Typing the address for the Isleta Pueblo courthouse into Google maps will deposit the curious driver in front of a modest adobe home with an old swing set rusting away in the front yard. The home is somewhere deep in the interior of twisting dusty roads that comprise this pueblo village 20 miles south of Albuquerque.
Clearly, this was not the location for the historic, dignitary-laden signing ceremony marking the culmination of Isleta Pueblo’s land into trust efforts, the largest parcel of tribal land placed into federal trust in a single application.
Several phone calls to Department of Interior personnel on the ground, however, led the press to the correct location, where the ceremony took place Friday January 15 in a small building in a corner of the very heart of the Pueblo, the plaza.
“Secretary [Sally] Jewell’s team asked for an authentic Pueblo setting for the signing ceremony. You don’t get much more Pueblo than this,” laughed Isleta Pueblo Governor E. Paul Torres as he apologized for the small size of the room.
“We didn’t expect such a huge crowd, although this is, indeed, a huge event for our people,” said Torres.
The event marked the placement of 90,151 acres of land. 140 square miles, into federal trust for the Pueblo and the culmination of over 20 years of work by Pueblo leaders who purchased the land that was once part of the tribes’ aboriginal homeland.
“The cost of the land was considerable, slightly more than $7.3 million,” noted Torres.
The land is known as the Comanche Ranch, which the tribe operates with over 1 thousand head of cattle. The operation represents a significant source of income for the tribe according to Torres.
“This is truly a momentous day for our tribe,” he said.
Indeed, the stroke of a pen has enlarged Isleta Pueblo by 50 percent.
“I don’t go out and celebrate every land acquisition but this is the biggest in the Obama administration. This will take us almost 90 thousand acres closer to our goal of taking 500 thousand acres of land into trust for tribes,” Interior Secretary Jewell said.
After the Isleta transfer, the Obama administration has taken 400,000 acres into trust so far.
The modest ceremony was symbolic of the Obama administration’s mission to improve the United State’s government-to-government relationship with tribes as well as recognition of the importance that land and culture play in the health and survival of tribal peoples.
“We are going to use this as yet another inspirational example to other tribes (seeking to put land into trust) The government-to-government relationship with tribes that has taken place over the last several hundred years has been one of assimilation of Native peoples, the killing of culture and allocation of their lands to individuals. We know now that was a huge mistake. You are leading the pack with this land into trust acquisition; we are enormously proud of your work here, in education and other ways,” Jewell said.
“We want to make sure this momentum continues into future generations. This is a very important goal on which I will be working hard for this year,” she added.
Tom Udall, U.S. Senator New Mexico, Larry Roberts, the U.S Department of Interior’s acting assistant secretary for Indian Affairs, Michael Black, Director Bureau of Indian Affairs, several past Isleta Pueblo governors and many other dignitaries attended the signing ceremony held in the historic pueblo which was established in 1300.
Udall, Jewell, Roberts and Torres all noted that tribal land into trust effectively halted during the years of the Bush administration. They lauded President Obama’s efforts to work with tribes.
“Obama and Kevin Washburn got in and got about the business of working and cooperating with tribes. This (event) highlights the fact that Obama has made tribes a special priority,” Udall said.
Washburn, former Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs from September 2012 to December 2015 worked on tribal land into trust and many other issues during his tenure. Washburn now lives in Albuquerque where he plans to teach and write at the University of New Mexico School of Law.
Roberts noted that the size of the Isleta Pueblo transfer is larger than that of some current reservations.
“Restoring tribal homelands provides benefits to tribes as well as surrounding communities. As a result, tribes have greater jurisdiction and safer communities. It also promotes economic development. This (land into trust) is something that should have bipartisan support regardless of what administration is next in office,” he said.
“Tribes all across the country are applying (for transfer of land into trust). We have acted on over 2 thousand applications during this administration. We have roughly 200 applications currently and get more every day,” Roberts said.
“The history of Indian country has been that tribal lands have been taken and lost. Putting land into trust ensures that the land will be there for future generations, he added.
“I’m sure our Isleta forefathers are looking down on us and smiling today because land is something they would have wanted for us and been proud of. This is truly a dream come true for our people,” Torres said.
Although Torres would not discuss details of economic development plans for tribal enterprises located on the land, he said that any plans included keeping the area in a natural state.
“The land is enriched by wildlife and plants. We want to maintain the ranch’s natural beauty for the enjoyment and enrichment of future generations,” he said.
Torres and Roberts both recognized Ada Deer, Assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs during the Clinton administration, who happened to be visiting the Pueblo and attended the ceremony. Deer, now 80 years old, of the Menominee Nation was the first Native woman to serve in the post.
“This sort of cooperation of every level of government is truly magnificent to behold. Land into trust should continue with the fastest speed,” she said.