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“I Interact, Therefore, I am”: LaDonna Harris and the Return of Taos Blue Lake

By Ashley Sherry

Blue Lake, a sacred shrine for Taos Pueblo Indians, is located high in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico. In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt’s executive order made Blue Lake and the surrounding territory a part of the Carson National Forest under the control of the Forest Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (Rico 2004-2010). The Blue Lake Area, including many significant ceremonial sites, became the focus of a 64-year struggle by Taos Pueblo to regain their land. Finally, in 1970 Taos Pueblo was granted full legal title of the Blue Lake Area (Taos Pueblo 2011). The land was returned to the Pueblo because of sustained religious use and marks the first time that land, and not alternative compensation, was returned to a tribe in the United States. During Taos Pueblo’s struggle against the U.S. legal system tribal members, politicians, religious organizations, lawyers, White House staff, indigenous activists, and interested parties worked with and against Taos Pueblo. It was not the efforts of one individual, but the collective force of advocates from across the country that yielded the return of Taos Blue Lake.[1]  His paper details the experience of Comanche national LaDonna Harris in the return of the Taos Blue Lake Area. 

  "Come feast with us"[2]

On 14 August 1971, the Taos Blue Lake Victory Ceremony was delayed due to an air show that made it impossible for Senator Fred Harris and LaDonna Harris’ plane to land. Celebrations began at 6 a.m. with an "Indian parade with the U.S. flag" and continued throughout the day.[3] When the Harris’ finally arrived it became cloudy and started to rain heavily. Senator Harris, undismayed by the weather, commented, "I think it’s good that land subject to such drought has this rain."[4] After such a long struggle, rain was not going to diminish the joyous mood felt at the two-day celebration planned by Taos Pueblo. An attendee from Ranchos de Taos commented, "Who else could say, after winning a victory like this, to their friends and enemies alike, ‘Come feast with us?’"[5] This monumental victory has been commemorated in this fashion every twenty years since the signing of US House of Representatives Bill 471 on 15 December 1970. 

In the late 1960s, Taos Pueblo leaders sought the support of Senator Harris in the U.S. Congress. Senator Harris agreed to help stating, "I was…convinced of the [Blue Lake’s] central importance to their religion."[6] Senator Harris, a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma at the time, could not understand why leaders from Taos Pueblo contacted him for support. LaDonna Harris inferred that it was "[…] probably because [Fred was] married to an Indian" and Fred agreed insisting that she sit it on the meeting with Taos Pueblo leaders.[7]

The Taos Pueblo leaders looked striking when they arrived dressed in traditional Taos clothing to tell Senator Harris and LaDonna Harris their story. After the Taos leaders left Senator Harris’ office, he turned to his staff member, Fred Gipson, and said, "Let’s get them their land back if it’s the one thing we do."[8]

Senator Harris quickly became an energetic and effective advocate for Taos Pueblo. In a letter to U.S. Senator George McGovern, Senator Harris wrote, "When I met with a delegation from Pueblo de Taos this morning, I was very much impressed with [the] logic of their argument […] Because of the great religious significance which Blue Lake holds for the Taos Indians, this bill has an importance to them which cannot be overestimated."[9]

 Soon after the meeting with Taos Pueblo leaders, Senator Harris and LaDonna Harris hosted an event for the White House Fellows. In describing this event, LaDonna Harris forefronts her personal values emphasizing the importance of relationships. She writes, "[in] relationships we want to contribute that which is unique about ourselves, and we learn additional ways to behave, so that we can communicate our uniqueness and make our contribution" (Harris and Wasilewski 1992: 11-12). At the buffet reception, the fellows spoke informally to Senator Harris and asked LaDonna Harris to join them. That evening LaDonna Harris met Bobbie Greene Kilberg, a White House Fellow who went on to become a staff member of the Domestic Policy Council in the Nixon White House. They forged a lasting relationship that proved significant in the return of the Taos Blue Lake Area.[10]

LaDonna Harris described the meeting with leaders from Taos Pueblo to Kilberg, then a staff member of the Domestic Policy Council, who was motivated to arrange a meeting with Lynn Garnett, a lawyer in the White House. LaDonna Harris asked Garnett for help in making the return of the Taos Blue Lake Area a bi-partisan legislation that Senator Harris would introduce on the democratic side.[11] LaDonna Harris responded to Taos Pueblo’s request for support from Senator Harris and made the argument that the return of the Blue Lake Area was a justice and religious freedom issue.

