Four leagues of their own
Four Square Leagues: Pueblo Indian Land in New Mexico by Malcolm Ebright, Rick Hendricks, and Richard W. Hughes
Over more than 400 years, New Mexico pueblos have fought, sued, purchased, negotiated, and bartered for their land under Spanish, Mexican, and American governments. As a result, courtroom cases over pueblo land claims can sometimes take on the air of a history seminar, with researchers and archivists called upon to scrutinize antiquarian maps and handwritten parchment scrolls dating back to the early 1700s.
The three authors of Four Square Leagues: Pueblo Indian Land in New Mexico know this well, having either served as counsel or witness in a string of pueblo land cases over the past few decades. The book’s writers are Malcolm Ebright, a land grant historian and director of the Center for Land Grant Studies in Guadalupita; Rick Hendricks, New Mexico state historian; and Richard Hughes, a Santa Fe attorney who specializes in Indian law. Since its publication last year by the University of New Mexico Press, the title has been named a 2014 best book by the Border Regional Library Association and was awarded the 2015 Fray Francisco Atanasio Domínguez Award by the Historical Society of New Mexico.
Despite its focus on Northern New Mexico pueblos, the inspiration to write the book grew out of historical and legal research the three men were preparing for the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo near El Paso in the late 1990s. “I had written a couple books already, one about Hispano land grants and then one with Rick Hendricks about the land grant in Abiquiú (The Witches of Abiquiú: The Governor, the Priest, the Genizaro Indians, and the Devil), which came out in 2006,” Ebright said.
Hughes, who has represented several pueblos in land cases during his 37 years of practice in Indian law, contributes some of the new book’s most potentially controversial chapters, such as an account of the insider politics of the 1924 Pueblo Lands Act. He also writes extensively about the Cruzate documents, land deeds — confirmed by Congress — that are the basis of nine pueblos’ core land holdings and claims. The papers are widely believed by contemporary historians of New Mexico to be fraudulent. Purported to be from 1689, the deeds are written on paper that was not produced until the 1840s and use several passages that are lifted nearly verbatim from a book that was published in 1832.
While Hughes’ role as counsel to several pueblos in land cases is well known in New Mexico Indian law circles, he said that he and his co-authors wrote the book to serve as a neutral reference volume for years to come. “This book is not intended to be an advocacy piece. It’s intended to be historical and reflect what actually happened to the pueblos. For the most part, it’s based on public documents that anyone is free to refer to.” Diving deep into documents maintained by New Mexico, Mexico, the federal government, and the pueblos themselves, the book chronicles the ways in which pueblos have lost and gained land over the centuries. It spans the most recent developments, including the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo and Sandia Pueblo’s claim to U.S. Forest Service land in the Sandia Mountains. As its title suggests, the book also delves into the 17th- and 18th-century Spanish Colonial era to explain the origins of the “pueblo
league” — a way of measuring pueblo land for landgrant purposes. The pueblo league encompassed 4 leagues (roughly 5 square miles) emanating in each cardinal direction from a pueblo’s central church.
Why is the pueblo league so important? Federal law has made several allowances for the land agreements pueblos had with the preceding Spanish and Mexican governments — unlike the barely honored treaties other Native American tribes signed with the U.S. government. Though it has required constant vigilance by the pueblos, the pueblo league has also given the pueblos a history vastly different from that of other U.S. tribes or what the writers call a “sad tale of treaties broken, homelands lost, and forced migration to federally designated reservations.” “Everyone who works on this field knows about pueblo league, the 4 square leagues that made up pueblos,” Hendricks said. “But in terms of tracking the origin of the league and how it arrived, no one before has tracked it through every document.” Because of the destruction of archives during the 1680 Pueblo Revolt, no surviving paper explains the league’s origin, though this book collects its earliest appearances in the extant legal record.
One major discovery in the book was made possible by Santa Ana Pueblo. The tribe, just northwest of Albuquerque, allowed the writers to examine the pueblo’s own archive of legal documents, most of which had never previously been examined by historians. “It was material no one had ever used before in the context of a much larger study,” Hendricks said. “It gave us an understanding of Mexican and Spanish legal practices. We broke quite a bit of new ground.” The tribe’s archives revealed that by the early 1700s, only years after the Spanish had reestablished rule over New Mexico, the pueblo had already begun buying additional land along the Río Grande and Jemez River from its Hispano neighbors. “Pueblos didn’t have the same concept of land ownership,” Ebright said. “But once they realized this concept of ownership could be used to their benefit, it meant they could actually buy the land from the Spanish government, though perhaps it was their land to begin with. They didn’t have money, but they traded cattle, sheep, and horses and such. In return, they were given specific tracts of thousands of acres of irrigable farmland, which they are using to this day.”
The researchers also learned that beginning in 1815, several pueblos began travelling to Durango, Guadalajara, and Mexico City to file grievances over loss of their land to Spanish colonial settlers. “To go all the way to Mexico City and back would be about 3,000 miles,” Ebright said. “It’s a major incursion as far as being away from your family and fields. Most would have been traveling on horseback, possibly even by horse-drawn wagon, at the time. Spanish law provided that Indian lands were protected. They didn’t always enforce the laws nor define what they mean by Indian land, but they made it possible for pueblos to appear in court with a Spanish lawyer. Sometimes the Spanish counsel did a good job; sometimes they didn’t. But in all cases they made precedent-setting decisions that are still in use today.”
Despite the two decades of research and writing that went into this book, none of the authors feel the subject is exhausted. “Malcolm and I are in the process of formulating a second volume that would include pueblos that we didn’t include this time, such as the Ysleta del Sur Pueblo we started with,” Hendricks said. “We feel it will be a reference that will be useful to people for a long time. So many of the stories that make up New Mexico history are never even told.”
Reading the Acts of Vassalage and Obedience at Acoma; opposite page, left, Pueblo Indians Petitioning Brigadier General Stephen Watts Kearny in Santa Fe; right, Measuring the Pueblo League; illustrations by Glen Strock; courtesy University of New Mexico Press