Indigenous Peoples and Climate Technologies

Acknowledging indigenous peoples’ technologies and identifying linkages with Technology Needs Assessments

This guidebook is produced as part of the GEF-Funded Global Technology Needs Assessment (TNA) Project, which is implemented by UNEP and UNEP DTU Partnership. Since 2009, close to one hundred countries have joined the Global TNA Project.

Indigenous peoples’ knowledge of climate resilience and their global contribution to a sustainable management of our shared natural resources are critical to combating climate change and its impacts. Yet, their contribution often remains unacknowledged, and too often indigenous peoples have little access to the financial resources or forums for decision-making concerning the environment, which severely undermines opportunities for significant influence in climate policy, planning and action.

This guidebook provides information about how to identify and integrate relevant considerations on indigenous peoples and technologies into the TNA process, while ensuring that their free, prior and informed consent is obtained.


UN Human Rights Council adopts historic resolutions on the right to a Safe Environment, Climate Change and the Rights of Indigenous Peoples

Geneva, Switzerland, October 12, 2021:  At the close of the UN Human Rights Council’s forty-eighth session on Friday, October 8, three resolutions in which the IITC had actively engaged were adopted. The right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment is now formally recognized at the global level through a resolution endorsed by over 1000 Indigenous Peoples, civil society organizations and UN Experts. This resolution affirms the right already recognized in Article 29 of the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. The unbreakable link between human rights and a safe environment was further underscored by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (CRC) in its recommendations for the country review Mexico from 2015. The CRC asserted at that time that “Environmental Health” is a protected right under Article 24 of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in response to IITC’s submission addressing the devastating and deadly health impacts of toxic and banned pesticides on Yaqui Indigenous children in that county.  As a result of the Human Rights Council’s landmark resolution, this is now recognized as a universal right.

Click here for a copy of the resolution as adopted.  

In a second historic resolution, the Council created a new Special Rapporteur’s Office on the promotion and protection of human rights in the context of climate change. The urgent need for the creation of this new Special Rapporteur to gather information and report on human rights violations created by the causes, impacts and, in some cases, false market-based solutions to climate change generated broad support from Indigenous Peoples, small island States, civil society organizations, and other human rights mandate holders, including the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. IITC played an active role in the work of this broad coalition over the past year as a focal point for Indigenous Peoples in a number of webinars and educational fora, stressing its vital importance as the climate crisis continues to worsen.  

Click here for a copy of the resolution as adopted.  

Andrea Carmen, Executive Director of the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) and member of the Facilitative Working Group for the UNFCCC Local Communities and Indigenous Peoples Platform, warmly welcomed these historic advances, which affirm the understanding of Indigenous Peoples around the world that human health and well-being cannot be separated from a clean and healthy environment:  “The adoption of these resolutions as a result of a broad collective effort  will enhance the ability of Indigenous Peoples to present rights-based solutions for environmental recovery and restoration, and to protect the integrity of their natural ecosystems from environmental contamination and climate change, in line with their human rights.  Too often throughout the UN system we have seen some so-called solutions promoted to address environmental degradation, biodiversity loss, deforestation and climate change that ignore, or even further violate the rights of Indigenous Peoples to protect their homelands and continue their ways of life.  We hope that these decisions by UN Human Rights Council will help us chart a stronger rights-based course to ensure environmental protection and reverse climate change”.

In addition to these historic and long-awaited advances, the Human Rights Council’s resolution on Human Rights and Indigenous Peoples was also adopted on the last day of the session. This resolution also affirms the essential role of Indigenous Peoples in addressing climate change and biodiversity loss, and it addresses other closely-related concerns, including ending impunity for the repression of human rights defenders. IITC is also gratified that the resolution recognizes the importance of recent and upcoming studies by the UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People and the Expert Mechanism on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples. It also provides a way forward to advance enhanced participation of Indigenous representative institutions, affirms a process for international repatriation of sacred items and human remains, and denounces violence against Indigenous women and girls, among many other important provisions.

Click here for a copy of the resolution as adopted.  


