It was 50 years ago this week that Taos Pueblo officially flipped the switch to welcome electricity to tribal lands. It was the last Native American community in New Mexico to do so at that time. However, electrifying the Pueblo outside the historic village was not without controversy and even included an armed confrontation.
Taos Pueblo has a long held a reputation as being one of the most conservative with regard to its Native religion, culture and traditions. As such, it resisted so-called modern conveniences for decades as the non-Native community beyond its borders built an infrastructure that relied upon water and power, paved roads and telephones, particularly after servicemen and women returned from World War II.
In 1955, the federal Bureau of Indian Affairs, which owned the Pueblo’s Taos Day School and hospital (since moved and re-designated the Taos-Picuris Indian Health Clinic), established a 20-foot right of way with Kit Carson Electric Cooperative in the town of Taos – thereby bringing electrical power, albeit limited, to the reservation.
Then, a decade later, the co-op was directed by the BIA to remove all poles and and lines outside that right of way because tribal members figured out a way to tap into the power.
“Delfino Reyna, the first to wire and electrify his home, did not put up poles but ran a wire from the Day School to his home,” according to a Taos News article by reporter Sandra Kincaid from June 17, 1965. “Since that time six other families have connected to the Day School power lines on poles which are located on the government-owned land, but according to tribal and BIA officials, outside the 20-foot right-of-way.”
When the co-op trucks arrived on the reservation that June to remove the poles and wires, they were met by “about a dozen armed men, backed by their wives and children [who] formed a roadblock to prevent removal of their electric services. Men carried rifles, pistols and shotguns; their wives, mothers and daughters carried clubs, knives and hatchets. Even the smallest child had a baseball bat.”
Co-op manager Terry Moynahan showed up to confront the tribal members saying, “Gentlemen, I am here on order of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.” That’s when Joe Martinez, speaking for the group, said, “I’m sorry, sir, we can’t let you pass.” The Taos News article states that “no BIA or other government agency representative was present.”
The confrontation came to a head after “appeals to the BIA, Taos Pueblo Council and to congressmen failed to settle the issue.” The article stated that the council met the day before the confrontation but reportedly did not discuss the matter. “The council considers the matter as being strictly between the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the co-op and the electricity members.”
It should be noted that the tribal utility users had accounts with the coop and paid their bills.
Noting that the armed group were not about to budge, Moynihan ordered the utility trucks to turn around and exit the reservation, leaving the poles and wires in place.
Then, a few months before Taos Pueblo won back the title to its sacred Blue Lake in 1970, it was announced that Taos Pueblo Governor Quirino Romero signed an ordinance authorizing the installation of electrical lines on tribal lands. “Ten years ago it was an impossibility, two years ago it was a petition, and today it has become a reality and an historic occasion,” Defino Concha, organizer of People for a Sensible Electricity at Taos Pueblo said in a statement to the Taos News published Aug. 13, 1970.
Bringing electricity to the Pueblo had been the center of conflict between a progressive faction and older traditionalists. The latter expressed dismay that the utility would impact Native religion and create a negative effect on tourism, while the progressives looked at it as a way to bring much needed services and improve their tribe’s way of life. Some also said it might also help prevent young people from moving away. “Electricity is not a luxury for our people, it is a necessity,” Concha wrote in his group’s statement.
The issue also brought out some forceful opposition, according to the Taos News report. Jewelry-maker Jimmy Cordova had his workshop broken into and his tools and electric meter axed. Other tribal members said they received disturbing threats. As things progressed, the Tribal Council passed the Zoning Ordinance for Electricity on Taos Pueblo Lands on February 4, 1969.
Finally, the switch was flipped Oct. 7, 1971 to officially bring electricity to Taos Pueblo tribal lands. An afternoon ceremony led by officials of the Kit Carson Electric Cooperative at Taos Pueblo touted the occasion as “the promise of new opportunities.”
An article in the Taos News stated the electrification project cost $88,000, of which the BIA agreed to pay $25,000 in addition to all wiring costs. The tribal ordinance allowing it stipulated that no electrical power lines or poles be erected within the historic village itself in order to protect the tribe’s Native religion and ancient ceremonials.
This statement by the tribal council stands today.
Nighttime illumination in the historic village houses is generally by kerosene or gas lamps. There is also no plumbing or running water. Residents live there by choice and via family ties informed by the tribe’s ancient traditions, all of which have made the village recognized as a World Heritage site by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). It is one of eight sites in the United States and the only living Native community so named.
At the 1971 ceremony, Bataan Death March survivor, former governor and tribal businessman Tony Reyna was quoted saying, “This is certainly a breakthrough and one that is long overdue. Electricity will help individuals here establish workshops where strictly local crafts are made and sold.”
Eventually, a service line agreement was approved by the Taos Pueblo Tribal Council on March 26, 1971, which authorized the Tribal Governor to negotiate a right of way or service line agreement with KCEC, according to documents provided by the tribe. The Pueblo authorized “the Utility to install, construct, operate, repair and maintain underground power lines.”
In 1974, an ordinance was passed which superseded the 1969 agreement. “All electrical lines were to be placed underground,” current Taos Pueblo Tribal Secretary Dwayne t. Lefthand Sr. stated in a Tuesday (Oct. 12) email. “All lines and electricity infrastructure are over 30 years old and are in need of upgrades and replacement. This contributes to many frequent power outages here at Taos Pueblo.”
The saga, as they say, continues.
Today, outside of the main village, residences and businesses such as the Hail Creek Travel Center and the Taos Mountain Casino, along with tribal government, Taos Day School and Taos-Picuris Indian Health Center are electrified. In addition, the tribe has since installed water and sewer lines along with phone and some internet and WiFi access. The tribe also maintains its own Taos Pueblo Utilities Office, located on Goat Springs Road.
Meanwhile, in a separate development, Picuris Pueblo, located in southern Taos County, looked to the sun for power. Tribal officials, along with other administrators, contractors and members of the local electric cooperative flipped the switch on the tribe's one-megawatt solar array during a ribbon-cutting ceremony Dec. 18, 2017.
"Look at it in the scheme of things. Picuris is a small tribe, but one of the most sophisticated," said Luis Reyes, CEO of Kit Carson Electric Cooperative, the utility company behind the efforts to generate 100 percent of daytime energy needs in the Taos County area by 2022.