August 2017

Santa Clara Pueblo’s Reserved Treaty Rights Lands Program


Talavai Denipah-Cook


Santa Clara Pueblo (SCP) (Kha’po Owingeh) considers the Jémez Mountains adjacent to the current reservation boundary as ancestral lands of critical importance. During the late 1400s, SCP’s ancestors, the “People of the Valley of the Wild Roses,” came to possess and use their “homeland” almost exclusively. Through the 16th and 17th centuries, the establishment and gradual expansion into the region by nomadic tribes, as well as by Spanish and Hispanicized populations, had very little impact on the pueblo’s use of the lands. Historically and currently, in addition to hunting and fishing, these lands provide necessities such as medicinal plants, piñón nuts, dyes, edible roots, berries and other vegetable products; salt, flint, obsidian, clay and many other mineral products; wood for fuel and construction; and materials for making soaps, clothing, basketry, cosmetics, ornaments and other things. These lands have also, of course, had traditional religious uses.


The Spanish Crown believed that all lands of the American continents were under the “the Rights of Conquest” and “the Law of Nations.” However, as determined by the Queen and the Spanish Royal Council, the “already acquired rights of indigenous people found in the lands discovered by Spain” were to be excluded from the sweeping territorial assumption (Hall, “Pueblo Grant Labyrinth,” 71-73). Indian tribes were to “be left in possession of all lands belonging to them, either individually or in communities, with the waters and irrigation streams and the lands which they have drained or otherwise improved, whereby they may, by their own industry, have rendered fertile, are reserved in the first place, and in no case be sold or alienated” (Warren, 1991; Jenkins, 1961). Santa Clara Indians have stated that their ancestors did indicate the boundaries of their homelands to the Spaniards (Warren, 1991; I.C.C Testimony, 1953). The Spanish, however, did not view Santa Clara “indigenous land area” according to the boundaries of the “People of the Valley of the Wild Roses’” ancestral homeland.


To the Spanish, “all the land…that belongs…to individuals…” would most likely have meant solares (town lots) and suertes (farming lots). Considering that Santa Clara’s boundary markers were shrines, sacred springs and areas of special religious significance, it is easy to understand why this information was not provided in detail to the occupying forces. During this time, the Spanish had a fervent interest in destroying the “heathenistic and devilish” religious practices and beliefs of the natives. In and before 1680 (the Pueblo Revolt), a great number of Spanish documents pertaining to New Mexico were destroyed, erasing records, along with laws and regulations and how they were implemented, so much remains unclear and unknown. For this and other reasons, land grants and rights, first under Spain and then México—including those specifically regarding Indians—may have been just as unclear to the local Spaniards and Indians at that time as they are to historians today. SCP acknowledged the boundaries superimposed by the Spaniards (even as twisted and incorrect as they were, due to many prejudiced practices). The people of SCP retained their ancestral homelands’ boundaries in beliefs, tradition, and (to whatever extent possible), practice.


During the Mexican Era (1821–1846) these attitudes and the general neglect of the pueblos by civil and religious authorities became more pronounced. All of the property and the “inhabitants” of New Spain were guaranteed protection under México; thus Santa Clara and other land grants in the vicinity were reaffirmed.


On Aug. 18, 1846, the forces of the United States’ “Army of the West” entered New Mexico and obtained the surrender of New Mexico’s political leaders in Santa Fe. Pueblo Indians met the new American government and requested that something be done to restore the lands stolen from them by Spanish and Mexican settlers. Many years of turmoil, arguments and litigation ensued. Yet in 1894, in the Court of Private Land Claims, SCP made progress, even if facts and boundaries were incorrect. The court confirmed SCP’s claim to the Cañada de Santa Clara Grant. Though surveys and re-surveys, arguments and more litigation would continue for 13 years, many challenges lay ahead in the final boundary determination. As a result, a patent for the “shoestring grant” was established. However, in the end, none of 26,228-acre claimed lands would be included within the boundaries of the patent.


