Daniel Tso is a community leader, activist, and former Council member (1986-1995) from the Navajo Nation. He currently serves his community on multiple fronts – including his staunch advocacy for anti-fracking campaigns in New Mexico. Daniel holds a degree in Agricultural Science from New Mexico State University and is a gifted map-maker, documenting the encroachment of the oil and gas industry on federal, public, and tribal lands in the state. He is a well-known speaker on extraction issues, both in New Mexico as well as nationally. – Art by Asha Canalos
NMSP: Tell us about your family – where did you grow up?
DT: I grew up in Torreon, but the family originally came from farther east. I was born in February 1949, and in September 1949 my mom got a job at the Torreon School and that necessitated a move. At the BIA school where she worked, she cooked over a campfire with empty cans for 70-80 kids while the school was being built. That shows how resourceful she was, an extension of how she grew up.
In my family of 11, I was one of the younger members. I remember my older siblings shipping off on a bus to school in Fort Wingate, while one brother went to school in Brigham City – and as a young child I’d imitate him packing a suitcase. I started asking my mom if I could go to school, so she asked the principal teacher at her school if they’d allow me to attend.
The first or second day of school, everybody got a dose of cod liver oil, immunizations, and TB tests. The next day, I had big swelling on my arm, because I’d tested positive for tuberculosis. Within two days, I was on an airplane to Albuquerque and being admitted to the Indian Health Hospital. I stayed there overnight before being sent to the TB Sanatorium in Albuquerque. There’s a hotel there now, but at the time it was called Memorial Hospital. One side was for the girls and one side was for the boys. I was 5 ½ years old at the time, and I don’t remember going to school there – or anything about that time.
NMSP: How long were you there?
DT: When I came out, I was in the 5th grade. They’d only allowed one visitor the entire time I was there – so my dad came out once or twice a year. My brothers said that when I went in I was pretty fluent in Navajo, but when I came out it was all English. Back at home, my older brother said I was like an alien because when the teacher asked a question, I knew all the answers.
NMSP: What was life like after you returned?
DT: When my older brothers left for college, it was my duty to take over chopping wood, etc. One day, my mom threw me the truck keys and told me to go learn how to drive – to stay on the back roads and learn. When she first told me we were going to town, I put pillows on the driver’s seat to appear taller. I took the old road to Albuquerque, and we got groceries, clothing, did errands, and then we drove home. After that, I was responsible for all the driving. I was fourteen years old at the time.
And early on my mom also said that I was going to go to college – she put that thought in my head. Now I have a degree in Agriculture with a minor in Animal Science from NMSU. I also have 46 hours in Ag Economics – little did I know then how valuable that information would be.
NMSP: What was the area like back then? Were you aware of any oil and gas activities during that time?
DT: I remember, in the 5th or 6th grade, there was an article printed in the Weekly Reader that told about seven power plants that were going to be built in the area.
And then in the 70s, I had a friend – his dad was part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos – who came over to Cuba to teach English. We ran together and would often discuss what was worse – coal mining or gas development? We saw the casual drills, pump jacks here and there, it seemed insignificant compared to the strip-mining of coal and the smog from the power plants; it was pretty bad in the 70s.
NMSP: Years later you served on the Navajo Nation Council (1986-1995). What was that experience like?
DT: By 1985, the Judiciary was already separated from the Executive Council, and then in 1989, we separated the Council from the Executive – and it has remained like that ever since.
In 1989 we had the big fight with Peter MacDonald. Time Magazine had portrayed him as the most powerful Native American in the US – 1987, I think it was. The fight – which was basically about the Big Boquillas Ranch in Northern Arizona, was where his supporters tried to intimidate us; they had control of the finances, but we had the numbers, the votes – and in 1989, we finally voted him out.
There were plenty of protests during the debates. The Arizona Republic portrayed us as ‘The Young Turks,’ and people on the Reservation used to call me ‘the quarterback.’ When I was on the Council – we always reminded one another that what we were doing was for the benefit of the people.
And as far as the Eastern Agency goes, where the allotments are, the Navajo Nation government has no jurisdiction – the area could be classified as private – held in trust by the BIA.
