Jones Meyer on Ebright and Hendricks, 'Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas'

Malcolm Ebright, Rick Hendricks. Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2019. 260 pp. $45.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8061-6199-0.

Reviewed by Carter Jones Meyer (Ramapo College Of New Jersey)
Published on H-NewMexico (November, 2019)
Commissioned by Tomas Jaehn (Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research)

Printable Version:

Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas

Since the seventeenth century silver-headed canes have served as important symbols of Pueblo Indian sovereignty. They have been bestowed at various times by three different New Mexico governments—Spanish, Mexican, and American—but in each case, they have been important reminders of the authority of Pueblo leaders to preserve and protect their land, their water, and their way of life. The Lincoln canes, however, presented to the Pueblos in 1863 by then president Abraham Lincoln, hold a special significance. As Roy Bernal of Taos Pueblo explained in congressional testimony in 1998, “The Lincoln Cane … symbolizes to all the world the perpetual acknowledgement and commitment of the United States to honor our sovereignty, protect our resources, and enhance our welfare” (p. 179). Still in the possession of the nineteen pueblos of New Mexico and one in Texas, these canes are signifiers of an important pact: they affirm the Pueblos’ right to make their own decisions while simultaneously committing the US government to protecting that right.

The Pueblo canes and the sovereignty they symbolize help frame Ebright’s and Hendricks’s new history of the New Mexico pueblos of Pojoaque, Tesuque, Nambé, and Isleta, and Ysleta del Sur, located in Texas. The project grew out of their earlier study, Four Square Leagues: Pueblo Indian Land in New Mexico (2014), which focused on the origins of the Pueblo League as a standard of measurement for Indian lands during Spanish occupation. In that book the authors also explored efforts by the Pueblos since the late seventeenth century to protect their lands from encroachment by non-Natives.  Pueblo Sovereignty picks up where Four Square Leagues left off. It explores in greater detail, and using new archival sources, the often conflicting jurisdictions over Pueblo land and water rights from the Spanish colonial era to the present. It is an ambitious undertaking that could easily lead to well-worn conclusions of Native victimization, given the significant setbacks the Pueblos have faced over time, but as the authors rightfully argue, this is a story of Native persistence and survival in the face of dispossession. Pueblo Sovereignty, then, provides valuable new research on the challenges faced by Pueblos over land and water rights, but it is perhaps just as valuable for its exploration of the creative ways by which Pueblos have asserted sovereignty as a means of preserving and protecting their way of life.

The authors have chosen to focus on Pojoaque, Tesuque, Nambé, Isleta, and Ysleta del Sur in Texas because of their shared experiences in the colonial project. Each, for example, endured a significant upheaval in its history, followed by a loss of population, and sometimes dispersal and reestablishment of the village. Each has also proved resilient in the face of challenges to its land and culture, and perhaps most importantly, has seen a revival of its traditions and practices. Taken together, the experiences of these pueblos enable the authors to “compare how they have historically used land and water, acquired land, sometimes sold land, protected their existing land bases from encroachment, and used advocates such as Indian agents and lawyers” (p, 3). To do this, the authors combed an exhaustive array of original documents, particularly from the Spanish and Mexican periods. Among these are the campaign journals of don Diego de Vargas, which proved invaluable for understanding Pueblo land holdings and ideas of sovereignty in the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. For the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries they mined the papers of the Court of Private Land Claims, which adjudicated the validity of land grant claims in New Mexico, and the Pueblo Lands Board, which reviewed claims of non-Indians who occupied Pueblo lands. Perhaps most importantly, they incorporated Native voices wherever possible. Among them is Isleta Pueblo leader Pablo Abeita, whose papers enable us to see just how effectively Natives advocated for their sovereignty in the early twentieth century.

The book opens with an informative, though fairly descriptive overview of Spanish, Mexican, and US policies toward the Pueblos and their lands. If there is a theme here it is that non-Native encroachment on Native lands began early, even as colonial powers like Spain initially sought to protect those lands by prohibiting their sale and providing a non-Native “protector” for the Pueblos in court. Those policies were inconsistently applied at best, and in the Mexican period, were done away with altogether when Indians were declared to be citizens. According to the authors, the Pueblos on many occasions successfully defended their rights to their lands in court, without lawyers. But there were other challenges during this period, among them a law which provided for the privatization of vacant public land as well as unneeded ejidal (communal land). This put Pueblo lands at risk for non-Native encroachment, particularly at places like Pecos and Pojoaque, which struggled with dwindling populations. As the authors maintain, non-Native occupation of Pueblo lands under the guise of being “vacant” went unchecked in this period, and Hispano speculators looked for opportunities to acquire large tracts of these lands for their own profit.

