Jemez Pueblo wants to reclaim land

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Preserve > Archeological evidence appears to support tribe’s claim

By Arin McKenna

Valles Caldera National Preserve is replete with evidence of ancestral villages, sacred and ceremonial sites and shrines of the Jemez people.


Jemez Pueblo has, in fact, never severed its ties with this ancestral homeland. Jemez people continue to rely on the Caldera for subsistence hunting, forage for livestock, irrigation water, wild plants and trees used for food, medicine and ceremonial objects, timber for construction and firewood and obsidian and chert for stone tools.

But the pueblo’s ultimate concern centers on trails and sacred areas used by the pueblo’s religious societies, and mineral and hot springs used by medicine societies for curing ailments.

“The Valles Caldera is our cathedral. It is just as important for us as the Vatican is for the Catholics and as the famous Blue Lake is to Taos Pueblo. It is where the spirits of our ancestors reside and it is our most important spiritual place,” said former Jemez Governor Madalena at a Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources hearing in June, 2010.

Oral histories say that the image of an eagle with a lightning bolt coming from its beak on Redondo Peak (known as Wav e ma to the Jemez people) was the sign for the tribe to settle there when they migrated from the Four Corners region.

“Wav e ma is the mother peak of the other volcanic domes in the Caldera. Wav e ma means that we will never be in want if we continue to live close to her. For many centuries we have lived in spiritual and ecological harmony with the Valles Caldera,” Madalena said.

That is why the pueblo filed a lawsuit in federal court on July 20, 2010, to reclaim the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

An issue summary reads, “We continue to hold aboriginal Indian title to the Valles Caldera. Indian title is the exclusive right of use, occupancy and possession held by American Indian tribes to their ancestral homelands and is the root of all American real estate titles.”

The pueblo had 12 years in which to contest federal ownership of the land after the U.S. government purchased 94,761 acres from the Dunnigan family on July 25, 2000, in order to create the preserve. The pueblo was unaware of the United States government’s interest in the land until the day of the purchase.

The federal government’s dispossession of Jemez Pueblo originally dates back to 1860. The new territorial government was attempting to settle a conflict between the heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca and the Town of Las Vegas, N.M. The settlement authorized the heirs to claim up to five tracts of vacant land anywhere in the Territory of New Mexico.

The heirs claimed one parcel of 99,289 acres which included the Valles Caldera. However, the court filing points out that the land was not vacant.

“Jemez Pueblos’ right of possession, use and occupancy has not been extinguished by conquest, voluntary cession or voluntary abandonment, or by any express act of the United States Congress, purporting to take or extinguish Jemez Pueblo’s aboriginal Indian title. Jemez Pueblo has never been compensated by the United States for any alleged “taking” of its aboriginal Indian title lands within the Valles Caldera National Preserve.”

Madalena stressed this point in his congressional testimony. “The Indians being the prior occupants, possess the right of the soil. It cannot be taken from them unless by their free consent, or by the right of conquest in case of a just war. To dispossess them on any other principle would be a gross violation of the fundamental laws of nature and of that distributive justice which is the glory of a nation.”

The pueblo’s claim is backed up by extensive documentation of archeological and cultural sites at the Caldera. Jemez Pueblo Traditional Cultural Properties Project Manager Christopher Toya has been documenting sites since 2004, working closely with the preserve’s Cultural Resources Coordinator Anastasia Steffen.

A few years ago, a cultural committee comprised of traditional leaders made a monumental decision: Jemez Pueblo would begin documenting its ancestral lands within the Valles Caldera.

“We had always been secretive about our sacred places of worship,” Toya said. “But they asked, did that get us our lands back? No. So it was decided by our leaders that it would be wise to start documenting these places.”

The study is still ongoing, but at the time of the court filing at least 60 Puebloan villages had been identified, as well as many thousands of farmhouse sites, agricultural fields, ceremonial sites, sacred areas, mineral procurement areas, hunt traps and blinds, camp sites and various other activities associated with the ancestral Jemez.

“This reconfirms what the pueblo has been saying all along, that we have ancestral ties to this land,” Toya said.

Preliminary findings indicate that Jemez Pueblo has been the primary and principle user of the Valles Caldera since at least 1300 A.D. Other tribal groups, especially the Tewa and Keres pueblos, also used the area for hunting, gathering of traditional materials and as a place of worship, but the Jemez people were the only ones to build large villages or farm the caldera extensively.

Evidence indicates that Jemez populations within the preserve averaged 10,000 to 15,000 before the arrival of the Spanish and 7,000 to10,000 during the Spanish Colonial Period.

The Indian Pueblo Council passed a resolution supporting Jemez’ claim on Dec. 3 by a 14-0 vote.

Jemez Pueblo supports the effort to place the preserve under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service, but only as an interim measure until the pueblo is able to reclaim its land.

“Our position is that our Jemez Pueblo Indian title to the Valles Caldera must be fully respected and that the caldera eventually be returned to our ownership and our control. We are fully capable of managing and protecting it. We would provide at a minimum the same level of access to hunting, fishing, hiking, and other recreational opportunities as are enjoyed by the public in the caldera.

“For many centuries, we have lived in spiritual and ecological harmony with the Valles Caldera. We have taken great pains to protect its resources and its natural beauty. We were the first stewards of the caldera, and we have never faltered in our role as its protectors. Truly, we were and continue to be the first environmentalists.”

The preserve’s spokesperson, Terry McDermott, said that the board and staff may not comment on any pending litigation.

The U.S. Department of Justice is defending the case, and expects to file a response to the complaint in mid-February.

The department’s spokesperson, Wyn Hornbuckle, also declined to comment.