Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake is a symbol of cultural strength and determination
The Return of Blue Lake to the Red Willow People
From the Taos Pueblo Governor’s Office…
Taos Pueblo commemorated the 40th Anniversary of the return of its sacred Blue Lake and surrounding lands on Sept. 18, 2010. This remembrance and celebration observed one of the most significant occasions in the history of Taos Pueblo and American Indian People: the Pueblo’s successful 64–year struggle with the U.S. government to reclaim religious freedom and protection of sacred lands.
In 1970, President Richard M. Nixon stated, “This is a bill that represents justice, because in 1906 an injustice was done in which land involved in this bill, 48,000 acres, was taken from the Indians involved, the Taos Pueblo Indians. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs…I can’t think of anything more appropriate or any action that could make me more proud as President of the United States.”
That signing restored Taos Pueblo lands and led to the unhindered continuation of the Pueblo’s millenniums-old traditional culture. It also set a precedent for self-determination for all American Indian people, tribes and nations. “We hope all our neighbors in the Taos Valley will plan to be with us as we celebrate this momentous event for the people of Taos Pueblo,” said Taos Pueblo Governor James A. Lujan. Former Pueblo religious leader Cacique Romero stated before Congress, “A new day begins not only for the American Indian, but for all Americans in this country.” That new day led to Taos Pueblo safeguarding the interest and welfare of the Pueblo and its water supply, natural and domestic resources, and the locale of social and cultural events.
Taos Pueblo commemorates the history, struggle, and victory of Blue Lake on Friday, Sept. 17 with an opening mass at St. Gerome Church at Taos Pueblo and an evening reception. The highlight events will take place Saturday, Sept. 18.
From writer Frank Waters…“The Man Who Killed the Deer was the story of Martiniano, a young Taos Pueblo Indian who as a child had been sent away to a white man’s school instead of being taught at home the traditional religious beliefs of his people. Upon his return he finds himself an outcast, constantly breaking Pueblo customs, marrying a girl from another tribe. Then he kills a deer out of season in the Carson National Forest. For breaking this law, he is arrested and fined. He has also violated a stricture of Indian religion by not obtaining the deer’s ritual consent to its sacrifice. But as Martiniano was arrested on the mountain watershed surrounding the tribe’s Dawn (Blue) Lake, the presence of forest rangers stimulates the Pueblo to renew its efforts to regain control of its sacred wilderness.
“This of course threw into focus the continuing controversy over the ownership of the Blue Lake wilderness. For in 1906 President Theodore Roosevelt had established the Carson National Forest, taking for it 50,000 acres of the Pueblo’s wilderness without payment to them. In the years since, Spanish and Anglo settlers had been coming in, preempting land, and founding modern Taos, Ranchos de Taos, and a half dozen small villages.
“A Pueblo Lands Board, after a lengthy investigation, prepared a bill for Congress which offered to pay the Pueblo $297,684.67, the 1906 valuation of the land in Taos taken from it. The Pueblo, however, waived compensation in return for a clear title to the 50,000 acres of the Blue Lake wilderness.
“In the fall of 1940, after a long delay Congress passed a bill containing the Pueblo Lands Board offer, but in much amended form. It gave the Pueblo only 50–year use permit for 30,000 acres…
“I had entered the army and was then transferred into the Office of Interamerican Affairs in Washington, D.C. I finally returned to Taos, editing the Spanish-English weekly newspaper El Crepusculo. Here I leamed that the Forest Service had not been observing the terms of the Pueblo’s 50-year use permit for the Blue Lake area. It had cut trails into the area, made it available to campers and tourists who littered the ground with refuse and beer cans. Moreover, it had built a cabin for use of its rangers. Fishermen were coming in, further desecrating the area. It became quite clear to the tribal council that the Pueblo’s 1940 use permit was worthless. To preserve their wilderness area, they would have to gain full trust title to it…
“At that time, people knew little about Indian religion. It was commonly accepted in town that Indian religion was swathed in a veil of secrecy. Locals accepted that you just did not ask what it meant. They were satisfied to go out to the Pueblo and watch those wonderful Indian dances and enjoy the public rituals, the foot races and so on, without bothering too much about what it all meant. But even though they knew little of specific Indian beliefs, they had direct contact with Indian culture, and had some appreciation of the value of Indian religion. The general American public, however, knew almost nothing of Indian religion. The quest for Blue Lake really changed that, and brought Indian religion to the forefront of national consciousness. And it was crucial to the Indians’ success that they convinced the general public that religion lay behind their claim, that the entire watershed was in fact sacred.
“Martiniano took me up to Blue Lake several times. The trip was a steep climb of over 6,000 feet in 20 miles. The trail led up the dark forested canyon, through groves of aspen, over high ridges, up the steep frost-shattered granite slope of Wheeler’s Peak, more than 13,000 feet high. But just below its summit, you saw it deep in the forest below. The little blue lake of life, clear turquoise blue as the sky above, dark purplish blue as the depth of the enclosing forest. The ancient sacred lake, the place of Emergence.
“Years ago, as I remember, Taos Indian girls and women returning from the annual Blue Lake pilgrimage came back with garlands of blue ‘Flowers of the Night’ and garlands of bright yellow ‘Flowers of the Sun,’ but I haven’t seen them since.
“I was doing what I could to help the Pueblo’s cause. In the 1950’s, during the two years I was editor of the local Taos paper, several members of the Pueblo Council used to come to me to write letters for them about Blue Lake. I also made a trip to Washington with Tony Luhan to discuss with the Commissioner of Indian Affairs the Tribe’s quest for return of the Blue Lake watershed…
“In the late 1960s the U.S. Indian Claims Commission decided that the Pueblo had proven title to the full 50,000 acre watershed, and a bill confirming the Commission’s decision cleared the House of Representatives with a unanimous vote.
“Finally on December 15, 1970, the Senate passed the bill with an overriding vote of nearly 6 to 1 for President Richard M. Nixon to sign into law. It was the first land claims case settled in favor of an Indian tribe based on the freedom of religion.
“Gradually, public sentiment, both locally and nationally, had begun to favor the Indians’ position. By 1970, most of the people here in Taos, as well as across the nation, were supportive of the Tribe, and were happy with the Pueblo’s great victory….
“One of the key things that I wanted to explain in my novel is that nature, for the Indians, is their sanctuary and altar. The man who killed the deer had violated one of the strictures of Indian religion, of failing to get permission from the deer to accede to its sacrifice. This belief—that man ought not to kill things needlessly, for fun or profit or sport—is not just a Taos Pueblo belief; it is common throughout all of Indian America….
“I am convinced that this is something that we must learn from the Indians—their holistic way of thinking. We must must realize our relatedness to all other forms of life.
“One of the things that most helped the Indians in their quest for Blue Lake was the growing public understanding of the concept of ecology. As the tenets of ecology became more widely appreciated, beginning in the early 1960’s, so too did an understanding of the relationship between ecology and the basic principles of Indian religion. The public began to grasp a little rudimentary thinking about Indian religion because ecology is
the basis of Indian religion. And this growing appeciation for ecology led the public to begin thinking holistically, to begin understanding the unity of all of nature’s kingdoms—whether animal, plant, or mineral. And this growing appreciation of Indians as the first ecologists helped Taos Pueblo in its struggle to reclaim their sacred land.…”
Excerpted from Frank Waters’ Blue Lake Interview, recounting the struggle of the Taos Pueblo Indians to regain Blue Lake, originally published in The Taos Review. Reprinted with the permission of our friend, the late Barbara Waters, and The Frank Waters Foundation.