Bison roaming in New Mexico.
Bison in New Mexico Restoring overgrown forest makes forests safe and healthier for wildlife and people. © Alan Eckert Photography

Stories in New Mexico

Working With Indigenous Peoples

In New Mexico, we acknowledge and learn from our Indigenous communities.

At the start of planting season, John Waconda uses his plow to turn over the soil. This year, he noticed birds digging in the fresh soil for worms. A sure sign of spring once again. He thought about how his dad and their ancestors passed on these important farming traditions through the centuries and how they continue today. 

John is the New Mexico Chapter’s first-ever Indigenous Partnerships program manager. His stories, along with Indigenous perspectives and values, and years of resource management experience make him the perfect person to expand the program. He came out of retirement for this job because he said there’s too much work to do and saw many opportunities that could make a difference.  

John Waconda smiling in front of mountains in New Mexico.
John Waconda In 2021, TNC in New Mexico hired John Waconda of the Pueblo of Isleta as the first-ever Indigenous Partnership program director. © Roberto Rosales

“I’m concerned about losing tradition and culture and being able to protect and preserve the forest and its many resources,” he said. “We want the best for our children. I want to leave our homelands in better shape than what I had.”

Connecting with the land is paramount to Native Americans’ livelihoods, traditions, and cultures. That connection was torn apart because of colonization, diseases brought into the U.S. from Europe and the removal of fire.  

He added: “Native peoples learned to live with and manage fire for centuries and to use it in ways that enrich their communities. However, the inability to do so on a large scale has caused tension and a deep loss of connection to the land.”

Leading the Way

Since starting his job in October of 2021, John, a citizen of the Isleta Pueblo, has steadfastly expanded the chapter’s collaboration with many of the state’s Pueblos. This makes a difference on many fronts, including our forests, water, policies, and farms in the Land of Enchantment.

A forest restoration site in New Mexico.

Collaboration with Taos Pueblo as they develop a cultural fire plan that will protect their tribal wilderness area and community, secure clean water, provide medicinal plants and support cultural traditions.

A person carrying pine seedlings at a forest restoration site.

In partnership with Jemez and Santa Clara Pueblos, planted 100,000 drought-resistant seedlings in the Jemez Mountains where the Las Conchas Fire burned 150,000 acres in 2011. The goal is to create a forest that will adapt to intensifying climate change.

A controlled burn in progress.

Through New Mexico’s Rio Grande Water Fund, the Indigenous Peoples Burning Network and partnerships with New Mexico’s Pueblos, strengthen tribal capacity and create opportunities for Tribal staff to assist in the planning and implementation of cultural fire use.

The East Fork of the Jemez River in New Mexico.

Support the Santa Clara Pueblo as they implement a watershed restoration plan after severe wildfires destroyed resources and caused cultural disconnection. The work combines Indigenous knowledge with nature-based solutions such as creating bio-fences to manage grazing.

The Rio Grande.

Engage with a collaborative of scientists and Indigenous leaders from across the Western states to advocate for the kinds of policy solutions needed to encourage burning that will protect forests, water, and local communities.

Buffalo being transferred.

Transfer of five buffalo to the Nambe Pueblo as part of the InterTribal Buffalo Council (ITBC) buffalo restoration movement. Since its inception, ITBC has restored 20,000+ buffalo across 1 million acres of Tribal lands. ITBC began partnering with TNC in 2020.

Cultures, viable communities and healthy land and water are all interconnected. Conservation success benefits people and nature.

Learning from the Past with a New Worldview

While TNC has partnered with Indigenous Peoples across the globe for many years, we have made mistakes and are still part of the problem. To that end, TNC created the North America Indigenous Landscapes and Communities program, hiring Brie Fraley, a citizen of the Tolowa Dee-ni’ Nation, to lead the effort.

We want to support and engage Indigenous peoples as they strengthen their voices, choices and actions to manage their homelands in ways that improve lives and create healthy lands and waters to support sustainable traditional and cultural resource practices. In order to do that, we are taking a close look at our 70-year-old approaches to conservation and investing in review through deep listening, resulting in new approaches in the way we work.

Last year we adopted our human rights policy and have invested in bodies of work such as the Human Rights Guide. In order for our work to be successful and sustainable, we are leaning into developing heartfelt relationships that are leading us to new ways of working.

For Brie, success looks like healthy, thriving Indigenous communities where land and people have healed and there’s restorative justice.


TNC is committed to creating, promoting, and perpetuating a narrative and future in which nature and people can thrive and coexist. Our mission must encompass inclusion, collaboration and support of the ancestral and current stewards of our natural systems.

We pay our respect to these traditional stewards, past, present, and emerging, who have been the custodians of these lands and waters since time immemorial. 

We take this opportunity to acknowledge the ancestral homelands of the Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. Southwest, including New Mexico, which is home to 19 Pueblo communities, Fort Sill Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, Navajo Peoples and Ute Mountain Tribe.

Thank you to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for their support in developing TNC’s land acknowledgment in New Mexico.