"Now we don't have to hide when we go up into the mountains," Gilbert Suazo said in a recent interview. "Now, we can freely go where we want to go on our lands and not have to worry about getting arrested or prosecuted."

Suazo, a Taos Pueblo councilman and former tribal governor, said the joy of being able to practice his Native religion unencumbered by outside control was indescribable. It was a spiritual burden finally lifted 50 years ago, when he and his fellow tribal members conducted their first ceremonials after President Richard Nixon signed legislation in Washington D.C., returning the Blue Lake watershed to the people of Taos Pueblo. It was an act that closed a circle which had burned in the hearts and minds of generations - many of whom started the journey to have the sacred lands returned and never saw its end.

This week the people of Taos Pueblo celebrate - more privately than planned due to the pandemic - the 50th anniversary of the return of Blue Lake, Tuesday (Dec. 15).

It was on that day in 1970 when Nixon, surrounded by government officials, politicians and a tribal delegation wearing traditional Pueblo Indian attire, signed H.R. 471, a bill putting to rest a 64-year struggle that would have far reaching implications for Taos Pueblo and other tribes regarding their sacred lands.

"Blue Lake is not just another place -- it's a touchstone for Taos Pueblo to sustain and renew their sacred ancestral traditions among culturally significant wildlife and a beautiful landscape," said retiring New Mexico Sen. Tom Udall recently, who gave his farewell speech to Congress on Dec. 8.

He explained that his father, the late Stewart Udall, who was a senator and former Secretary of the Interior, "strongly believed that Blue Lake and its surrounding lands belonged to and should be managed by people of Taos Pueblo - and that the federal government's 1906 seizing of the lake and surrounding lands was 'tragedy and disaster.' "

The return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo was a linchpin of Nixon's new federal Indian policy that he announced July 8, 1970, in a historic meeting in the White House with the Taos Pueblo delegation.

It would be many years before the "Path of Life" area (an integral part of the Blue Lake's cultural importance) was also returned to the tribe.

The Blue Lake struggle began with a federal move to preserve forests for public use without respecting original claims by the first people on the land.

Long, uphill battle

In 1906, the Taos Pueblo people and its lands, its culture and its way of life were severely threatened when Blue Lake and surrounding lands that are an integral part of the tribe's culture and traditions were taken away from the Pueblo by the federal government to become a forest reserve.

From the beginning, it was an uphill battle to regain Blue Lake.

The battle evolved at a time when conventional wisdom of the non-Native public, government officials and corporate entities was that American Indians were sitting on lands ripe for exploitation. Citing Manifest Destiny (the 19th century philosophical doctrine that justified the unfettered expansion of the United States), acquisition of Native lands was easily accomplished by assigning unscrupulous federal Indian Agents to negotiate biased deals.

Also working against Taos Pueblo was the federal government's issue with the very existence of Native people themselves, whom they saw as backward and possessed of spiritual beliefs that ran counter to a common belief that the only true American religion was Christianity.

In order to further the goal of eradicating the "Indian problem" for the roughly 250,000 Natives living in the 1890s, the government decided assimilation was the answer.

This involved a policy to "transform Native Americans into 'good Christian citizens.' As one [Indian] school founder said at the time, 'Kill the Indian in him and save the man,'" according to scholars Lindsay M. Montgomery and Chip Colwell in "Native American Children's Historic Forced Assimilation" in the digital magazine "Sapiens."

In addition, Native people weren't "granted" citizenship until 1924, and did not have the full right to vote until 1948 in New Mexico.

Against this backdrop, Taos Pueblo had to fight for the return of its own land. As word spread, allies emerged among the artists and writers who had begun taking up residence in the nearby town of Taos around the turn of the 20th century.

Led by East Coast art patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, who was married to a Taos Pueblo man, scores of sympathetic non-Natives wrote letters and spoke on behalf of the cause. Part of this effort led to the derailment of the Bursum Bill, which would have given claim to non-Native squatters on Indian lands, and the Dawes Act, which sought to create allotments of land to Native people.

On some reservations where natural resources were desired by non-Native corporations, the government offered to purchase sacred lands as a way to appease them and their assertion of aboriginal rights. In 1924, the federal Public Lands Commission "offered $300,000 to Taos Pueblo to give up its ancient claims to the mountains and Blue Lake. The offer was refused," according to historian Marc Simmons in his "Trail Dust" column in the Santa Fe New Mexican, dated March 21, 2014.

Then, in 1933, "the tribe agreed to grant Congress a 50-year special-use permit for 32,000 acres surrounding Blue Lake. The Forest Service, however, still had ultimate jurisdiction," Simmons writes.

Fiction based on fact

While allies raised their voices, the way in which Blue Lake lands had been appropriated by the federal government was personally felt among the people of Taos Pueblo like a spear that drove deeply into their hearts and minds. For some, this was dramatized for the non-Indian world in a novel that helped bring this trauma into focus.

Taos author Frank Waters' acclaimed 1942 novel, "The Man Who Killed the Deer," may have been fiction, but it was based upon a real incident.

