By Jim O’Donnell
On a frigid February day in 2019, representatives from New Mexico’s Carson National Forest and the Taos Ski Valley invited members of Taos Pueblo to join them on a ride to the top of Kachina Peak. Kachina is a rocky, snow-dressed 12,841-foot mountain that towers over Taos’ world-famous ski resort. It is also an important spiritual landmark for the people of Taos Pueblo.
“It was myself and Edwin Concha,” Cameron Martinez, director of the Taos Pueblo Department of Natural Resources, told me one bright morning over coffee. We sat in his office at the warehouse-like DNR building. The walls were covered with maps, awards, photographs, and mounted bison, pronghorn, and elk heads.
“We rode Lift 4 up to the basin and they explained all their expansion plans. Then we took the Kachina Lift to the top of the mountain. When we got up there, Edwin and I looked around. Then we looked at each other and I thought—‘Well, this isn’t right.’”
What bothered Martinez and Concha were the Tibetan prayer flags fluttering in the wind atop the peak. “When we pray, you can’t tell we were ever there,” Martinez said. “Everyone has a different way of praying, and we appreciate anyone who wants to pray, but these prayers were man-made. We found the flags deeply odd. For us, our offerings aren’t man-made. The ski lift tower is offensive enough. You can see all directions from up there. This is a holy, sacred area,” he continued. “We don’t want trash up there. All these high-altitude areas are sacred to us. Especially the waters. Williams Lake. Long Lake. Horseshoe Lake. Blue Lake is just over the ridge.”
This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, the return of what has been described by Taos tribal members as “an open-air cathedral.” It marked a significant turning point in the relationship between the federal government and Native American nations; North America’s original peoples were long given cash payments for the land that was stolen from them. That wasn’t what most of them wanted, however. They wanted their land.
stressed. We couldn’t rest,” said Diane Reyna, education coordinator at the
Wheelwright Museum in Santa Fe. Her
father, Tony Reyna, was instrumental in getting Blue Lake back to the Pueblo. “Without Blue Lake being secure in our hands, it was like a dark cloud hanging over our heads.”
How did Blue Lake (Ba Whyea) end up in the hands of the Carson National Forest in the first place?
By the late 1800s, there was a near panic among national leaders that the natural resources fueling the explosive growth of the U.S. were about to run out.
In the east, woodlands had been decimated. Western forests were on the road to a similar fate. Massive conflagrations such as the disastrous Peshtigo Fire in Wisconsin raged throughout the country, killing thousands of people a year. The vast prairie grasslands were over-grazed. Soil erosion ate away once-rich agricultural lands while mining and industrial poisons created mile upon mile of dead zone along the nation’s rivers. Gold, silver, and coal mines ate men alive.
Throughout the country, fish and wildlife populations crashed from a combination of over-fishing, over-hunting, and habitat loss. The once-immeasurable herds of elk, pronghorn, and bison had been reduced to a shadow of their former populations. Beaver had been extirpated from vast areas of their natural habitat and wolves were being driven to extinction.
It was what author Dan Flores described as an “orgy of destruction” in his seminal book American Serengeti.
And yet, many people pushed back against this orgy.
America’s first national and state parks were established soon after the Civil War. During the 1870s, hundreds of sportsmen and conservation organizations were established throughout the country. In 1890, the General Federation of Women’s Clubs named conservation and “ecology” among its top priorities. In 1892, the Sierra Club was founded. By 1901, almost every state had its own Audubon group.
At a governmental level, “sustainable” management of natural resources was seen to require regulations and the creation of federal agencies.
President Benjamin Harrison signed the Forest Reserve Act into law in 1891 after nearly twenty-five years of debate. The act gave the federal government the ability to set aside “forest reserves” to be managed by the Division of Forestry within the Department of the Interior. In 1905, these forest reserves fell under the management of the Bureau of Forestry, soon renamed the United States Forest Service.
