is, if you imagine a place where you’ve had a loved one laid to rest—a grandparent, a parent, a sibling—and that place was under threat of desecration, wouldn’t you do everything you could to protect that important site?”

As stated, the Chaco Canyon moratorium as it currently exists will only be in place for one year; after that, it is unclear what the Interior’s plans are. Luján told Splinter he “absolutely” believes a permanent ban on drilling in the area surrounding Chaco Canyon is a feasible goal for Congress, even under the Trump administration. But given how easily executive orders can be overturned, as was the case with Chaco Canyon shortly after President Donald Trump took office, Luján and his fellow New Mexico House Democrats are attempting to solve the issue through legislative action rather than executive order.

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Along with fellow New Mexico Reps. Xochitl Torres Small and Deb Haaland, Luján introduced H.R. 2181, a bill that would permanently ban all future drilling and mineral development in the Chaco Canyon buffer zone. In a statement Haaland released on Tuesday, the first-term Congresswoman—who, along with Rep. Sharice Davids of Kansas, is one of the first two Native women to serve in Congress and recently led a congressional tour of the area—doubled down on her call for a permanent drilling ban.

“The beauty of our state and its rich cultural history are embodied in Chaco. Yet, it’s continuously threatened by oil and gas development,” Haaland wrote. “Today, we took a stand and passed a provision that will halt new leases for a year. It’s a step toward permanent protections for Chaco, which will ensure the Pueblo people have access to our heritage sites and the world can enjoy how meaningful and special it is.”