Jemez Pueblo has decided it will appeal a U.S. district judge’s recent decision to dismiss the pueblo’s claim for exclusive rights to use, occupy and possess the lands that make up the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
The decision came Thursday after a group of secular and religious leaders met to discuss how to proceed after U.S. District Judge Robert C. Brack determined that the court lacked jurisdiction and the pueblo failed to state a claim for the approximately 89,000 acres that make up Valles Caldera.
“After yesterday’s meeting, it was very clear to us that we should march forward,” Jemez Pueblo Gov. Vincent A. Toya Sr. said during an interview Friday. “We’ll continue to fight for this land. We’ll fight to the end for our culture, because it represents who we are and who we will be.”
Toya said religion is at the core of the Jemez culture and that is why traditional religious leaders were consulted.
“Our generation’s job is to provide for the next generation, so they can continue to sustain the people put on this earth as the Hemish people,” he said, spelling out the name in the Towa language. “We believe we were given a purpose and we exercise our right to be indigenous.”
Toya emphasized that if Jemez Pueblo took full possession of Valles Caldera, the land would remain open for public use. They don’t intend to do anything to scar what is considered some of New Mexico’s most treasured landscapes.
“Our interest for the entire area is for it to remain pristine,” he said.
Toya said the pueblo’s plan is to create a park that would preserve the natural beauty and highlight the Jemez culture and their affinity to the area they consider their homeland.
Land in dispute
In its court filings, Jemez Pueblo argued that its people have utilized the Valles Caldera for the past 800 years for hunting, farming and mineral procurement, and still own aboriginal title.
Archaeological investigations have identified at least 60 former pueblo villages linked to the Jemez people. The area contains numerous shrines and ceremonial sites that are used to this day under an arrangement with the Valles Caldera Trust board of trustees.
The board was established under the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000 when the U.S. government purchased the land from the Dunnigan family, which acquired the property from the heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca, who were deeded the land under an 1860 Mexican land grant settlement.
At issue is whether the transfer to the Baca family extinguished Jemez Pueblo’s aboriginal title or not.
The court contends that, even if it didn’t, the pueblo had the opportunity to present its claim under the Indian Claims Commission Act of 1946, which created a quasi-judicial body to hear and determine all tribal claims against the United States that accrued prior to Aug. 13, 1946.
The pueblo did not seek remedy then, and the statute of limitations for doing so ran out long ago, according to the court.
Attorney Tom Luebben, who has litigated Indian land claims since the 1980s and represents Jemez Pueblo in the case, disagrees. He said that the ICCA did not provide the exclusive remedy for Indian land claims.
“The only decision the judge made was that the court lacks jurisdiction because he believes the Indian Claims Commission Act was exclusive,” he said. “The fundamental disagreement that I have with the court’s analysis is that when the surveyor general granted the Baca heirs the land whether the Indian title was extinguished or not. We believe that it was not.”
Luebben says the Baca heirs, and all subsequent owners, have held American grant title to the Valles Caldera subject to continuing Jemez Pueblo Indian title and that remains the case today.
In addition, Luebben said the ICCA only allowed tribes to receive a monetary reimbursement for indigenous lands and not for the property to be returned to them, which is what Jemez Pueblo seeks.
The pueblo filed suit against the United States to quiet title to the Valles Caldera National Preserve in July of last year.
Luebben said the case represents the first time he’s aware of in which a tribe has sued the U.S. government under the federal Quiet Title Act to recover Indian title lands outside established reservation boundaries.
“I think the pueblo’s position on the act is extremely strong,” Luebben said. “Conceivably it could go to the Supreme Court, because of its unique and historic importance.”
Their vision for the future
Jemez Pueblo claims all of the Valles Caldera has been used by its people for centuries, but Redondo Peak, the mountain the Jemez people call “Wavema,” is central to their religious beliefs and crucial to the continuing survival of traditional Jemez culture.
Located in the southwest quadrant of Valles Caldera and the highest peak in the Jemez Mountains, Redondo Peak is known to them as “the Father of the Northern Mountains” and “the home of flowing water” from which their source of energy and existence flows.
Atop the peak is the platform between the underworld and the firmament, and the location of the most sacred of Jemez shrines. Other shrines, burial grounds and ceremonial sites are located at cardinal positions around the mountain and the entire area is considered the sacred precinct of Wavema.
The mountain is connected to Walatowa, commonly known as Jemez Pueblo, by the Underworld Trail, a 20-mile trail they consider to be the spiritual channel between the pueblo, “the home place,” and the mountain’s summit, “the home shrine.”
There are also other pilgrimage trails within Valles Caldera that link Walatowa to shrines and sacred sites accessed by various Jemez societies.
While the Valles Caldera Trust board has been accommodating to the pueblo, allowing tribal members access to traditional sites for rituals, initiations and other cultural activities, deep down the Jemez people don’t feel they need permission. The land had been a vital part of their culture centuries before Europeans set foot on the continent, and they consider it part of their homeland.
Luebben draws a parallel between the Jemez people’s affinity to Redondo Peak with Taos Pueblo’s tie to Blue Lake, which the U.S. government returned to the Taos Indians in 1996.
“The difference is that’s a lake; this is a mountain,” he said.
While Taos Pueblo restricts access to Blue Lake, Luebben and Gov. Toya say Jemez Pueblo wants to keep Valles Caldera open to the public and manage it much like it is today.
“We don’t want to put out the notion that we’re going to put a double fence around it and keep people out,” Toya said. “We’re not going to lock it up and discontinue what the board has worked on for many years.”