Book Review: Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas by Malcolm Ebright and Rick Hendricks


Land grant scholar Malcolm Ebright and State Historian Rick Hendricks have collaborated on another book, this time focusing on the history of Indian land and water sovereignty of five New Mexico and Texas pueblos: Pojoaque, Tesuque, Nambe, Isleta, and Ysleta del Sur.

Pueblo Sovereignty: Indian Land and Water in New Mexico and Texas documents the long history of encroachment on Indian lands and how these pueblos fought to sustain their threatened populations and maintain their agricultural base through legal means and land acquisition. The authors vigorously defend pueblo sovereignty, tracing back to the protector de Indios, who in 1704 established that pueblos were guaranteed a minimum of four square leagues of land, which came to be called a Pueblo League (17,400 acres).

But the story from 1704 forward is largely one of land loss due to the encroachment of non-pueblo peoples and the failure of both the Spanish protector and the Mexican government—which declared them Mexican citizens—to protect the Pueblo Leagues. The protector de Indios position became vacant in 1717 and was not filled again until 1810: “In the interim, the protection of Pueblo land depended largely on who sat in the governor’s palace in Santa Fe.” (The authors believe the best of these was no doubt Tomás Vélez Cachupín, 1749-54, 1762-67). After the U.S. defeated Mexico in 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo proclaimed that the property of Mexicans would be “inviolably protected,” but this was largely ignored until the position of surveyor general was established in 1854 to review all Mexican and Pueblo land grants for confirmation. Ebright has written several other books that take on the problems and subterfuges inherent in this position and the subsequent appointment of the Surveyor General.

Pojoaque Pueblo, now one of the most powerful of the northern pueblos, came back from near extinction twice, first in 1706 and then in 1932. Ironically, the Pueblo’s resurgence was through the efforts of the Pueblo Lands Board, which the authors explain wasn’t a very powerful advocate in its adjudications of Pueblo lands (the Act was signed into law in 1924 to deal with encroachment on Pueblo lands). The Board awarded the pueblo damages for lost land even though there were no Indians in the community (they had moved to other villages). Interestingly, the Pueblo Lands Act came into play in a decision in the adjudication of pueblo water rights that involves Pojoaque, Tesuque, and Nambe pueblos today—the Aamodt. Judge Edwin Mechem, stipulated that the pueblos were entitled to their historical domestic and stream water rights used during the period between 1846, when the U.S. seized Mexican territory and 1924, when the Pueblo Lands Act was passed, which severely curtailed their claims of most of the water in the Pojoaque Basin (the parties to the Aamodt ended up in a settlement agreement that did not adhere to Mechem’s decisions).

Isleta Pueblo seems to have faired the best in terms of compensation for lands lost and in maintaining its vitality and sustainability, despite the population it lost to the Pueblo of Isleta del Sur, south of El Paso, after the Pueblo revolt in 1680. This pueblo, which became part of Texas after 1824, has more recently participated in cultural exchanges with Isleta. Isleta is also the largest of the pueblos—more than 188,000 acres— bounded by the Rio Puerco on the west and the crest of the Manzano Mountains to the east; like that of Sandia Pueblo, which has always claimed its eastern boundary is the crest of the Sandia Mountains, the pueblo had to fight to have its initial boundary extended to include the mountains. The pueblo was also successful in protesting Spanish land grants that had encroached in its boundaries. The authors profile the colorful Isleta man Pablo Abeita, who during the late 1890s and early 1900s successfully negotiated with the U.S. government to protect against encroachment and travel to Washington D.C. to advocate for the Pueblo. They quote his testimony before a Senate committee:

Pablo Abeita

“He [Christopher Columbus] thought himself superior [to] these people just because he was white and wore clothes and had arms. [He] . . . goes back to Europe and claims . . . that he had found a new world. What right did Columbus have to make such a claim . . . . This world was not lost . . . . Only imagine what Europe would have said, had some Indian sailed eastword in search of the rising sun and had come into the Port of Palos, and claim and proclaim that he had found a new world and because he had found it proclaim himself master and . . . do with the Europeans what the white people have done and are doing today with us Indians.”

Recently, the pueblo has been successful in establishing water quality standards (under the direction of the first woman tribal governor, Verna Williamson) that were stricter than those of the City of Albuquerque, forcing the city to renovate its water treatment facility.

The relatively small pueblos of Tesuque and Nambe have their own stories of struggles to protect their land base and population, and both were actively involved in the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 and suffered severe retribution under the reconquest of Diego de Vargas.

In the Epilogue, Ebright and Hendricks reiterate their belief in the sovereignty of the pueblos, whose self governance is symbolized by the exchange of canes from Diego de Vargas to Abraham Lincoln to former governor Bruce King on the 300th anniversary of the Pueblo Revolt:

“The Pueblos hold as evidence of their sovereign powers, the Canes of Authority, presented to the autonomous Pueblos by the governments of Spain in 1620, by Mexico in 1821, the United States of America in 1863, and the State of New Mexico in 1980-1990. The Lincoln Cane, presented to the Pueblos in 1863 by the United States, 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” (Roy Bernal of Taos).

The book is available through, the University of Oklahoma Press, and local bookstores.

One comment

  1. La Jicarita got a comment from Alfonso Duran questioning information about Tesuque Pueblo and that used the terminology “heathen Indios” that I asked him to clarify before I accepted the comment. Here is what he wrote back in a respectful way:

    “Thanks for the feedback! The Tesuque Pueblo was in on the uprising but they and 4 other Pueblos, Pecos, the Keres Pueblos helped De Vargas and the Spaniards during the second uprising in 1696 which De Vargas and these allies put down. If you read other books about this period you will see that Tesuque was one of the most loyal Pueblos to the Spanish after the return of the Spanish. The words “Heathen Indios” are not my words they are the words used by the Spanish Hierarchy to differentiate the Pueblos from the rest of the Indians in the Spanish domain. Pueblos Indians were accorded Spanish Citizenship which led to the use of “Advocates for the Oppressed” another of Ebright’s books. I have read most of Ebrights books but the signature historical book is “Blood on the Boulders” which was a translation of De Vargas Journals. The translators include Rick Hendricks which you use as a coauthor with Ebright. I am trying to set the record straight. Tesuque Pueblo was one of the most loyal Pueblos to De Vargas. Just the reading of one of Ebrights books does not tell the whole story of the put down of the Civil War led by the northern Pueblos. All the Pueblos south of Isleta fled with the Spanish to El Paso never to return.”

    “In addition you should read John Kessells book ” Pueblos, Spaniard and the kingdom of New Mexico”. In this book there is a chapter ” Colony of Cousins” also Jose Esquirbesl monographs relating to the relationship of Pueblo Indians and the Spanish settlers. Its striking that so many of the the very older generations I grew up with disavowed any relationship to the Indians but not so much the younger generation. In my case my Indian blood comes from the original Duran who came with his Indian Wife with Onate, she was an Apache from Northern Mexico. How more inclusive can we be with our cousins. Thanks for your writings in the Jicarita.”

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