Book Review: Four Square Leagues: Pueblo Indian Land in New Mexico, By Malcolm Ebright, Rick Hendricks, and Richard W. Hughes

Reviewed by KAY MATTHEWS

Four Square Leagues152, editAnytime you have three writers working together on one book there are bound to be logistical problems, disagreements, and many revisions. Especially when they are prominent historians and legal scholars like the three authors of Four Square Leagues: Malcolm Ebright, land grant historian, lawyer, and director of the Center for Land Grant Studies; Rick Hendricks, the New Mexico State Historian and author and editor of numerous other books; and Richard W. Hughes, an attorney specializing in Indian law.

But they managed to pull it off, and Four Square Leagues is their thoroughly researched account of the history of Pueblo Indian land claims from the 17th century Spanish incursion to present day disputes such as the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo the Sandia Pueblo land claim in the Sandia Mountains. Several chapters address the histories and legalities that affected all or most of the pueblos—how four square leagues came to be the accepted measurement for a pueblo grant; how the Pueblo Lands Act dealt with claims on pueblo lands—while others tell the complex stories of how individual pueblos have lost and gained lands throughout this long span of time.

Unlike the Spanish and Mexican written land grants that were conferred by each government to Hispanos settlers, pueblo lands were recognized as a “Pueblo league” or a square emanating from the center of the pueblo a league in each cardinal direction. A league is 5,000 Spanish varas; a vara is 33 inches in length, which translates to about 2.6 miles. Thus each side of the square is 5.2 miles and contains four square leagues, or 17, 350 acres. Instead of being written grants these were recognized as a standard entitlement under Spanish law, but how the concept originally developed is unclear (no Spanish administrative papers survived the 1680 Pueblo revolt). The authors describe how these leagues were measured—laboriously, with thick cords—and then follow the history of the various problems and disputes that ensued among the pueblos as they sought formal recognition of their claims. Because of the league concept the pueblos of New Mexico ended up with far greater rights to land than any other natives of New Spain.

As I suspect others will do, I skipped to the chapters I was most interested in to read first: Picuris and Sandia. I lived for 20 years in Placitas and worked with Sandia Pueblo on several issues pertaining to the Sandia Mountains and the Pueblo’s claim that the four square league east boundary was the crest of the mountains, not the subrange that was stipulated in the patent in 1864. Even though the Pueblo was a staunch ally of environmental groups in opposition to the 1985 Cibola Forest Plan that called for increased development in the Sandias, including Las Huertas Canyon and consideration of an additional downhill ski area, several of these same groups opposed the Pueblo’s 1983 request that the Department of the Interior resurvey the grant to extend the eastern boundary, and its subsequent lawsuit in 1994.

During this contentious time a rumor spread that I was working for Sandia Pueblo—I supported the Pueblo’s land claim but I wasn’t employed there—and I received a spate of extremely hostile phone calls (this was way before e-mail and twitter) from members of these environmental groups who railed against the Pueblo and insisted that the Forest Service should retain management of these contested lands, which were in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness. What caused the disconnect, I believe, was that some of these folks lived in the private inholdings at the base of the wilderness area that was included in the Pueblo land claim. Even though the Pueblo made it clear, many times over, that it would exclude the 600 acres of private land from its claim, respect access, and impose no property taxes, the “private property” specter reared its ugly head and generated bad publicity and political opposition from the New Mexico congressional delegation.

As the authors detail in the Sandia Pueblo chapter, this land claim is an example of how despite the acceptance of the four league concept many Pueblos had to defend their land claims’ vulnerability to erroneous surveys, incursion by Hispano settlers, and inconsistencies in administration. Sandia Pueblo eventually signed a settlement agreement that stipulated the Forest Service has management jurisdiction over the contested land but the Pueblo has special access privileges and the authority to regulate traditional and cultural uses of the land.

The chapter on Picuris Pueblo documents a long history of Spanish encroachment on this remote pueblo that at one time had a population of two thousand but by 1821 had been reduced to approximately 222 (I believe it is about the same population today). I now live just a few miles from the Pueblo, and as with Sandia, have been allied with it in several battles over ski area development, an in-situ copper mine, and the recovery of the Pueblo’s mica mine. The Pueblo was one of the most traditional in its resistance to Christianity, was also friendly to some of the plains Indians because of its location, and a strong participant in the Pueblo Revolt, factors that contributed to the Spanish incursion. Today, the Pueblo reservation includes the Hispano villages of Vadito, Peñasco, Rio Lucio, and Chamisal.

Of particular interest to all New Mexicans is Chapter 10, the “Pueblo Lands Act Board.” This is the story of how the Pueblos and their supporters, particularly John Collier (father of anthropologist and photographer John Collier, Jr. and grandfather of Robin Collier of the radio production company Cultural Energy), sought legal protection of their lands through ejection actions in federal court against non-Indians. The authors trace the arduous efforts of Collier and others to enact the Pueblo Lands Act, but in the end, the Pueblos lost approximately 45,000 acres of their grant lands to non-Indian settlers and thousands more due to the misconduct of the Pueblo Lands Board, which was established to adjudicate the claims.

The Sandoval Decision of 1913 held that Congress had the power to assert federal guardianship over the pueblos; Pueblo Indians were classified as wards, rather than citizens, which required federal approval of land transfers. In reaction to this decision, those non-Indians in possession of pueblo lands vigorously tried to solidify their claims. In 1921 the first efforts were made to legislate a solution to these land disputes, and John Collier, who had been invited by Mabel Dodge to come to Taos, New Mexico, became the leading advocate for a better bill than the one wending its way through Congress. Collier, along with Stella Atwood and other wealthy and influential people in Taos, Santa Fe, and California “stirred up a storm of furious controversy” and succeeded in blocking the bill. A “better” bill—still with serious flaws—eventually passed Congress and established a three member Pueblo Lands Board that would review all claims by non-Indians occupying pueblo grant lands. But as the authors account, “despite the extraordinary exertions of John Collier and his supporters . . . . the courts and the Pueblo Lands Board interpreted the Pueblo Lands Act so as to favor the non-Indian claimants and seemed to go out of their way to arrive at policies and interpretations that were disadvantageous to the Pueblos.”

Still, as the authors state in the “Epilogue:” “Although many Pueblo villages that existed at the time of the arrival of the Spanish in New Mexico disappeared within the next century, those that survived generally managed to maintain their control of lands surrounding their villages.” Thus, the four square league worked to the advantage of the puebloans, unlike the “sad tale of treaties broken, homelands lost, and forced migration to federally designated reservations” that was the fate of so many Native Americans.

It would have been helpful if the authors made sure that in each chapter specific references to names, places, acts, legal documents, etc. that may have been mentioned elsewhere in the book were briefly explained to aid the reader. Even assuming that one reads the book sequentially from cover to cover, with so much information it’s sometimes necessary to briefly explain again, when referenced, important concepts and terms—such as the Sandoval Decision, which is the same name as a previous, 18th century decision regarding Spanish land grants, or the meaning of encomienda.

There will be a book signing on Saturday, August 23, 4 pm at Op Cit, a new book store located in the Sambusco shopping center on Montezuma Street in Santa Fe.

The book is available at most local bookstores and also at southwestbooks.org at a reduced price.

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One comment

  1. Reblogged this on Wendy Jepson and commented:
    Looking forward to reading this book on my way to the Royal Geographical Society – appropriate as I will be participating in exciting three sessions on legal geography.

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