The Taos Pueblo and Their Struggle to Regain Blue Lake
The Taos Pueblo is one the of the northernmost tribes that still exists in New Mexico. The people are descendants from the great Ancestral Puebloans Indian culture. Prior to the European settlement in the area, the Taos Pueblo occupied 300,000 acres of land, at the center of which was Blue Lake, their most sacred shrine. The lake is a stunning cobalt blue and is tucked away at 11,000 feet in a glacial cirque of the Sangre de Cristo Range. The lake importance extends beyond its practical use as a source of water and nourishment. It is central to religious beliefs and practices of the Taos Pueblo people. It is regarded as the source of all life. One creation myth claims that they were created out of the waters of the Blue Lake (Dzelzitis). A former tribal leader, Quirino Romero comments on its importance. “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). To these people, religion is central to their very existence. For the Pueblo, religion and daily practice are synonymous. Furthermore, religious beliefs and practices act to solidify the group. The connection to Blue Lake works to tie the people to their cultural tradition and their identity as a congregation. Without the unifying power of the lake, these people could not exist as a specific group. It is for this reason that the seizure and manipulation of this land was life-threatening to the Taos Pueblo people.
The conflict began with the first occupation of the land by the Spanish and Mexicans in the 16th Century. The Taos Pueblo were granted land rights to the area and had the freedom to use it any way they desired. When the U.S. Government took over the land in 1848 the Pueblo were granted the same access and rights to the land as before. This promise was included in the treaty of Guadeloupe-Hidalgo. Due to the growing number of white settlers in the area, however, the land was exploited for its various resources. In 1906 the government disregarded the treaty and gave the land to the National Forest Service. Blue Lake and the surrounding area became Carson National Forest. The land around the sacred lake became popular camping sites for recreational users and all privacy of the Taos Pueblo people was lost (Dzelzitis). This problem was detrimental to the entire way of life of the Pueblo. They could no longer perform their rituals for they believe that the presence of outsiders destroys the power of all ceremonial acts. John Bodine, an anthropology student of Pueblo culture, talks about the struggle this created for the people. “Outsiders, including Forest Service personnel, constitute a great threat to the proper performance of these duties. Their very presence, even if they observe nothing is contaminating. It constitutes a serious invasion of religious privacy” (Gordon-McCutchan).
Taos elder Juan de Jesus Romero put this problem into blunt terms. “If our land is not returned to us, if it is turned over to the government for its use, then it 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” (Dzelzitis). The Taos Pueblo people, therefore, could not let this transgression stand. The people were engaged in a constant struggle with the American government until their land was eventually returned. In 1924 the government passed they Pueblo Lands Act which offered monetary compensation for the stolen land but did not return the title to the land. The Pueblo were not satisfied with this offer and continued to protest. Over the next fifty years there was much debate in the government surrounding the issue. In 1933 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee recommended the land title be restored to the Pueblo, but instead the Department of Agriculture issued a permit only for native use rights of the land. In 1951 the Indian Claims Commission made a public statement affirming that the land was taken unjustly by the U.S. Government, but the commission could only offer monetary compensation for the injustice (Dzelzitis).
The issue of Blue Lake received media attention and intrigued the nation. Newspapers across the country covered the issue. For example, in 1955 an article was issued in The New York Times advocating for the Taos Pueblo. A quote from Ben C. Lujan, the Governor of Pueblo, was included. He pleaded that the lake is “the most important of all our shrines because it is part of our life — our ‘Indian Church’” (Special). Another editorial article was posted in the Washington Post in 1968 providing further support to the Pueblo.
An old injustice inflicted on the Taos Indians of New Mexico should be set right before Congress adjourns…. But a Senate Subcommittee continues to ignore the bill, allegedly at the behest of Sen. Clinton P. Anderson. If the Senator has any legitimate objection to righting a wrong done more than 60 years ago, he ought to lay his cards on the table. It seems inexcusable to suppress a bill of this kind, involving the national integrity, in the face of the action by the Claims Commission and the House (Gordon-McCutchan).
A series of emotionally gripping television documentaries aired around the same time. The support of the National Council of Churches (NCC) helped to create more public awareness. The NCC based its protest on the First Amendment, claiming that the Pueblo people were prevented from practice their religion freely. The NCC acknowledged the importance of the matter and publicly testified that the whole watershed was a sanctuary to the Pueblo. Rev. Dean M. Kelley, the NCC’s director of Commission on Religious Liberties, stated that, “the members of the tribe feel an ancient identity, not only with Blue Lake — the headwaters of their life-sustaining stream –but with the entire watershed, its plants and animals. Anything which mutilates the valley hurts the tribe” (Gordon-McCutchan). All of these efforts greatly assisted the Taos Pueblo and eventually led to the return of their land.
In 1969-1970 a serious of dramatic trials transpired. Eventually in 1970 President Richard Nixon endorsed a bill signing the land back over to the Taos Pueblo. The people were granted exclusive use of 1,640 acres surrounding the lake. Fortunately for the American Indian community, Nixon had made helping the Indians a priority based on his admiration for a American Indian football coach he once had (Gordon-McCutchan).
Due to the persistence of the Pueblo and all who assisted in their campaign, the native people are now able to enjoy their sanctuary in privacy. The area is currently accessible only to the Taos Pueblo and outsiders are not allowed entrance. This secrecy and stick ban of any non-Pueblo members is certainly a reaction to the abusive treatment the Pueblo have received.
The significance of the victory of Blue Lake extends beyond the Taos Pueblo. The bill set a precedent that eventually helped other tribes such as the Yakima and the Zuni to reclaim their sacred sites. The bill further led to the passage of the Indian Self-Determination Act and aided in the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (Gordon-McCutchan). The century long perseverance of the Taos Pueblo is a model that can inspire indigenous traditions and oppressed groups across the world. As many groups continue to struggle in their attempt to regain their own sacred sites, hopefully the reacquisition of Blue Lake can be a source of inspiration and encouragement.
Dzelzitis, Roz. “Taos Blue Lake.” Sacred Lands Film Project. Earth Island Institute, 29 Sept. 2010. Web. 2 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sacredland.org/taos-blue-lake/>.
Gordon-McCutchan, R.C. “The Battle For Blue Lake: A Struggle For Indian Religious Rights.” Journal Of Church & State 33.4 (1991): 785. Academic Search Complete. Web. 2 Nov. 2011.
Keegan, Marcia. The Taos Pueblo and Its Sacred Blue Lake. Santa Fe, NM: Clear Light Publishers, 1991.
Special to The New York Times. “Indians Seek Return of Lands In New Mexico, Citing Treaty:Petition to Congress by Autonomous Taos Pueblo Stresses Blue Lake With Its Tradition as a Religious Shrine.” New York Times (1923-Current file) 3 Jul 1955, ProQuest Historical Newspapers The New York Times (1851 – 2007), ProQuest. Web. 3 Nov. 2011.