Snorri Baldursson passed away – Iceland and the Arctic lost its leading Ambassador for Conservation of Flora and Fauna

Snorri Baldursson passed away on September 29. We lost our member and close friend at the much too early age of 67. And Iceland and the Arctic lost its leading Ambassador for Conservation of Flora and Fauna. We remember him with his inspirational and motivating spirit from his time as head of the Arctic Council program on the Conservation of Arctic Flora and Fauna (CAFF), or when we were meeting with him and colleagues from all over the Arctic in the Siberian Lena Delta discussing the future development of the Arctic Protected Area Network, or from his strong engagement for the protection of the Icelandic Highlands. His death is a major loss for the Icelandic and Arctic nature conservation movement, but his name will be closely related to the legacy he left us with the World Heritage Site Vatnajökull national park. And the best gift Iceland could provide in his honor would be if his dream of protecting the entire Icelandic Highland as a national park would be implemented in the near future.

Peter Prokosch

Graphic from a presentation Snorri Baldursson gave at the LT&C workshop in Iceland in 2016

Let’s have a look at Snorri’s impressive life history provided by Arni Finnsson und Ólafur S. Andrésson:

Snorri Baldursson in memoriam

The Icelandic biologist, Dr. Snorri Baldursson, passed away at home in the early hours of 29th September. The cause of death was brain cancer.

Snorri was born 17th May 1954 at Akureyri Hospital in northern Iceland. He was raised at the farm Ytri-Tjörn in Eyjafjörður together with his siblings. In 1974 he finished High School in Akureyri and then finished undergraduate studies in biology in 1979 from the University of Iceland. He studied plant ecology and plant genetics for Masters Degree at the University of Colorado and finished his PhD degree at the University of Copenhagen in 1993.

After finishing his studies abroad Snorri became involved in research on land reclamation and conservation, focusing intensely on these subjects during the last 20 years. He was also active in nature conservation and wrote influential articles and books as well serving on the boards of NGOs and public institutions.

Snorri was director of CAFF from 1997 – 2002, then took a management position at the Institute of Natural History 2002 – 2008, and was the head ranger at the Vatnajökull Glacier Park and chairman of Landvernd, the Icelandic Environmental Association, 2015 – 2017. Finally, he served as director of the Department of Resources and Environment at the Agricultural University of Iceland from 2018.

THE book on Icelands Biosphere – the Ecology of its land and sea

In 2014 Snorri published the book on the Flora and Fauna of Iceland for which he received the Icelandic Litterature Award in the category science and general interests. Then, last month Snorri published a book on Vatnajökull Glacier Park: World Treasure. The book was based on his work leading and editing Iceland‘s successful application for a UNESCO World Heritage Status for the Park, granted in 2019. For this Icelanders and the global conservation community are greatly indebted to Snorri and his excellent work.

Icelandic Highlands. Photo: Snorri Baldursson

Last summer Snorri established Skrauta, an NGO which campaigns for the protection of Vonarskarð, a very precious wilderness area at the centre of the Icelandic Highlands; an essential and successful undertaking, indeed.

In Iceland Snorri will be remembered for his legacy in nature conservation and communication, his cosmopolitan view on environmental issues, his inspiring books and teaching.

Snorri had four sons, Heimir born in 1974, Narfi Þorsteinn born 1982, Baldur Helgi born in 1986 and Snorri Eldjárn born in 1988. His surviving wife is Elsa Friðrika Eðvarðsdóttir.


A Problem of Moscow’s Own Making: Who is an Indigenous People in the Russian North?

Paul Goble

Staunton, Sept. 27 – The Russian government has defined as indigenous peoples in the North those who are members of one of 40 numerically small peoples (under 50,000 each) who receive benefits from the government which allow them to continue to practice their traditional hunting and fishing.

            That approach has given rise to two sets of issues, one of which threatens to become explosive. The first involves those who are members of these numerically small peoples but who live in cities and do not live in a traditional manner. Some of them want to claim that status, but Moscow has been working hard to deny them such an opportunity and the money it involves ( and

            While this is a problem for some individuals and for the defense of national identities of these groups, it does not present serious difficulties for large numbers of people or Moscow as such. But the second issue does. The indigenous peoples in the Russian North are proud of that status and want to distinguish themselves from everyone else, including ethnic Russians.

