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Posted 6/1/2011

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By Kristen Skopeck
Public Affairs

Imagine being given the opportunity, as part of your work, to step outside your culture and become completely immersed in the culture of another for several days, to be truly welcomed into homes of people who have different beliefs and vastly different historical experience, and to be shown why certain plants, animals and land features play an intricate role in their existence.

The Albuquerque District sponsored and the Cochiti Pueblo hosted the 2011 Native American Perspective Course April 25 to 28, which allowed 20 students from across the Corps and partner agencies to learn about their hosts, and each other, in a 24-hour-per-day, immersion experience.

It was the second time Cochiti Pueblo leadership stepped forward to conduct the course, which requires tremendous logistical support and unavoidable intrusion into the lives of the Cochiti people, because they feel so strongly about continuing a dialogue and encouraging understanding between their people and those working for the federal government. They explained that it was only in this decade that the Cochiti could stand to be in the same room with people from the Corps of Engineers. 

The Cochiti reservation is about 55 miles north of Albuquerque, N.M., and contains nearly 54,000 acres of land, a portion of which is dissected by the Rio Grande [River].

For as long as the Cochiti people can remember, the river contributed to their enjoyment and food production. It defined where they lived and how they lived. Then, in the late 1950s, the Cochiti experienced a cataclysm when the federal government, which had passed legislation in the 1940s associated with Rio Grande flood control, identified the Cochiti Pueblo as the site of a dam and reservoir and set into motion the bulldozing of Cochiti farms, crops and homes by the river. 

The Cochiti’s world was turned upside down. They experienced the threat of having their land condemned in the government’s acquisition process, and they lost a very important religious site when the Corps began building the dam in the mid-1960s.

Although the Cochiti began the long and beleaguered process of fighting the encroachment within the United States legal system and taking their plight all the way to Congress, the construction went forward and 50 percent of their agricultural lands were destroyed. 

The effects of losing this land were far reaching for the Cochiti, but they materialized most blatantly in a culture shift that undermined their language, their diet and their livelihoods.

At the time of the dam’s construction, the Corps and the Cochiti barely communicated, as one side understood they were being directed to implement a logical project that would benefit many people downriver and the other side was understandably bitter and entrenched in a legal battle. The ensuing period from 1970 to 2000 was one of litigation, confrontation and hostility, on both sides.

In 1975, the Corps completed Cochiti Dam and Reservoir. When full, the reservoir can hold more than half a million acre-feet of water, which flows in from sources across more than 11,500 square miles. The five-mile-long dam towers 251 feet above the river and controls flooding and sedimentation. It is an important tool for managing the critical water resource that is the Rio Grande. Ultimately, Congress added recreation to the reservoir’s purpose, as well.  

Management of the dam and reservoir was difficult for the Corps for several years, since the relationship with the Cochiti continued to be strained.

In 2000, Albuquerque and the surrounding area experienced widespread drought, so the Corps and Cochiti were forced to discuss tactics and solutions to the problem. As a result, the District Engineer and Pueblo Governor began to have monthly meetings. 

Over time, the frank discussions that ensued caused both parties to understand and appreciate the broad negative impacts to the Cochiti people, and the dialogue resulted in reconciliation. 

The Corps held a reconciliation ceremony in 2003, near the place where Cochiti’s religious site was destroyed. The entire Cochiti community attended, and the District Engineer apologized for the damage the government caused and committed to a future of collaboration.

In 2008, Cochiti Pueblo signed an historic agreement with the Corps to participate in the overall management of the Cochiti Lake area. Hosting the Native American Perspective Course is one way the Cochiti are actively collaborating with the Corps today. 

The Course 

Dr. Joseph Henry Suina, a retired University of New Mexico professor and former Cochiti Governor, was the lead facilitator for the four-day course. He accompanied the students during the many activities arranged to demonstrate and educate about Cochiti life, past and present.

Dr. Suina and other Cochiti leadership spoke at length about their desire to retain their native language, Keres. Suina explained that they perform all of their government functions and the majority of their cultural practices in Keres and have developed programs dedicated to teaching the language to their children. Also, the Cochiti began each activity in the course with a prayer in Keres.

Students came from all backgrounds and professions, but many commented that the cultural exchange highlighted more similarities than differences between everyone. A community-wide dinner held on the last night of the course gave each student the chance to introduce themselves and speak about the experience. Interestingly, there were 20 completely individual perspectives, often accompanied by tears, verbalized by the group.

“The biggest impact on me had to be the telling of the Cochiti history leading up to the interaction with the government,” said Karen Downey, operations manager at John Martin Reservoir in Hasty, Colo. “To hear how dealings with the Corps disrupted the lives of the Cochiti people and nearly destroyed an entire culture with roots in the ancient past was very disturbing to me. The Cochiti peoples’ passionate recounting of their love of family and ancestors, sacred beliefs and connection to their native lands intertwined with their core values made me understand the important things that I should treasure in my own life.”

An Emergency Management Specialist for the Albuquerque District, Theresa Rogers, said,

“Dr. Suina is an incredible facilitator and teacher. The compassion he has for his family, community and the world is amazing. Having attended this course has made me realize that many of us are focused on material possessions, and we waste time on things that have no value.”

One of the students who works in the District’s contracting division, Beverly Dodson, is half Cochiti.  She said the course really touched her heart. “Since I’m half Cochiti, learning about the past struggles that my ancestors had to bear was hurtful, although being there in the present day brought back a lot of joyful memories as a child with my grandparents.”

Mary C. Anderson, a regulatory project manager in Detroit District, said the part of the training that had the biggest impact on her was focusing on core values versus individual gain, as well as developing open listening skills.

“Now, at work, I will be more open to hearing what the applicant, violator, consultant or agent has to say and get the full story behind a project,” Anderson said. Downey agreed with her. “I think this type of training is important because, at times, we as government employees do what is required of us and what is mandated by regulation, but perhaps forget to seek out the consequences of these actions on other people,” she said.  “We not only need to do what is legal, but also what is right for the people we work for and the public.”  

Albuquerque albuquerque district Cochiti Cochiti Dam cochiti lake Cochiti Pueblo Congress cultural heritage cultural immersion culture Keres language Native American culture new mexico NM rio grande US Army Corps of Engineers USACE