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Pueblo's efforts to buy back and restore their traditional lands are at the center of a new film

Elk at a water guzzler on lands Santa Ana Pueblo bought back and is now restoring for traditional uses.
Reconyx wildlife camera
Santa Ana Pueblo
Elk at a water guzzler on lands Santa Ana Pueblo bought back and is now restoring for traditional uses.

In 2016, the Pueblo of Santa Ana paid $30 million for 60,000 acres, buying back their ancestral lands. The lands had been privatized and then grazed for more than a century. Now, they’re using traditional knowledge and Western science to protect Tamaya Kwii Kii Nee Puu for traditional uses. KUNM with Laura Paskus, producer of “Our Land,” about her documentary “Our Land: Ancestral Connections.” It aired on New Mexico PBS and is also available online.

LAURA PASKUS: The Pueblo of Santa Ana actually has a history of getting their lands back. So these lands in particular were a part of the King Ranch.

KUNM: As in Bruce King, the former governor?

PASKUS: Yes, huge amounts of land. And they sold about 60,000 acres in 2016 to the Pueblo of Santa Ana. These lands were grazed very hard for about a century. It's a lot of hard work to restore those lands. You know, what I learned while working on this was how when we change our relationship with water, to make water more accessible for cattle, we really obviously affect wildlife and the landscape itself. So you see these big headcuts out there, you see these vast changes in the landscape just due to grazing.

KUNM: What is the headcut?

PASKUS: So that's when we change the way that water runs off the landscape. And so it erodes these big headcuts that turn into arroyos and canyons and really drops the water table as well. So it changes waters relationship with the surface of the land, and also the ground waters relationship too.

KUNM: What steps is the pueblo taking now to restore the land?

PASKSUS: The 60,000 acres is off limits. Only tribal members can go out there and only for traditional purposes, like hunting, gathering plants, ceremonies, things like that. And so they're doing a ton of work, restoring springs, restoring grasslands, restoring fire to that landscape, removing about 60 miles of interior fencing, and just kind of like opening up the landscape and also doing really neat things related to the elk and deer and pronghorn herds and then predators that come back because of that.

KUNM: They have the range manager in the film putting out water and I love the images from the wildlife cameras.

PASKUS: Yeah, they've put these guzzlers on the landscape which collect rainwater and make that water available to wildlife. So, the pueblo shared with us images and videos of these guzzlers of you know, bobcats, mountain lions, ravens, coyotes, pronghorn, elk…

KUNM:  Bear!

PASKUS: Right, the bear taking a bath in everybody's water. As was explained to us is when you put water on the landscape, the wildlife shows up quickly,

KUNM: What kinds of differences are they seeing with these efforts coming back?

PASKUS: Really one of the neatest things that we learned about was the work they're doing around mountain lions. So, in 2017, they started collaring mountain lions to see where they're moving on the landscape, because they are really good proxy species, to see where wildlife are moving and what kinds of corridors they need. So they're doing this restoration work, this work on studying different species, and they're looking at how to open these wildlife corridors back up that have been closed by [State Highway] 550. And especially I-25.

KUNM: What are some of the challenges facing tribes like this trying to get land back?

PASKUS: You know, as a total outsider, I find it astonishing that the pueblo had to buy back their own ancestral lands, and not many tribes, I would imagine, have the economic development to be able to do that. And then Congress has not acted to put this land into trust. And so it's still basically considered private land that the pueblo is still having to pay taxes on, for example,

KUNM: And how is Santa Ana Pueblo incorporating traditional land management practices?

PASKUS: You know, just sort of the ways in which you care for landscape, have those connections to the past and have a real vision for what a sustainable future looks like, for the Pueblo and for the wildlife? And for that land itself?

KUNM: Could we learn from that?

PASKUS: Oh, my gosh, Megan, we could learn so much. You know, I think about these efforts to protect landscapes and how extraordinary this one particular effort is, to say, “We're going to take these 60,000 acres and we're going to use them only for traditional uses. And we're going to combine Western science and traditional ecological knowledge and make this place all that it can be.” It's a really beautiful effort, and I feel extremely lucky to have been able to visit that landscape and learn from the people who helped us make the film.

Megan has been a journalist for 25 years and worked at business weeklies in San Antonio, New Orleans and Albuquerque. She first came to KUNM as a phone volunteer on the pledge drive in 2005. That led to volunteering on Women’s Focus, Weekend Edition and the Global Music Show. She was then hired as Morning Edition host in 2015, then the All Things Considered host in 2018. Megan was hired as News Director in 2021.
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