Blue Lake: Recollections from Taos Pueblo's cause

By J.R. Logan
Posted 9/12/10

Editor’s note: J.R. Logan interviewed several people involved in the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in 1970. Following Congressional approval, President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill that overturned the U.S. government’s claim to 48,000 …

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Blue Lake: Recollections from Taos Pueblo's cause

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Editor’s note: J.R. Logan interviewed several people involved in the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo in 1970. Following Congressional approval, President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill that overturned the U.S. government’s claim to 48,000 acres of tribal lands, thus ending a 64- year struggle. Here are the interviews verbatim.

Carla Apachito, niece of Paul Bernal. Beranal was the principal member of the tribal delegation that visited Washington, D.C., to lobby for support of the Blue Lake bill.

Before Blue Lake, a lot of our people were not as educated and knowledgeable about the government itself and how Native people fit into that, especially Taos Pueblo. With our spiritual way of life that we have here, it’s not Sundays. It’s not Mondays, Wednesdays or Fridays, it’s seven days a week, 365 days a year.

We live in a spiritual world and a spiritual work in progress every day. But there were numerous episodes where we were out practicing our religious, spiritual entities and there were non-Native people watching. We were battling U.S. Forestry Service people coming onto our land and building log cabins and saying how they were going to be bringing people in to fish.

So then the war chiefs started doing their job and became the keepers of the land, and started patrolling. That’s when it started to create a little bit of chaos and became an issue because now our Native people were going against non-Natives and the government saying, ‘This is a restricted area, you can’t be here,’ but there was no law.

My uncle, Dad Paul (Bernal), did a stint in the Navy. 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.

We were part of 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.

When Paul started seeing all these things, he sat down with his dad, my grandfather, Jose Ignacio Bernal, who was a religious caretaker.

His dad and him made a pact that this was going to be his commitment and that this is what he was going to do for his community, for his tribe, for his people. When we started fighting, it was a continuous struggle because the government kept putting one entity after the other in our way. But Dad Paul found ways and maneuvered to get around them. And this is a man that doesn’t have any law degree whatsoever.

Once it got to the point where it became an actual HR, a bill, our people here really started getting excited. It wasn’t in a way of celebration or anybody was doing powwows. It became a very private, personal, powerful prayer that everybody was involved in. Our religious ceremonies were always continuously with prayer for that mountain. When they were in the hall counting the votes, Dad Paul said he just closed his eyes and listened to the votes being counted.

When the numbers came out in favor, he said all he could think of was his dad and the words that they spoke. And about the commitment they had made together. And now that commitment was done. Dad Paul dedicated his whole personal life to this community. Because he believed in us.

He believed in his people. He believed in his way of life. He won. He won because he believed in his cause. He was never one for praise. He was never one for recognition. He was just such a beautiful, beautiful man.

Fred Harris, former Democratic senator from Oklahoma who sponsored the amended Blue Lake bill to return title of the land to Taos Pueblo.

The great old cacique and three other Taos Pueblo leaders came to see me in Washington. I was so impressed with those leaders. It was just how deeply sincere they were about the vital significance of Blue Lake.

It was just their life. There wasn’t any question in my mind that this was just central to them and their religion. I said, after my meeting with them in my Senate office, ‘Let’s get them their land back if it’s the last thing we do.’

The bill had been totally stalled because Sen. Clinton Anderson of New Mexico was still a great power in the Senate. He was a very dominant member of the Senate Interior Committee, which had jurisdiction over this question. They were just adamantly opposed to returning the land.

I let the committee know that I would not permit them to pass a bill that would give the Pueblo the use now and then of the Blue Lake land, that we were going to give them the title to it. There was a great feeling up to then that Indians in each state were sort of the wards of the members of Congress from that state.

A fellow from Montana didn’t come down to Oklahoma and tell us what we ought to do. That would have been seen as meddling in another senator’s business. (Anderson) later said to me, ‘I don’t mess with your Indians in Oklahoma, and you ought not to mess with mine in New Mexico.’

Well, I didn’t think of them as being his Indians. To give people back not only control of their land, but also of their affairs, that is what LaDonna (former wife LaDonna Harris) and I had been pushing for and what we began to see put into fruition. On the Senate floor we had a long and tough debate.

Some people who were in opposition to the bill said, ‘This will be a precedent. We’ll have other tribes wanting land rather than money.’ And I said, ‘Well it ought to be a precedent. If that’s justice in their case like it is here, let it be a precedent.’

I’ve said several times and I believe that it was really one of the most important things and the best thing I ever did during my years in the Senate.

