Connecting with family heritage while preserving cultural sites

Through a unique lens of family stories and archaeology, Joaquin Montoya helps ensure Lab development won't harm cultural resources

February 5, 2024

Lab archaeologist Joaquín Montoya

Every now and again, Lab archaeologist Joaquín Montoya drives along East Jemez Road in Los Alamos, by the entrance to Elk Ridge Mobile Home Park, and sees his great-grandfather's apricot tree still standing. It offers Joaquín a glimpse into his past when his family had a homestead on what's now current-day Lab property.

Joaquín's family occupied the homestead seasonally for nearly 10 years, until the winter of 1942 when the U.S. government secured the land for Project Y, a secret effort to design and build the atomic bomb to help end WWII. Joaquín's great-grandparents gathered their belongings and trekked down the hill.

Joaquín remembers hearing family stories of summers spent on the homestead grazing sheep and dryland farming crops. It was likely a respite from the warmer summers at their more permanent residence in La Mesilla, just south of Española, where the Montoya family settled after coming north from Zacatecas, Mexico, during the early Spanish Colonial period in 1600.

Joaquín's great-grandfather was compensated for his property, but the government later recognized that he and other Hispanic homesteaders received less for their land than other owners did. In 2004, Congress created a $10 million allocation — the Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders Compensation Fund — to account for the disparity. Joaquín's family was a recipient.

"The reaction from my family was positive overall, and I got a little contribution to my college fund," Joaquín says. "For the most part, at least in my immediate family, people were accepting of the acknowledgement that there was finally fair compensation, even if it was years later."

National security contributions continue

Fast forward 80 years and the Montoya lineage is contributing to the Lab's national security mission in a different way. Joaquín joined the Lab's Cultural Resources Program in 2019 to protect culturally significant sites and historical structures, which means the Lab remains compliant and maintains positive relationships with neighboring pueblos while conducting mission-critical work.

Each time a new construction project or other ground-disturbing work is proposed, it's entered into the Lab's Integrated Review Tool. If certain criteria are met, Joaquín and his team receive an automated notification. This sets off a review to determine whether the project permit can be fully approved without impact to the sites, approved with conditions or not approved.

In upholding the Lab's cultural stewardship commitment, which is codified in part by National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA) regulations and a DOE directive, projects don't receive approval or may be required to meet specific conditions if they pose risk of serious damage or destruction to a cultural resource.

The NHPA requires federal agencies to "take into account the effects of their undertakings" on sites eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places and to consult with potentially affected parties, such as the surrounding pueblos, if sites might be impacted. A 2022 directive from DOE takes the commitment to cultural preservation a step further, with an order to prioritize avoidance of sites eligible for the National Register. If avoidance isn't possible, the Lab must minimize adverse effects. Excavation is pursued only as a last resort.

"The national security mission of the Lab and the nature of the world we live in means DOE ownership of the land isn't likely to change any time soon," Joaquín says. "So, we need to be good environmental stewards while we're here. Cultural resources are finite, so once they're gone, they're gone. Our goal is to preserve the history and archaeological heritage of the pueblo descendent communities that surround the Lab as best as possible, as well as those of the more recent historic past."

In that vein, Joaquín has been working since 2021 on recording 25 previously undocumented Ancestral Puebloan sites, with dozens of cavates and a plethora of artifacts that he identified during a survey of land under consideration for Lab-related activity. Upon completion of the report, he'll submit it to New Mexico's state historic preservation officer. Once the state confirms the sites meet eligibility standards, they can be given legal protections under the National Historic Preservation Act.

In 2021, Joaquín identified 25 undocumented Ancestral Puebloan sites on Lab property, including this plastered cavate, which he's working to protect under the National Historic Preservation Act.

A family reunion at the homestead

Unfortunately, Joaquín's family's homestead didn't stay intact like the resources he's working to protect today. Built in 1912, the wood cabin eventually collapsed by natural forces and became a "low mound" — likely not visible to the untrained eye, says fellow Lab archaeologist Ali Livesay.

"Sometimes the structure's just too far gone to be restored," Joaquín added. In addition, the DOE directive to avoid excavation of cultural sites didn't yet exist.

In 1992, the remains of the Montoya cabin and outhouse were excavated for expansion of a nearby utility line.

Serendipitously, Joaquín connected with Lab archaeologists completing the Montoya cabin excavation project while he was attending the 2019 Society for American Archaeology Conference in Albuquerque on behalf of his then-employer, a Santa Fe-based archaeology firm.

"I didn't know LANL had an archaeology program, but I saw they had a booth at the conference, which made me curious, so I walked over and casually dropped the story that my family had a homestead there," Joaquín says. "Katie Higgins, the group leader for Environmental Stewardship, took a closer look at my name tag and saw my family name was Montoya, and Sandi Copeland, program lead for Cultural Resources, took me over to Ali who was doing a poster presentation there."

Later that year, Joaquín and Ali coordinated a gathering at the homestead with more than 40 members of his extended family — many of whom knew a homestead existed but didn't know exactly where.

The connection was also a career catalyst for Joaquín, who'd been working in cultural resource management the past three years and was pursuing a master's degree in archaeology from New Mexico Highlands University. He had received a bachelor's degree in anthropology from the University of New Mexico in 2012. After connecting with the Lab's Cultural Resources Program, he applied for an open position and soon after, came onboard.

Joaquín's personal connection to the area no doubt serves as a boon to the Lab's cultural preservation efforts, which facilitate regulatory compliance and good relationships, in addition to an appreciation for other cultures' ways of life.

"People have been living here for thousands of years, building tight-knit communities with deep, deep roots to the land, and their descendants are just down the road still living here," Joaquín says. "It's important for people to be aware of the deep connections descendent communities have to the land. Even if that land is closed to public access now, the places of importance haven't been forgotten."

Service beyond the Lab

Joaquín's drive to be a good neighbor doesn't end with cultural resource management. Since 2008, he's been enlisted in the Army National Guard, and in the summer of 2022, he was dispatched during the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon wildfire, the state's largest and most devastating wildfire on record. He prepared radios used by wildland firefighters and helped local law enforcement issue evacuation notices — a difficult job, Joaquín says.

In January 2022, he was deployed by Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham to fill the pandemic-era teacher shortage. For two weeks, he worked as a substitute teacher at a Silver City elementary school, and for another two weeks at Pojoaque High School.

Last year, Joaquín also won the Powers Prize, given to young archaeologists who present exceptional research each year at the Pecos Conference. Joaquín presented on his New Mexico Highlands University master's program thesis topic, which involved research on an Ancestral Puebloan site near Pecos.

"I see my job here as being committed to resource preservation," Joaquín says. "It's not every day, especially in archaeology, that you get the chance to work in your backyard. It's been a huge opportunity to work here, for multiple reasons," he says.

Joaquín thinks of others with ties to the mesa as he strives to preserve the past for them and for newcomers. 

"To be able to drive by the homestead now and still see the apricot tree, it gives me a sense of connection," Joaquín says.