Blue Lake and the Rio Pueblo de Taos have long been the life force for the people of Taos Pueblo. In addition to the obvious necessity the Pueblo community has for a consistent supply of water, Blue Lake has even more crucial religious significance to the group. The lake itself is located about twenty miles north of Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico, and is the site of annual pilgrimage and ceremony. However, until a 1971 Congressional decision finally returned the lake and surrounding lands to the Pueblo people once and for all, the sacrality of Blue Lake was threatened by increased forestry in the area, demands for water, and increased public traffic as roads were constructed by the U.S. Forest Service (Hecht 55). Situated in the thin air at 11,800 feet, Blue Lake is a stunning turquoise color and has been the site of Pueblo religious reverence since time immemorial. The annual August pilgrimage is undertaken by the Pueblo people on foot or horseback, and it takes roughly two days to cover the twenty miles of uphill, dense forest trail. The lake is known in Tiwa, the Pueblo language, as “Ma-wha-lo”. Quirino Romero, a former tribal leader, states: “Blue Lake for our life is living. Blue Lake is where the spirit of Indian God is still living today. We go over there to pray, and we go over there to worship. The stars and the moon and the sun and the sky and the clouds and the air and whatever nature has provided for us, we do believe in this,” (Keegan 14). Pueblo religion also considers the lake to be the source of all life, as well as the repository for all deceased souls (Keegan 13). The lake and all of its associated meanings are crucial to Pueblo religious life and the survival of the group as a whole.
When the Spanish colonizers began to arrive in the area now known as New Mexico in the sixteenth and seventeenth century, the Pueblo people had an existing reverence for Blue Lake that included yearly pilgrimages to the site and also recognized the waters and area surrounding the lake as sacred lands. In the arid region of the Southwest, it is no wonder the Pueblo people ascribe so much meaning and veneration to their only source of water. Pueblo myth tells of an ancient chief who led his people to Taos by following an eagle, and when two plumes of the bird’s feathers dropped on either side of the Rio Pueblo de Taos, the people knew to settle the area (Keegan 14). The lake and river have intrinsic meaning to the Pueblo people. Unfortunately, Blue Lake and the surrounding areas also hold a huge potential profit for the forestry industry, and the lake’s serene beauty attracts visitors of all types who are often careless or malicious towards the sacred prayer sticks left in the area and leave unwanted trash. In 1903, President Theodore Roosevelt presented a plan to put Blue Lake and the surrounding lands into a designated national forest. Initially, this seemed like a beneficial prospect for the Pueblo people because they believed the designation would prevent settlement and increased use. Nontheless, in 1904 they petitioned to set aside an area known as the Bowl and Blue Lake aside for exclusive use of the Pueblo. In 1906, without consulting the tribe, Roosevelt placed the entire area surrounding Blue Lake into the Taos Forest Reserve, placing the land under the control of the U.S. Forest Service and legalizing public use and logging in the area. This move initiated a seventy year battle to reclaim Blue Lake and the Bowl for exclusive Pueblo use (Hecht 55).
Similar to many native religious traditions, the Pueblo people do not understand religion and everyday life to be separate endeavors. Rather, religion and spirituality are embedded in every aspect of life, including nature. For the Pueblo people, Blue Lake is their religion: “Without energy provided by God, we are helpless. Religion is the most important thing in our life. That is the reason why this Blue Lake is so important to us,” states Severino Martinez, a former governor of the Pueblo (Hecht 54). In addition, the Pueblo people interpret the land as a living spirit that is in constant interaction with both animals and humans. For instance, during one point of the pilgrimage ceremonies, young initiates of the kiva community will throw their moccasins into Blue Lake. If the moccasin does not immediately sink, the heart of the initiate is interpreted as bad (Bodine 96). Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Blue Lake controversy is the way the Pueblo people appealed to the sacrality of the land. During the extensive seventy year battle over Blue Lake, the Pueblo people utilized the dominant vocabulary (in this case, Christian dialogue) to contextualize their struggle for the land. A quote from Juan de Jesus Romero, a former religious leader of the Pueblo, illustrates the extent of this language appropriation: “Our Blue Lake wilderness keeps our waters holy, and by the water we are baptized. If our land is not returned to us, if it is turned over to the government for its use, then that is the end of Indian life. Our people will scatter as the people of other nations have scattered. It is our religion that holds us together,” (Keegan 61). Perhaps the ease with which the Pueblo adopted Christian language results from the long-standing practice of compartmentalization. Compartmentalization, according to the anthropologist Edward Dozier (raised at Santa Clara Pueblo and thus an “insider/outside” figure) refers the co-existence of two “mutually distinct and separate socioceremonial systems” with differing patterns (Hecht 54). At Taos Pueblo, these two systems are indigenous religion and Spanish Catholicism and they have co-existed for over four centuries. It is only logical that the Pueblo would adopt dominant Christian language to appeal to a larger community for support of their cause at Blue Lake.