            On the one hand, that has prompted some Russian nationalists to demand that the numerically small peoples of the north not be allowed to make a distinction that exists in Russian law. And on the other, it has led some Russian nationalists to demand the Russians living in the North be named an indigenous people as well and get benefits too ( and

            Moscow-appointed officials in the North not surprisingly are on the side of the Russians, although they face problems with the fact that Russian law itself defines indigenous peoples for the purpose of promoting the survival of these traditional communities and thus cannot oppose that without putting themselves in opposition to Moscow.

            But they may now have found a way to take action against the numerically small indigenous nationalities of the Russian North. Some of them are suggesting that foreign countries want to mobilize these communities by using the indigenous-non-indigenous divide and that Moscow must block that by ending this arrangement (

            This debate appears set to escalate with the non-Russians who benefit playing defense and the ethnic Russians and their corporate allies in the North playing offense and hoping to use the national security card to get Moscow’s attention and support for ending what has been one of the few defenses the indigenous peoples have.

            If the Russian side wins this debate, however, anger among the numerically small indigenous nations of the North will escalate; and it is not beyond the realm of possibility that the Russian government by its willingness to cater to Russian nationalists on this question may be putting itself at far greater risk than it likely understands.

            The traditional peoples are armed, and many of them work as prospectors for natural resources and even have dynamite to search for rare minerals. Angering people with guns and explosives is far from the cleverest thing to do when they are located in critical regions with long and unguarded pipelines and highways.  

           But if the indigenous peoples of the North succeed, they will become a model for other non-Russians who are likely to see playing up the difference between their own nations and ethnic Russians who arrived during imperial expansion as politically useful. That could create an even more serious problem for Moscow as well. 


Russia: Siberian shaman who marched against Putin is indefinitely confined to a psychiatric hospital

Responding to a court decision that came into force today to indefinitely confine Siberian shaman, Aleksandr Gabyshev, to a psychiatric ward for vowing in 2019 “to purge” President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin, Natalia Zviagina, Amnesty International’s Moscow Office Director, said:

“Aleksandr Gabyshev has become a symbol of grassroots resistance to the increasingly repressive government of Vladimir Putin, so it is not surprising that the authorities went to such extreme lengths to silence him and smear his name. Once again, the authorities are using ‘psychiatric care’ as a punishment – a method tried and tested during Soviet times.

“It is genuinely shocking to see how easily the life of someone who dares to peacefully express their views and criticize the authorities is destroyed by the powerful and repressive tools of the state.

“Compulsory psychiatric treatment is a form of torture and other ill-treatment. The authorities must refrain from any involuntary therapy and release Aleksandr Gabyshev immediately and unconditionally, as he has been sentenced to indefinite compulsory psychiatric treatment solely for peacefully exercising his right to freedom of expression. The use of punitive psychiatry as a method to silence dissent must stop now.”


Today, an appeal by Aleksandr Gabyshev was unsuccessful and the decision on indefinite forced hospitalisation has been upheld.
On 26 July, the Yakutsk City Court ruled that Aleksandr Gabyshev must be confined indefinitely to a psychiatric hospital for compulsory “intensive” treatment. Today the court decision came into force after his defence team lost their appeal. The court declared Aleksandr Gabyshev “insane” and lacking legal capacity, and was found guilty of “using violence against police officers” and “calling for extremism”.

In 2019, Aleksandr Gabyshev became widely known after he walked hundreds of kilometres from Yakutsk to Moscow, promising to use his self-proclaimed magic powers to “purge” President Vladimir Putin from the Kremlin. In September 2019, after travelling around 3,000 km – over a third of the way to Moscow – he was abducted by police and accused of suspected “public calls for extremism”, then briefly placed in a psychiatric hospital for examination. He was released two days after, only to be forcibly hospitalized again in May 2020 – this time purportedly because he refused to be tested for Covid-19. He was released two months later after public outcry, and an international campaign of solidarity, which Amnesty International took part in.