NMSP: How did you get involved in the fracking fight?
DT: In 2013, KNDN (Farmington radio station) announced there would be initial gatherings with land agents, the ones with the drilling leases. I went to see this one guy, Kevin Gambrell, who once worked for and blew the whistle on the BLM – but now he was sitting at a desk as a land agent. I asked him, ‘What if I don’t sign?’ He told me that he didn’t need my signature, that he had 71% here, 92% and 117% there . . .
I asked to see the signatures, and he said no. So I told him that I wasn’t going to sign, and he said, ‘Well, you’re going to get a check anyway.’ So I told him that I wanted a copy of the lease, and he said he couldn’t give me a copy of the lease – only a sample of the lease.
That really ticked me off. I felt like there was a conflict of interest for this man, at once being a federal agent and now working for the industry. He had a clear knowledge of how the system works, how to work it. Another individual, Steve Henke, was also a former BLM Farmington field office manager and now he was managing the New Mexico Oil and Gas Association.
So the fight was on.
NMSP: How much did you know about modern fracking technology at that time?
DT: At that point, very little. I had to jump in quickly. At first I thought they were doing the diagonal drilling, that’s how they’d portrayed it, how some of the news articles wrote about it. I thought that’s what was going to happen. But then I started attending the meetings and found out what was actually going on. By then the drilling had already started and the flares were up.
Fracking Reality Tour – photo credit: detso
NMSP: You started keeping track of fracking well pads and other infrastructure – which eventually led to your famous ‘Fracking Reality Tours’?
DT: I would scout the areas all the time, knew where the drills were and knew the stages of production. And in 2015, Robert Tohe said he was going to bring out two people: Lena Moffitt (Sierra Club) and her mom, Mary; they wanted me to show them around. So we did a 5-hour tour, and Mary suggested that I name it ‘The Fracking Reality Tour’.
Other people in the environmental community were also interested, and I took them out too, including Elizabeth Miller.
When we had the lunar eclipse in Chaco, RAN, Tim Ream, Charlotte Levinson, members from the Greater Chaco Coalition, the board of trustees from Wild Earth Guardians all came out. At the camp we did some presentations, and then on the road to Chaco, some of the people already had headaches – because of that, several members couldn’t go on the tour. Right over the hill from that road are five houses.
NMSP: Chaco Canyon has some protection and is part of the UN World Heritage Sites. Talk about Greater Chaco, about what protecting the area means…
DT: I’m concerned about encroachment, especially with all the sacred spaces along the road to Chaco. My clan is Tséńjíkiní. Translated, it means: ‘The Cliff Dwellers,’ more specifically: ‘The Honeycomb Cliff Dweller Clan.’ This means that the homeland, the carbon footprint, goes all the way from Monument Valley up to Bear’s Ears, all along the Canyons of the Ancients to Mesa Verde to the Largo Canyons, all the way to the Bandelier, the Puye Cliff Dwellings, even the canyon in Pueblo Pintado. So I feel that someone has to say something about it. It’s in the DNA. To those who support, the other pueblos, the relatives, the Four Corners is all sacred. It’s not just points on a map, identified by the archaeologists. It’s the whole landscape.
Navajos used to live within the Valley of Chaco. When the monument was created in 1903, many people were forced out. Hogans, sweat lodges, corn fields, sheep pens were all removed. But the Navajo ties to Chaco still remain.
A friend in Laguna said to me, ‘You want to talk about Chaco? You better come down here – learn about Chaco, know what used to take place. You need to attend one of the ceremonies, do an offering, ask for permission to talk in defense.’ So I did as instructed. A couple of days later, he called and said, ‘Hey, you’ve got permission . . . After you left the dances that afternoon, we had the most beautiful rain.’
So, the number one aspect is this: The Wilderness Society, The Nature Trust, The Southwest Archaeologists all know the resource management plan process. And from their lofty towers, they set a 10-mile buffer zone around the area. Over here was community protection, and then over there was the development zone, etc. But the development zone was where many hundreds of families live. Many allotments abut or are within the boundaries of this buffer zone. And I said, ‘no way.’
