SANTA FE – The New Mexico Supreme Court has ruled that it is “settled federal law” that Indian tribes enjoy immunity from lawsuits, even when access to what had been a public road is at issue.
The doctrine of tribal sovereign immunity “is a wholesale bar to suit against a tribe in New Mexico for any relief — be it monetary, declaratory or injunctive,” the high court held in an opinion issued last week.
The ruling has left Hamaatsa, Inc., an Indian-run, nonprofit learning center with a farm that offers indigenous story camps and other programs in Sandoval County, with no way in or out of its property adjacent to San Felipe Pueblo, said Hamaatsa’s Deborah Littlebird.
She said that, Monday afternoon, cattle-guard gates across a disputed access road had been locked. “We are trapped in here like wild animals,” Littlebird said. “They just penned us in.”
In its Thursday ruling, the Supreme Court reversed a prior decision by the state Court of Appeals and dismissed a lawsuit over the road filed by Hamaatsa against San Felipe.
Hamaatsa’s 320 acres is next to land that the federal Bureau of Land Management conveyed to the pueblo in 2001. In the conveyance, the BLM reserved a 40-foot-wide easement along an existing road for “full use as a road by the United States for public purposes.”
But, in 2009, San Felipe notified the nonprofit that it had no right to cross pueblo property and that use of the road was trespassing. In filing suit, Hamaatsa said the land crossed by the road had belonged to the BLM since 1906 and the road had been a public road since at least 1935. Hamaatsa said the road provides its only access.
The pueblo asserted sovereign immunity, but both District Judge John F. Davis and the Court of Appeals refused to dismiss the suit. The appeals court said San Felipe offered no evidence “of any property or governance interests whatsoever in the road or that the road, concededly a state public road, would threaten or otherwise affect its sovereignty.” If simply asserting sovereign immunity constituted grounds for dismissal, the appeals court maintained, a pueblo could acquire any land crossed by a public road and “immediately deny the motoring public and all neighboring property owners access.”
But the Supreme Court said the “unequivocal precedent” of the U.S. Supreme Court is that the only exceptions to tribal sovereign immunity are congressional authorization and a tribe’s own waiver of immunity. The argument that the doctrine deprives Hamaatsa of legal recourse isn’t sufficient, the state Supreme Court said.
“We commiserate with the less-than-ideal situation Hamaatsa now finds itself in,” the opinion written by Justice Barbara Vigil said. But, she added, “The beneficial aspects of tribal sovereign immunity in advancing the welfare and self-sufficiency of Indian tribes demand its application in all cases where Congress does not otherwise provide.”
Deborah Littlebird said Hamaatsa received no notice before the locked gates on the disputed road were discovered when someone tried to leave Monday afternoon. “If there’s a fire or someone gets ill, we have no way to leave,” said Littlebird, who runs Hamaatsa with husband Larry Littlebird. Hamaatsa’s website says he is from Laguna and Santo Domingo pueblos.
Efforts by the Journal to get comment from San Felipe Pueblo through a lawyer earlier Monday were unsuccessful.
Before the locked gates were discovered, Hamaatsa provided a statement saying “our only desire has been to be good neighbors” with San Felipe. Hamaatsa said it purchased its land, previously part of the Ball Ranch, from the New Mexico Nature Conservancy. “We’re mystified why we are the first owners to be affected by access to the same property,” said the nonprofit.
“It’s unsettling to cope with the impact of this road dispute – it has affected everything, our peace of mind, our daily operations, and the ability of our staff and program participants to feel safe as they come and go,” the statement said. “Our desire is to continue our restorative work unencumbered and live in peace with our neighbors, San Felipe Pueblo.”