Following US occupation of New Mexico, old practices of encroachment continued unabated, often because of land survey errors or legal restrictions on Indian agents who ordinarily might have advocated for the Pueblos. The Court of Private Land Claims, established by the US government in 1891, aimed to apply a stricter standard for adjudicating land grants, but it too could not adequately protect the Pueblos’ interests. In one case, for example, the court failed to recognize an obviously forged set of papers for the Sierra Mosca land grant, which included sacred lands of Nambé Pueblo. Institutional failures such as these roused the Pueblos to action. They sent delegations to Washington to meet face-to-face with federal officials and advocated for stronger protections for their land and water. Their persistence led the federal government to create the Pueblo Lands Board in 1924. Its three members, none of whom were Native, attempted to adjudicate titles to Pueblo land and finally resolve long-standing confusion over who owned what. Sadly, the Pueblos themselves were never consulted in these cases, thus perpetuating a long history of paternalism in US Indian policy. When it completed its deliberations in 1930, the board had awarded more than 36,000 acres of Pueblo grant land to non-Indians, much of it valuable irrigated land.  

The incidents of non-Native encroachment, dispossession, and, in some cases, relocation are nowhere better explored than in the chapter on Ysleta del Sur Pueblo. Ysleta’s is a unique story in that it is the only pueblo located in Texas. Following the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Tiwas and Piros who had lived in the area of Isleta Pueblo in New Mexico were coerced into leaving their homeland with Hispano refugees, eventually settling in the area of El Paso, where they were ordered by Mexico City to live apart from the Hispano community. Using deed books, boundary surveys, personal correspondence, and official documents from such libraries as the Juarez Municipal Archives, the authors carefully piece together a complicated story of disputed boundaries, dislocation, and non-Native encroachment, particularly in the period after Mexican independence. During this time the Tiguas’ protective status as Natives was removed and they struggled to prove ownership of their land, the result of a lack of official documentation. Following Texan independence, these troubles only increased, as non-Natives, some posing as surveyors, swarmed over Ysleta del Sur lands, intent on dispossessing the rightful owners of their property. Even nature sometimes conspired against the Tiguas, as when flooding in 1849 caused the Rio Grande to shift, thereby separating them from some of their lands, which became Mexican territory. Ysleta’s brief period of incorporation as a town in the 1870s and 1880s further eroded Tigua land holdings. Then, the City of El Paso annexed the pueblo in 1955, despite opposition from some Tiguas; for El Paso residents, the authors maintain, Ysleta became just another part of the city, and a poor one at that. Yet, the Tiguas managed to survive, and beginning in the 1980s, when their tribal status was reinstated, they began to assert their sovereignty, celebrating their annual feast day, performing traditional dances, purchasing lands that were their traditional hunting grounds, and establishing Speaking Rock Casino, despite not having state approval. The casino remains a hotly contested legal issue, but at its heart, it is not so much about gaming as it is a revitalized assertion of Pueblo sovereignty.

Isleta, Ysleta del Sur’s linguistic and cultural cousin in New Mexico, suffered many of the same fates as Ysleta, but as the largest pueblo in New Mexico, it has also successfully defended its sovereignty through powerful advocates, most notably Pablo Abeita. Ebright and Hendricks do a particularly good job of reconstructing his voice through private correspondence, tribal papers, congressional testimony, and newspaper accounts. In the early twentieth century, when assimilation became the focus of US Indian policy and assaults on Indian land and culture ran rampant, Abeita’s oppositional voice became all the more important in defending the Pueblos. He and other advocates rose to prominence when they challenged and overturned the 1922 Bursum Bill, which would have recognized nearly all titles of non-Natives who had encroached on Indian land in New Mexico. Abeita used this opportunity to demand from the federal government support that had been long in coming, not the least of which was ejection of trespassers from Indian lands and accessing more water, something especially pressing for Isleta. Perhaps just as important, Abeita on another occasion offered an important reminder of how sovereignty must be understood, and the canes given to the Pueblos by Lincoln symbolized that. Speaking to the House Subcommittee on Indian Affairs in 1920, he said, “You came to stay here … [and now] we need your help which we did not 300 years ago; but now that you have gobbled up all our help … it remains for you to help us” (p. 168). He meant by this that the Pueblos’ tribal sovereignty had been eroded over time by non-Native encroachment, and it was the responsibility of the US government to restore it by protecting their land and water rights. Although in its infancy in the 1920s, this concept of tribal sovereignty flourished in the post-World War II era, and it continues to guide Pueblo advocates today.

Pueblo Sovereignty is an important book for scholars of Native history, especially those working on the Southwest. It is exhaustively researched and balanced in its analysis and interpretation of the material. It would be helpful to see it situated more squarely in the broader scholarship on settler colonialism and Native dispossession, but this aside, it provides an important foundation on which further research on Native land and water issues in the Southwest can be built. 

Citation: Carter Jones Meyer. Review of Ebright, Malcolm; Hendricks, Rick, Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas. H-NewMexico, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019.

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.