In January 2021, two weeks after Aleksandr Gabyshev announced another march on the Kremlin, 50 police officers broke into his house, arrested him and took him to a psychiatric hospital. This time he was officially charged with making “calls for extremism” and “using violence against police officers”. During his arrest, Gabyshev allegedly tore a riot officer’s uniform and superficially wounded him with a batas, a ceremonial Yakut sword.


Mining Energy-Transition Metals: National Aims, Local Conflicts

  • Many of the remaining untapped deposits of the metals critically needed for U.S. energy to transition from fossil fuels are located either near or within areas of cultural and environmental importance to Native Americans.
  • Among these key energy-transition metals, 97% of nickel, 89% of copper, 79% of lithium and 68% of cobalt reserves and resources in the U.S. are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations.
  • Mining companies have already faced opposition to mine development in many of these areas, reflecting the heightened risk to companies and investors arising from these conflicting priorities.

With the Biden administration seeking to slash U.S. greenhouse-gas emissions and support a rapid move to electric vehicles and renewable-energy technology,1 many investors are looking closely at the metals needed in new energy technologies. Copper is one key metal, and its demand may rise as much as 350% by 2050, according to one estimate.2 For investors looking through an ESG lens, however, not all metal mines are created equal or pose the same risks. Some mining projects, while providing metals key to addressing the global challenge of transitioning away from fossil fuels, may face strong and increasing opposition from Native Americans for threatening sacred areas or traditional ways of life.3

Not only could local cultures be at risk, but investors too. Local opposition increases risks that a mining asset could lose its license to operate and its value to investors. The risks may be even greater since the new administration, in its election materials, has indicated that protection of Native American culture is a priority.4 COVID-19’s devastating impact on Native Americans5 was a sad reminder of the disparities faced by many Native American communities.

Key Mines Are Located Near Native American Reservations

We analyzed 5,336 U.S. mining properties in the S&P Global Market Intelligence database (as of March 15, 2021) and found the majority of U.S. reserves of cobalt, copper, lithium and nickel are located within 35 miles of Native American reservations. The same is true for the total count of U.S. mines with primary commodities of copper, lithium and nickel.

US Transition-Metal Reserves Within 35 Miles of Native American Reservations

Data as of March 15, 2021. Source: MSCI ESG Research, U.S. Census Bureau’s MAF/TIGER, S&P Global Market Intelligence

Most of these mines are not located on Native American reservations. But for people with a history of being forced onto settlements, many of which have been compressed over time, culturally significant areas are not limited to reserved lands. We looked at all mines located within 35 miles of a reservation, noting that two prominent mining projects facing strong opposition from Native American groups – Lundin Mining’s Eagle mine in Michigan and the Resolution copper mine in Arizona – are both less than 35 miles away from the nearest reservation.

The Resolution mine, owned jointly by Rio Tinto (55%) and BHP Billiton (45%), has already spent over USD 2 billion on development and permitting.6 It could eventually supply up to a quarter of the country’s copper demand.7 However, Native American communities such as the San Carlos Apache have opposed the alleged threat it poses to the Chich’il Bildagoteel, otherwise known as Oak Flat, a place with spiritual significance to the Apache for generations.8

US Mines’ Proximity to Native American Reservations

Areas important to indigenous cultures may be situated outside their reservations. The buffer zone of 35 miles was set to include the controversial Resolution and Eagle mining projects, both of which are within 35 miles of reservations. Source: MSCI ESG Research, U.S. Census Bureau’s MAF/TIGER, S&P Global Market Intelligence

Rio Tinto already experienced a stakeholder uproar and harsh repercussions after a failure to protect places of indigenous significance in May 2020, albeit on the other side of the world. Three executives, including the CEO at the time, were forced to leave the company, among other leadership changes, after the company bulldozed the ancient Juukan Gorge rock shelters, a site of both indigenous and archaeological value in Australia.9

There, as at the Resolution mine, the company obtained government approval to move on the areas of concern, putting sacred areas at risk. Nonetheless, civil-rights activism, social-media scrutiny and the momentum for social justice have amplified calls to defend indigenous cultures. Scenarios where mines obtained permits — only to have them later taken away, after much investment, due to alleged failures to address indigenous issues — have played out around the globe in recent years. A stronger focus on local concerns may be warranted.

