San Ildefonso Pueblo getting back some ancestral land

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 2-08

San Ildefonso Pueblo is on the verge of regaining part of the land that its ancestors once used for hunting, gathering wood and other traditional purposes.

A settlement with the federal government will transfer to the pueblo about a tenth of the 70,000 acres it claimed a half century ago in an area stretching through the Espanola Valley to the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The deal is expected to be completed later this year.

“This transfer will be the largest recognition of land for the Pueblo of San Ildefonso in 150 years,” said pueblo attorney Peter Chestnut. “It’s very significant.”

The northern New Mexico pueblo relinquished its claim to the entire 70,000 acres in 2005 and, in return, received nearly $7 million to purchase ancestral lands in the nearby Santa Fe National Forest.

Perry Martinez, a former pueblo governor and lieutenant governor, said he and other tribal members are looking forward to visiting cultural sites, hunting, gathering traditional materials and praying on their own land.

“Now we can go to church without having somebody open the door for us,” he said.

The pueblo previously had to get approval from the federal government to gather materials on the land and permits to visit traditional sites.

“Even though it was aboriginal land, we still needed permission to go into those areas,” Martinez said.

In 1946, Congress enacted the Indian Claims Commission Act to correct injustices in past land dealings with American Indian tribes. Hundreds of tribes filed claims, and San Ildefonso’s was the last one settled.

The Indian Claims Commission determined early on that it would not award land to pueblos, but would pay damages for lands taken by the United States.

Not all members of San Ildefonso supported the settlement, Martinez said.
“There were a few people who still felt that we shouldn’t have to pay for the land, that the land should be rightfully returned to us,” said Martinez, who now sits on the Tribal Council. “The majority of us knew that would never happen.”

Martinez said the pueblo held out on settling for so long because its leaders and members did not want to accept any money. By 2000, he said, the pueblo believed its efforts on the land claim might be fruitless, but then negotiations began with the U.S. Forest Service.

“We were willing to just walk away,” he said. “But because there was a possibility of getting some land back that had a great significance to our people, they were willing to venture in that direction.”

After years of negotiations with nearby communities and the federal government, San Ildefonso won the right to purchase more than 7,000 acres on the western edge of the Santa Fe National Forest for $3.1 million – a value set in 2005 but which will be adjusted, said Sandy Hurlocker, Espanola district ranger.

The general public must be given a chance to comment on an environmental impact statement before the land can be transferred. The comment periods ends in March, but neither Chestnut nor Hurlocker expect much opposition except from people who use the land for recreation. And no matter what comments come in, the Forest Service must sell the land to the pueblo.

“This is one of the steps that the Forest Service needs to go through in able to satisfy its responsibility under that law,” Chestnut said.

Under the settlement, nearby Santa Clara Pueblo also will be able to buy about 750 acres from the forest adjacent to its land for $310,000. That price also will be readjusted to current market value.

The settlement also allows Los Alamos County to purchase land from the Forest Service and acquire rights to acreage where its water wells are located. It also would secure a permanent right of way easement for N.M. 4 through pueblo land.

The money from the land sales would go to the Forest Service to buy replacement land within the state.

Hurlocker said the Forest Service never wants to lose land, but it supports Congress’ decision to settle the claim and transfer the property.

“I think in the long run it’s going to be good for everybody,” Hurlocker said. “It will remove that uncertainty over who owns what land and what sort of legal tangles can we get into from here forward. It really settles all those questions that have been hanging out there.”