Righting a Wrong: The Return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo

Today’s post is written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver and Subject Matter Expert for Native American Related Records

“They didn’t get any money for it in the first place, and they don’t want any now. They just want their lake and their land—their sunswept altar and chapel—for their own, without beer cans and litter of tourists.”

—Phil Casey for the Washington Post, May 18, 1966.

It was 10:47 a.m. on December 15, 1970. President Richard Nixon finished an Oval Office meeting and made the three-minute walk over to the State Dining Room. Awaiting him were 67 politicians, government officials, citizens, and members of the press, most importantly including Governor Quirino Romero, Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero, Council Secretary Paul Bernal, and Councilman James Miraba, all of the Taos Pueblo. The occasion? The return, after 67 years, of the Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake.

As President Nixon signed into law H.R. 471, which transferred legal ownership of the lake and surrounding mountain land to the Taos Pueblo, he quickly dashed any comparison of the act, given the holiday month, to a gift.

“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. 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.”

This year we mark the 50th anniversary of the return on December 15, but the story began generations earlier, as recounted in a recent accession at the National Archives at Denver: a seemingly innocuous land ownership status series from the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Regional Office in Albuquerque, New Mexico. This series includes several thousand pages of letters, telegrams, maps, memos, proposed legislation, and reports that document the long, tortured path for the return of the land.

Two of the four folders as they came to the National Archives at Denver from the USFS. While organized by document type and thereunder chronologically, the files have clearly been heavily used and need archival processing.

The year was 1903, and the West was still slowly being parceled, packaged, and settled. In November, the Secretary of Agriculture requested that the Secretary of Interior temporarily withdraw a swath of forest in the Territory of New Mexico for a forest reserve—much to the dismay of the Taos Pueblo, who had lived in the area for thousands of years and made treks into that very forest for religious ceremonies. Within a month, the Secretary of Interior complied.

“Constant dread.” That’s how Vernon Bailey of the Bureau of Biological Survey reported the Taos Pueblo felt about the land grab shortly thereafter. But in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt made the withdrawal permanent; the land, and thus Blue Lake, were now a national forest. The Office of Indian Affairs pushed back, with both the Commissioner of Indian Affairs as well as the local superintendent petitioning for the land to be returned in 1912 and 1918, only to be rebuffed on both occasions. The Pueblo Lands Board, which was established in the 1920s to address lands taken from all of the various Pueblos, failed to rectify the situation, as the board could only reimburse the value of taken lands, not actually return them. A compromise, the first of many, was reached in 1927—a cooperative agreement between the Taos Pueblo and the Secretary of Agriculture covering the disputed section of the Carson National Forest. The agreement allowed lumbering and forage within the area for natives, required tribal approval for camping and issuance of access permits, and ensured privacy for the tribe’s religious ceremonies.

The 1930s brought further proposed legislation, but the USFS pushed back against attempts at adding more acreage to the 1927 agreement. In 1940 the agency issued a special use permit to further solidify the 1927 compromise, setting the covered area at 30,000 acres. The Pueblo were still unsatisfied. Later that decade, the Indian Claims Commission (ICC), which was created in 1946 for tribal nations to bring claims against the federal government, emerged as another avenue for the Pueblo to pursue redress. Initially, they were reluctant to take this step, as the ICC could only award monetary damages and not return land; in running out of options, however, they sought to at least prove their claim and so eventually filed a complaint. Meanwhile, more issues emerged in the 1950s. Despite the special use permit, the Pueblo argued that there were too many visitors to the area and the stocking of Blue Lake was attracting sport fishing. That, along with the promotion of the lake through guided tour visits and photographs in a local newspaper, were all too much for the Pueblo.

More meetings were held. The USFS was accommodating, agreeing to such changes as further limiting use permits and requiring the Taos Pueblo war chief or governor to cosign all entry permits. But the memos on the meetings are littered with asides that question the tribe’s claims; as one official even wrote at one point, “It should be kept in mind that many of the Indians on the Council have the attitude that all of their requests should be granted.” The USFS continued to restrict access to the area in hopes of mollifying the tribe, finally in the early 1960s banning all fishing and camping around the lake; but they could not win for losing. The fishing ban engendered the wrath of local newspapers, with the Taos News calling it “high handed” and the Santa Fe New Mexican at one point lamenting the “starving, stunted trout” in the lake. Through it all, the issue remained for the Taos Pueblo—the land was theirs to use, but it still wasn’t their land.