The preservation of forested lands throughout the country was not in the name of some sort of romanticism or deep appreciation for the complexity and beauty of ecological systems. This was a practical, clear-eyed, and even cold-hearted move that saw natural systems as a resource to support the national mission of constant expansion. Forests and soil were a national security issue.
It was in this milieu that the people of Taos Pueblo were robbed of their sacred waters.
“Prior to the 1870s, the United States government treated the tribes as sovereign nations in accordance with both U.S. and international laws,” says Dr. Sherri Thomas, the associate dean of institutional climate and equity at the University of New Mexico Law School and assistant director of the UNM Law Library. An enrolled Taos Pueblo member, Thomas was adopted and grew up on the Navajo Nation.
In New Mexico, Thomas says, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which ended the 1846–1848 Mexican-American War and transferred nearly one-third of Mexico into the hands of the United States, protected the Pueblos against land grabs by the American government. But only for so long.
In 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt created the Carson National Forest and, with the stroke of a pen, took tens of thousands of acres of Taos Pueblo. Including Blue Lake.
What ensued was a frustrating and complex sixty-four year fight for the return of the sacred waters and their sheltering wilderness.
From the outset, the Pueblo pointed out that the land seizure was illegal. The people of Taos Pueblo refused any sort of monetary compensation for the stolen land. As far as they were concerned, the Pueblo held “aboriginal title” to the land, having been there at least one thousand years. That aboriginal title had been recognized by the Spanish Crown and, later, the Mexican government. The United States had agreed in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo to guarantee those rights. This legal progression appeared pretty clear-cut.
“But the federal government was never clear on how to deal with Indians,” says UNM’s Dr. Thomas. American law regarding Native Americans grew more complicated after 1848. “The Federal Courts started looking at the status of the pueblos,” Thomas explains. “What are they? How are they defined? The result was a mess of conflicting laws, policies, and court rulings, none of which offered a clear path forward.”
The Forest Service’s vision for the Blue Lake wilderness clashed with the Puebloan vision of a sacred bond between the people and the Earth expressed through respect, prayer, and ritual. Soon after the takeover, the Forest Service opened the area to grazing, recreation, timber harvesting, and even explored the option of mining within the Blue Lake area. These actions were seen as a direct assault on the sanctity of Pueblo culture and spirituality.
This was far from unique. Throughout New Mexico, the sovereignty of the pueblos was threatened by land grabs and outright attacks on their religion. Using the 1883 U.S. Code of Indian Offenses (which more or less outlawed Native American religious ceremonies), many American officials felt it was their duty to separate Native peoples from their spiritual beliefs and practices.
In 1924, Congress passed the Pueblo Lands Act to address land disputes between the pueblos, the federal government, and individuals. Again the Pueblo was offered money for Blue Lake. Again it refused. Taos Pueblo leaders made a wide range of concessions to no avail.
A 1933 ruling allowed the Pueblo to use Blue Lake—if it obtained a permit from the Forest Service. Needless to say, this wasn’t acceptable to the Pueblo.
“We are probably the only
citizens of the United States who are required to practice our religion under a
permit from the government,” Taos elder Paul Bernal later told Congress. “That
is not religious freedom as it is guaranteed by the
The fight for Blue Lake slogged on.
Then, in 1946, Congress established the Indian Claims Commission (ICC). This was in part in response to the trial of Nazi war criminals at Nuremburg and the United Nations declaration on the inherent right of self-determination, and the nation’s growing awareness of the wrong that had been done to its Indigenous peoples. The government wanted to settle once and for all remaining tribal land complaints.
“They wanted to start dismantling the tribes,” says Thomas. “The idea was to pay off the tribes and wash their hands of it. This was the time of termination and relocation. They wanted to get rid of the so-called ‘Indian problem.’”
Taos Pueblo saw an opportunity.
