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American Spirit: Spanish rule to modern state relations, New Mexico's pueblos have seen centuries of struggle

The Native American tribes in New Mexico comprise 19 pueblos (permanent settlements), three Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation
(Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

New Mexico's Native presence is very prominent and dates back to nearly two millennia, centuries before the Europeans set foot on American soil. The early ancestral tribes thrived as hunter-gatherers throughout the southwest. Over 1,000 years ago, some of these tribes came together and established permanent settlements or 'Pueblos'.

When Spaniards reached New Mexico in the 16th century, they brought with them the Roman Catholic religion to the region settled by the villages of the pueblo people and the Navajo, Apache, and Ute tribes. Spanish missionaries had traveled to the new territory to disseminate their faith among the Native Americans and were successful in converting many. Even then, many Native beliefs and customs persevered and blended with those kindled by the Spanish colonists. This way of life is still very much prevalent among New Mexico's federally recognized 23 pueblos, tribes, and nations. 

According to the Economic Development Department, a recent census based on 2015 population estimates found that New Mexico has 219,237 Native American citizens, which makes up approximately 10.5 percent of the state's entire population. The Native American tribes in New Mexico comprise 19 pueblos, three Apache tribes, and the Navajo Nation, which is home to the largest Indian tribe. The 19 pueblos are of the pueblos Acoma, Jemez, Ohkay, Nambe, Laguna, Picuris, Sandia, Isleta, Cochiti, Pojoaque, San Felipe, Taos, Tesuque, Zuni, Santa Clara, Zia, Santo Domingo, Santa Ana, and San Ildefonso. The three Apache tribes include Fort Still Apache tribe, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the Mescalero Apache. A majority of the pueblos are located in northern New Mexico, while the Navajo Nation has its reservation in northwestern New Mexico, northern Arizona, and southeastern Utah. The Jicarilla Apaches live in northern New Mexico and the Mescalero Apache tribes are concentrated in southern New Mexico. Each tribe is a sovereign nation with its own governance, lifestyles, traditions, and culture. 

Laguna Reservation, New Mexico (Wikimedia Commons)

State-tribal relations in New Mexico stem out of its historical intergovernmental relationship with foreign sovereigns, some centuries ago. Spanish conquistador Coronado arrived in New Mexico in the 16the century and claimed it as Spanish Territory, which essentially marked the beginning of colonial rule. According to William B Kessel, Coronado met with tribal officials who served pretty much as diplomats for their tribes. The pueblos created the Office of Governor to collaborate with the regional Spanish colonial governors of 'New Spain'. However, they also continued to operate internally with their traditional indigenous systems of governance.

But there were increasing tensions between the tribes and the Spanish until the 1680 Pueblo Revolt when the tribes united to overthrow the Spanish after 12 years of the colonial regime. The resistance continued even in the aftermath of the revolution as they sought new and more independent relationships with the Spanish. Meanwhile, the Navajos and Apaches were continually treated as foreign sovereign nations by the Spanish. 

Following the United States' victory in the 1846 Mexican-American War, Mexico relinquished its northern holdings, which included territories of California, Texas, and New Mexico to the US. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the US agreed to honor the residents' claims to their land and accept them as citizens with suffrage rights. But New Mexico was among those states that practiced the Jim Crow laws, like those who do not pay taxes cannot vote. The transition however was anything but smooth. The US authorities failed to understand agreements, grants, land tenure, and water rights that had been installed by the Spanish. In addition, there was conflict with the Apaches and Navajos who had been constantly treated as foreign sovereigns. So the two nations lacked the history of land tenure arrangements with the Spanish, as had been arranged with the pueblos. Congress established New Mexico as a separate territory in 1850, and it eventually became a state in 1913 but was still marred with conflict and struggle.

Gossiping - San Juan, 1926. This image came from The North American Indian by Edward S. Curtis. These images were published between 1907 and 1930. The digitization of this image was done by the Northwestern University Library, sponsored by the U.S. Library of Congress. Credits: Northwestern University Library, "The North American Indian": the Photographic Images, 2001 (Wikimedia Commons)

Native Americans from New Mexico fought alongside the US armed forces in both World War I and II. For years after 1913, tribal leaders had sought to develop federal relationships. Agencies and subagencies were created as the administrative offices of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) and its predecessors, with the purpose of managing Indian affairs with tribes, to enforce policies, and to uphold peace. The names and location of these agencies changed over time but their objective remained the same.

In 1953, the Commission on Indian Affairs and the Office of Indian Affairs were created with the intention of serving state-tribal relations for the 23 tribes in New Mexico. The state-tribal relations were established to promote effective communication and collaboration between the state agency and the Native nations, which includes positive government-to-government relations and cultural competency between the state and Indian nations. It stated that "a state agency shall make a reasonable effort to collaborate with Indian nations, tribes or pueblos in the development and implementation of policies, agreements, and programs of the state agency that directly affect American Indians or Alaska Natives".

The relationship, however, is complicated by the fact that the Navajo Nation is the largest in the US and often dominates state-tribal relations. Furthermore, The Fort Sill Apache Tribe of Oklahoma is a tribe that has an out-of-state reservation listed among New Mexico tribes. Even so, some pueblos maintained their system of community-based theoretical governance, and others opted for forms of governance brought about by the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. They updated their operations by contracting to administered services under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Act of 1975. The Mescalero Apaches became a self-governance tribe, whilst working under the Self-Governance Project of 1988. This compacted for direct programs of service delivery designed by the tribe, but the switch from self-determination contracting to self-governance had some major setbacks for the bigger tribes or those with disparities in opportunities like the Navajo Nation. While the Self-Determination Act came with benefits, the Self-Governance Act had a lack thereof.

(Getty Images)

In addition, the Department of the Interior and the Indian Health Service (IHS) also refused to abide by self-governance because it meant a loss of control for the agencies. But while a self-governance tribe could change the design of its programs more feasibly through the annual compacting process, a self-determination tribe would have to adhere to the contract for limited services and programs set by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This was further complicated when Obama opened up self-governance in 2016, compacting to the Department of Transportation and the IHS. The Nixon administration had installed the policy of Self Determination, and after the passages of the policy as an Act by the Congress in 1975, tribes began taking over service provision from the BIA. Tribal nations began increasingly emphasizing on state-tribal relationships in the 1980s. The Reagan administration then pushed the devolution of responsibility to the states. Federal funds for key tribal areas like health and social services deviated to states rather than directly given to tribes, with the assumptions that states would distribute it to the tribes. In addition to that, many Native American people were forced to changed their health care providers from the IHS to other managed care organizations in the state.

These changes also required significant legislative development so as to draft and implement new programs. Tribal leaders saw this as a pathway to increase leverage since they were being represented by at least some elected officials in the state legislature. As tribes took on new economic development initiatives,  they were authorized by federal law to establish high-dollar gaming casinos on their reservations (under certain conditions), and entertainment and tourism initiatives that further increased their influence. They expanded their capacity for planning and developing strategic action, allowing them to regenerate revenue for the welfare of their peoples and the tribe. Major changes came about when Governor Richardson elevated the Director of Office of Indian Affairs to the level of his Cabinet in 2003. This was a long time coming and culminated from the years of changing federal policy, as well as the increasing importance of state-tribal relations.

American Spirit is a campaign on the issues faced by the Native American Community in America. Over the next few days, this column will feature stories of determination, triumph, legacy and redemption.