While LaDonna Harris worked to facilitate relationships and organize advocates on behalf of Taos Pueblo, Senator Harris worked through more formal political channels as is evidenced in the historical record provided by documentary sources in New Mexico’s archival repositories.[12] The Taos Pueblo Council described Senator Harris’ involvement writing "taking unprecedented action in the Senate on behalf of Taos Pueblo, Sen. Fred R. Harris of Oklahoma early this month declared his support of H.R. 471."[13] Senator Harris argued that H.R. 471 was:

[The] Ideal bill to announce to our Indian citizens that a century of repression is enough, that henceforth the Congress will devote its efforts to uplifting Indian pride and competence, to confirming the strengths of their “Indian-ness,” and to encouraging Indians to find their place in American society as Indians.[14]

Senator Harris’ statement not only addressed the question of religious freedom, but also noted the existence and significance of Indigenous identity. It also highlights Congress’ long history of suppressing Indigenous cultures and religions. In this statement Senator Harris not only advocated for Taos Blue Lake, but he identified key issues with the treatment of Indigenous people by the U.S. government.

Senator Clinton P. Anderson from New Mexico strongly opposed the passage of H.R. 471, which would return 48,000 acres and legal title to Taos Pueblo, proposing instead S. 750 that he believed would ensure the protection of Taos Pueblo during their religious ceremonies and worship.[15] Anderson writes, "I want to make sure that the Indians are protected, but I do not believe that they need to have a deed to the land to have this guarantee."[16] LaDonna Harris recalls Anderson meeting Senator Harris on the floor of the Senate and saying, "Fred, I don’t mess with your Indians in Oklahoma and you don’t mess with my Indians in New Mexico" to which Senator Harris responded, "Senator, they aren’t our Indians."[17] Anderson’s perspective reflected the sentiments of many Taos residents concerned with their own water and land rights as well as others who feared H.R. 471 would set a legislative precedent for the return of indigenous land based on religious conviction.[18] In his publication "News from the Capitol" Anderson wrote that H.R. 471 would cause a "disturbing precedent"[19] set by "paying Indian claims with land."[20]

LaDonna Harris proposes that the combination of Senator Harris holding up bills from the Interior Department, making Taos Blue Lake a bipartisan effort, and framing the legislation as a human and civil rights issue contributed to the success of H.R. 471.[21] LaDonna Harris recalls the tension on the day of the vote on H.R. 471 saying, "Gosh I can’t tell you how we knew we had the votes on the floor but we didn’t know if we had the votes in the committee."[22] In a personal letter to Iola Hayden, then executive director of Americans for Indian Opportunity, [23] Kilberg wrote, "I’m sorry that I snapped at you on the day of the Blue Lake vote. We all had been thinking of nothing else but Blue Lake for a solid week and I was extremely tense."[24] LaDonna recalls that even Senator Harris felt pressure on the day of the vote and when Senator Anderson questioned him with "well, what about the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo?" Senator Harris, unfamiliar with the Treaty, just hollered out "what about it!"[25]

LaDonna Harris’ involvement in the return of the Blue Lake Area is a particularly salient example of her ability to maintain a wide-ranging and interrelated network of relationships, cultivated through her model of advocacy. LaDonna Harris’ model of advocacy is derived from her Comanche upbringing and experiences as an activist; the model is comprised of the 4R’s (relationships, responsibility, reciprocity, and redistribution).[26] Relationship is not the only value expressed in LaDonna Harris’ experience in the return of the Taos Blue Lake Area. The others, though less explicitly, appear because of her myriad relationships (e.g. with Senator Harris; Taos Pueblo leaders; Bobbie Greene Kilberg; and Lynn Garnett). By drawing on her model of advocacy LaDonna Harris sought to orient others to view the return of the Blue Lake Area as matter of justice and religious freedom. This illustrates the use of her personal values, indigenous identity, and position as a Senator’s wife to lobby on behalf of and with Taos Pueblo leaders in Washington, D.C. In framing the return of the Taos Blue Lake Area as a matter of justice and religious freedom, LaDonna Harris tapped into a widely shared sentiment or dominant discourse that challenged other discourses negatively framing H.R. 471 as a precedent-setting bill.                                                                                                                   

