New Mexico tribe keeps title to portion of national preserve

Mar 23, 2023, 6:40 PM

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A Native American tribe has been granted title to a portion of a national preserve in northern New Mexico following a yearslong court battle against the federal government, a ruling that could provide hope to other tribes seeking to regain rights to their traditional homelands.

The 10th U.S. Circuit of Appeals issued a split ruling Wednesday in the case brought by Jemez Pueblo over lands it was seeking to reclaim in the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The pueblo had argued its aboriginal property rights — or rights to occupy and use land as their ancestors did — were never extinguished despite a lower court ruling in 2019 that found the U.S. government had clear title to the expansive preserve. Following an appeal and a subsequent trial, the pueblo opted to narrow its claims to four specific areas within Valles Caldera’s boundaries.

The latest ruling acknowledged the pueblo’s title to an area known as Banco Bonito but rejected claims to three other areas, with the court saying the tribe had not put the government on notice that it was seeking claim to those specific areas.

Legal experts say the partial victory marks the first time in the U.S. that a tribe has ever demanded the return of an aboriginal title that has not been extinguished, or terminated, and gone to court successfully to recover it. Still they say it’s unclear what the broader implications will be for future land disputes as more tribes seek to reclaim traditional homelands.

Jemez Pueblo officials could not immediately be reached for comment Thursday, and the National Park Service declined to comment on the decision, saying only that the litigation was pending.

Both the pueblo and federal government still could appeal Wednesday ruling.

Robert Coulter, executive director of the Indian Law Resource Center in Montana, called it a long and complex case.

“I think one of the most significant things is that it made what I believe is a breakthrough in determining that tribes can reclaim land to which they have aboriginal title that has not been lawfully extinguished,” he said. “That point was not at all clear in the past.”

The appellate ruling unwinds a previous lower court finding that Jemez Pueblo would have had to maintain control over Banco Bonito before and after 1860 — when the government granted the land to private owners — in order to keep its title. Judge Gregory Phillips wrote that creating such a hurdle would likely keep other tribes from “establishing aboriginal title into the modern era.”

In a dissenting opinion, Judge Nancy Moritz argued that relying on a tribe’s exclusive use of an area “for a long time” during any time period could subject the government to new aboriginal title claims.

“There is no reason tribes nationwide could not file similar claims seeking aboriginal title to lands within the 18 other national preserves scattered throughout the United States or, for that matter, to any lands owned or later acquired by the government,” Moritz wrote.

Jemez Pueblo considers Valles Caldera a spiritual sanctuary and part of its traditional homeland. It’s home to vast grasslands, the remnants of a massive volcanic eruption and one of New Mexico’s most famous elk herds.

The court record states that for over 800 years, many tribes and pueblos have used Valles Caldera for hunting, gathering and various cultural and religious practices. Redondo Peak, the highest mountain in the caldera, is a site long used as part of religious pilgrimages and is home to several shrines.

Jemez Pueblo first sued the federal government in 2012, saying tribes have legal and just claims to retain possession of land that they have historically occupied within the United States. The legal fight came as members of Congress and others started to push for management of the sprawling preserve to be transferred to the National Park Service.

When the tribe first made its case before the appellate court in 2014, then-Pueblo Gov. Joshua Madalena described Valles Caldera as the tribe’s spiritual mother, likening it to the Vatican for Catholics. Many of the court filings are redacted, seeking to keep secret details about traditions and culturally significant locations.

Federal attorneys initially argued that the tribe’s aboriginal title was essentially extinguished when surveyors, working under the authority of Congress, determined the land was vacant and turned it over to land grant heirs in 1860 as part of a swap.

The federal government purchased the property in 2000 with the goal of operating it as a working ranch while developing recreational opportunities for the public. It was eventually taken over by the Park Service.

Coulter said the ruling by the 10th Circuit panel of judges is significant even though Jemez Pueblo didn’t get everything it had hoped for.

“We’ve seen generations of judicial decisions where the courts simply were not willing to apply the law in a straightforward manner in Indian cases,” he said.

United States News

Associated Press

Guest lineups for the Sunday news shows

WASHINGTON (AP) — ABC’s “This Week” — Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg; Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio. __ NBC’s “Meet the Press” — Buttigieg; former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate; Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. __ CBS’ “Face the Nation” — Olena Zelenska, first lady of Ukraine; Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Ariz.; Rep. Tony Gonzales, […]

8 minutes ago

FILE - Republican presidential candidates, from left, former Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former N...

Associated Press

3rd Republican presidential debate is set for Nov. 8 in Miami, with the strictest qualifications yet

The third Republican presidential debate will be held in Miami on Nov. 8, a day after several states hold off-year elections, and candidates will be facing the most stringent requirements yet to take part. Participating candidates must secure 4% of the vote in multiple polls and 70,000 unique donors to earn a spot on the […]

53 minutes ago

Associated Press

Video of Elijah McClain’s stop by police shown as officers on trial in Black man’s death

BRIGHTON, Colo. (AP) — Elijah McClain’s mother left a Colorado courtroom in tears Friday after prosecutors showed video footage of the 23-year-old Black man pinned down by police officers during a fatal 2019 confrontation, which rose to prominence during nationwide protests over racial discrimination and excessive force in policing. Two officers from the Denver suburb […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Biologists look to expand suitable habitat for North America’s largest and rarest tortoise

ENGLE, N.M. (AP) — While the average life span of North America’s largest and most rare tortoise species is unknown, biologists have said it could span upward of a century. So saving the endangered species is a long game — one that just got another nudge forward Friday as U.S. wildlife officials finalized an agreement […]

1 hour ago

Associated Press

Surgeons perform second pig heart transplant, trying to save a dying man

WASHINGTON (AP) — Surgeons have transplanted a pig’s heart into a dying man in a bid to prolong his life – only the second patient to ever undergo such an experimental feat. Two days later, the man was cracking jokes and able to sit in a chair, Maryland doctors said Friday. The 58-year-old Navy veteran […]

3 hours ago

Associated Press

GOP candidate challenging election loss in race to lead Texas’ most populous county drops lawsuit

HOUSTON (AP) — The highest profile Republican candidate who had sued seeking to overturn election results in the nation’s third-most populous county, a Democratic stronghold in deeply red Texas, has dropped her lawsuit. Alexandra del Moral Mealer was one of 21 GOP candidates who had filed lawsuits challenging their losses in November’s election in Harris […]

4 hours ago

Sponsored Articles

Sanderson Ford...

Sanderson Ford

Sanderson Ford congratulates D-backs’ on drive to great first half of 2023

The Arizona Diamondbacks just completed a red-hot first half of the major league season, and Sanderson Ford wants to send its congratulations to the ballclub.


OCD & Anxiety Treatment Center

5 mental health myths you didn’t know were made up

Helping individuals understand mental health diagnoses like obsessive compulsive spectrum disorder or generalized anxiety disorder isn’t always an easy undertaking. After all, our society tends to spread misconceptions about mental health like wildfire. This is why being mindful about how we talk about mental health is so important. We can either perpetuate misinformation about already […]



Thank you to Al McCoy for 51 years as voice of the Phoenix Suns

Sanderson Ford wants to share its thanks to Al McCoy for the impact he made in the Valley for more than a half-decade.

New Mexico tribe keeps title to portion of national preserve