April 7, 2020 Taos, New Mexico

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Honoring the 50th Anniversary of the Return of Blue Lake

“The lake is as blue as turquoise. It is surrounded by evergreens. In the summer there are millions of wildflowers. Springs are all around. We have no buildings there, no steeples. There is nothing the human hand has made. The lake is our church. The mountain is our tabernacle. The evergreen trees are our living saints. They are with us perpetually. We pray to the water, the sun, the clouds, the sky, the deer. Without them we could not exist. They give us food, drink, physical power, knowledge . . . Without energy provided by God, we are helpless. We will never accept money for our place of worship.” – Pueblo Governor John C. Reyna, 1966 Senate Hearings


Blue Lake is a cobalt blue mountain tarn located at 11,000 feet in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains above Pueblo de Taos. Blue Lake is the source of life for the Taos Pueblo, both as drinking water and crop irrigation and as the spiritual home for their people. The use of shrines in the Blue Lake watershed area for specific ceremonials that must be performed at certain sites at precise times has been carried on since before recorded time with neither the ritual nor the site changing. Blue Lake is the holiest of these native shrines and the focal point of tribal worship.

Ancient Puebloans first migrated into the Taos area in 900 AD and began to occupy their present homeland with establishment of the central village as their permanent residence beginning in 1300 AD. This central village of Pueblo de Taos is the longest inhabited place in America, currently inhabited today. In 1540, the Spanish explorer Francisco de Coronado led the first expedition up the Rio Grande Valley, resulting in the naming of the Sangre de Cristo “blood of Christ” mountains, and in 1598, Spanish rule was established. While Spanish law recognized Indian possessory rights to the territory used and occupied, the encroachment began upon the 300,000 acres occupied by Taos Puebloans that, at the time stretched across Taos, Colfax, and Mora counties. The Tribe’s acreage began to be reduced through large grants made by the Spanish Crown and the appropriation of small acreages by squatters.

In 1821, the Mexican Revolution resulted in Mexican sovereignty over New Mexico. The Mexican government confirmed Indian possessory rights to occupied territory under treaty of Cordova and Mexican Declaration of Independence. However, the loss of land continued to accelerate under Mexican control with rampant bribes of corrupt administrators to produce fraudulent titles. In addition, disease and political oppression reduced the Tribe’s population from an estimated 20,000 at Spanish arrival to 400 or 500 people in 1900. In 1848, sovereignty passed to the United States under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo which guaranteed protection of property rights recognized by Spanish and Mexican law.


In subsequent years, America began to consider the damage done to the great American frontier after ¾ forests had been destroyed, soil erosion was rampant throughout the country, and mineral wealth had been wasted from shore to shore. In 1872, Yellowstone National Park and Yosemite National Park were created and after his election in 1901, Theodore Roosevelt, America’s most conservation-conscious president, set aside 150 million acres of land as forest reserve and withdrew 85 million acres in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. In the spirit of the rising conservation movement, the people of Taos voiced a need for the protection of the Blue Lake watershed to the Bureau of Biological Survey after threats of mining, timbering, and overgrazing closed in with the increasing occupancy of the area.

In 1906, the United States Government appropriated the Blue Lake area and made it a part of the Carson National Forest. The Taos Pueblo supported this additional protection with the specific request of single-use for the Tribe in the Blue Lake watershed area. Without intention by Theodore Roosevelt and the Tribe, this proclamation actually stripped the Taos Pueblo of the aboriginal title, gave the sacred land to the federal government, and made it subject to the policies of the National Forest Service (NFS). One of the central tenants of the Forest Service is a multiple use land policy that encourages behaviors directly in conflict with the Taos Pueblo relationship with nature including encouraging recreational purposes, the production of resources, grazing, stocking lakes with fish, cutting roads and trails, authorizing mineral extraction and timbering, and manipulating vegetation to improve water yields. The Taos Pueblo, in contrast, believed that nature imparted to their ancestors the proper and perpetual modes of behavior towards the land and that departure from established patterns is sacrilegious. The livelihood of the Taos Pueblo is rooted in the interrelationship of people and land: the people give homage to and fructify the land through prayers and religious; the land in turn nourishes and sustains the people.