Notes:



[1]. The sustained efforts of Taos Pueblo were, without question, the most significant in the struggle for the return of the Blue Lake Area. However, Taos Pueblo’s ability to garner support for advocates throughout the country was integral to their success.

[2]. Articles, 1970-1972, Notes on Blue Lake celebration, John Nichols Papers, 1957-2008 (MSS 820 BC, box 14, folder 8-9), Center for Southwest Research, University Libraries, University of New Mexico (CSWR).

[3]. Taos Indian Blue Lake Controversy – Clippings, ephemera, printed material, 20th anniversary Blue Lake victory ceremony, 1961-1971, Frank Waters Papers, 1892-1992 (MSS 332 BC, Box 18, Folder 16), CSWR.

[4]. Articles, 1970-1972, Notes on Blue Lake celebration, John Nichols Papers, 1957-2008 (MSS 820 BC, box 14, folder 8-9), CSWR.

[5]. Articles, 1970-1972, Notes on Blue Lake celebration, John Nichols Papers, 1957-2008 (MSS 820 BC, box 14, folder 8-9), CSWR.

[6]. Fred Harris, Interview with the author in Corrales, New Mexico, April 2011.

[7]. LaDonna Harris Oral History – Ashley Sherry and Max Fitzpatrick, 2010, LaDonna Harris Papers and Americans for Indian Opportunity Records, 1953-2010 (MSS 862 BC, box 136, DVD 201-203), CSWR.

[8]. Fred Harris, Interview.

[9]. Promotional Material, 1969-1970, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10811, Folder 122), New Mexico Commission of Public Records State Records Center and Archives (SRCA).

[10]. LaDonna Harris Oral History – Ashley Sherry and Max Fitzpatrick, 2010, LaDonna Harris Papers and Americans for Indian Opportunity Records 1953-2010 (MSS 862 BC, box 136, DVD 201-203), CSWR.

[11]. Ibid.

[12]. LaDonna Harris’ work was largely behind the scenes forging relationships and advocating on behalf of Taos Pueblo. The archival collections utilized in this paper included numerous documents about Fred Harris’ involvement, but far less about LaDonna. My ethnographic work and the oral history interview I conducted with Harris were instrumental in detailing LaDonna’s contribution and involvement in the return of Taos Blue Lake. 

[13]. Taos Pueblo Council Report on Progress of Blue Lake, 1970, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10806, Folder, 37), SRCA.

[14]. Taos Miscellaneous, 1969-1972, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10806, Folder, 33), SRCA. 

[15]. Anderson, 1966-1970, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10808, Folder 67), SRCA.

[16]. Ibid.

[17]. LaDonna Harris Oral History.

[18]. The Paul J. Bernal Papers at SRCA include extensive correspondence from Taos, New Mexico residents and others who feared that H.R. 471 would set a precedent.

[19]. Anderson, 1966-1970, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10808, Folder 67), SRCA.

[20]. Rufus G. Poole Correspondence, 1966-1968, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10808, Folder 66), New Mexico Commission of Public Records State Records and Archives Center.

[21]. LaDonna Harris Oral History.

[22]. Ibid.

[23]. LaDonna Harris founded Americans for Indian Opportunity, a National Indian Advocacy organization, in 1970.

[24]. Signing Ceremony, 1970, Paul J. Bernal Collection (1983-049, Box 10811, Folder 123), SRCA.

[25]. LaDonna Harris Oral History.

[26]. The 4R’s are discussed in more detail in LaDonna Harris and Jacqueline Wasilewski’s 1992 article "This is what we want to share: Core Cultural Values" and their 2004 article "Indigeneity, an alternative worldview: four R’s (relationship, responsibility, reciprocity, redistributions) vs. two P’s."