The federal government’s return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo not only carries local significance, but marked a fundamental shift in United States government policy toward American Indian people.
When President Richard Nixon signed HR471 on Dec. 15, 1970, it was symbolic of his commitment to end “forced termination” in favor of “self-determination” for American Indian tribes.
Nixon spoke of the importance of a new policy July 8, 1970, in a special message to Congress when he urged a decisive break with the past. He called for the federal government’s policies to begin to “recognize and build upon the capacities and insights of the Indian people.” The policy of forced termination sought to end the special relationship between the federal government and Native people. Nixon said the termination approach was wrong for multiple reasons, as it looked at the trusteeship relationship “as an act of generosity” rather than a “solemn obligation” of the U.S. government.
He also said the policy’s “practical results have been clearly harmful.” Nixon suggested a new federal policy of self-determination that would break from “the deadly extremes of forced termination and constant paternalism.”
Under self-determination, tribal members would be responsible for administering programs with federal assistance, and Nixon said the federal government needs “Indian energies and Indian leadership if its assistance is to be effective.”
“We have concluded that the Indians will get better programs and that public monies will be more effectively expended if the people who are most affected by these programs are responsible for operating them,” Nixon said before Congress.
Attorney Jerry Straus worked with Taos Pueblo for the return of Blue Lake in 1969 and 1970. He said forced termination “really was more of a land grab,” and self-determination “transformed Indian affairs.”
“Tribes have run these programs in a far better way than the bureaucrats ever did,” he said.
Right thing to do
Straus said Taos Pueblo had a special role in the policy shift, as monetary compensation for lands taken by the federal government had been the unvarying rule prior to Blue Lake’s return. He said people rallied behind Taos Pueblo’s cause because returning Blue Lake was the right thing to do, adding that the issue led to the formation of the “strangest coalition” of political leaders that was able to overcome even Sen. Clinton Anderson’s objections – despite New Mexico being Anderson’s home state.
“Even he lacked the power to stop this,” Straus said. “It became a story all over the world. People had just been carried away by this message.”
Straus said the return of the 48,000-acre Blue Lake area to Taos Pueblo symbolized the idea of “dramatic change in Indian policy” nationally.
“I don’t know that any of it would have been without Blue Lake. That was like a test case,” he said. “(Nixon) picked that tribe, Taos Pueblo, to receive the message for tribes all over the country.”
Following the taking of Blue Lake by presidential order in 1906, members and nonmembers of Taos Pueblo alike fought for decades for the area’s return. Those who supported Taos Pueblo faced the unique challenge of defending the pueblo’s exclusive use of the area while not revealing details about how it was used.
According to a memorandum prepared by the pueblo’s former special attorney William Schaab in consultation with Tribal Council, the return of Blue Lake was necessary for the preservation of religious privacy and natural ecology. It states that Blue Lake, as the source of the Río Pueblo, is “symbolically
the source of all life” and the “retreat also of souls after death.”
In a watershed, the report states, “Men and nature … are interlocked in an ecological and religious unity.
“Ownership of the entire Blue Lake area is necessary to preserve the absolute privacy with which the Indian religion is protected; if the sacred ways can be learned by outsiders, the religion will be profaned and its power vitiated,” the report states.
Opponents argued against the return from every angle. During his 1968 testimony before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, New Mexico Wildlife and Conservation Association President Jon Little said he did not believe Taos Pueblo members used the Blue Lake area as much as they claimed, accused pueblo members of mistreating the area and said the pueblo’s outside supporters had misplaced their sympathies.
“Few alpine lakes can compare to Blue Lake in placid natural beauty,” Little testified, going on to say, “We think the Forest Service is the (best qualified agency) to administer that watershed.”
Then-Taos County Commission vice-chair Elmer LaCome also testified in 1968, disputing the idea that the Blue Lake area was stolen from Taos Pueblo.
“The United States acquired the land in question by conquest and by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo,” he said.
Little and others also claimed returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo would set a dangerous precedent. However, Straus said the precedent set was very narrow, as it involved “sacred land” being actively used for religious purposes. “Taos was really unique because of the religious aspect of it,” he said.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall’s (D-NM) father, Stewart Udall, was secretary of the Interior from 1961 to 1969. Tom Udall said his father “believed from the beginning that the rightful home for this sacred lake and its surrounding lands was with the people of Taos Pueblo.”
“In his role as secretary of Interior, he repeatedly met with tribal leaders to discuss strategy, and he testified multiple times before the Senate on behalf of the pueblo — calling the federal government’s 1906 seizing of the lake and surrounding lands a ‘tragedy and disaster,’ ” Udall wrote in an email to the Taos News.
Native American Rights Fund Executive Director John Echohawk said the rejection of the termination policy and institution of self-determination was “historic,” and Blue Lake’s return was one of the most important events in the history of the U.S. government’s relationship with American Indian people.
He said similar land returns are “very rare,” as the federal government still does not look on them favorably, and most battles over sacred sites end up being fights to maintain access to sites whose titles are still held by the federal government.
In 1996, Taos Pueblo was also successful in gaining control of the 763-acre Path of Life Trail, or “Bottleneck” leading to Blue Lake. Taos Pueblo War Chief Secretary Scott Fields said in 2010, no monetary settlement for the Blue Lake area could have been agreeable to the pueblo.
“In our case, the money wasn’t going to replace what is our sacred grounds,” he said, comparing Blue Lake to a cathedral. “It’s not a building or structure, but within a natural setting.”
Fields said outsiders who were able to access Blue Lake before its 1970 return left their mark on the area, including stocked fish and “remnants” of heavy equipment, though a Forest Service cabin built at the lake was dismantled. Fields said the Blue Lake is no longer stocked, though fish are still “lingering on.”
“Wherever man travels, they carry along their excesses,” Fields said. “Any resemblance of Forest Service activity is no longer present there.”
Fields said the Blue Lake area is managed by pueblo wilderness rangers and patrolled by the rangers and the War Chief’s staff. He said a summer crew also works seasonally in the area, maintaining trails and ensuring people aren’t “messing anything up.” Fields said getting to the area requires an “arduous climb,” and pueblo members go to Blue Lake with a sense of reverence, recognizing its significance.