Land grant claims won't go away


Some of my neighbors in northern New Mexico call this region “occupied Mexico.” They're only half joking. Heirs of community land grants made by the Spanish and Mexican governments are still arguing – 160 years later – that the U.S. did not honor its obligations under the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo. The treaty promised to protect all pre-existing land grants and other property rights of the former Mexican citizens when the U.S. took this territory from Mexico. But it didn’t.

As a result, over 80 percent of community land grants were lost to Indo-Hispano villagers, in most cases after a century, or two or three, of living and working on those lands. All the Indian Pueblos retained their land grants, which became reservations under the U.S. system, but most of the rest ended up as Forest Service or BLM land.

Of course this is not the first or last time the U.S. violated a treaty for land, but this fight is still going strong.

In the latest issue of La Jicarita News, scholar David Correia reviews the well-documented history of fraud and various chicanery within the office of the Surveyor General and the Court of Private Land Grant Claims, which were supposed to adjudicate land claims during the late 1800s. And he lays out a convincing legal argument about how the U.S. government did not fulfill its fiduciary duty under the treaty.

Correia’s article is part of a concerted response by local activists, scholars, attorneys, county governments and the New Mexico Attorney General to a 2004 report on community land grants from the Government Accountability Office. The GAO report, predictably, absolved the government of any wrongdoing, saying that having an adjudication process was all it was required to do (even though that process was riddled with corruption and incompetence).

There’s no question that people around here have long memories and know how to hold a grudge. But it’s more than that. The persistent poverty in this part of New Mexico – along with the substance abuse Angela Garcia wrote about in HCN two years ago – are linked to the “historical trauma” of losing traditional lands, livelihoods and cultural identity. It’s not unusual at community meetings for some weather-worn old timer to pull a tattered copy of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo out of his back pocket, emotionally quote it chapter and verse and ask when the government is going to give him access the ancestral land.

Against this historical backdrop, I was stunned once to hear a local enviro (an individual well known for his inflammatory and confrontational statements) blithely dismiss the idea of returning land grants to their rightful heirs as “the agenda of the ‘wise-use’ movement dressed up as social justice.”

Activists have considered any number of ways to rectify the social and economic consequences of losing their land grants – priority access to grant lands, economic development assistance, educational scholarships, federal trust funds for land grant communities or just getting the land back. Since this fight is not going away any time soon, I’m curious what others think.

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