The Taos Pueblo reservation is located in northern New Mexico and contains approximately 300,000 acres. Part of this land is home to a sacred site, Blue Lake, whose ownership was withheld from the Taos Pueblo people in 1906. After a sixty-four year bout with the U.S. Government, the tribe regained ownership of Blue Lake, which was a significant reclamation for the Pueblo nation.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt issued an Executive Order that apportioned Blue Lake to the Carson National Forest which falls under authority of the U.S. Forest Service. Now a popular camping area for non-Indians, this created many problems for the Taos Pueblo people. Blue Lake was a site where Taos people participated in religious ceremonies. The presence of outsiders created disruptions in the ability of the Taos people to properly worship at Blue Lake. An anthropologist and student of the Pueblo culture, John Bodine expressed it as “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,” (Bodine, The Battle for Blue Lake).
This acquisition of Blue Lake by the government pushed the Taos people to begin their sixty-four-year struggle to reacquire it. They argued that they had long occupied the lands that had been taken and that their ownership “had been recognized by the Spanish upon contact, that Spanish recognition had been carried over to the Mexican government following the Mexican Revolution for Independence, and lastly (and most important), that the United States had agreed, by the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, to respect established property rights in the territory gained following the Mexican-American War,” (William Deverell, The Return). Senator Clinton P. Anderson (NM) opposed legislation that would take land away from the Forest Service in order to return it to Indigenous people. When the tribe’s claims were continuously met with opposition, they knew that they would need more support to win their case.
The Taos Pueblo drew support from multiple news outlets such as the New York Times and the Washington Post. They created a national Blue Lake support committee whose job it was to attract media outlets. They also gained the support of the National Council of Churches, when an important member of the council, Rev. Dean M. Kelley, visited the Taos people. In his visit he came to appreciate the Taos’s point of view. President Richard Nixon supported the reinstatement of Taos’s claim to Blue Lake, which was the final piece of the puzzle that allowed the Taos to reacquire their lands.
Richard Nixon made a speech at the signing of the bill which would grant ownership back to the Taos people, in which he 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. And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs,” (Richard Nixon, 461 Remarks). This speech was made on December 15, 1970, but the decision made by Congress to approve the bill was made on December 2, 1970 and it was passed by a margin of six-to-one. The passing of this bill, and the reacquisition of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo, “was a rare and special event, for it marked one of the very few instances in history that dominion powers were convinced and persuaded to return stolen lands and sacred places to a Native people,” (David Fernandez, Taos Pueblo Appreciation).
The significance of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo people is clearly demonstrated through their tenacity to not give up their fight for ownership. John J. Bodine, who was a part of this fight, says that the persistence of the Taos people is what allowed for them to win their case against the United States. Blue Lake was the primary water source for the Taos and it was a focal point for the pilgrimage that they took that would “publicly validate the final initiation rites of young Taos boys being taken into the traditional religion of the tribe,” (Bodine).
Blue Lake was thought to be the source of life for the Taos People and that their Creator was still present there. It is the site where Taos people came to pray and worship their Creator, much like a church for many other religions. The final quote which comes from a source titled “The Return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo,” was said by one of the attorneys on the Taos Pueblo case, William Schaab. Two of the elder tribal members involved in the case, were present while the Senate was voting, and he said that the old men “sat together in the top row of the gallery chanting softly, making medicine, and communicating with the spirits who dwell at Blue Lake. I am sure that the eventual victory was produced by that sense of unity of life between the Great House of Living Souls that is Blue Lake and the people, living, who were carrying the struggle on the Senate Floor,” (Schaab, The Return).
Bodine, John J. “Blue Lake: A Struggle for Indian Rights.” American Indian Law Review, vol. 1, no. 1, 1973, pp. 23–32., www.jstor.org/stable/20067803.
DEVERELL, WILLIAM F. “The Return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.” Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 49, no. 1, Oct. 1987, pp. 57-73. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=30h&AN=100746080&site=ehost-live.
DAVID, FERNÁNDEZ. “Taos Pueblo and Blue Lake Appreciation the Blessing Way.” Taos News (NM), 16 Sept. 2010, pp. 8-1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=n5h&AN=540695824&site=ehost-live.
Gordon-McCutchan, R.C. “The Battle for Blue Lake: A Struggle for Indian Religious Rights.” Journal of Church & State, vol. 33, no. 4, Sept. 1991, p. 785. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=afh&AN=9604260403&site=ehost-live.
“461 Remarks on Signing Bill Restoring the Blue Lake Lands in New Mexico to the Taos Pueblo Indians. December 15, 1970.” American Reference Library – Primary Source Documents, Jan. 2001, p. 1. EBSCOhost, search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=ulh&AN=32359506&site=ehost-live.