The use of dominant Christian terminology greatly contributed to the understanding of the land as sacred by non-native peoples. In fact, Taos Pueblo found an unexpected ally in the National Council of Churches, that released the following statement in support of the Pueblo’s claims to sacrality: “What the Indians of Taos Pueblo are asking is that equal consideration, no more, no less, be extended to the shrine where they have performed their religious obligations for at least as long as the famed cathedrals of Europe have been in use,” (Keegan 50). However, conflict still existed between the Pueblo people and the U.S. Forest Service, who failed to even understand the largely Christian dialogue surrounding the lake. The Pueblo believe in the sacrality of all that surround Blue Lake, not simply the water. Trees are considered to be saints, or spirits, by the Native people. In contrast, the U.S. Forest Service “believed that an uncut tree was profit potential going to waste,” (Keegan 51). The Taos Pueblo values the spiritual and sacred nature of the land and the United States government had interest only in the potential material gain of the land. This contrast illustrates the stark differences in Western and Native conceptions of the land.
Despite the numerous setbacks, lengthy process, and overall disagreement surrounding the Blue Lake area, Pueblo leaders vigorously pursued the return of their sacred lands. After Roosevelt’s legislation of 1906, the Pueblo people initially thought the land would be preserved in an acceptable fashion. After garbage and litter were found surrounding the lake, and many prayer sticks were found missing or destroyed, the Pueblo sought retribution through the Indian Claims Commission. In 1926, the Commission confirmed the legitimacy of Taos Pueblo’s request and offered about $300,000 in compensation. However, the Commission was only authorized to grant compensation and not to return land, and the Pueblo people did not want or accept compensation. The Pueblo offered to relinquish the claims they had to the majority of land around the city of Taos in exchange for Blue Lake, but Blue Lake remained in government control. In 1933, Congress granted a fifty-year, exclusive special use permit to the tribe, but the victory was short lived when public recreation was again legalized shortly afterward. The lake was stocked with non-native trout, and dynamite fishing was popular. Four new access trails were cut to the lake. In addition, camp areas were constructed as well as garbage pits at the lake’s shore. Such “improvements” to the Blue Lake recreational area were gravely offensive and destructive to the Pueblo people’s notion of the sacrality of the land. In 1961 the Taos elders began the Taos Pueblo Return of Blue Lake Commemorative Committee and embarked on a vigorous campaign for the full title to Blue Lake and the surrounding areas. By 1969, three bills had been introduced to Congress concerning the return of the land to the Pueblo for its exclusive use. There was vehement opposition from the U.S. Forest Service, but a message from President Nixon urging the “government’s responsiveness to the just grievances of all American Indians” helped to sway the legislation. On December 2, 1970 the Senate voted 70-12 to return Blue Lake and the surrounding areas to the Taos Pueblo and the bill was signed into law on December 15 of the same year (Keegan 50-53). A huge celebration ceremony was held at Taos Pueblo upon receiving the news that the precious Blue Lake was finally and officially theirs.
Although the contemporary situation facing sacred lands around the world may seem quite bleak, the story of the Taos Pueblo’s victory at Blue Lake, in theory, set a precedent for future cases. As a result of the legislation, other Indian nations have demanded redress for previously and unjustly seized lands. In addition, the use of the dominant Christian language to appeal to a greater community of support largely contributed to the Pueblo success. Although victory in court is not always guaranteed, the Taos Pueblo’s persistent struggle can be a model for future change in contested sacred lands around the world.
- Theresa Snyder
Bodine, John T. “The Taos Blue Lake Ceremony.” American Indian Quarterly Vol. 12, No. 2 Spring 1988: 91-105.
Hecht, Robert A. “Taos Pueblo and the Struggle for Blue Lake.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 13:1 1989: 53-77.
Keegan, Marcia. The Taos Pueblo and Its Sacred Blue Lake. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1991.