LaDonna Harris, Comanche, founder and president of Americans for Indian Opportunity, former wife of Sen. Fred Harris of Oklahoma

It was a wonderful time. It was the ’60s. It was an exciting time for civil rights and human rights, and things were being done that were positive. Fred worked on the legislative part and I worked on making it a human rights and religious rights issue. I got these groups of people that I had worked with in the civil rights movement to come and help us because we had never worked on an Indian issue as a civil rights issue.

It was such a beautiful story and a beautiful cause that everybody wanted to be a part of it. The fact that I was a senator’s wife helped me to be able to do those things, but also that I had been active in the civil rights movement back home in Oklahoma and nationally I was on the Urban League Board.

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.

It was always just black and white. And because I’m Native American, 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.

That is what the importance of the Taos victory was — we saw that, by gosh, we can do something in a big way. The next major thing was the restoration of the Menominee tribe and because of the Blue Lake success, we were able to build that bi-partisan initiative to pass it.

And the same thing with the Alaskan claims. And in all three cases the White House was for us. It changed our perception of ourselves. We had an idea that we ought to be doing, but we didn’t have anything to put our teeth into. The success of the Blue Lake gave us momentum.

Bobbie Green Kilberg, White House Fellow, staff member of the Domestic Policy Council in the Nixon White House

We brought the cacique, who must have been in his 90s then, and Paul Bernal, who was the tribal secretary and translator, and the rest of the delegation into the gallery for the vote.

And they sat there, and it wasn’t clear where the vote was going at that time. The key vote was Barry Goldwater, because the Senate viewed Barry Goldwater as the expert on Indian Affairs. We had gotten in to see him with the cacique the day before and he basically looked at us and fairly hostilely said, ‘You’ll know what I do when I do it.’

And we thought, ‘Oh God, what does that mean?’ To make a very long story short, we were sitting there for the vote, and Goldwater got up and basically said, ‘I am in favor of this, and this land and the lake will be much better preserved under the control of the Taos Pueblo. So what the hell, we probably better give them the whole state.’

And then the votes just went and the vote became totally lopsided. That just broke the dam. When the final vote was counted and it was announced, the cacique stood — you’re not supposed to stand — he stood in the gallery and he held up in his hands the cane that President Lincoln had given and the replica cane that we had brought him in July 1970 from President Nixon.

He held those aloft in the air and all the senators turned and looked, and applause just burst out of nowhere. You’re not supposed to applaud. You’re not supposed to sneeze.

But the applause was like a wave and it was deafening. And all these senators were turning, waving and applauding, and the gallery started applauding, and of course I started crying. It was just an extraordinarily emotional moment. The presence that the cacique had and the aura around him was astounding. It was like you were in an other-worldly place.

Gilbert Suazo Sr., Taos Pueblo, founder of the Youth of Taos Pueblo What I saw at the time was a lot of criticism against the Pueblo.

One criticism was that it was only the older people — the ones that they were seeing in the forefront — that were interested in the return of Blue Lake. That they were a part of a dying culture.

I was hearing that kind of criticism and it felt like there was a need for the younger generation to speak out — that all of us were a part of this. I spoke to some of our other younger people to begin to show our support in a visible way. So we formed a group that we called the Youth of Taos Pueblo.

We had petition signings at the Pueblo just to show that the whole Pueblo was interested in this. That opened up the flood gates that had been there, but that other people had not seen. The petition signings were particularly memorable because they gave our community members, young and old, an opportunity to show their support.

By then our Tribal Council had seen the importance of the expressions of support from the younger generation, so I was designated by the Tribal Council to represent the younger generation and present testimony at the Senate hearings on July 9, 1970.

We went and I found out that there was going to be a meeting with the president of the United States the day before. The night before the meeting with the president and the night before the hearings, we all got together, and the elders gave advice to those that were going to be speaking to give them encouragement.

This is the way that our people do thing. The words of the elders, they go in your heart. The hearings were very rough. Tough, tough hearings. The tribe was really grilled on their testimony. I was naturally nervous when I appeared in a place like that, but I also felt confident because I was delivering the statement of the younger generation of the community.

We got our message across and, of course, we also had supporters there. Nineteen seventy-one was the first time that we had our Blue Lake ceremony and cultural ceremony after the return of Blue Lake. I always remember the feeling that I had. A feeling of relief. A feeling of a burden that was not there. A sense of great joy.

We were there finally, under the rightful ownership that we had always claimed. But this time, officially, we were recognized as the owners of it. That was a great joy. I continue to be thankful.

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