Protection of SCP’s Off-Reservation Tribal Resources

Presently, Santa Clara’s highest off-reservation priority is the protection of Tribal Indian Trust Resources from fire, floods, insects, disease or other threats coming from outside lands under jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), National Park Service (NPS), Bureau of Land Management (BLM), as well as other adjacent state and private lands. This extends into areas identified by SCP for the protection of natural and cultural resources.


In 2002 and 2003, extensive wildfires originating on national forests or other federal lands swept across the West and devastated tribal communities. Lives were lost and resources held in trust by the U.S. for the benefit of Indians were severely damaged. The Tribal Forest Protection Act of 2004 (TFPA) was passed in the aftermath in order to provide a means for tribes to propose projects that would protect their rights, lands and resources. The TFPA offered promise as a means of helping the U.S. fulfill its responsibilities to protect the trust corpus, while promoting restoration of healthy forest ecosystems.


Under the TFPA, the secretaries of Agriculture and Interior are authorized through the Reserved Treaty Rights Lands Program (RTRL) to enter into agreements or contracts pursuant to tribal proposals to address hazardous conditions on USFS or BLM lands adjacent to tribal trust lands.


In January 2011, a former SCP governor submitted a request to utilize the TFPA to enter into agreements for co-management and stewardship contracting on USFS lands sharing a common boundary with the SCP Reservation. SCP also identified National Forest System lands adjacent to the reservation that included the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP). These lands were turned over to the National Park Service. Approximately 90 percent of the Santa Clara Creek Watershed is located within SCP lands; 10 percent is on USFS lands. There are shared boundaries of forested lands between SCP and the USFS. The proposed projects were implemented by the SCP Forestry Program to improve forest health through thinning, insect and disease control work, the implementation of fuel breaks, hazardous fuel reduction, acceleration of forest management activities in aspen stands, restoration of subalpine meadows, improvement of wildlife habitat and protection of cultural resources.


SCP and the VCNP share a common boundary on the west end of the reservation. With the turnover of the lands to the NPS, SCP must now utilize the authorities of the National Indian Forest Management Act (NIFMA) and the National Defense Authorization Act (December 2014) to establish co-management and enter into cooperative agreements with the NPS to perform land and facility improvements, including forestry and other natural resources protection.


Collaboration and co-management of these lands has been under discussion and planning with the responsible agencies and will continue as additional resources are identified and developed. SCP has invested millions of dollars into ecological restoration projects for tribal landscapes due to three wildfires that occurred during the last 18 years. Landscape treatments are to provide long-term ecologic resilience to wildland fire and meet historic Fire Regime Condition Class I. Priority landscapes are being treated by a myriad of prescriptions with the focus to renew and restore degraded, damaged, or destroyed ecosystems and habitats. Many of the projects are reservation-wide, from the bosque (riparian woodlands) corridor (altitude of 5,500 feet) to the sub-alpine ecosystem at the highest elevation of the reservation (11,000 feet). SCP’s Forest and Woodland Restoration Management plans place emphasis on accelerating recovery of multiple ecosystems with respect to the health, resiliency, integrity and sustainability of the ecosystem. Many prescribed treatments are implemented right up to and along tribal reservation boundaries. Adjacent federal or private lands have few or no activities taking place “across the fence” which poses threats to SCP’s major investments to protect tribal trust resources.


Pueblos and other tribes such as Taos, Picurís, Tesuque, Jémez, Santa Ana, Acoma and Mescalero Apache have all been awarded the RTRL program. As this is a fairly new initiative, it is difficult to broach new ideas and projects with outside agencies. At the beginning of 2017, the pueblos with the RTRL program decided to start a coalition to support each other. As the pueblos’ RTRL programs continue to be planned and implemented, outside agencies are required to take into consideration our issues and concerns. Our mission statement is shared with outside agencies: “Strengthening and maintaining healthy sustainable tribal relationships by building partnerships for collaborative resiliency to enhance our forested lands, natural and cultural resources, while respecting traditional values for co-management of aboriginal lands for future generations.”



Talavai Denipah-Cook is the Reserved Treaty Rights Lands program coordinator for Santa Clara Pueblo. She is from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo, Hopi and the Diné Nation. She has a bachelor’s degree in Environmental and Organismic Biology with a Geographic Information Systems Certificate. Her goal is to protect native lands and keep them resilient.




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