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Feds seek dismissal of Jemez Pueblo land suit

The U.S. government is arguing that Jemez Pueblo, whose welcome sign cites its ancestral connection to the Valles Caldera, has given up its rights to claim title to that land. (Jackie Jadrnak/Journal)
The U.S. government is arguing that Jemez Pueblo, whose welcome sign cites its ancestral connection to the Valles Caldera, has given up its rights to claim title to that land. (Jackie Jadrnak/Journal)
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Any aboriginal land claims by Jemez Pueblo were settled long ago and can’t be raised again, according to the federal government, which is seeking dismissal of a lawsuit filed by the pueblo last summer to gain possession of the Valles Caldera National Preserve.

The U.S. Department of Justice filed for dismissal last week in U.S. District Court, a motion that the pueblo will vigorously oppose, according to Thomas Luebben, its attorney in this case.

According to the U.S. government’s filing, any such land claims had to be filed between Aug. 13, 1946, and Aug. 13, 1951, with the Indian Claims Commission, which had exclusive jurisdiction to rule on such claims.

Barely a month before the end of that time period, Jemez Pueblo, together with Zia and Santa Ana pueblos, filed a claim seeking compensation for about 520,000 acres of land. The Indian Claims Commission ruled the three pueblos had not proven aboriginal use and occupancy. But on appeal, the Court of Claims found in favor of the pueblos on 298,634 acres of that land.

On Jan. 10, 1974, the pueblos agreed to a final judgment of $749,084 for that land, according to the federal filing. “Once paid, the award of the Commission barred the tribe from litigating claims against the United States,” the Department of Justice argues.

Its motion also points out that in 1860, the U.S. government gave some 99,289 acres, most of which now constitute the Valles Caldera Preserve, to the Baca family heirs to settle a land grant claim. That land was not part of the tract contested before the ICC, “and Plaintiff has offered no explanation why they were unable to pursue this claim in the exclusive forum of the ICC,” the government filing states.

In a telephone interview, Luebben said that the Indian Claims Commission had jurisdiction only to award damages for Indian lands that were taken, and not to adjudicate title to disputed land. “The fact that the United States authorized trespassers in this area did not extinguish the (pueblo’s aboriginal) title,” he contended.

The federal filing notes that homesteads were established on that land, grazing was established in a 1934 act of Congress, and the Jemez Forest Preserve was created. By not challenging those uses of that land, the pueblo essentially lost its chance to fight for its title to the land, the government maintains.

“In 2013, it is hard to conceive of a claim more stale than Plaintiff’s claim of title to the National Preserve,” according to the federal filing.

Also, it contends that the history of other uses of the contested land clearly eliminate a key element needed to assert aboriginal title: “that the Pueblo exclusively used and occupied the area to the exclusion of others.”

It also argues that “it is now well settled that the designation of land as a forest reserve or unit of the National Park Service is itself effective to extinguish a tribe’s aboriginal title.” Creation of the Valles Caldera Preserve in 2000 as part of the National Forest system extinguished any aboriginal title that may have existed, the filing concludes.

Meanwhile, members of Congress from New Mexico have in recent years tried to transfer the Valles Caldera National Preserve to the jurisdiction of the National Park Service.

Just last week, Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich reintroduced a bill into the current session to make that change, in part arguing that it would expand and guarantee public access to the lands into the future.

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