New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

From 1906, when parts of their traditional lands were incorporated into national forests, until a 1970 act of Congress, the Taos Pueblo endured denial of part of their heritage. The tribe reclaimed the area as sacred space.

Summary of Event

In northern New Mexico, there are several long-established pueblos (villages) where American Indians have lived in close communities for centuries. These pueblo peoples are descendants of indigenous peoples who lived in the American Southwest as long ago as 10,000 b.c.e. Situated just north of the town of Taos, New Mexico, is the northernmost of these pueblos. Native Americans;land rights Taos Pueblo Blue Lake [kw]New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo (Dec. 15, 1970)[New Mexicos Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo] [kw]Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo, New Mexico’s (Dec. 15, 1970) [kw]Taos Pueblo, New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the (Dec. 15, 1970) Native Americans;land rights Taos Pueblo Blue Lake [g]North America;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] [g]United States;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] [c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] [c]Expansion and land acquisition;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] [c]Government and politics;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] [c]Geography;Dec. 15, 1970: New Mexico’s Blue Lake Region Is Returned to the Taos Pueblo[11070] Roosevelt, Theodore Martinez, Seferino Nixon, Richard M. [p]Nixon, Richard M.;and Native Americans[Native Americans]

Taos Pueblo is believed to have been established in the fourteenth century. According to legend, it was founded by a great chief who, following an eagle, led his people to the foot of a huge mountain, where the eagle then dropped one of its feathers. There, on what is now known as the Rio Pueblo de Taos, at the foot of Pueblo Peak in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of northern New Mexico, the Taos built their village. There they farmed, grazed their animals, fished, and hunted and trapped the wild game abundant in the thousands of adjacent forested mountain acres, which were accessible to them and to few others. The Taos felt connected to the land, its mountain streams and lakes, its forest and all its vegetation and wildlife, to the sky, the wind, and all the other elements of nature. There is no word for “religion” in the native language spoken by the Taos. Perhaps this is because religion and religious ritual are not, to them, separate and apart from everyday thought and activity.

The Taos Pueblo is best known for its lovely, hand-built adobe dwellings, designed in stacked stories with each new story offset from the story just beneath it, creating what appears to be a staggered, random scheme but which is so aesthetically pleasing as to have been admired by visitors, including accomplished architects, from all over the world. Equally deserving of admiration, yet certainly less recognized, was the long, patient struggle of the Taos to regain trust title to land containing what their supporters have termed “shrines”—elements of nature critical to the practice of their private rituals. These lands had been removed, without tribal consultation, from the Taos reservation and made part of the U.S. national forest system in the early twentieth century. The Taos had traditionally used an area that covered some 300,000 acres.

Spaniards who began colonizing the Southwest in the late sixteenth century recognized the rights of the indigenous peoples, granting each pueblo certain lands that were to be reserved for the exclusive use of the community. Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo Guadalupe Hidalgo, Treaty of (1848) (1848), the United States took over the entire territory but continued to recognize the Spanish land grants. The Taos grant covered approximately 17,400 acres. The area that includes and surrounds Blue Lake was a part of this grant, an area that is to the Taos the most important of what they have long considered to be their private ceremonial sites.

The Taos Pueblo in 1936, shown with the Rio Pueblo de Taos in the foreground.

(Library of Congress)

For the Taos, important stages of life—birth, transition to maturity, and even death—are symbolically associated with the waters of Blue Lake. As a practical matter, Blue Lake has also had great economic significance, as it is the primary source of water for this pueblo of farmers, who grow corn, various fruits, and beans, and raise cattle and sheep. For a long time, few nonindigenous people would venture into the area of Blue Lake. Because of its elevation at almost 12,000 feet and because it was accessible only on foot or horseback, requiring for most travelers a journey of two days from the Taos Pueblo, few were motivated to visit the lake. Toward the end of the nineteenth century, however, settlers began taking up residence on lands that were legally reserved for the pueblo peoples all along the upper Rio Grande.

Fearing that their sacred places of prayer and ritual, as well as their water supply, would inevitably suffer intrusion, the Taos were somewhat relieved to learn in 1903, after having registered complaints with the U.S. government, that much of their land was soon to be included in protected national forests. This, they believed, would prevent any permanent settlement by persons who were not members of their small (then, four to five hundred members) pueblo. The Taos requested of the government that the lands and lakes (including Blue Lake) to the north of their pueblo be set aside for their sole use. The tribal request was not honored. President Theodore Roosevelt, on November 7, 1906, signed an executive order that placed these lands and lakes in the Taos Forest Reserve Taos Forest Reserve , thereby bringing them under full and complete ownership and control of the federal government.