After 1906, when the federal government controlled the land surrounding Blue Lake and its watershed, the ancient ceremonials conducted at this site now required a permit from forest officials. Tribal members were also forced to accept that non-Indian visitors could camp and fish and use the area for timber cutting and possible mining. This also meant tribal members were prevented from freely hunting for game as they had for centuries.

Taos Pueblo sculptor John Suazo said that did not stop Taos Pueblo men from going up there.

In the 1930s, Doroteo Samora, Jim Suazo (John Suazo's grandfather) and some other men were hunting in the mountains above the village, just as their fathers and grandfathers had done, but because forest service rangers often patrolled the area on horseback, they had to hide, burn small campfires and leave no tracks.

That morning they bagged a deer and as they were bringing it up the canyon noticed rangers coming up the trail. They hid and later decided to come down from the mountain and return later to retrieve the deer. Gilbert Suazo said Samora told him he decided to stay with the deer and they could go down. During the night, Samora was captured by rangers. "They took him down on the other side, near Eagle Nest," John Suazo said.

The forest rangers knew who was in the hunting party and came to the village to arrest Jim Suazo and the others. "And, in fact, my grandmother was standing there looking on as the rangers were taking the meat out of the storage, and that was meat for the San Geronimo Feast Days," John Suazo said. "There was a big commotion and the [tribal] governor didn't want to turn them over to the rangers, but he had no choice. They said it might endanger the Blue Lake situation. They had already entered the battle to get Blue Lake back."

John Suazo said the rangers wanted "to set an example to our people saying you can't hunt no more, that's not your land no more. But that didn't stop our people from hunting and doing our religious doings."

Doroteo Samora pleaded innocent but was convicted and spent a year at the state penitentiary.

John Suazo said his grandfather told him "that was their land for generations and to treat their people that way, it wasn't fair. They were hunting for their livelihood and to survive."

Waters's fictional telling of the incident in his book brought the issues at hand to a broader stage in the '40s, illuminating a readership that perhaps knew Indians only as stereotypes and caricatures in lesser works, but for the people themselves, it was a battle that still had a long way to go.

Unexpected events in Washington

During this struggle many people, Native American and non-Native, supported Taos Pueblo in its efforts to regain Blue Lake.

In the 1960s, according to Simmons, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy "pledged his help. Also joining were the National Council of Churches, the American Civil Liberties Union and Interior Secretary Stewart Udall."

Sen. Tom Udall recalled his father "repeatedly worked with tribal leaders to support their decades-long efforts to return the land, and he testified multiple times before the Senate to stand in solidarity with the Pueblo."

However, opposition began to grow amid the ranks of the Forest Service, sportsmen, the timber industry, conservation groups, the Taos County Commission and in editorials published in this newspaper. "They charged that the Taos Pueblo had engineered a national campaign based on 'emotion, sympathy and sentiment,' and that if a proposed bill to grant them 48,000 acres was passed, then other pueblos, as well as Apaches and Navajos, would initiate claims to national forest lands," Simmons wrote.

It was the latter issue that drew the most fire from New Mexico's powerful Democratic Sen. Clinton P. Anderson, who once told Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, who was one of the sponsors of the Blue Lake bill, "I don't mess with your Indians in Oklahoma, and you ought not to mess with mine in New Mexico."

LaDonna Harris, who formerly was married to Fred Harris, told Taos News reporter J.R. Logan in 2010, "Up to that time there had never been an Indian national cause. And we made it a national issue rather than just a local issue. It was the first one that came into people's consciousness that had been involved with the civil rights of African-Americans. Before, they never quite put us in that category."

Harris, who is president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, told Logan, "It was always just black and white. And because I'm Native American (Comanche), I could make that visible for them. The local people saw that if they organized and got together and developed their case, that they could win. We just had no history of winning against Congress."

Paul Bernal, who -- as interpreter for tribal officials who only spoke Tiwa, the Taos Pueblo native language -- helped illuminate Congress and government officials of the importance of their cause. "My uncle, Dad Paul (Bernal), did a stint in the Navy," Blue Lake delegation member Carla Apachito told Logan. "And during that time in the Navy he became acquainted with so many people and he began to understand a little about what violation was taking place in our Pueblo with our land and our spirituality. Now, Native people were standing up."

She said her family had been active in the military and "we were out there losing our lives and fighting for the good Old Glory of the United States. I think there was a magnificent transformation going on for Native people. We were becoming empowered. Paul at that time started to make a personal dedication because if he didn't do something about this, eventually this land was not going to be what it was."

Her mother and Paul's sister, Eloisa Bernal Apachito, who was an Army veteran from World War II and a staunch supporter of the Blue Lake cause, died at the age of 102 in October 2020.

Paul Bernal interpreted for 1969 Taos Pueblo Gov. Severino Martinez at the Association of American Indian Affairs. Martinez said, "The United States government says no one has any right to interfere with a person in exercising his right to worship God. The government says that under the Constitution this protection is extended to every one of us … and all the people in the United States. But, when you look to see what this means, what you learn is that the government is doing the wrong things. Just because the Taos Pueblo religion concerns a piece of little land is no reason why the government should demonstrate its power to destroy the Indian rights in the Blue Lake and the Pueblo watershed in the same area."