1“Fact Sheet: President Biden Sets 2030 Greenhouse Gas Pollution Reduction Target Aimed at Creating Good-Paying Union Jobs and Securing U.S. Leadership on Clean Energy Technologies.” White House, April 22, 2021.

2Elshkaki, A., Graedel, T.E., Ciacci, L., and Reck, B. “Copper demand, supply, and associated energy use to 2050.” Global Environmental Change, June 22, 2016.

3Davidse, A. And Guzek, J. “Trend 10: Meeting demand for green and critical minerals.” Deloitte Insights, Feb. 1, 2021.

4“Biden-Harris Plan for Tribal Nations.”

5An estimated 1 in 475 Native Americans died from the disease. “COVID’s Assault on Native Americans.” The Week. March 7, 2021

6“History.” Accessed March 22, 2021.

7“Land Exchange.” Accessed March 23, 2021.

8“San Carlos Apache Tribe Sues US Forest Service to Stop Resolution Copper Mine.” San Carlos Apache Tribe, Jan. 15, 2021.

9Butler, B. and Wahlquist, C. “Rio Tinto investors welcome chair’s decision to step down after Juukan Gorge scandal.” Guardian, March 2, 2021.


Alaska activist and model Quannah Chasinghorse makes waves at Met Gala and New York Fashion Week

In a shining gold dress adorned with a family friend’s turquoise earrings, necklaces and bracelets made by Native artists, 19-year-old Quannah Chasinghorse turned heads at her first Met Gala — thestar-studded annual fundraiser and haute couture spectacle held Monday at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

The Indigenous activist and model from the Native Village of Eagle wore a dress by designer Peter Dundas for this year’s theme, “American Independence.” Chasinghorse, who is Han Gwich’in and Oglala Lakota, was photographed on Monday alongside celebrities throughout the night including Mary J. Blige, Megan Fox and Kris Jenner.

Chasinghorse has had a busy year, attracting the attention of some of the highest names in fashion. Vogue magazine recently featured her in an article titled “Thrilling Ascent of Model Quannah Chasinghorse,” which called her “one of modeling’s freshest new faces” and said she “is breaking barriers in an industry that has long overlooked Indigenous talent.”

By late Monday, social media was buzzing about Chasinghorse.

“WHY ISNT ANYONE TALKING ABOUT THIS INDIGENOUS QUEEN WHO SERVED AT THE MET GALA,” Twitter user @takahashiputa said in a post, which garnered more than 300,000 likes. “HER NAME IS QUANNAH CHASINGHORSE AND SHE ATE.”

“Indigenous Model Quannah Chasinghorse Is The Met Gala Queen & No, We Won’t Be Taking Questions,” entertainment website Pedestrian wrote about Chasinghorse’s look. Another website, Refinery29, called her the “breakout star” of the event.

Twitter user @WambliEagleman wrote, “Quannah ChasingHorse (is) representing all Natives at the #MetGala tonight!”

In one of her first posts to Twitter — she already had more than 30,000 followers on that platform as of Tuesday afternoon, and more than 100,000 on Instagram — Chasinghorse said she wanted to “represent Indigenous art and fashion” for this year’s theme.

“I felt very alone there but some people were very sweet to me,” Chasinghorse said. “The Met Gala was a dream.”

Jody Potts, Chasinghorse’s mother, said her college best friend, Jocelyn Billy Upshaw — who was Miss Navajo Nation in 2006 and has known Chasinghorse since she was born — was flown out to New York with her personal jewelry collection.

Upshaw, Potts and Chasinghorse Facetimed with the designer and stylist to help dress Chasinghorse for the gala, Potts said.

Chasinghorse also made her debut at New York Fashion Week, closing for designer Prabal Gurung and walking for Jonathan Simkhai.