The ICC was tasked with awarding monetary judgments to tribes for stolen land. Still, Taos Pueblo leaders didn’t want cash. They wanted the land. The lake. The Pueblo’s attorneys, however, urged it to file a claim in hopes that a favorable ICC decision could be used to support a claim before Congress. In 1951, the Pueblo filed its claim before the Commission.
It took fourteen years for a decision to be returned.
“What did we want with money? We wanted land, our land, Indian land. But mostly we wanted the mountains. We wanted the mountains, our mother, between whose breasts lies the blue eye of faith. The deep turquoise lake of life. Our lake, our church. Where we make our pilgrimages, hold our ceremonials…”Frank Waters, The Man Who Killed the Deer
In 1942, Frank Waters published a thin novel entitled The Man Who Killed the Deer. At first, the book languished, then went out of print. But the little out-of-print book became somewhat of a collector’s item, and nearly ten years after its initial publication, the University of Denver Press reissued the book and it took off.
Waters’ novel is the fictional story of a fictional man at a fictional pueblo somewhere in Northern New Mexico, but the pueblo in the book is clearly a thinly veiled version of Taos. The man in the novel, Martiniano, kills a deer out of season. His action triggers a confrontation between the Pueblo and the American government. At the core of the novel is the pueblo’s struggle to regain its sacred lake and the unification of land and self, and the struggle for Native American cultural survival, all told from a complex and multi-faceted Native American perspective.
Whether The Man Who Killed the Deer holds up under scrutiny today is for a whole other article. The fact is that in the years after its publication, the book had a profoundly positive impact on how the average white American and decision-makers throughout the nation viewed the struggle over Blue Lake and Native American cultural survival in general.
Taos Pueblo gained allies.
Waters, novelist Oliver LaFarge, arts patron Mabel Dodge Luhan, and a host of other well-known artists and intellectuals pushed for the return of Blue Lake. In 1955, the New York Times called on the government to return the lake to the Pueblo. The National Council of Churches protested that religious freedom enshrined in the Constitution was being denied the people of Taos Pueblo. By the 1960s, a host of powerful politicians had joined the cause: Stuart Udall, Senator Morris Udall, Senators Edward and Robert Kennedy and even Barry Goldwater.
Perhaps most important to the Taos cause was Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma and his wife, Comanche activist LaDonna Harris. Senator Harris sponsored a bill in the United States Senate to return Blue Lake to the Pueblo. New Mexico’s powerful Senator Clinton P. Anderson, however, was opposed.
“Anderson came to Fred. ‘You don’t mess with my Indians and I won’t mess with your Indians,’ he told Fred. Well, that just infuriated me,” LaDonna recalls. “Nobody owns the Indians.”
LaDonna was already a seasoned activist, a veteran of anti-segregation and anti-poverty battles in Oklahoma. She’d come to Washington with her husband, determined to have an impact on the lives of Native Americans across the country.
“When the Taos elders first came into Fred’s office, I was struck by their power and their dignity,” she said. “They reminded me of my grandfather. The Taos and Comanche had been allies, historically, and I felt a strong connection to these men and their cause.”
LaDonna saw opportunities. “There really had never been a national cause for Indians,” she says.
In the meantime, the ICC had rejected the arguments of the Forest Service and the Justice Department. Blue Lake, they said, and its 48,000 acres were taken illegally. Taos Pueblo used the ruling as political leverage to push for legislation in Congress. The late 1960s were a scramble of negotiations, forward momentum, setbacks, growing alliances, and frustrating political tradeoffs.
Then in 1968 came a new presidential administration. Richard Nixon was in the White House.
LaDonna Harris quickly found a new ally: a young lawyer serving as a fellow in the Nixon White House. “Bobbie Kilberg had Nixon’s ear,” LaDonna said. “I told her, ‘You tell Nixon he owes Taos Pueblo. They voted for him!’”
Taos Pueblo also found Vice President Spiro Agnew on their side. Giving Blue Lake back to the Pueblo would, in his words, “facilitate our long term objectives of having the Indians assume increased responsibility and direction over programs affecting them.”
