American Indian Heritage Month: Commemoration vs. Exploitation
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Blue Lake, New Mexico

The Taos Pueblo people tell a story, through song, of how they arose from the underworld at Shiabapu and emerged from a lake. From there they migrated to their present place of residence after countless centuries of roaming and guidance by the Great Spirit. In their land, the Pueblo people learned to live in harmony with their environment and prosper. Today, they still live at the site where the Spanish first encountered them in the sixteenth century, although on a much reduced land base, and they still practice their religious traditions handed down from time immemorial.

On November 7, 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Carson National Forest in New Mexico from Pueblo lands and restricted the people of Taos in their use of their sacred Blue Lake. The proclamation stripped the Taos people of title and rights to the land. Many Americans traveled to the beautiful spot for camping and recreation and to boat and fish on the Blue Lake after the Forest Service built cabins and garbage pits there in 1928.

While the struggle for the return of title to Blue Lake was born, the effort continued for the right to conduct religious ceremonies at various shrines around Blue Lake. Indian religious ceremonies had been outlawed by the 1883 Religious Crimes Act. The 1934 Indian Reorganization Act finally abolished the government's control over religious ceremony, but the Taos people were having a difficult time convincing the federal government that their claim to exclusive use title to the Blue Lake was centered on religious issues.

On October 4, 1940, Congress passed a bill giving Taos Pueblo a fifty-year use permit for Blue Lake to continue their religious ceremonies there as well as for collecting food, water, and wood. However, the Forest Service continued to cut trails and issue permits for camping on the sacred land. Eventually the trash that accumulated at Blue Lake desecrated the sacred site.

Many people were involved in the struggle to return Blue Lake to the Pueblo. John Collier was an early and ardent supporter; Seferino Martinez, a Pueblo leader of the 1930s through 1960s, worked to battle against Forest Service timbering and the use of Pueblo lands; Paul J. Bernal, who became instrumental in negotiating between the government and his people; the author Oliver LaFarge, who joined the fight in 1955 and was later replaced by Corinne Locker as coordinator of the return effort; Querino Romero, governor of Taos Pueblo during the later years of the battle; Juan de Jesus Romero, chief cacique (religious leader) who fought relentlessly, traveling to Washington, D.C., to petition the government for his people.

Initially, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) offered $297,684.67, the 1906 valuation of the land, to Taos Pueblo for Blue Lake. By the mid-1960s, however, the ICC felt that the history and religious beliefs of Taos Pueblo supported their title to the land. Instead of payment, the ICC proposed a bill to return the lands.

Oklahoma Senator Fred Harris was instrumental in seeing the return of the lake through the Senate. Fred and his wife LaDonna (Comanche) convinced the Richard M. Nixon administration, including Spiro Agnew, of the centrality of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo's religion. The only opposition in the Senate came from Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico, who feared the loss of the watershed on Carson National Forest lands.

On December 15, 1970, H.R. Bill 471, which had been introduced by Senators Harris and Ted Kennedy, passed by a vote of seventy to twelve. It returned Blue Lake and 48,000 acres to the Taos Pueblo. President Nixon supported the bill as a vehicle for American Indian self-determination and religious freedom. As he signed Public Law 91–550, Nixon stated that the event was not to be viewed as a gift to Taos Pueblo, but as long overdue justice.

The battle for Blue Lake became a major turning point in the American Indian self-determination movement. Not only did the Taos Pueblo receive their land, but they also gained an education in how to deal with the federal government. In addition, they achieved a sense of unity and support from American Indians all across the country.

Vera Parham


Further Reading
Forbes, Jack D. 1981. Native Americans and Nixon: Presidential Politics and Minority Self-determination, 1969–1972. Los Angles, CA: UCLA American Indian Studies Center.; Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. 1991. The Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake. Santa Fe, NM: Red Crane Books.; Sando, Joe S. 1976. The Pueblo Indians. San Francisco: Indian Historian Press.
 

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