The model also walked for brand Gabriela Hearst, opening and closing the runway show.

In May, Chasinghorse was featured in a 20-page Vogue Mexico spread, which showcased her activism and need for accurate representation in modeling. She was also recognized in Teen Vogue’s 21 Under 21 list highlighting young girls and femmes, and in The Chanel Book’s 2021 issue.

She is known for her advocacy surrounding the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, and was influential in pushing the Alaska Federation of Natives to declare a climate change emergency at its annual convention in 2019.


Elon Musk drives through loophole by launching Tesla on tribal land

Tesla opened its first facility in New Mexico this week in partnership with the Nambé Pueblo.

Electric car manufacturer Tesla opened up its first sales and service center in New Mexico this week thanks to a first-of-its-kind partnership with a tribal nation. 

New Mexico has laws on the books that prohibit car makers from selling directly to customers without going through third-party dealerships. The law has prevented Tesla from establishing an official presence in the state over the years. 

But now Tesla has found a way around that. The electric car maker partnered with the first nation of Nambé Pueblo to open its first facility inside a defunct casino on tribal land north of Santa Fe, where the state law does not apply. 

The facility opened Thursday with tribal leaders and state lawmakers in attendance who praised the deal. 

“This location will not only create permanent jobs, it is also part of a longterm relationship with Tesla. As the company is working with pueblo nambe to provide education and training opportunities for tribal members, as well as economic development,” Nambé Pueblo Gov. Phillip Perez said during the opening, according to KRQE

Democratic Sen. Martin Heinrich (D) said it was a step toward decarbonizing the country’s transportation infrastructure and expanding access to electric vehicles. 

“We need to double down on this progress and expand uncapped consumer incentives for electric vehicles, make it easier to manufacture electric vehicles in the United States, and fund the rapid electrification of the federal fleet of vehicles,” Heinrich said in a statement.



What exactly does the oil industry have in store for charging companies?

It sounds like the perfect plot for a conspiracy thriller: the giant oil companies are buying up electric vehicle charging companies as fast as they can. Do they mean to shut ‘em all down, or just to make sure that the price of charging is high enough that driving an EV won’t deliver any savings over driving a fossil-fueled vehicle? (Shell is one of the world’s largest providers of hydrogen, made from natural gas.) 

Tesla Model S charging up at a Shell gas station (Source: Shell)

Or, could there be a surprise ending? Perhaps the oil execs have the good of mankind at heart—they realize that the Oil Age is ending, and want to be in position to profit from the next energy era.

We’ll have to wait for the next episode to find out about that—what we do know is that three Europe-based oil multinationals (ShellTotal and bpstarted getting into the charging game back in 2017, and now own companies at every stage of the charging value chain.

Shell is rapidly becoming a major player in the UK charging market—the company now offers charging at numerous petrol stations (aka forecourts), and will soon be rolling out charging at some 100 supermarkets.

The latest news is that Shell aims to install 50,000 on-street public charging points in the UK over the next four years (as reported by The Guardian). Earlier this year, the oil giant acquired ubitricity, which specializes in integrating charging into existing street infrastructure such as lamp posts and bollards, a solution that could make EV ownership more attractive to city dwellers who don’t have private driveways or assigned parking spaces.

This is a big deal—according to the UK’s National Audit Office, over 60% of urban households in England do not have off-street parking, meaning that there’s no practical way for them to install a home charger. A similar situation prevails in many regions, including China and parts of the US.

A look at the innovative company, ubitricity, that Shell acquired in order to expand its EV charging footprint (YouTube: London & Partners)

In the UK, local councils have emerged as something of a bottleneck for installing public charging. Shell has a plan to get around this by offering to pay the upfront costs of installation not covered by government grants. The UK government’s Office for Zero Emission Vehicles currently pays up to 75% of the installation cost for public chargers.

“It’s vital to speed up the pace of EV charger installation across the UK and this aim and financing offer is designed to help achieve that,” Shell UK Chair David Bunch told The Guardian. “We want to give drivers across the UK accessible EV charging options, so that more drivers can switch to electric.”