An ardent conservationist, Roosevelt wished to secure the country’s natural resources. Among his highest priorities was the conservation of forests, and he did not believe that the solution to this problem could be left entirely in private hands. He was quoted as having expressed the belief that American Indians should no more have exclusive ownership of the vast territories that they had long considered their own than should any other individual or group be given ownership of land simply because they took up residence on it, or because they may have wandered it or hunted it for long periods of time.

Roosevelt was rightfully concerned for the nation’s forests, which, by the year 1890, had been reduced by 75 percent. Settlers had treated the wild forests as if they were inexhaustible. For them, clearing the land was considered an important part of “civilizing” the West. Homesteaders, who were required to stay on their acreage for at least five years, meanwhile making the land productive, were perhaps equally unaware that timber might ever be in short supply. It was Roosevelt’s intent to employ in the United States the sustained-yield methods that had protected the forests of Germany and France from destruction while allowing them to produce as much timber as had been harvested for centuries.

It was of some concern to the Progressives, who advocated the use of federally controlled scientific methods, that the Taos might eventually sell or lease their land to loggers who could strip it of its timber and then move on. It was feared by others that, were they to control Blue Lake and its watershed, the Taos might one day cut off the supply of water to those who were downstream. It was also argued that the tribe no longer needed the vast areas that they had once considered theirs, for the Taos had diminished from some twenty thousand in number when the Spaniards first arrived to fewer than five hundred. It was to become the task of the Taos to counter all such arguments.

In 1908, another executive order made the Taos Forest Reserve part of the Carson National Forest Carson National Forest National forests, U.S. , administered by the recently established U.S. Forest Service Forest Service, U.S. . With these events, use of the traditional mountain lands and waters of the Taos became legally available to any and all who could make their way into these remote wilderness areas. Without assurance from the government of protection of their ritual sites and of their fishing, grazing, and hunting practices, the Taos began their attempt to regain trust title of Blue Lake and its watershed.

The early approach of the Taos was to emphasize the economic necessity of their use and control of the water and land. It was much later that the significance to their religion of these areas was made a part of their formal argument to Congress. In 1912, the U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs, pressured by the American Indians and their supporters, recommended to the secretary of agriculture that 44,640 acres be set aside as reservation lands for the pueblos. This recommendation was rejected. The Pueblo Lands Act Pueblo Lands Act (1924) of 1924, passage of which was advocated by various national Indian organizations, established the Pueblo Lands Board Pueblo Lands Board , which was to report to Congress on matters relating to claims to reservation lands by American Indians and non-Indians and which could recommend compensation to tribes whose lands had been lost through the government’s failure in its responsibilities.

The Taos had for years claimed some of the land on which the town (as opposed to the pueblo) of Taos had been built, for which the Pueblo Lands Board offered them compensation of $300,000. The Taos countered with a pledge to drop their claim and to decline the money offered in exchange for the return of Blue Lake and its watershed. The board had no authority to award land in lieu of money, and so the Taos received neither the land nor the money.

In recognition of the tribe’s annual August pilgrimage to Blue Lake, the Forest Service, for the first time acknowledging the area’s religious connection for the Taos, in 1927 granted the pueblo exclusive use of the sacred lands for their three ceremonial days. Also, the tribe was permitted nonexclusive year-round use of 31,000 acres. (Congress ratified the Forest Service permit in 1933, and the Department of the Interior confirmed and amended it in 1940.) The Indian Claims Commission Indian Claims Commission, U.S. was established in 1946. It was with this group that the Taos, led by tribal governor Seferino Martinez, took the first step, in 1951, of a legal battle that would last for nineteen years. Filing a claim for the return to their pueblo of some 300,000 acres, they argued on the basis of their religion that it was not money but Blue Lake that they required. In 1965, their claim was approved, though the acreage was reduced by amounts of land recognized as Spanish grants. Meanwhile, however, the Forest Service had made the area included in the claim open to recreational and economic development.

The Taos came to recognize that to have exclusive control, they needed to have the Blue Lake area made a part of their reservation by an act of Congress. Numerous bills to grant title of the watershed to the Taos were defeated between 1965 and 1970. Finally, in 1970, a bill designed to place 48,000 acres in trust for the exclusive use of the pueblo was passed in the House of Representatives and was sent to the Senate, where it was debated in committee hearings in July of that year. Commercial and conservation lobbies worked to defeat it, but the Taos and their many supporters worked equally hard for passage of the bill. President Richard M. Nixon urged Senate passage, as did the secretary of the interior and other influential Taos friends. Full Senate debate took place on December 1 and 2, and passage occurred on December 2 by a vote of seventy to twelve. On December 15, 1970, Nixon signed the bill into law.