In 1965 the fight received a jolt when the ICC ruled that the Taos Pueblo were entitled to nearly $300,000 in compensation for the land. The Pueblo immediately proposed a deal: they would waive the award if they were granted the 50,000 acres of land around Blue Lake. The government balked, not wanting to set a precedent for returning lands in lieu of payment, but a groundswell grew in Congress. The USFS went on the offensive, fervently arguing that the transfer was not needed because the Pueblo already enjoyed unfettered access to and control over the lands. The agency had a powerful ally in New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson, who would soon introduce legislation granting a limited land transfer, which ultimately went nowhere. The executive branch was hardly in lockstep, however. Harkening to the early days of the issue, the Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall assured the Pueblo that he supported the land transfer; the Pueblo also had their own Senate support, when at the 44th Annual Meeting of the Association on American Indian Affairs in New York, Senator Robert Kennedy signaled his backing. The public too began weighing in, as seen in folders and folders of newspaper clippings and letters in our holdings.

The Taos County Commissioners chairman argued against the land transfer, even stooping to point out “The United States acquired the land in question by conquests and by the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.” Archbishop James Davis in Santa Fe expressed his support for the Pueblo, stating “It is difficult to conceive any argument that can take precedence of the sacred convictions of a people.” It is also in these letters that—like Banquo’s ghost—an advocate for the Pueblo decades earlier emerged once again in the form of the now-Taos local John Collier. Noting that he had personal knowledge older and more continuous than anyone in the USFS, Collier argued to the Secretary of Agriculture that the Pueblo deserved the land and reminisced in an attached essay about an invited visit to the Blue Lake ceremony in 1926 and his own fights to have the land returned. Perhaps foreshadowing this very essay, he even noted “The National Archives at Washington through the years reveal the Pueblo’s unceasing, but always quiet, effort to preserve its immemorial rights.”

The USFS refused to budge, forcing Secretary Udall to suggest a compromise of transferring the land into the national wilderness system. The USFS only promised to consider the idea, and the Pueblo likewise were cool to it, allowing that the idea was a “helpful one” but that they could not give approval. Congress, meanwhile, steamrolled ahead. In 1966, 1967, and 1968, the House of Representatives passed bills transferring the land, although a Senate firewall prevented them from reaching the president’s desk. But that firewall would soon begin to crack.

In 1969 the House of Representatives passed yet another bill, H.R. 471, but this one finally gained traction in the Senate. In response, Senator Anderson again introduced his own bill that, when distilled down, was a continuation of the special use permit scenario in effect already; as he wrote to the USFS, his bill “would be in the best interest of the Taos Indians and the public.” It went nowhere while H.R. 471 gained steam, coming to a head in 1970. Anderson’s last-ditch amendment to keep the land under the Department of Agriculture was soundly defeated, and on December 2, 1970, H.R. 471 passed the U.S. Senate by a decisive 70–12 vote. Given President Nixon’s historic July message to Congress calling for a new direction in Native American relations, including an entire section dedicated to Blue Lake specifically, the president’s signature was a foregone conclusion. Blue Lake would be returned.

Early 1960s map from proposed legislation granting the land transfer; the yellow area represents the Pueblos’ land prior to the transfer, while the green and red areas combined represent the added 50,000 acres.
Behind the Taos Pueblo in this 1958 USFS photograph is the Sangre de Christo Mountains, in which the Blue Lake is nestled. (NAID 7003396, Local ID 95-GP-170-492184).

In thanking the assembled dignitaries at the bill signing 50 years ago, Cacique Romero’s translated remarks include a statement that still resonates today, one that could be interpreted as a call to action for all Americans in these troubling times:

“We have to have a brotherhood; we have to have a relationship; we have to have an understanding. We have to have an understanding that we can get along in this country to do the work, what we are responsible for, us as the leaders of this country. And this responsibility is more than the material things that we are able to call for, but to protect the life and to protect what in this America is really beautiful, peace, honesty, truth, understanding, consideration.”

The bulk of the source material for this essay comes from the Records of the Forest Service (Record Group 95) holdings of the National Archives at Denver, with the final photograph found in the National Archives Still Pictures Branch. The bill signing photographs are courtesy of the Richard Nixon Presidential Library and Museum, where further textual records can be found. The Senate vote total is courtesy of GovTrac, and the text of President Nixon’s December remarks are from the American Presidency Project. Additional Record Group 75, Records of the Bureau of Indian Affairs, as well as Record Group 279, Records of the Indian Claims Commission, collections that discuss this topic can be found at the National Archives in Washington, DC.