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ISLETA PUEBLO, N.M. (AP) — A Native American pueblo at the edge of New Mexico's largest city added 140 square miles of its historic homelands to its jurisdiction Friday under a deal the U.S. Interior Department says represents the single largest transfer of land back to a tribe's control.
Under the agreement, the Pueblo of Isleta south of Albuquerque will place a 90,000-acre ranch into federal trust — a move that transfers governmental oversight of the land back to the tribe.
"We are going to use this as another inspirational example for other tribes across the country for the importance of homelands," said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, who joined the pueblo's governor in signing the land into trust.
"This is vastly different than the U.S. government-to-government relationship with tribes that took place for several hundreds of years, which was one of assimilation of Native people, killing of the culture, allocating lands to the individuals."
Restoring tribal homelands has been a key part of the Obama administration's Indian Country policy, which Jewell said represents a shift from historic federal policy that resulted in tribes losing millions of acres of land across the U.S. over several hundred years.
The Obama administration is aiming, before the end of the president's term next January, to place 500,000 acres into trust for tribes, officials said. With the Isleta Pueblo transfer on Friday, the administration had taken about 400,000 acres into trust.
The change essentiallly ensures the land can't be taken from the pueblo or sold because only a congressional vote can remove the land from the pueblo's ownership or jurisdictional control.
"This land will be forever Isleta's," said Larry Roberts, the Interior Department's acting assistant Secretary of Indian Affairs. "The whole point is for expanding a permanent homeland."
He said the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which he oversees, receives hundreds of applications each year from tribes to transfer land into trust.
Scores of community members filled a hall inside a small courthouse for the announcement. The Isleta village, near the Rio Grande River, is a historic community of adobe homes and buildings — some at least 300 years old.
"Having (the land) made part of our reservation is truly a dream come true," said Isleta Pueblo Gov. E. Paul Torres. "When we put land into trust that land will stay part of the reservation for future generations to come."
The pueblo purchased the 90,000-acre Comanche Ranch — a vast, remote acreage that it says is part of its original historic homeland — for $7.3 million in 1997 with the goal of placing it into federal trust status.
The pueblo plans to maintain the ranch as a tribal enterprise, with about 1,500 head of cattle, Torres said.
"To keep it in ranching and in its natural state will help support the cultural richness," Jewell said, "so that those next generations can feel and understand what it was like for their ancestors and maintain that going forward."
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