NMSP: So these borders, these boundaries are in place in a way that doesn’t correlate with the cultural boundaries, the divisions are not part of how life was before?
DT: I guess the other thing is that the folks didn’t know where the actual treaty lines were established. My conjecture is that after the Treaty of 1868 was signed, people were instructed to go back to where they used to live. So they trekked back to Dinétah, to their present homelands. In the meantime, the Government had offered land grant status to homesteaders, along with the allotment of a wagon, team of horses and some sheep. So when people returned, they were ‘imposing’ on Anglo settlers, the Spanish Land Grant, and the ranchers; now they were referred to as ‘squatters.’ The people went back to where they were raised, to where their umbilical cord connected them to Mother Earth. The Dawes Act, The Indian Allotment Act, this was all part of the ‘westward movement’. It reached this particular area in 1897 – but some of the allotment process took as long as 1923.
And then here comes the land agent, authorized through the Allotment Act to dole out 160 acres to each Navajo 15 years and older. He would go from one place to another. If he arrived at a place and no one was home, they were out picking piñon, or whatever, he rode on, and these absent folks didn’t receive anything. This basically prolonged the ‘squatter Navajo’ status for them. When I was on the Council, they had already begun the process of buying back land; they’d bought a ranch Southeast of Counselor that became part of tribal trust. The purpose of this purchase was to exchange lands for where the unauthorized Navajo lived.
But they didn’t trade mineral rights, just surface acreage. That’s the case where Kendra lives, and that’s why the parcels went for sale in January. And there are still people who were never given property. The land tenure is so complicated – depending on who you talk to. There are 15 – 16 different classes of land, executive order land, school sections of lands, all named by the U.S. Government – so that’s problematic. This creates a ‘split estate,’ where the Navajo Tribal Trust lands generate no monies for the Navajo Nation. The royalties on the oil that is produced goes to the feds and to the state of New Mexico.
NMSP: What does fracking in the area look like, and what are the public health and safety concerns?
DT: On the heavy days, the truck traffic is so great that people have to surrender the road. Industry lines up 12 semis on the road, empty or loaded with water or sand, and people have to sit there and wait or take risks while passing. The dust from this traffic is so pervasive. I was following an 83-year-old man one day, trucks were speeding by in all that dust – I don’t think they ever even saw us. After the winds settle down in the evenings, and also in the mornings, you can the smell the methane – especially in the lower lying areas where the people live; they have to endure the emissions, the smells. Today, everyone has a statement about the traffic, the smells, how it’s harder to go outside now. So the impact is noticed, it’s real – especially when they have 6 wells at one site.
One of my comments at one of the consultations, referred to industry people who say it’s safe to breathe the air. I said if the Feds believe the air is clean, how come the oil field workers wear hydrogen-sulfide meters; if it’s safe, how come they have oxygen masks in their vehicles?
We have people living within a few hundred yards of these wells. That’s the type of exposure you have, and no warning signs are posted. When you let these folks (BLM) sell them a lease, the State of New Mexico allows units to be developed with 330-foot setbacks. By then it’s out of the BLM’s hands; they’re just spectators, sitting on the sidelines. So there’s no one really monitoring anything, no one is refereeing with their striped shirts. No one is blowing the whistle – so it falls on us.
photo credit: detso
NMSP: The BLM recently allowed even more land parcels in Greater Chaco to be leased to industry, and now, after very public opposition, they’ve changed course and are now holding lease auctions solely online.
DT: I think it’s a reaction to other sales that occurred in other places. One of the last physical ones was in April 2016 in Santa Fe. They basically told us that we couldn’t go in if we were going to protest or hold banners. You could only go in if you filled out paperwork as a buyer, to place a bid. If you were going in as an observer, you weren’t allowed.
By the time we became aware of these lease offerings, the Tri-Chapter Alliance started protesting the sales, but the majority of parcels had been unitized. The first sale was to happen in October of 2014, but it was delayed till January of 2015. At the time, the acreage offered was 5,000 acres – and we raised hell, because there are people living there. The Tri-Chapter Alliance kept up the pressure to block the offerings, and again it was delayed until October 2015. The offering was then dropped down to 1,500 acres. We delayed it 5 times, and then we met with Amy Leuders, the state director of the Bureau of Land Management. This was significant, because it was the first time that all 3 chapters met with a state director. In the end, we helped reduce the lease acreage down to 843 acres, but I don’t know if you can consider that a victory. There is still no regard for the propriety of the Navajo community and chapters.
