Indianz.Com > News > Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune: Tribal lawyer plays big role in land claim case
Valles Caldera National Preserve
The Valles Caldera National Preserve, currently managed by the National Park System, is located within the ancestral territory of the Pueblo of Jemez in New Mexico. Photo: Larry Lamsa
Reclaiming Tribal Lands: Tribal Attorney Assists with Pueblo of Jemez v. United States
Tuesday, July 12, 2022
Cheyenne and Arapaho Tribal Tribune

Newly enrolled Cheyenne and Arapaho citizen Christina West, an attorney and partner with the Barnhouse and Keegan Solimon and West Indian Law firm, has dedicated much of her life to working with tribes across the country.

Based out of Albuquerque, New Mexico, West’s law firm has been dedicated to serving Native people, tribes and businesses through the United States addressing various Indian law issues. Since joining the law firm of Barnhouse and Keegan Solimon and West in 2016, West has been actively representing and been involved in the case of the Pueblo of Jemez v. United States.

The case involving the Pueblo of Jemez, plaintiff, v. United States of America, defendant, and New Mexico Gas Company, defendant in intervention, is seeking to recover title of traditional lands, a first ever effort made by a tribe to recover land that has made it to trial. The case of Pueblo of Jemez v. United States is on appeal to the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals for the second time, with the first appeal to the Tenth Circuit resulting in the decision reported at 790 F.3d 1143 (10th Cir. 2015).

The Pueblo, a federally recognized tribe located 50 miles northwest of Albuquerque, New Mexico, first filed suit in 2012 in federal district court under the Quiet Title Act (QTA) to seek quiet title to some 95,000 acres, subject to a Spanish land grant referred to as the Baca Location No. 1 that is located within the lands of the Valles Caldera National Preserve in New Mexico. The government filed a motion to dismiss for lack of jurisdiction, concluding the Jemez Pueblo’s claim accrued prior to 1946 and was therefore barred by the Indian Claims Commission’s (ICC) five-year statute of limitations.

Valles Caldera
The Valles Caldera gets its name from a volcanic caldera located in the Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. Seen here is the Cerro la Jara lava dome within the valley. Photo: Larry Lamsa

The Jemez Pueblo responded by contending that its aboriginal title was not extinguished by the Baca grant and the Quiet Title claim arose only when the United States began to interfere with and limit the tribe’s use of the land in 2000.

The district court granted the government’s motion to dismiss, concluding that it lacked subject matter jurisdiction. It held the Jemez Pueblo had a claim against the United States that accrued as a matter of law before 1946 for the taking of the lands, and with the district court having found the Indian Claims Commission Act provided remedy for the Pueblo’s claim, dismissed the claims because the actions were not timely filed and the United States was immune from the suit.

The Tenth Circuit concluded if the Pueblo holds extinguished aboriginal title to the lands, then no claim needed to be presented to the ICC and the Pueblo can pursue its aboriginal title claims under the Quiet Title Act.

“I think it’ll be interesting, an important part for other tribes across the country is that it was a somewhat novel claim and that it was land previously privately owned, arguably without the Pueblo’s knowledge and then the U.S. purchased it to try to create a preserve, which allowed the Pueblo to bring the claim under what they call a Quiet Title Act,” West said.

West said most tribes couldn’t bring land claims against the U.S. because of the Indian Claims Commission being created.

“It provided a narrow time in which tribes could only make so many damage claims but because of the history of this case passing to private owners in the United States, it allowed the tribe to bring this claim to try to actually reclaim land,” West said.

Christina West
Christina West. Courtesy photo

That legal concept, West said, was affirmed by the Tenth Circuit in 2016 that the tribe could pursue its claim.

“That’s sort of breaking law a little bit, if a tribe had been in a similar situation where it was privately owned and the government purchases it for some reason, I think tribes then have the ability to bring a claim and try to actually get back their land under the circumstances,” West said.