Meanwhile, in Taos, “everyone did what they could,” Diane Reyna says. “We organized a group at Taos High School called the Kiva Club to support the delegation.” The Kiva Club provided food for the delegation when it returned from Washington; it organized protests and worked with local churches to build support within Northern New Mexico. “The outside support was crucial,” Reyna says.
At the same time, opposition within New Mexico to returning Blue Lake to the Pueblo came from all directions.
“Some guy wrote a letter to the newspaper in Los Alamos,” former Taos Pueblo Governor Gilbert Suazo Sr. told me on a snowy afternoon in February. “The guy says: ‘I’ve been to Blue Lake and I’ve never seen an Indian up there. It is a poorly attended church.’” Suazo smiled, almost laughing. “So I wrote a letter in response. I said: ‘I walk by the First Baptist Church every morning on my way to work and there is never anyone there, so…’”
Suazo and I sipped coffee in the McDonald’s in Taos. He pointed out the window at all the pieces of land the Pueblo owns right in the middle of town. Many of them are culturally significant, and most of them are paved over.
Taos Pueblo compromised with the Indian Claims Commission as negotiations moved forward, relinquishing claims of more than 82,000 acres the commission ruled in 1965 had been unjustly taken by the government. They refused monetary compensation and instead pushed on for full ownership of Blue Lake and its critical 48,000 acres.
“They ridiculed our elders. They ridiculed our culture and our beliefs on the radio and TV and in the newspapers,” Suazo says. “They called it an old man’s religion. They said, ‘Why should we give it back if the Indians are dying out?’”
Suazo was a young laboratory technician at Los Alamos National Labs in the 1960s and he didn’t like what he was hearing. He helped organize the Youth of Taos Pueblo, a group that gathered signatures and educated members of the community on the importance of Blue Lake, the elders, and religious freedom. They pushed back wherever they could.
“One day I look in the Los Alamos paper and see that someone was going to give a talk against us. Something called the Izaak Walton League of America, a fly-fishing organization.” Suazo called up the tribal attorney, the governor at the time, and elder Paul Bernal. The four of them showed up to the meeting, which turned out to be quite large.
“The speaker came out, took one look at us, turned around and went right back out. After ten minutes or so, the president of the league comes back and cancels the talk. The speaker snuck out the back.”
Suazo also pushed the head of the local Sierra Club chapter to defy the national organization and take at least a neutral stance on the topic. “Having them go quiet helped us a lot,” he said. In July 1970, Suazo found himself on the way to Washington, D.C., representing the younger generation of the Pueblo before the United States Senate.
The same month Suazo arrived in Washington, President Nixon endorsed the Blue Lake bill as part of a larger national policy shift on Indian affairs. New Mexico Senator Clinton P. Anderson was surrounded.
“Fred held up every single bill Anderson wanted passed until he allowed Blue Lake to move forward,” said LaDonna. Anderson relented.
In the fall of 1970, the Blue Lake bill passed the Senate.
In a 2010 interview with the Taos News, Bobbie Green Kilberg, the former staff member of the Domestic Policy Council in the Nixon White House, recalled the day the vote passed Congress. The 90-year old cacique of Taos Pueblo, she said, “stood in the [Senate] gallery and he held up in his hands the cane that President Lincoln had given [to the Pueblo in 1864] 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. 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.”
President Nixon, surrounded by the Taos Pueblo delegation, signed the bill at the White House in December of that year.
Cameron Martinez walked me to a large map hanging in the room next to his office at the Taos Pueblo Department of Natural Resources.
“We take care of Blue Lake like we are supposed to take care of the world,” he says. “Pristine, lightly touched, and with reverence for the attributes of the land, air, and water.”
Taos Pueblo manages the Blue Lake area with their interpretation of the 1964 Wilderness Act. No permanent structures, no mechanized vehicles, and “any kind of non-native animal is kept out,” says Martinez.
