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In 2021 what does it mean to be recognized? This is the question at hand when we look at N.M. House Bill 39, presented by Representative Patricia Roybal Cabellero (D-Bernalillo). For the legislative hawks out there, this makes the third time this bill has been before the Roundhouse. It seems simple enough; the filing itself is little more than a quarter page and has no financial obligations actively mentioned. So why is this now the fourth go-round? Because this is a bill stuck in limbo, much like the people it seeks to represent.

The Piro/Manso/Tiwa Indian (PMT) tribe, Pueblo of San Juan de Guadalupe, consists of three tribal groups that are remnants of larger Pueblo communities that disbanded or were wiped out before 1680. Representative Roybal Caballero is a member of the PMT tribe. It is often noted in historical discussions that these people were already assimilated within other tribal and Mexican/Spanish communities or had moved far south from their ancestral lands in the Socorro area.

That being said, the formal history of these people as a continuous tribe is hard to pinpoint. Even the federal application as late as 2010, which is the most comprehensive of the three previous applications, describes a people struggling to find a home for the better part of the century. What is most interesting, and possibly what keeps the PMT from achieving federal recognition, is that for about 50 years, two separate factions have claimed this ancestral Native heritage, including its land. The PMT is not the only group seeking recognition, which causes significant issues for their claims.


According to historical documentation in the PMT application, in 1914 Los Indigenas de Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe also formed and was given a land grant of “Tortugas Pueblo.” This land was given by Colonel Van Patten, a former military official who was married to a reported “half-Mexican, half-Piro” woman. The few acres set aside on the outskirts of Las Cruces are what was to become their new homelands. But there was an issue, one that would lead to the two factions separating much later. Van Patten, an Anglo man, made himself the president of the Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe. As this new group set up bylaws and other articles of incorporation, they also allowed non-Native people to join as members, a decision that would eventually result in a major rift between the two groups. By the 1950s the two had split and legal issues had occurred, leaving the PMT tribal group without access to the Tortugas land. This is a point of contention between the two groups to this day.

Recognition is much more than land. And while we are on the subject, here is the huge kicker: New Mexico does not have a mechanism for state tribal recognition. The State of New Mexico recognizes all and only tribal entities that are recognized by the federal government. There is no mechanism set aside by the state that leads to a “state recognition.”

This differs from state to state. Federal laws are how the two newest tribal groups in N.M. found recognition. The Tigua of Ysleta Del Sur Pueblo followed this path in 1987 when the federal government reinstated their status, after initially removing their federal recognition during the ’60s. But Ysleta was a group of people much more intact than the PMT group of the same time. Most recently, Fort Sill Apache found recognition as part of the Oklahoma Indian Indian Welfare Act of 1936, which basically granted federal tribal status to all tribes within the Oklahoma territory. New Mexico did not accept this legal ruling until the Ft. Sill Apache sued and won in a N.M. Supreme Court in 2014 to achieve state recognition. This forced tribal consultation on behalf of N.M.

Everything legal aside, one must ask what the intent of a tribal group is. For some, recognition is tied to the land, resources and economics. For others, it is about providing people access to social services. And most importantly, protection of cultural values and ways of life. When asked directly about the economic motives behind HB 39, Rep. Patricia Roybal Cabellero—the granddaughter of Mr. Vicente Roybal, the original cacique or “governor” of the PMT tribe and filer for federal recognition in 1971—had this to say, “I don’t think that my grandfather had that intention when he first filed in the ’70s. To be honest there was no money at that time anyway! … He was a product of the boarding school era and felt very strongly that he needed to stand strong and work for his cultural recognition.”

Although that may be the case, some of the paperwork the tribe filed states an economic motive. The 2010 federal filing has a letter of support from a “Piro Native,” Eugene Trujillo, in which he lists the priorities after recognition as, “Our Vision: 1. Develop and operate annual Native American cultural events. 2. To provide information and an educational culture experience of Native Americans in the 1500s to present. 3. To promote exposure of Historical Trail through media and/or tours. 4. To increase economic development through Inter-Tribal culture traditions.”

That, along with the constant infighting and lack of cohesiveness, has created a rift in the community. As recent as 2016, arguments among tribal members have derailed positive working collaborations between the two groups. As a result, the Las Cruces City Council did not approve the PMT’s request for federal recognition support.

“If we continue to remain unrecognized, then we remain invisible. Then we legitimize the erasure of our history, even though it is clear that we have had a history and relationship with the current existing Pueblo People. … No other intent, other than what is rightfully ours, including just that place in history,” said Rep. Cabellero.

A very powerful statement. How many ancestral tribal communities no longer exist in New Mexico? This land was once home to hundreds of pueblos. Only 19 are left intact and still operate in a traditional context, through language, song, governance and tradition. When visiting ruins of places like Salinas or Gran Quivira the question arises, where did these people go? And what kept the current pueblos intact? How should those that didn’t survive be recognized? As Roybal Caballero stated, “When you are not recognized, you are invisible.” Can ancestral recognition come without the attached legal items? Can recognition come in the form of making history acknowledge those people through some designation? Time will tell, but it may be putting the horse before the cart in terms of state law. A tribe cannot be recognized until there is a process to do so. So for now, the Piro/Manso/Tiwa people will continue to fight and wait.