Significance

For the first time, land was returned to American Indians as the result of a claim argued on the basis that the land was necessary to the practice of their ancestral religion. The Taos had hesitated for years to approach the matter on the basis of religion, because earlier they had been urged strongly by Christian groups to abolish their “pagan” practices and had been intimidated by government authorities, who threatened to prohibit what some considered to be improper and immoral ceremonies. The tribe therefore had not dared to make an issue of the spiritual significance to them of the Blue Lake area. After the Taos had for years argued, to no avail, that it was economic need that motivated them, the fact that it was finally on the basis of their religious and spiritual needs that they obtained exclusive rights to the area was a significant and historic moment in relations between Native Americans and the U.S. government.

Basing their claims, at least in part, on the Blue Lake decision, other indigenous tribes had millions of acres returned to them after the signing of the Blue Lake law. Nixon (referred to by the Taos religious leader as the tribe’s greatest father) had promised to initiate other legislation that would make possible greater independence of action and decision making for indigenous peoples. The self-determination initiative finally did become law in November of 1975, and it perhaps did more to empower American Indians than any other federal legislation.

At the Taos Pueblo, old and young alike were ecstatic with the news of the return of their sacred lands. Celebrations were held to give thanks. There were parades, chants, feasts, songs, and speeches. The long and painful process of battling the U.S. government for the right to practice their religious rituals at the traditional sites would not be forgotten, but the pain was somewhat diminished by the joy of knowing that that which had for centuries held them together would henceforth not suffer amendment or intrusion by the uninvited. Native Americans;land rights Taos Pueblo Blue Lake

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Banner, Stuart. How the Indians Lost Their Land: Law and Power on the Frontier. Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2005. Presents a history of the appropriation of indigenous lands by colonial officials and the U.S. federal government and discusses how these lands came to be seen as nothing but “occupied” by American Indians.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bodine, John. “The Taos Blue Lake Ceremony.” American Indian Quarterly 12 (Spring, 1988): 91-105. Includes the field notes of anthropologist Matilda Coxe Stevenson, who in 1906 witnessed the Taos Blue Lake ceremony in its entirety. Bodine introduces Stevenson’s narrative and follows it with verifications and changes that he obtained from interviews with Taos members. Bodine is certain that John Collier (On the Gleaming Way) did not witness the Blue Lake ceremony.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Collier, John. “The Taos Indians’ Sacred Wilderness.” In On the Gleaming Way: Navajos, Eastern Pueblos, Zunis, Hopis, Apaches, and Their Land, and Their Meanings to the World. 1949. New ed. Denver, Colo.: Sage Books, 1962. The author, U.S. commissioner of Indian affairs from 1933 to 1945, was in 1926 invited by the Taos to accompany them on their annual August trek to Blue Lake and to observe their ceremonies. Thus, Collier is possibly one of the few outsiders ever to have witnessed, by invitation, any such sacred rites. Collier’s resulting memorandum to Congress is included in the cited chapter.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gordon-McCutchan, R. C. The Taos Indians and the Battle for Blue Lake. Santa Fe, N.Mex.: Red Crane Books, 1995. The author, while a resident of the town of Taos, became a friend of the Taos Pueblo, having been for several years its tribal planner and having assisted in its interaction with the community at large. This book, with a foreword by Frank Waters, a noted novelist and student of the area and its native peoples, has value both to scholars and to others.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hecht, Robert A. “Taos Pueblo and the Struggle for Blue Lake.” American Indian Culture and Research Journal 13, no. 1 (1989): 53-77. Details of the efforts of the Taos and their supporters (Oliver La Farge, Corrine Locker, John Collier, Frank Waters, and others) to regain Blue Lake for the pueblo.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Josephy, Alvin M., Jr., Joane Nagel, and Troy Johnson, eds. Red Power: The American Indians’ Fight for Freedom. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999. Chapters in this collection address relations between the federal government and indigenous peoples of North America. Includes a chapter on the Blue Lake controversy.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Keegan, Marcia. The Taos Indians and Their Sacred Blue Lake. New York: Julian Messner, 1972. A large-print book containing many photographs by the author. Of special interest and somewhat rare, perhaps, are quotations from various members of the Taos—elders, officials, and children—about their feelings for nature, their religion, and their reactions to the news of the return of Blue Lake and its watershed. With a foreword by Frank Waters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Morrill, Claire. “The Indian Is the Deer.” In A Taos Mosaic: Portrait of a New Mexico Village. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1973. This chapter, in a book full of interesting vignettes about tricultural (Spanish, American Indian, and Anglo-American) Taos (the name for both the New Mexico town and the Native American pueblo), is devoted to little-known information about the pueblo, its people, its gods, and its struggle for control of its traditional lands and waters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Stubben, Jerry D. Native Americans and Political Participation: A Reference Handbook. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2006. Chapters in this handbook cover issues of American Indian self-determination through political participation. Chapters include “Native American Political Activism,” “Participation in Social Movements and Interest Groups,” and “Native American Participation in Electoral Politics.”

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