(CN) – The 10th Circuit on Friday revived a Native American tribe’s claims to ancestral land in the Valles Caldera National Preserve of New Mexico.
The Pueblo of Jemez sued the federal government in 2012, seeking to quiet its “unextinguished and continuing aboriginal title” to federally-managed land in the Jemez Mountains.
A district court dismissed the lawsuit in 2013, ruling sovereign immunity barred the action because the Jemez Pueblo’s claim accrued in 1860, when the federal government granted the land to the heirs of Luis Maria Cabeza de Baca.
The claim, thus, fell within the exclusive jurisdiction of the Indian Claims Commission Act, which “which waived sovereign immunity and provided a cause of action to all Indian claims against the government that accrued before 1946 so long as they were filed within a five year statute of limitations period.”
On appeal, the Jemez Pueblo argued that its aboriginal title was not extinguished by the grant to the Baca heirs, and that its claim for interference with its Indian title did not accrue until 2000, after the government acquired the property interests of Baca heirs’ successors-in-interest and restricted the tribe’s access to the land.
The 10th Circuit reversed the district court’s decision, finding that the Valles Caldera Preservation Act of 2000, which established the the 89,216-acre Valles Caldera National Preserve, did not extinguish aboriginal title.
Circuit Judge Stephanie Seymour wrote, “nowhere in the Preservation Act did Congress say it intended to extinguish aboriginal title. Rather, as the Jemez Pueblo and Amici point out, one of the purposes of the Act was to preserve the cultural and historic value of the land, while avoiding interference with ‘Native American religious and cultural sites.'”
Seymour continued: “While there were other purposes as well, the management of the Preserve for all of its purposes is to be done in consultation with Indian tribes and pueblos.”
The tribe, the three-judge panel ruled, will need to establish that it did not have a pre-1946 claim against the government for permitting interference with its aboriginal title.
“The Jemez Pueblo will have the burden to establish, as a matter of fact, that it has aboriginal title,” the 60-page ruling states. “In so doing, it will also necessarily be establishing that it did not have a pre-1946 claim against the United States for permitting interference with its aboriginal title.”
Jemez Pueblo Gov. Raymond Loretto and Indian Affairs Assistant Secretary Kevin Washburn did not immediately return messages seeking comment.
The ancestral Jemez people have occupied and used the Valles Caldera National Preserve and surrounding areas since at least 1200 CE.
The modern Jemez Pueblo, a federally-recognized tribe, have been the primary occupants of the Valles Caldera, a dormant crater of a supervolcano, for 800 years.
The area, the 10th Circuit said, contains many important sacred areas and religious sites of the traditional ancestral Jemez culture, and is greatly valued by the tribe as a spiritual sanctuary.
Mineral and hot springs in the area are used by the Jemez Pueblo’s medical societies for healing, and the tribe relies on the land for water, food and timber.
“The ceremonial sites and gathering areas are still actively used by the Jemez Pueblo today and are crucial to the continuing survival of traditional Jemez Pueblo culture and religion,” Seymour wrote.