JEMEZ PUEBLO For
generations, people of Jemez Pueblo have asked what they are doing
in the valley where their current home of Walatowa sprawls, according
to Pueblo Gov. Vincent A. Toya Sr.
"We used to be up on the mesa area," he
said. "We're mountain people, yet we ended up down here."
Now, the pueblo is trying to get at least
a piece of that ancestral mountain homeland back under its control.
It has filed a complaint in federal court to recover all the land
now contained within the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
"All our songs, our traditional calendar,
refer to this area," Toya said, sitting at a table Friday in the
tribal administration building. "It is so dear to us, because it
has everything in our heart up there."
Redondo Peak, referred to as Wav e ma
by the Towa-speaking people, contains a profile of an eagle with
a lightning bolt coming from its beak. This was the sign the ancestors
were told to look for when they were given a migration route from
the place of emergence in the Four Corners, Toya said. More than
seven centuries ago, they came to set up villages throughout the
area of the Jemez Mountains more than 60 archaeological sites
have been found linked to Jemez ancestral people on the western
side of the mountains, according to the federal complaint filed
in July. Redondo Peak served as the sacred and ceremonial center.
In testimony before a Senate committee
concerning the Valles Caldera National Preserve, then-Gov. Joshua
Madalena put it this way: "The Valles Caldera is our cathedral.
It is just as important for us as the Vatican is for Catholics,
and as the famous Blue Lake is to Taos Pueblo.
is where the spirits of our ancestors reside, and it is our most
important spiritual place."
Toya said the board of trustees that runs
the preserve has been very open and cooperative with the Jemez people
in getting access for ceremonial and other activities. He hopes
to maintain their good will, he said, as the Pueblo attempts to
get the land back as its own.
Terry McDermott, spokesman for the preserve,
said the board would not comment on any pending litigation.
The U.S. Department of Justice is defending
the case. Elizabeth Martinez, spokeswoman for the U.S. Attorney's
Office in Albuquerque, noted that office is due to file a response
to the complaint in mid-February. She said the attorneys would not
discuss their legal arguments before then.
Jemez has the support of other pueblos
in its effort, getting a 14-0 vote Dec. 3 from the All Indian Pueblo
Council endorsing the return of the Valles Caldera to the Jemez
The legal avenue the Pueblo
is pursuing is called a "complaint to quiet title to aboriginal
The concept of aboriginal Indian title
has its roots in Spanish colonial law, with the United States government
then adding another layer assuming U.S. ownership of the land, according
to Thomas Luebben, the Albuquerque attorney representing Jemez Pueblo.
There are three ways that Indian right
of occupancy can be terminated, he said: if the land is ceded in
a treaty, if a tribe officially has abandoned the land, or if an
Act of Congress asserted ownership of the land.
"In this instance, Congress never did
that," Luebben said, adding that neither did the other two actions
Instead, in 1860, the heirs of Luis Maria
Cabeza de Baca got 99,289 acres that included the Valles Caldera
as part of a settlement for a Mexican land grant that happened to
conflict with the Town of Las Vegas (N.M.) Community Grant, according
to the Pueblo's court filing.
"Interestingly, the U.S. never issued
a deed to it," Luebben said. "And they never dealt with the subject
of the Jemez Pueblo aboriginal title."
On July 25, 2000, the U.S. government
purchased some 94,761 acres from the Dunnigan family, who owned
the land then, for the Valles Caldera National Preserve.
Pueblo had a 12-year period in which to contest that federal ownership
and assert its aboriginal rights, Luebben said. That happened with
last July's federal court filing, just before the deadline.
As far as he knows, Luebben said, this
is the first time that a tribe has sued to regain land under the
quiet title act that Congress adopted in the mid-1970s, giving people
the right to sue the federal government to contest its land ownership.
"In the whole history of civil rights,
the U.S. has never been able to bring itself to do the right thing
about Indian land," Luebben said, adding that he's not advocating
the return of the entire continent to tribal people. "If there's
a town, that's one thing. But, in the Valles Caldera, no one lives
What to do with land?
Suppose the Valles Caldera,
a vast pasture covering the mouth of an ancient volcano, along with
its surrounding peaks and forests, is returned to Jemez Pueblo.
What would they do with it?
When the word "casino" comes up, Toya
exclaimed, "No, no, no!"
But, he added, that was only his perspective.
The people of the Pueblo have yet to come together to make a plan
on what they want. After all, the legal battle could drag on for
"There are many preliminary thoughts,"
Toya said, mentioning recreational use and eco-tourism. The preserve's
current board of trustees has been approached by many "entrepreneurs"
who want to develop businesses in the Valles Caldera, and the Pueblo
would probably be hit with the same sales pitches if it gains control,
Most likely, the Pueblo would build on
what the preserve has already been doing, he suggested. Any development
would likely be in line with current usage of the preserve, such
as adding a hunting or fishing lodge, he said.
The Pueblo is doing a feasibility study
on the economic viability of Valles Caldera, Toya added, looking
at how to maximize the recreational opportunities and economic benefits
to the area.
In any case, the Pueblo would want to
allow public access. "We'll let Tom go fishing if he wants to,"
Toya said, smiling at Luebben.
Caldera National Preserve
Valles Caldera is a 12 mi wide volcanic caldera in the Jemez Mountains
of northern New Mexico. It is one of only six known land-based supervolcanoes.