In 1968, Richard M. Nixon was elected President of the United States. He supported restoring Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo. "It was the symbolic center of Nixon's message," attorney for the Pueblo Jerry Straus said, "which really changed things in Indian affairs, ending the determination era -- where many in the Congress felt the solution to the 'Indian problem' was to take away all their rights and make them like anybody else -- and Nixon had very good advisors who came up with a program of self-determination, where tribes were able to do the work that had been done by government employees before but getting the support of the federal government."

Although Nixon eventually resigned in disgrace, while he was in office he helped to make dramatic changes in Native American affairs, and the return of Blue Lake, Straus said, "was the best thing he ever did."

It was, he added, the first time land that was taken from a tribe was returned to it without being paid for, "and this set a very important precedent because since that time literally millions of acres have been restored to tribes all over the country."

A president's backing

Why was Nixon a champion of Taos Pueblo's Blue Lake return? It had to do with a football coach at Whittier College in California who made a big impact on Nixon's life. That man was a Native American and Nixon felt the coach and his people had been mistreated by the government. "He said at the signing ceremony [in 1970] that he greatly influenced his life," Straus said.

Bobbie Green Kilberg was a 23-year-old White House fellow who arrived at the White House in August of 1969. She said it was in November that she learned of Nixon's concern for the way Native Americans were treated. "He had an abiding faith in the fact that we needed to do something to correct the wrongs that had been imposed on the Native Americans," Kilberg said in a recent interview.

Much of the credit for bringing the Taos Pueblo issue to Nixon's desk was due to the work of lawyers Straus, the late Bill Schaub, and a supporter, the late Suzanne Poole, along with Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris and many others. But, it was Sen. Clinton P. Anderson's opposition that nearly destroyed the Blue Lake bill.

Anderson threatened to withdraw his support for the president's Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty if the Blue Lake bill moved forward. Nixon called his bluff and maintained his position. "He went through all these reasons he felt about a wrong that needed to be righted, and he did not care if Anderson voted against the ABM Treaty. In fact, he used words you can't print in your newspaper," Kilberg said.

"In 1969 the House of Representatives passed yet another bill, H.R. 471, but this one finally gained traction in the Senate," according to archivist Cody White in "The Text Message" published by the National Archives. On Dec. 2, 1970, H.R. 471 passed the U.S. Senate by a 70-12 bipartisan vote.

Kilberg said the normally staid decorum of the Senate Gallery that day was interrupted when the Pueblo's Cacique, Juan de Jesus Romero, raised two traditional canes in triumph, causing the entire audience and Senators to stand and applaud. Kilberg said she burst into tears.

On Dec. 15, the president held a signing ceremony in the East Room of the White House that was decorated for Christmas. Present were 67 politicians, government officials, citizens and members of the press, most importantly including Pueblo Gov. Quirino Romero, Council Secretary Paul Bernal and Councilman James Mirabal. The ceremony began with all listening intently as the cacique gave a blessing in Tiwa, which Nixon later told Kilberg was "exceptionally meaningful. This means the world to me. Thank you."

"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," Nixon said at the signing ceremony. "And now, after all those years, the Congress of the United States returns that land to whom it belongs. This bill also involves respect for religion. Those of us who know something about the background of the first Americans realize that long before any organized religion came to the United States, for 700 years the Taos Pueblo Indians worshiped in this place. We restore this place of worship to them for all the years to come."

A celebration postponed

The COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic that is ravaging the nation forced the closure of Taos Pueblo in March to all but tribal members and some essential workers. The grand Blue Lake commemoration that had been planned for September was cancelled and will be rescheduled for a future date, according to pueblo officials.

In lieu of a public event, the tribe sent letters about the anniversary to share their remembrance and express their appreciation to key principals, supporters and friends of the Pueblo, congressional and governmental officials and many others, "including family members of those friends and supporters who are no longer with us. Taos Pueblo, with its whole heart appreciates the support, the leadership, the prayers, the contributions, and the sacrifices that brought Blue Lake back to our people," a governor's office statement reads.

"We respectfully invite observance of that day in spirit, the anniversary of the date when PL 91-550, the Blue Lake legislation was signed into law by President Richard M. Nixon," the tribal statement continues. "We especially thank all those who supported us in the long 64-year struggle many who are no longer with us and we are thankful that these ancestral lands were rightfully returned to Taos Pueblo."

History worth remembering

Gilbert Suazo said that remembering the return of Blue Lake is important for all who value Native rights and the persistence of following a path that is right and just. Most importantly, he wants to ensure that young people never take Blue Lake for granted or forget the long fight to get it back. "A lot of our younger generation, they don't know what our people went through and the anguish we [endured] from 1906 all up to 1970."

He said it's easy to look up from the village and see the majestic peaks and verdant forests and assume they have always belonged to them. "It might not have been our land if things had gone a little differently. There might have been developments up there, sawmills, hunting and fishing going on by others, but I want our younger generation to realize that the land that is there for them to enjoy had a hard history. I hope they will feel closer, more value for the land and feelings for the land so in the future they will continue to protect it."

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