UK Transport Minister Rachel Maclean called Shell’s plan “a great example of how private investment is being used alongside government support to ensure that our EV infrastructure is fit for the future.”

Shell continues to invest in clean-energy businesses, and has pledged to make its operations net-zero-emissions by 2050. However, it has shown no intention of scaling back its oil and gas production, and some environmental activists are not convinced. Recently, members of the group Extinction Rebellion activists chained and/or glued themselves to railings at London’s Science Museum to protest Shell’s sponsorship of an exhibition about greenhouse gases.

“We find it unacceptable that a scientific institution, a great cultural institution such as the Science Museum, should be taking money, dirty money, from an oil company,” said Dr Charlie Gardner, a member of Scientists for Extinction Rebellion. “The fact that Shell are able to sponsor this exhibition allows them to paint themselves as part of the solution to climate change, whereas they are, of course, at the heart of the problem.”


Indigenous leaders seek an apology about the mass grave in Albuquerque

Stakeholders: The public park the city built on top of the site should be closed immediately to recreation

Native American leaders in Albuquerque are shaping the response and reconciliation from the city for a park built over a mass grave site of children who died at the Albuquerque Indian School during the earliest period of the United States federal boarding school policies.

The school housed thousands of students from tribes across the country, mostly from New Mexico, Colorado and Arizona, from 1882 up until 1989. 

For more than 50 years, the site northwest of the main campus, now known as 4-H Park, was used as a burial ground for students that attended Albuquerque Indian School (AIS) between 1882 and 1933. It made news this summer when a plaque denoting the gravesite was noticed missing from the park. That plaque indicated there were the remains of 110 children buried there, but the records are incomplete, and the number could be greater.

Now, a coalition of Native American leaders in the city have some ideas about moving forward. A report released this week shows suggestions from local stakeholders about the next steps for city government to address the matters at the 4-H Park grave site.

They want an apology from the City of Albuquerque and a clear investigation into how many remains are on site. If any are identified, the group would like input from tribes to return remains back to their home communities. 

They want to see the site honored with protection — a marker and fencing off the southeast corner of the park. 

Spiritual healing through ceremony is also considered an urgent matter.

“Our vision for the future of this site is one where voices of our community are heard, one where we invite the families of children buried at the site into the conversation,” said Jolene Holgate (Diné), a panelist in the stakeholders report. 

They should be able to have a say about what happens to their family members and how they should be laid to rest.

– Jolene Holgate

Holgate also supports closing the park and limiting access. 

“There are plenty of other parks in close proximity and other recreation areas that people can continue to utilize,” she pointed out, and there’s no shortage of recreation areas in that part of town.

The report was presented to Mayor Tim Keller’s office and is available for anyone to read on the city’s websiteThe Office of Native American Affairs is leading the discussion along with the Parks Department and is seeking more public input via email.

Dave Simon is the parks director for the city. “I apologize that it wasn’t right by my predecessors and that we didn’t make it better sooner,” he said during a session with stakeholders on Aug. 17.  “The city is committed to continue working with tribes, pueblos, and community leaders such as yourselves to determine the right path forward.”

The school was established by the Presbyterian Church. In 1884, the federal government assumed control over the school and made New Mexico a prominent hub, enacting federal Indian Boarding School policies set to assimilate Native children into white anglo society. 

It’s unclear how many children died at the boarding school and how many are buried at the city park.

We do know the communities where some of these students came from — but never returned. 

Through its investigation determining the next steps for the gravesite at 4-H Park, city officials are reaching out to tribal leaders from New Mexico, Arizona and Colorado. 

Terry Sloan (Diné/Hopi) is a tribal liaison with the city’s Office of Equity and Inclusion. He’s leading the effort to reach out to the different tribes that are connected to the remains at the gravesite. To date, he’s in contact with leaders from the Pueblo of Zuni, Apache tribes, Southern Ute and Ute Mountain, Hopi, Pima Salt River, Navajo Nation and the Pueblo Council of Governors.