Beginning in 1910, problems arose between the National Forest Service and the Pueblo Indians. The NFS issue permitted outsiders to use the Blue Lake watershed without warning to the Pueblo, resulting in the interruption of private sacred ceremonies. A key teaching of Pueblo ancestors is to keep the tribal religious knowledge secret, in fact Pueblo Indians believe that to reveal aspects of their religion to outsiders is to weaken it. Outsider presence in the place of rituals and ceremony constituted a great threat to the proper performance of duties and a serious invasion of religious privacy. The NFS also cut trails, stocked fingerling trouts in Blue Lake to encourage fishing, and allowed non-Indian cattle to begin grazing the watershed, resulting in the destruction of centuries old exclusive rights.


In 1924, the Pueblo Lands Act was passed to investigate all private claims to Indian land and determine the authenticity of land title. Authenticity was based on continuous occupancy since 1902 with title and payment of taxes or continuous occupancy since 1889 with payment of taxes but without title. If a title was confirmed, the board determined the amount to be paid to a tribe for land lost. In 1926, the committee found that the Pueblo were not appropriately compensated for Indian lands settled by non-Indians. The Pueblo offered to waive compensation awarded for Indian lands settled by non-Indians if they can acquire the title to the Blue Lake area, but the Tribe receives neither compensation nor title. A double cross, discovered many years later, occurred when the Land Board made the Tribe’s waiver of payment a matter of official record, but recorded nothing about the waiver’s contingency upon the return of Blue Lake.

In 1927, a Cooperative Use Agreement is signed between the Tribe and NFS after a series of uneven negotiations. Further deception takes place in this agreement, when the draft is amended after the in-person agreement to include only a portion of the Blue Lake watershed, cheating the Pueblo out of 7,000 acres in an effort to protect the grazing interests of white cattleman. Recreational use continued to increase in the Blue Lake watershed including the construction of a cabin, outhouse, garbage pits, and horse corrals at the lake. Over 100 recreational parties were allowed to enter over the summer and rangers inhabited the cabin throughout the summer.


In 1931, an investigation of the efficacy of the 1927 Pueblo Lands Act was undertaken and found that the Lands Board paid non-Indian claimants the fair market value of the land they had lost while paying Indians only 1/3 of the market value. On May 31, 1933 the Senate Indian Affairs Committee recommended that the title be restored to the Pueblo Indians. The House passes House Resolution 4014, the “Pueblo Relief Bill”, acknowledging that the Pueblo people were paid $382,000 less than they were owed because of the redaction of the Blue Lake watershed clause that took place in the 1927 agreement. It is also decided that the Tribe did not have a single-use patent to the area via the existing agreement but instead had the right to apply for a conditionally renewable fifty-year use-permit, which would leave authority for managing the watershed in the hands of the NFS.

After two years of negotiations over acreage, in 1940 the Tribe gained the fifty-year use rights to 30,000 acres for grazing, obtaining water, wood, and timber, and for ceremonial religious observances. They were also granted exclusive use for 3 days during August with two-weeks notification to the Forest Service. Through these rights, non-Indian persons could still use the Blue Lake watershed for recreational use through governor permissions. The Forest Service was permitted to improve the forest in the area, while the Tribe was to patrol the watershed and oversee fire suppression. At this point, the Forest Service continued to behave with disregard for the Taos Pueblo and the Tribe carried on as if they were granted a single-use permit, both incorrect stances in the eyes of the law that resulted in years of constant conflict.


The 1940s and 50s were filled with repeated failed attempts to regain the Blue Lake watershed by the Taos Pueblo. Then, in 1951, the Pueblo filed a suit before the Indian Claims Commission, seeking judicial support for the validity of its claim. The Indian Claims Commission was a special court to which tribes could present claims for land they had lost and for which they had received inadequate compensation. Taos Pueblo tribal members Seferino Martinez, Governor Star Road Gomez, and Paul Bernal, recently returned from WWII, led this new enlivened pursuit. John Collier, Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s Commissioner of Indian Affairs, and Oliver La Farge, President of the Eastern Association on Indian Affair also joined on as important players in the fight for the return of Blue Lake now and through the future of this long battle.

