Just days after President Barack Obama announced U.S. support for the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples at the White House Tribal Conference on Dec. 16, the Pueblo of Jemez and the Santa Fe National Forest entered into a historic agreement that gives the Jemez nation decision making powers over its aboriginal lands and provides a model implementation of the indigenous human rights document.
A Memorandum of Understanding signed Dec. 20, 2010, at the Jemez Pueblo Youth Center by Pueblo of Jemez Governor Joshua Madalena and Acting Forest Supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest Erin Connelly implements an important indigenous right detailed in UNDRIP’s Article 32, which says:
“Indigenous peoples have the right to determine and develop priorities and strategies for the development or use of their lands or territories and other resources.
“States shall consult and cooperate in good faith with the indigenous peoples concerned through their own representative institutions in order to obtain their free and informed consent prior to the approval of any project affecting their lands or territories and other resources, particularly in connection with the development, utilization or exploitation of mineral, water or other resources.
“States shall provide effective mechanisms for just and fair redress for any such activities, and appropriate measures shall be taken to mitigate adverse environmental, economic, social, cultural or spiritual impact.”
The government-to-government relationship formalized in the MOU improves the good working relationship the parties have enjoyed for more than a decade, Madalena said.
“This MOU brings us one step closer to properly and directly managing the very lands that support our life and livelihood. I have an overwhelming feeling of gratitude (about the signing) because our ancestors sacrificed their lives to protect these lands as the first stewards and conservationists.”
Connelly said he was “deeply moved by the words spoken by Governor Madalena” at the ceremony. “I look forward to continued dialogue and coordination on natural and cultural resource issues.”
The MOU details the Santa Fe National Forest’s legal commitments and federal trust responsibilities to protect and preserve the pueblo’s ancestral sites, traditional cultural properties, human remains, religious freedoms and sacred objects.
The Pueblo of Jemez (pronounced “Hay-mess” or traditionally as “He-mish” in the Towa language) is one of the 19 pueblos located in New Mexico. Jemez is a federally recognized American Indian tribe with 3,400 tribal members, most of whom reside in a puebloan village that is known as “‘Walatowa” (meaning “this is the place”).
The 1.6 million acre Santa Fe National Forest is administered through a Forest Supervisor’s Office and five Ranger Districts. The MOU covers the Jemez Ranger District of some 300,000 acres.
“The fact is that these are our direct aboriginal homelands and we have never had a voice when it comes to the direct management and direct care of these areas. The Forest Service has consulted with the tribe but we weren’t the decision makers,” Madalena said.
The area is teeming with Jemez history, including around 20,000 field houses and tens of thousands of tribal cultural properties, Madalena said.
“The field houses are between the agricultural areas and the main villages and my ancestors would stay in them in summer months when they were tending their agricultural crops and then in winter go back to their villages. And there are sacred areas and sites with thousands of tribal cultural properties not only in the Jemez Mountains but also Valles Calvera area. That’s our sacred mother land. It’s a place as important to us as the Vatican is to Catholics,” Madalena said.
With the MOU, the Jemez people will indeed have free, prior and informed consent when decisions are made that affect the lands, Madalena said.
“I was at the tribal conference when President Obama reinforced the fact that indigenous peoples within their aboriginal lands need to be the decision makers of those areas. We’ve been working for many months now on this MOU. It really puts Jemez at the table when it comes to the best interest of the Jemez people,” Madalena said.
The Jemez came into contact with European culture in 1541 when Spanish conquistadors invaded, claimed and occupied their lands in the name of the King of Spain.
The conquest was based on the Christian Doctrine of Discovery developed a century earlier in papal bulls that gave Christian explorers the right to claim lands they “discovered” if those lands were not already occupied by Christians. If the “pagan” or “savage” inhabitants of the lands would convert to Christianity, they could survive; otherwise they could be killed or enslaved.
Jemez mounted a fierce rebellion against Spain, Madalena said, “because we believe truly that our language and our ways are the only ways for us and we didn’t believe in Catholicism.”
The Spanish forced the Jemez people off the 8,000-foot high mesa tops to the desert bottom where they live today. The Jemez people were enslaved and forced to build the conqueror’s churches. Later, those lands were taken by the Americans, Madalena said.
In 1891, Congress authorized forest reserves to be established to preserve forest land for timber and other public uses, but without cooperative agreements with Native American tribes in New Mexico, adversely affecting the Pueblo of Jemez culture and religion.
Despite the depredations Jemez people experienced, they have preserved their traditional culture, religion, and knowledge of ancient traditional ways, including their complex Towa language which is spoken by 95 percent of the people, Madalena said. Jemez is the only culture that speaks this language, and traditional law forbids translation of the language into writing in order to prevent exploitation by outside cultures, according to the nation’s website.
The MOU will further enhance the protections of Jemez traditions, Madalena said.
“There are no words that can express the spirit of cooperation I have experienced in working with the Santa Fe National Forest. For our religious purposes, this means improved access to and greater protection of our sacred sites. This is something my people have dreamed of for a long time.”
The signing of the MOU culminated Madalena’s term as governor. He remains on the Jemez council.