“We’re waiting for the tribes to provide guidance on what they would like us to do with the site. We’re hoping to get an idea soon, and we will begin to look at solutions,” he said. “We’re aware of the cultural and spiritual aspects of the site that we know we must address.”

The suggestions from these tribes will guide the city’s efforts, Sloan said. Any decision-making should be led by tribal consultation and the stakeholders, the report agrees.

Research into the park’s history has led city employees to dive into city archives. In 2017, a report published by local researcher Joe Sabatini along with the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center lays out how the location transitioned from a gravesite operated by the Indian School into a city park. Sabatini’s report also notes that the site could have more than just AIS students.

The city started developing plans for the plot in the ’60s. According to Sabatini’s report, “The city’s landscape architect stated that the city had made an agreement with AIS to seed the land with grass and to plant trees.”

When the remains were unearthed in 1973, Ed Tayitee, a former caretaker for the cemetery told the Albuquerque Journal that the gravesite could also include AIS staff and young children who died at the local Indian Hospital. 

“Because there was no way to take them home (to rural areas) in those days,” Tayitee, who maintained the site until 1964, told the newspaper, which splashed on the front page a picture of a baby’s skull found while digging irrigation holes. Tayitee also said the area was fenced off.

Even after the remains had been discovered, the city moved forward with its plans and created a park on top of the gravesite.

In 1995, a public art installation was moved onto the 4-H Park, and a plaque was added underneath with an inscription written by historian Joe Sando (Jemez Pueblo). It reads: “In honor of former Albuquerque Indian School students interred in the burial ground nearby. ‘Few are recalled after going to rest as these resting here. Indeed, they are in peace.’ ”

In 1999, the city commissioned a study on unmarked grave sites across Albuquerque. Another plaque was put at 4-H Park identifying the location as a mass grave site. That plaque was stolen, likely sometime in 2019, but it made news when it was noticed missing in June 2021 around the time gravesites in Canada were in headlines. The missing plaque prompted these discussions about how the city can reconcile with the past while respecting the dead and using this as a teaching moment. 

“This is a sacred site, and it needs our best thoughts and best efforts,” said Simon, the parks director. “It’s not a formal apology, but I would like to apologize to the Native American community for the circumstances we find ourselves in. Guidance on how to handle a site like this should come from the most directly affected tribes and pueblos, and at the same time, had I walked into this situation sooner, this is not how I would have preferred to see a sacred place cared for.”

The city’s Office of Native American Affairs conducted a stakeholders meeting with Indigenous leaders in the city asking them to address two questions. Here are the responses:

“What is your vision for the site for future generations?”

  • In whatever actions are taken, focus on the spiritual and healing aspects foremost; be very conscious of the spiritual implications of whatever is done. 
  • The surviving family members must be the central stakeholders. 
  • Determine number and origin of remains. 
  • Ceremonies should be conducted to honor and to heal 
  • Learn what tribes and families want done with remains — honor that 
  • Learn what tribes and families want done with the site — honor that 
  • Honor the deceased, and that they were children: Convert park to cemetery or memorial (some type of sacred site), based on the wishes of the tribes. 
  • Close recreational aspect of the park immediately. 
  • Reveal and publicize the history of this and other sites, for education and for healing. 
  • Return the land to the Native people through the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or the pueblos, or all the tribes of N.M.

“What actions/next steps should the City of Albuquerque take in the next 12 months to move this effort forward?”

  • Conduct studies to learn how many/who is buried at site (research, ground-penetrating radar, mass spectrometry). 
  • Hold facilitated planning session(s) 
  • Elicit participation of all tribes — both tribal and spiritual leaders
  • Elicit participation and assistance from state and federal (Dept. of Interior) agencies and National Native American Boarding School Healing Coalition
  • Initiate healing conversations
  • Find Indian School records 
  • Initiate educational processes about the history of the site and about cultural traditions 
  • Provide educational/historical information at the site 
  • Protect the site 
  • Conduct tribal ceremonies 
  • Honor and celebrate Native Americans 
  • City of Albuquerque, make a formal apology