The Final Battle: How the Taos Pueblo Indians Won Back Their Blue Lake Shrine
by Diana Rico
The 1960s were a time of intense political activism among U.S. minorities. Black Power, La Raza, the American Indian Movement, women’s rights, gay rights, farm workers’ rights, the Free Speech movement — all were exploding against a backdrop of anti-Vietnam War protests, the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy, the violence of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and a growing countercultural youth movement.
Against this volatile backdrop, the final stages of a battle for land rights was being fought in northern New Mexico. The Taos Pueblo Indians had pressed for decades to regain control of the Blue Lake watershed, a 48,000-acre area high up on Wheeler Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Cosmologically, Blue Lake was believed to be their place of origin, the spot where their ancestors rose up from the earth.
The Taos Pueblo Indians had considered Blue Lake a sacred shrine since time immemorial. It was taken over by Executive Order of President Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and eventually made part of the Carson National Forest, under control of the U.S. Forest Service.
The Indians had been trying to get Blue Lake back ever since.
According to a June 1955 press release from the Taos Pueblo Council, "When Spanish sovereignty was extended over our land our right to retain ownership of it was recognized by the Spanish kings, who decreed: 'We ordain that the sale, improvement and arrangements of lands shall be made with regard to the Indians, that there may be left to them all the lands which may belong to them (Recopilacion de Indias, Law 8, Title 12, Book 4).' “The Indians' rights to these lands continued to be recognized after Nuevo Mexico became part of the Mexican Republic. And when New Mexico was ceded to the United States in 1848, the U.S. government signed the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, promising to respect the grants of lands originating under the previous Spanish rule.
The Blue Lake area extends east from Taos Pueblo into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. According to the Indians, it "includes the watershed of the Rio Pueblo de Taos, the river that flows through our village and from which we irrigate much of our farming land. That is where we grazed our livestock, where we got our fire wood and the beams used in the construction of our famous 'apartment houses.' That is where we picked the berries [and] medicinal herbs, where we hunted for small game and where we fished."
Severino Martinez, governor of the Taos Pueblo in the mid-1950s, eloquently expressed the significance of Blue Lake to his people: "Blue Lake is the most important of all our shrines because it is part of our life, it is our Indian church, we go there for good reason, like any other people would go to their denomination and like a shrine in Italy where the capital of the Roman Catholics worship is different: people go visit and give their humble words to God in any language that they speak. It is the same principle at the Blue Lake, we go over there and talk to our Great Spirit in our own language and talk to Nature and what is going to grow, and ask God Almighty, like anyone else would do."
In 1965, the Indian Claims Commission affirmed, in a legally binding decision, the Pueblo Indians' claim to the land, for which they had never been compensated by the U.S. government. Subsequently, several bills were introduced in Congress to return the Blue Lake watershed to the Taos Pueblo Indians. Between 1966 and 1970, the Blue Lake claim was the subject of four congressional hearings.
At Senate hearings in 1966, reported the Espanola-based Raza newspaper El Grito del Norte, "the Forest Service itself made it clear…that it wanted to continue its control of the Taos Pueblo lands in order to harvest timber and develop recreational facilities (hunting, fishing, camping). Also, it is common practice for the Forest Service to give good land to lumbermen in exchange for the land which has been stripped and then the foresters rehabilitate the bad land at the taxpayers' expense."
The bills introduced prior to 1970 died in Congress. But important ground had been gained in the form of political and media support. Moreover, as the sea changes of minority activism swept across the United States, popular consciousness about and sympathy for Native American problems increased. The national statistics on Indian life were shameful: according to El Grito del Norte, "850,000 Indian people suffer a 42-year life expectancy, seven times the national suicide rate, three times the national average infant mortality rate, and an average income per year per family of $1500 or less. Housing is completely inadequate, and the prisons are crammed with Indian people. The Native Sovereign People have become the most poverty stricken, mistreated, suppressed people in the richest nation in the world, in their own land."
In 1970, two bills were introduced in Congress. One, sponsored by Senator Clinton P. Anderson (Dem.-N.M), was considered a "compromise bill" that would grant the Indians use of 48,000 acres of the land under question, but would not give them the trust title they sought. Senator Anderson correctly surmised, "In a sense, the Blue Lake Claim has become a symbol of the American Indians' plight." However, the Taos Pueblo Council branded Senator Anderson's compromise bill "torture for our people, from the oldest man to the youngest child" and declared that the bill, if passed, would "destroy the meaning of our lives."
Instead, the Taos Pueblo Indians threw their energy behind a House bill that fully honored their Blue Lake claim. Crucially, in early 1970 they won support from six key U.S. senators, including Senator George McGovern (Dem.-S.D.), then chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs. These six senators pushed for passage of the bill the Indians favored.