NMSP: Can you discuss the BLM’s Resource Management Plan ‘update’ and how, to what degree, are they consulting with the community?
DT: For every field office, there’s supposed to be a redo every 10 years. They never showed it to us – just showed us the proposed 2013 one – which will only be an amendment to the 2003 Resource Management Plan, not a new one.
In 2003, they talked about holding scoping meetings, they made a form letter available to the ten chapters . . . ‘Dear Tribal Leader,’. . . and they expected a response. They said a phone call and a form letter was considered tribal consultation. This was during the time that Steve Henke was the BLM’s Farmington field manager.
NMSP: They’re operating from a management plan that is 14 years old?
DT: Yes, and they never held scoping meetings, and there was no tribal consultation. The document used to write the amendment plan of 2003 even said that the new hydraulic fracturing technology was not economically feasible. On the reverse end, this management plan allows for 4,000 new wells. We’re currently at 400 and already experiencing the impacts.
NMSP: The BLM’s Methane Rule is now under attack by many elected officials, including New Mexico’s own governor.
DT: When the EPA proposed the rule, it referred it to existing facilities. People began asking about the new ones, and this gained some traction. We participated in an EPA hearing in Denver and participated in one in D.C. and visited members of the congressional delegation pressuring them to include the new ones. Installing the methane capture equipment is income to allotment owners, the federal government, and the state of New Mexico, so they have every incentive to capture this. The aspect of job creation is enhanced by building the capture facilities.
NMSP: Why wouldn’t industry want to capture the methane?
DT: When we participated in the EPA hearing in Denver, there was one company from within the industry who said they welcomed the rules. They already have the capture equipment, and they use them. But most companies are fighting the rule implementation, still to this day.
NMSP: How do you deal with this kind of thing, the unwillingness of industry to take responsibility for their waste, disappearing government protections – and the stress of what’s happening here?
DT: That’s the part . . . you can’t just crawl into a hole. There’s the temptation to stay in bed and let the world go by, but you realize that maybe you’re put on this earth to be a voice, to walk the land, to touch the earth. To say something on behalf of your fellow Navajo beings.
And you remember the words that you heard in the hogan, that you heard growing up; you remember the words that told the folks to try to put it all into a prayer for strength.
photo credit: detso
NMSP: What can people here in New Mexico do to help?
DT: The impacts of oil and gas knows no color, no boundaries. I recently heard the story about a rancher losing calves because of the brackish drinking water. People are becoming more aware – even with their daily grinds. They just need to take some time to raise their head up, to find some way to help – even in a small way, become aware and look to the horizon – where the smog and the methane clouds are visible.
Also, when the call comes, be available. And learn about what’s going on. When we have our health impact committee, as part of the intakes, take a tour of the area, witness the traffic. See it for yourself. Visit Frack Off Greater Chaco , learn about the issues, sign our petitions. Write letters to the editor of your local paper, and call your elected officials.
NMSP: Any advice for young people who are becoming organizers and activists? Anything you learned that you wished you’d have known or understood earlier?
DT: A meaningful way to help the community is to assist with gathering the facts, the data, the illustrations, help provide the technology and expertise that we at the community level are lacking at this point in time. The maze of rules and regulations a person has to safari through everyday – it’s a new learning experience. Perusing the legal notices on a daily basis is necessary to have awareness of the next steps industry is taking. We need help with this–this is a task that young people can do.
And don’t be silent. Understand that we engage our allies, because their circle of influence and the amount of knowledge they have is greater than what we have alone. They’ve helped us get this far with our Counselor Community health impact reports, and with community monitoring of air, water, and traffic.
The driving hope is the daily acknowledgment of Mother Earth, Father Sky, the acknowledgment of the sacredness of the land, the air, the water, and the living species that also inhabit the Earth; it starts with that, it starts with humility, it starts with respect, and – certainly, we look to the future.