American Indian leaders from New Mexico and elsewhere are excited about the state's expanded spirit of cooperation, but it's already being put to the test by a plan for a $3 billion coal-fired power plant on the nation's largest American Indian reservation.
The Navajo Nation is partnering with Houston-based Sithe Global Power to build the Desert Rock Energy Project in northwestern New Mexico. The tribe says the plant would bring in millions of dollars in annual revenue and provide hundreds of jobs on a reservation where more than half of the people are unemployed.
But Gov. Bill Richardson, the New Mexico Environment Department and others are critical of the plant, saying it would further degrade air quality in the Four Corners region — home to two existing coal-fired plants.
State and Navajo leaders had two formal meetings last year about Desert Rock before talks ended.
Now, with Richardson signing the state-tribal collaboration act just weeks ago, the Navajos are waiting to see how New Mexico will implement the new law.
George Hardeen, a spokesman for Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr., said Desert Rock is "the most important and biggest project Navajo Nation has ever undertaken.
"Because of that," Hardeen said, "the Navajo Nation hopes the new collaboration act is more than just a fleeting hyperbolic moment for the governor and more significant than the creation of a department of wishful thinking."
Richardson has called the act "a landmark bill," saying it will strengthen the relationship between the state and the 22 sovereign tribes, pueblos and nations within its boundaries.
Some officials see the act as a model for ushering in a new era in state-tribal relations.
"It really is unique. There is no other law like this in the United States," said Alvin Warren, secretary of the New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs and a member of the Santa Clara Pueblo.
Joe Garcia, president of the National Congress of American Indians and governor of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo in New Mexico, described it as a "guiding light for the rest of the country."
The law requires 34 state agencies to appoint at least one tribal liaison. They also must provide special training for employees who work with tribes, and they have to develop policies promoting better communication with tribes by the end of the year.
The law also mandates an annual state-tribal summit between the New Mexico governor and Indian leaders.
Tribal leaders, including Navajo officials, have already met to plan for the first summit, Hardeen said.
The law follows years of work to better state-tribal relationships. It started in 2003 with the elevation of Indian Affairs to a cabinet-level department. In 2005, Richardson signed an executive order establishing a state-tribal consultation pilot program.
The next step was to establish consistency across state government, Warren said.
"It isn't just symbolic," he said of the new law. "There's a practicality to the governor meeting on an annual basis with all of the tribal leaders. There's a practicality to having tribal liaisons as a permanent part of each cabinet agency."
Navajo officials hope the new statutory requirement for cooperation will help smooth over hard feeling regarding the state's position on the Desert Rock project. The tribe complained that New Mexico officials often criticize the project without warning tribal officials.
"The very least the state environment secretary can do or the governor can do is pick up the phone to let the Navajo president know he's about to be blasted in tomorrow's newspaper," Hardeen said.
Milton Bluehouse Jr., the department's tribal liaison, said his office tries to get as much information to tribal officials as possible. The department invited tribes to help update the department's consultation policy and held meetings to discuss environmental justice with tribal leaders, he said.
"I don't think it could be said that we have overlooked our efforts in conducting tribal outreach," he said.
Bluehouse, who used to work for the Navajo Nation, acknowledged that historically, state-tribal relationships haven't been as good as they could have been. However, he said those lessons were what led New Mexico lawmakers and tribal leaders to overwhelmingly support the collaboration act.
Warren said he sees the act as an investment that will allow the state and the tribe to pool their resources and advocate for policies that will benefit everyone in New Mexico.
"Nobody expects that the state and each tribe will agree on every issue," he said. "... What this symbolizes and what this places in statute is that it will be the focus of state and tribal governments to build long-term relationships."
On the Net:
New Mexico Department of Indian Affairs: http://www.iad.state.nm.us/
National Congress of American Indians: http://www.ncai.org/
Navajo Nation: http://www.navajo.org/