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Congress passes Pueblo land settlement bill

WASHINGTON - Congress recently passed legislation to settle a long-standing land claim by the Santo Domingo Pueblo.

Under consideration for more than 100 years, the land claim includes areas within the pueblo's aboriginal territory in north central New Mexico. Today its lands are located between Albuquerque and Santa Fe, N.M.

The pueblo will receive $23 million as well as 4,500 acres of disputed land administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It would also have the option to buy 7,000 acres of Forest Service land for $3.7 million.

In return, the tribe waives all remaining land claims. The bill specifies that $15 million of funds transferred to the tribe would be deposited in a "land claims settlement fund" for use by the pueblo in land acquisition and other purposes.

"This is a comprehensive settlement that will help end this decades-old land dispute," said Rep. Tom Udall, D-N.M., who introduced the bill in the House. "This has been a trying experience for everyone involved. I am pleased that the House acted on this measure so quickly."

Santo Domingo Pueblo has asserted its land claims in New Mexico since the late 1800s. Many of these claims have been the subject of lawsuits which remain unresolved.

One example is a claim to 25,000 acres of land based on the pueblo's 1748 purchase of a land grant from Spain. The pueblo has the original deed reflecting the purchase under Spanish law. However, after the United States assumed sovereignty over New Mexico, the pueblo's title to the land was never confirmed. Later, many of these lands were treated as public domain.

Today, title to these lands is claimed by federal agencies, the New Mexico Land Commission, other tribes and private parties.

Over the past three years, the federal government and the pueblo negotiated a settlement to resolve all existing land claims. The bill ratifies this agreement and the president is expected to sign the bill into law. Santo Domingo officials say the outcome of litigation to resolve the land and trespass claims remains unclear.

"I hope we have finally come to an end on this long, long, long discussion of the land deal," said Benny Atencio, the tribe's secretary and spokesman. He added that the pueblo will not build casinos on any of the land. "We're glad that some of our land will be returned back to us, even though we will have to pay for it."