According to Martinez, the biggest challenges facing Blue Lake today are climate change and intrusions from outsiders. Hunters, hikers, high altitude runners, and extreme sport enthusiasts present a constant challenge. Patrols from the Warchief’s office keep an eye on the boundary.
“Most people are unaware of the boundaries,” says Martinez. “They come on our land by mistake and leave as soon as we ask them. But others don’t. They don’t care. They have no respect. We’ve had to issue fines and confiscate equipment at times.”
How climate change will impact the health of the forests in the Taos Pueblo high country remains to be seen. Scientists generally agree that there will be less precipitation and that New Mexico’s forests will dry out, increasing the likelihood of fires. Martinez and his crew of thirty employees are working with both the Carson National Forest and The Nature Conservancy to thin areas of the forest, run prescribed burns, and generally reduce fuel-loading in the area.
“Nowadays the Carson is very receptive to working with us. It is a big change. We work on a government-to-government basis and get along quite well,” says Martinez.
As development in Taos Ski Valley increases, the Pueblo worries what impact that will have on their lands and their way of life. Increased tourism puts unwanted pressure on the Pueblo.
Martinez is clear that Taos Pueblo wants its boundaries respected and the health of the environment prioritized in any development plan. “We don’t know how the creator connected everything up in those high alpine areas, so we take care of all of it.”
For LaDonna Harris, the return of Blue Lake marked the beginning of a nationwide push to improve the plight of Native Americans. “Blue Lake gave us momentum,” she said. “We could do big things!”
Soon after the Blue Lake victory, LaDonna and her allies got the Menominee Tribe’s status restored, then they passed the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act, the Indian Education Act, and the Indian Self-Determination Act. “We established the Council of Energy Resource Tribes and began working with individual tribes around timber, fisheries, and oil and gas issues.” LaDonna also cofounded and served as president of Americans for Indian Opportunity.
“It was the idea that tribes could do something now. That they could take their own power and have a say in their future.”
But the struggle for sacred lands is far from over for America’s original people.
In December 2017, the Trump administration reduced the Bears Ears National Monument by over 1 million acres, and has recently opened the area to development. Bears Ears is sacred to numerous Native Americans in Utah and Arizona.
Outside of Flagstaff, Arizona, the San Francisco Peaks, sacred to the Navajo and Hopi, are covered in ski areas and other forms of outdoor recreation. The Blackfeet are fighting for control over Badger-Two Medicine, a 130,000-acre area of sacred lands within the Lewis and Clark National Forest.
In New Mexico, a seemingly never-ending battle has been under way to protect the sacred sites of the Chaco Canyon area from oil and gas development.
Land returns are rare. The federal government generally does not like to return land to tribes. Most struggles for sacred sites on public lands end up being about access. Can Native peoples even physically get to their sacred sites if they are owned and managed by the government?
“I couldn’t imagine right now not having that land base,” says Ilona Spruce, the Taos Pueblo director of tourism. “I can take my little ones up there for a cook out. I can immerse my children in that land. It molds who we are as a people and a culture. If we didn’t have that land base, we wouldn’t have been able to continue as powerfully as we have.”
Native American spirituality is inseparably linked to the land. For Native Americans, the land is alive and the beings that inhabit that land—the trees, bushes, animals, rivers—these things are sacred. “The influence of the return is very subtle for us,” says Reyna of the Wheelwright Museum. “It made things right. It is a different kind of victory. It isn’t a gift. It made things as they should be. And for us, it was and still is proof that we have the reverence, the dedication, the perseverance, the resilience. This is personal.”
Author and photographer Jim O’Donnell is based in Taos, New Mexico. His work has appeared in Discover, Scientific American, Ensia, Sapiens, BBC Travel and New Mexico Magazine, among others. Jim is the author of Notes for the Aurora Society and a wide range of short stories. Find him at jimodonnellphotography.com.