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Tribe celebrates trust status for ancestral lands

Susan Montoya Bryan
The Associated Press

SANTA ANA PUEBLO, N.M. — When the sprawling Alamo Ranch first went up for sale nearly a decade ago, it was advertised as a working cattle ranch with incredible wildlife habitat and superb potential for development and recreation not far from New Mexico’s largest metropolitan area.

For Santa Ana Pueblo, it was so much more.

It was here on the mesas, along the cliffs and in the canyons northwest of Albuquerque where their ancestors once farmed and hunted. It was a key stop along a migration route that took the Tamayame — the Keres word for the people of Santa Ana — from Mesa Verde to the banks of the Rio Grande centuries ago.

The pueblo jumped at the chance to buy the ranch in 2016 and embarked on a yearslong process that culminated Wednesday with the U.S. government bringing a major portion of their ancestral lands into trust, protecting what is known in the Keres language as Tamaya Kwii Kee Nee Puu from future development and ensuring the preservation of culturally significant spots.

Past and present Santa Ana Pueblo leaders gathered with federal land managers to sign the documents. It was an emotional day in which memories, hugs and handshakes were shared.

“It’s a good feeling to know that this is ours forever,” former Gov. Joey Sanchez said of the land. “I think the vision that we have is to make it better than we got it.”

Santa Ana Pueblo is just the latest tribe to acquire jurisdiction over ancestral lands as part of a growing movement in which Native American communities have been pushing to reclaim and restore their homelands.

Nationwide, nearly 1,172 square miles (3,035 square kilometers) have been put into trust for tribes since 2009 through thousands of approved transfers, according to the U.S. Interior Department. The agency said Wednesday it’s reviewing another 960 applications that would cover more than 460 square miles (1,191 square kilometers).

The Santa Ana transfer is one of the largest in New Mexico. In 2021, the Obama administration placed 140 square miles (363 square kilometers) of land south of Albuquerque into trust for Isleta Pueblo after that tribe purchased what was known as the Comanche Ranch.

That property — like the Alamo Ranch purchased by Santa Ana Pueblo — had been used as a practice bombing range by the U.S. military during World War II. For Santa Ana, that meant spending even more money and more time to clean up leftover ordnance and address other environmental concerns.

The tribe also had to pay for a corrected survey of the ranch’s boundaries after errors were discovered, and it worked with New Mexico’s largest electric utility to assess rights of way for major transmission lines crossing the landscape.

Some tribal leaders said it was one thing after another, leading them to believe they might not see the transfer within their lifetimes.

Santa Ana Pueblo Gov. Myron Armijo was among those in 2016 who started conversations about buying the land. He said it was a priority for the pueblo that the transfer happen this year.

“I’m almost at a loss for words,” Armijo said, hinting at the significance of the day.

While Santa Ana Pueblo now doubles in size, Armijo said it’s more important that spiritual leaders and other tribal members have access to Kwii Kee Nee Puu for special hunts, to gather medicinal plants and to collect raw materials for making pottery and paints.

The pueblo’s natural resources department has been busy building catchments to provide water for wildlife — an effort that already has seen dividends in terms of healthier populations of pronghorn antelope, deer, bear and even mountain lions.

Glenn Tenorio, a former pueblo governor, is part of a team that makes biannual flights over the land to monitor the wildlife.

“It’s kind of like a bird’s eye view, being the eagle up there soaring around and oh my gosh it is just amazing,” he said, describing the places his ancestors called home.

Nathan Garcia, who also served as governor and is now a conservation officer with the pueblo, spent about eight months walking the entire boundary of Kwii Kee Nee Puu as part of the work to correct the survey. He often shares stories about his trek with his children and coworkers so they can think about their own connections to the landscape.

“Knowledge is powerful, as they say, and how you use it. But also it tells a story about what the land is all about,” he said. “And the more you know about it, then the more significant it becomes to you.”

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