Violence of the Suburban Frontier

A tazing in Tiwa Territory.

On March 13th, in that weird liminal last weekend before the first Stay-at-Home orders in the United States, I went to Petroglyphs National Monument. My brother- and sister-in-law were visiting, on a fast turnaround trip, and while we explored a museum on the 12th, we decided to do as much outdoors as we could for the rest of the long weekend. Growing up here, I’d been to Petroglyphs before, but I hadn’t been since Alymay and I moved to Albuquerque together in 2016.

It was a gray, windy day. To get to the Piedras Marcadas trailhead, we parked behind a Valvoline, and then walked a narrow cement path between the walled-in backyards of suburban Albuquerque. The volcanic rock outcropping on which the petroglyphs are carved is roughly 200,000 years old. The oldest petroglyphs date back to at least 3,000 years ago, with many more made between 1300 and 1680 CE. The suburban homes date back to sometime between 1991 and 1996. The Valvoline was built sometime between 1996 and 2002.

The first petroglyphs were made by ancient puebloans, with more recent ones traced to the Tiwa people, and remain a sacred site to this day. Our walk, back in the pre-masked world of mid-March, passed without incident. Several other families were at the site, with varying degrees of sticking to the trails. To the best of my memory, no park rangers were present on the trail. (The visitor’s center, located a few miles away from the trailhead, was staffed by rangers.)

On December 27th, a park ranger at Petroglyph National Monument used a taser on Darrel House, a man of Navajo and Oneida ancestry. There’s video of the incident, recorded by a companion walking with House and shared on Instagram. It is exceptionally brutal to watch.

House told local free weekly The Paper that “while walking his dog he ventured off the marked trail to seek a quiet place to “pray and speak to” Native ancestors whose petroglyphs adorn the volcanic rock across the monument.”

In the background of the video, the back walls of the suburban homes are easily visible. It is hard to overstate how much Albuquerque has sprawled around the petroglyphs. In the satellite imagery from 1991, homes touch one side of the canyon. Now homes cover three sides, with the outlined roads for future development surrounding the space. These homes would be served by an extension of Paseo del Norte, a major road in the city.  Rejecting proposals for a tunnel that could go under the site and leave it undisturbed, in 2005 the City of Albuquerque moved boulders adorned with petroglyphs out of the way, and opened the road in 2007.

While the known petroglyphs themselves were preserved in the move, by relocating them the meaning of the symbols, intentionally situated in their environment, was lost. 

"We knew he (Mayor Marty Chávez) would do it over this Christmas vacation. He needed to give a gift to the developers. He's their Santa Claus," Laurie Weahkee, of the Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality Council, told the Albuquerque Journal in 2005. Pueblo and environmental groups sued the city and the state to prevent the development of the road, but their lawsuits were ultimately unsuccessful.

This is the long recent history of what happened to Darrel House. After issuing a nothing of an apology, the Park Service shifted focus, saying its objective instead was preventing graffiti, and claiming that the use of a taser was justified after House, who had returned to the trail, gave the ranger a false name.

“What this tells us, is that this land isn’t ours and that individuals who work under DOI don’t see exercising Indigenous spirituality as a sovereign right,” write the Pueblo Action Alliance. “Public lands are stolen lands. Indigenous people have the right to enjoy themselves on the lands of their ancestors. It is a shame that the National Park Service will not acknowledge this relative and their right to pray but rather see them as violating National Park Service enforcement and law.”

Extending a road through a sacred site to spur development is a thing that happened not just in my lifetime, but in this century. The Paseo del Norte extension is younger than the Iraq War.

Narrowly defined, the part of this story closest to my traditional beat is the use of a taser. Less-lethal weapons are, always, sold by their makers as an alternative to a more lethal weapon. It’s easier to sell the public on a hand-held electrocution device if it is framed as better than shooting someone. 

Yet the history of less-lethal weapons is not that people use them instead of more-lethal weapons. It is instead a tool whose violence escalates downwards, in situations that likely would have never even approached the use of firearms. This summer, I wrote about the harms caused by less-lethal weapons, and how those weapons have a history rooted equally in colonial wars and domestic policing.

The technology of violence is my entry point to the beat, but it’s only a fraction of the story. The satellite footage I relied on comes from an ongoing project of the US government, and, secondarily, the commercial market to map the world as it changes. Every era of satellite footage I used to place the building of the Valvoline near the petroglyphs was also used, respectively, for the first Iraq War, the US interventions in the Balkans, the second Iraq War, and to support ongoing wars in at least 7 countries abroad.

There’s a broader history here, too, about how the entire nuclear enterprise built Albuquerque into the city it is, how the suburbs near the petroglyphs likely don’t exist without the Air Force Base, Sandia National Labs, and the local tech industry built around servicing nuclear weapons.

The Pueblo Action Alliance is calling for people to join in condemning the action of the rangers, and to ensure that sovereign people have a right to pray on their land. As a writer whose entire beat hinges on understanding the tools of violence, it’s irresponsible for me to ignore it when the violence happens in my own city.

This is, by my count, the 120th story of mine published in 2020. That’s across 12 different outlets, in what is easily the strangest year of my career so far. If you’re interested in the highlights, I have a curated selection of my favorites as a twitter thread or in threadreader form. I also wrote a somewhat longer reflect over at Discontents.

I want to thank all of you for reading, and for subscribing. There is little writing I do that feels as close to my heart as these newsletters, and your support, as readers and subscribers, makes them all possible. In my leanest months this year, this support literally fed me. While things are better now, it’s still an essential part of making the work I do possible.

In the coming year, I’m going to send a survey asking for more information on how I can better serve you. You are the audience I most enjoy writing for, and I want to know what I can do to ensure that these newsletters are still writing you appreciate.

Thank you all for reading, and if you’re in the mood for more newsletters, may I recommend checking out what we’re doing over at Discontents