Stress over the inaction of the Indian Claims Commission (ICC) caused infighting and staff turnover amongst the Blue Lake attorneys between 1951 and 1961. An exploratory hearing was held every year by the Commission to establish facts and featured witnesses from the tribe testifying to the “original Indian title” of the watershed with ceremonial use from themselves, their fathers, and their grandfathers. These witnesses include: tribal members John Concha, Seferino Martinez, Julian Lujan, Antonio Mirabal, Hilario Reyna, Manuel Cordova, and Cesario Romero, as well as anthropologist Florence Hawley Ellis who excavated the oldest midden pile of the Taos Pueblo and the Head of Records Division at New Mexico State Archives Dr. Myra Ellen Jenkins who provided expert testimony on land use patterns during Spanish and Mexican sovereignty. Due to too many ICC cases, the claim continued to lay dormant and the trial was postponed. House bills to amend the acreage of the current usage agreement are also put forth at this time and fail.

In 1964, both parties presented oral arguments and on Sep 8, 1965 the Indian Claims Commission affirmed that the U.S. government took the area unjustly from its rightful Indian owners. Next for the Blue Lake team was to approach the New Mexico delegation to develop a bill which would convey to them trust title to 50,000 acres.


Throughout this time period, the Taos Pueblo were fighting the battle on another front with local politics and public views. The tides of public opinion changed quickly and were difficult to combat. Many efforts were made by the Blue Lake team to bring in Taosenos, news outlets, and influential figures. Multiple public relations campaigns were undertaken with nationally distributed printed media and circling petitions that generated favorable coverage in papers from Taos News to the New York Times and multiple television networks. Taos support groups were created that featured local influencers like John Collier, Charles and Mary Brooks, and Joan Huggins Reed. Local attorney Stephen A. Mitchell was also hired to work as a community liaison.

These community outreach efforts resulted in the persuasion of the local support of the Town Council, and the influential ditch associations and supervisors of soil conservation. The Pueblo also secured the backing of Indian organizations nationally and the Association of American Indian Affairs publicly supported the cause. This campaign was remarkable in American history for the ecumenical spirit involving leading church authorities in support of aboriginal Indian religion including the National Council of Churches, the Archbishop of Santa Fe, the President of NMCC, the Chair of Commission on Law and Social Action of the American Jewish Congress, and prominent clergymen – Catholic and Protestant – who wrote on behalf of the Pueblo after the Blue Lake team most importantly situated this argument on the basis of religious freedom.

Politicians were also beginning to rally behind the Blue Lake cause; Steward Udall, a popular and well-known interior secretary, took personal interest in the cause; New Mexico Governor David Cargo worked from behind the scenes to support the Blue Lake team before publicly advocating for the cause; Senator Robert Kennedy publicly advocated passage of S. 3085; and, near the end, Senator Fred Harris, Vice President Spiro Agnew, and President Richard Nixon joined the cause. The bill became known as one with “unlikely bedfellows” as the bench became increasingly bipartisan with Senate majority whip Robert Griffin (R), Ted Kennedy (D), Senator Fred Harris (D), and Senator Barry Goldwater (R).

Sometimes public opinion of the Taos Pueblo and American Indians in general was out of the hands of the Tribe. The Taos County Commission waged a formidable public relations war pushing concerns about Pueblo control of water rights that would come with the title to the watershed. At different points during this sixty-four year battle, malicious information about “animalistic” ritual behavior and peyote ceremonies taking place at the Taos Pueblo were dispersed, as well as disparaging opinions about tribal members taking children out of school for religious ceremonies. Also unprompted by the Blue Lake team, a book published in 1942 by Frank Waters, The Man Who Killed the Deer told the story of a Pueblo Indian man who killed a deer on what was historically Indigenous land and was arrested by Forest Service. This book gained national notoriety and inspired thousands over twenty-five years to support the Pueblo quest for the Return of Blue Lake.


In March 15, 1966 S. 3085 legislation to return the sacred area to the Pueblo was introduced in Congress by Sen. Clinton P. Anderson of New Mexico “by request” to indicate his lack of support. The bill dies without action in the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee. This was the beginning of a series of bills and hearings that went before the House of Representatives and Senate from 1966 to 1970 with significant movements forward and disappointing setbacks. Senator Clinton P. Anderson was regarded as the biggest enemy to the return of Blue Lake and is one of the primary reasons that the bill finds itself stuck in the Senate for years. The trials are full of dramatic testimony, powerful allies putting forth support, rude and inexcusable treatment of Pueblo elders by government officials, and brave and inspiring testimony by members of the Taos Pueblo. Those who testify include Gov. John Reyna, Seferino Martinez, Paul Bernal, the American Friends Service Committee and Indian Rights Association, the Committee on Indian Work of the National Council of Churches, and the Executive Director of AAIA.

