Checkerboard Reservation, New Mexico

Encyclopedia Article


The Checkerboard area of the Navajo Nation extends over the eastern part of the reservation, across McKinley, San Juan, and Cibola counties in New Mexico. Beginning with the Dawes Act of 1887, Native Americans, including the Navajo, were assigned plots of reservation land on which to practice subsistence farming. This was an attempt to assimilate Native Americans into Western European land use and domestication practices. Later, pieces of land were granted to the Santa Fe Railroad in the late 1800s, and other tracts were sold to individual non-Native owners. Checkerboarding expanded when Native reservations expanded into lands that were previously sold to or appropriated by non-Native parties.

The checkerboard mix of lands owned by tribes, trust lands, fee lands, and privately-owned tracts severely impedes on the Navajo nation's ability to farm, ranch, or utilize the land for other economic purposes. Problems of mixed jurisdiction (tribal, federal, state, or county) have also contributed to economic instability, as well as to racial tensions and community conflicts. For many years, changing legal jurisdictions meant that law enforcement was extremely difficult on the Checkerboard Reservation. In the early 1980s, however, the Navajo Nation entered a Joint Power Agreement with the State of New Mexico, giving each entity authority to enforce law within the other's jurisdiction. The agreement has enabled much more effective law enforcement procedures.

Photo Credit: 

"Navajo men laying railraod track, New Mexico, circa 1950," photograph, (183124). Palace of the Governors Photo Archive, New Mexico History Museum, Santa Fe, NM.