The Jemez Pueblo’s ancestral aboriginal title allegedly included the Rio Jemez drainage and the Valles Caldera, in which the area is known to the Pueblo Jemez as the western Jemez homeland. The homeland includes land acknowledged in the case within the Valles Caldera National Preserve and covers more than 1,100 square miles in and around the Jemez Mountains.

In seeking their ancestral lands, the Jemez people have used and occupied the lands of the Valles Caldera National Preserve and surrounding areas in the Jemez Mountains since 1200 CE. Descendants of the Jemez date back more than 800 years to have been predominant occupants of the land of the Jemez Mountains, including the Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Rio Jemez watershed.

When the Tenth Circuit affirmed the case, West’s involvement with the case began shortly after joining the firm of Barnhouse and Keegan Solimon and West.

“I was brought on the case to help prepare it for trial and lead the trial team, we had a 21-day trial that was extremely long with tons of witnesses back in 2018,” West said.

Indianz.Com Audio: 10th Circuit Court of Appeals – Pueblo of Jemez v. United States – May 20, 2022

With the Pueblo of Jemez v. United States being a massive case, many attorneys were brought in and involved with the case.

“I primarily handled the experts in the case at trial and then the district court as I like to say, we had to win 10 issues to win the land back and we won nine out of 10,” West said.

West said the case was in the lower-level tribal court and when the United States immediately appealed without having any trial to ask whether they could get the Tribe to bring its claim in a certain manner, it took several years before the Tenth Circuit affirmed. The case was sent back down to tribal court to be tried in 2016, around the same time West started at the firm.

“The issue we lost on was that the trial court judge found that in order to prove our claim, we had to prove that the tribe has continuously and exclusively used the land for a long time and the court questioned whether we exclusively used it. And that was the one issue we lost on,” West said.

The issue concerning exclusive use of the land, among a few others, has been the primary issue on appeal. During the long briefing, West recently provided verbal arguments before the Tenth Circuit.

“The Tenth Circuit we hope will issue a decision maybe in two months and then its quite possible that either side will decide to appeal it to the United States Supreme Court,” West said.

The case depending on the final decision could impact tribes across the U.S. in reclaiming ancestral lands. West said it gives tribes another avenue to try to recover traditional lands which is important.

“I think the other piece of this litigation and its probably similar to other aboriginal title claims is the national parks often involve land that is very important and has utmost ceremonial purposes to tribes, it contains their most sacred areas,” West said.

The Pueblo of Jemez, West said is not a wealthy tribe and has limited resources.

“I truly appreciate the Jemez people and deciding to pursue this claim, there’s many prayers and thoughts that have gone into this case so to me its just a rallying cry for the tribes, a time to reclaim their sacred lands,” West said.

Walatowa Visitor Center
The Walatowa Visitor Center at the Pueblo of Jemez in northern New Mexico. Photo: Jay Peeples

While West hopes the Pueblo of Jemez is able to recover some of their traditional lands, she said the tribe is also seeking other means of working with the Dept. of Interior to try to come up with other solutions if titles aren’t ultimately transferred.

“If the Pueblo were to lose, I would hope there would be further respect and control given to tribes over their traditional uses of these sacred lands,” West said.

In actively working on the case throughout the years, West said it’s been an honor to work with the people of Jemez.

“I respect them, they have their issues too and in working together, overall I think I implicated their sincerity and their intent to honor and value their traditions and this land,” West said.

Christina’s Cheyenne name is Hoy’eh Yoy’eh Yūh’. She is the daughter of Jim and Elaine West, who currently reside in Tijeras, N.M., and her sister is Karin Weekes. Christina’s father Jim West is a member of the Cheyenne Kit Fox Society. She is the granddaughter of W. Richard West Sr., a well-known Cheyenne artist who taught art for many years at Bacone College in Muskogee, Okla., where her father grew up. She is the great-granddaughter of Rena Flying Coyote and the great-great granddaughter of Thunder Bull and Big Belly Woman. Christina’s uncle is W. Richard West Jr., who is a member of the Cheyenne Chiefs Society and was the founding director of the National Museum of American Indian.

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