On May 10, 1968 H.B. 3306, to restore the sacred area to the Pueblo, was introduced by Rep. James A. Haley, chairman of the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs and passed unanimously. On June 22, a Justice Day celebration was held by the Taos Pueblo with other tribes, with the keynote speech from the chief of the powerful Navajo tribe. After this, the bill dies again in the Senate Interior and Insular Affairs Subcommittee at the hands of Senators Clinton P. Anderson and Lee Metcalf.

On Jan 3, 1969 the Blue Lake Bill was reintroduced by Rep. James A. Haley as H.B. 471 on the first day of the Ninety-first Congress. On Jan 26, 1970 the National Congress of American Indians Executive Committee endorsed H.R. 471 and called for presidential support from President Richard Nixon as the cornerstone of a new Indian policy. The last strongholds, the Department of Agriculture and Bureau of Budget, finally compromise with public and White House pressure. Thirty-six Indian leaders from around the country send telegrams to Vice President Spiro Agnew and President Richard Nixon requesting that they publicly endorse the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.

In a breathtaking move, Juan Jesus de Romero, the Cacique of Taos Pueblo, the tribe’s highest priest in religious affairs, appeared for testimony before the U.S. Congress. The Cacique did not make public appearances but worked within the Pueblo to keep the sacred quest alive in the internal religious life of his people. Joining him in the final march of this battle were tribal members Quirino Romero, James Mirabal, and Paul Bernal.

On July 8, 1970 President Nixon announced support for H.R. 471 as the first element of his new Indian policy. One day later, on July 9, 1970, hearings open before the Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs on H.R. 471 and Senator Anderson’s diminished alternative, S. 750. This hearing featured unspeakable behavior by Senator Lee Metcalf who appeared drunk and an aging and unwell Clinton P. Anderson. The Cacique delivered inspiring testimony that was said to captivate the entire room. In response to the accusation that this was only an issue of concern for the elders of the tribe, Gilbert Suazo, as representative of the Taos Pueblo youth presented to the subcommittee a statement signed by almost all of the younger Taos Indians, calling for the Return of Blue Lake. Metcalf treated the Pueblo men with complete disrespect speaking disparagingly of “medicine men springing up everywhere”.

The Cacique left the hearing very angry, returning to the Pueblo to spend all night and day praying in the kiva with all of his strength and energy. Testifying at this hearing were Dr. Myra Ellen Jenkins, Ernest Santisteven of the Taos Town Council, Andres Martinez, Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, Sue Lallmange, American Indian Advisor to the Republican National Committee, LaDonna Harris, Indian Member of HCIO, Stewart Udall, Michael Nadel of Wilderness Society, Thomas O’Leary of Blue Lake National Committee, John Rainer, Lawrence Speiser of ACLU, Bruce Wilkie of NCAI, and the National Council of Churches.

On July 25, 1970 a Second Justice Day was held to honor President Nixon and Vice President Agnew. A cane was presented to the tribe from Nixon as a symbolic gesture and is carried by the Cacique of the Taos Pueblo to this day.

On Aug 27, 1970 the Senate Subcommittee favorably reported to the full Committee on Interior and Insular Affairs both H.R. 471, which grants trust title to 48,000 acres comprising Blue Lake and access routes from the Pueblo, and S. 750 Senator Clinton P. Anderson’s alternative, which grants an exclusive-use area of 1,640 acres around Blue Lake, but without exclusive access thereto. With this report, the Bill was finally free of the Senate Subcommittee after four years. On Dec 2, 1970 the Senate killed Anderson’s substitute measure, 56 to 21; and approved H.R. 471, 70 to 12, finally ending the battle for the return of Blue Lake.


On Dec 15, 1970, ten days before Christmas, President Nixon signed H.R. 471 into Public Law 91-550. After signing, Nixon presented the pen to the beaming Cacique. The results of this decision reverberated through the country. This new public law effectively reversed government policy on Indian affairs, made official on November 18, 1975 when Congress passed P.L. 93-638, introducing a new era of self-determination for Native Americans. In the twenty years after the passage of P.L. 91-550, millions of acres were returned to Indian tribes by judicial or legislative action, all based partly on the Blue Lake case.