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ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Leaders of an American Indian community in northern New Mexico are seeking the return of all land within the boundaries of the 89,000-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, citing the area as a "spiritual sanctuary" and part of their traditional homeland.
Jemez Pueblo filed a lawsuit in federal court last summer to establish its aboriginal right to ownership of the property, and the pueblo has gained the support of tribes throughout New Mexico.
The preserve is home to vast grasslands, the remnants of one of North America's few super volcanoes, and one of New Mexico's most famous elk herds. The federal government bought the property from land grant heirs in 2000 with the goal of operating it as a working ranch while developing recreational opportunities for the public.
The government's experiment in land management failed to become financially self-sufficient, and members of New Mexico's congressional delegation have been working on a proposal that would call for the National Park Service to take over management.
However, Jemez Pueblo wants the federal government to return ownership and control of the property.
The lawsuit describes the preserve as the "Jemez Holy Land" and talks about more than 800 years of occupation by the Jemez people. Archaeological surveys have identified dozens of pueblo villages, an extensive network of trails and thousands of ceremonial sites, agricultural fields and hunting traps, according to the lawsuit.
"All our songs, our traditional calendar refer to his area," Pueblo Gov. Vincent A. Toya Sr. told the Albuquerque Journal in a recent interview. "It is so dear to us because it has everything in our heart up there."
Albuquerque attorney Tom Luebben, who represents Jemez Pueblo in the land claim lawsuit, told The Associated Press last week that he believes this is the first time a tribe has sued the federal government under the Quiet Title Act to recover unlawfully appropriated Indian title lands.
The argument is that the pueblo's aboriginal title to the land was never extinguished despite the government purchasing the property 12 years ago to create the preserve.
The preserve offers various activities for the public throughout the year — from hiking, fishing and hunting to snowshoeing — and the number of visitors usually is limited. Pueblo leaders have indicated they would continue with recreational opportunities if their land claim is successful.
Valles Caldera officials have declined to comment on the pending litigation, and the U.S. attorney's office is expected to file the government's response to the pueblo's claim in federal court next month.
Jemez Pueblo also is conducting ethnographic and oral history studies of the preserve in addition to an archaeological assessment of the area.