After decades of patient, persistent fighting for the return of their land, the Pueblo Indians had grown politically sophisticated, as well as savvy about using the mass media to their advantage. Their quest for support did not stop with Senator McGovern and his colleagues. They mounted a multipronged crusade to press their cause. A national letter-writing campaign was launched to build pressure on Congress. A national Blue Lake support committee was formed that included the Most Rev. James Peter Davis, archbishop of Santa Fe; the renowned political cartoonist Bill Mauldin; photographer and conservationist Eliot Porter; and former U.S. Commissioner for Indian Affairs John Collier, among others. Such distinguished groups as the National Council of Churches endorsed the Pueblo claim. Publicity stunts were effective in getting national press attention, as when Vice President Spiro Agnew's 14-year-old daughter, Kim Agnew, was dispatched to ride horseback with a group of Pueblo Indians into the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and the press turned out in full force. (The Nixon Administration by then was in support of the Blue Lake claim.) The Taos Pueblo Council even sent "an aging spiritual leader of the Taos Pueblo Indians [Juan de Jesus Romero], the sight in his 90-year-old eyes dimming,…to take his tribe's plea for a religious sanctuary to the White Man's capital."
As a result, hundreds of feature articles and editorials about the Blue Lake claim appeared in national and local publications ranging from the New York Times and the Washington Post to A Journal of Church and State. The religious freedom issue in particular was a hot-button one and helped the Indians gain public support. It also, however, angered those who felt the Indians had never held legal title to the land "thus it could not be 'returned' to them" and that since the time of the Spanish conquest, Blue Lake had been public domain. Moreover, the Blue Lake watershed had valuable timber and grazing lands. But the most fervent argument against giving Blue Lake title to the Indians was that it would establish what some believed would be a dangerous "precedent that could lead to the loss of tens of thousands of acres of public lands," wrote Jon W. Little in the New Mexican sportsmen's publication Outdoor Reporter, the official organ of the New Mexico Wildlife and Conservation Association. "The bill would establish an entirely new basis for granting lands to Indian tribes. Presently, the only lands granted by the U.S. Government to Indians [have] been on the basis of treaties, aboriginal claims, and recognition of Spanish land grants. If the Blue Lake bill passes, Indian religion will become a basis for granting Indian tribes title to public land. Tribes all over the country are watching this bill with keen interest…. Practically all Indian tribes in the state have places of religious significance outside of their reservations…. How a 10-acre lake, a religious shrine, became expanded to a 48,000-acre church has not been explained."
On December 2, 1970, one of the final skirmishes of the 64-year battle was won when the U.S. Senate defeated, by 56 to 21, the compromise bill that would have given the Indians "exclusive use" but not title to the land. Instead, the Senate voted, 70 to 12, to give title of the 48,000-acre Blue Lake watershed to the Taos Pueblo Indians. The wide voting margins showed how popular the cause had become. President Richard Nixon subsequently signed the bill into law, "with a group of Indian chiefs in full tribal dress as witnesses." Indeed, President Nixon made the Blue Lake issue a cornerstone in a new federal policy towards American Indians, one that granted more power over self-governance to Native American tribes and encouraged Native American self-education, among other significant pro-Indian policy shifts.
On August 14 and 15, 1971, Taos Pueblo celebrated its hard-won victory by welcoming nearly a thousand people onto their ancient grounds to watch dances, feast on buffalo meat, and hear commemorative speeches. Gesturing to the river that meanders through Taos Pueblo, one Indian told a visiting New York Times reporter, "The water in this river comes from Blue Lake. Our ancestors came out of Blue Lake, long ago. Blue Lake nourishes everything. It is the source of our wisdom, of our life…do you understand?"
All of the sources cited were found in following collections of the New Mexico State Records Center and Archives:
Paul Bernal Collection, 1903-1976, Collection #1983-049.
Governor Bruce King Papers, First Term, 1971-1974, Collection #1972-009.
"Indians Demand Control of Own Lives," El Grito del Norte, Vol. V, No. 10, December 1972.
Griffith, Winthrop, "The Taos Indians," New York Times Magazine, February 21, 1971.
Graves, Howard, "Taos Leader, 90, to Take Lake Plea to Capital," Albuquerque Journal, June 14, 1970.
"Indians Regain Sacred Lake," United Press International, n.d.
Kelley, Dean M., "The Impairment of the Religious Freedom of the Taos Pueblo Indians by the United States Government," A Journal of Church and State, Vol. IX, No. 2, Spring 1967.
Little, Jon W., "Blue Lake Bill Could Set Dangerous Precedent," Outdoor Reporter, n.d.
National Blue Lake Committee, Press release, Santa Fe, NM, February 14, 1969.
National Council of Churches, Department of Information, Press release, New York, NY, May 12, 1966.
"Senate to Weigh Compromise Bill on Blue Lake," New York Times, November 26, 1970.
"Taos Indians Challenge Senator in Blue Lake Struggle," Santa Fe New Mexican, June 7, 1970.
"Taos Pueblo Celebrates," El Grito del Norte, Vol. IV, Nos. 7-8, August 20, 1971.
Taos Pueblo Council, "The Indians of the Blue Lake," April 13, 1955; reprinted by Association of American Indian Affairs, New York, NY, June 1955.
"Taos Pueblo Gates Will Close If Blue Lake Lands Held," El Grito del Norte, October 5, 1968.
Weaver, Warren, Jr., "Senate Votes to Give Land to Taos Indians," New York Times, December 3, 1970.
Taos Pueblo regained its Sacred Blue Lake by using modern political and publicity techniques to great effect. It is an inspiring story.
taos blue lake, sacred lake, pueblo victory, political social justice, separation of Church and State, Theodore Roosevelt, Richard Nixon