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President Nixon and the sacred lake: Bill preserves pueblo history

Associated Press

 Adobe dwellings at Taos Pueblo pictured in 2012. The story of the return of Blue Lake and 75 square miles of surrounding national forest land to the people of Taos Pueblo is being retold 50 years later. (Beth Harpaz/Associated Press)

SANTA FE – It was 1970, the U.S. president was Richard Nixon and members of a small Native American community in northern New Mexico traveled to Washington to press their case for reclaiming a sacred alpine lake from federal control.

The story of the return of Blue Lake and 75 square miles of surrounding national forest land to the people of Taos Pueblo – finalized with Nixon’s signature in December 1970 – is being retold 50 years later, as tribal leaders and state legislators look for ways to preserve documentation and memories of the landmark victory for indigenous rights.

A legislative proposal would devote $350,000 from the state general fund to help preserve photographs, transcripts and news articles and develop exhibits and educational lessons about the campaign to reclaim Blue Lake, a site prized as an integral part of Indian pueblo culture and ceremonial traditions. The lake is in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains more than 2 miles above sea level.

Bill sponsor Sen. Bobby Gonzales, a Democrat from the adjacent town of Taos,recently described the decades long effort to reclaim the Blue Lake site, culminating in the halls of Congress with a battle of persuasion and public relations. The area first fell under direct U.S. management as forest land in 1906.

In testimony to a state Senate panel, Taos Tribal Council member Gilbert Suazo described the return of Blue Lake as a turning point in the history of his people. He said it’s a milestone in the 20th century Indian rights movement toward greater autonomy in governance and education.

Far from Taos Pueblo in 1970, the 19-month occupation of Alcatraz Island in San Francisco Bay was underway, after a group of indigenous activists and supporters banded together to take back land that they felt didn’t belong to the U.S. government.

The Blue Lake story is entirely different, Suazo said.

“It was not like a radical kind of thing. It was actually a tribal cause, a tribal matter, and that’s the way we worked it,” said the former Taos Pueblo governor, who testified before a congressional committee in the summer of 1970.

A breakthrough came after a meeting with U.S. Rep. Manuel Luján Jr., a newly elected New Mexico Republican who would go on to serve as interior secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

“I’ll look into it; I’ll let you know” was the initial answer, said Suazo, who was in his mid-20s at the time. “And then he actually wrote a letter back. … He said, ‘I will do what my heart tells me to do and I will support this.’ ”

Taos claims to ancestral lands were competing for attention with movements to reclaim land grants dating back to the Spanish colonial era and Mexican rule.

“He was a Hispanic congressman, and there were Hispanics that were against the return. For him to step out like that was very significant,” Suazo said.

Newly proposed state legislation would provide funding for commemorative celebrations, a short documentary film and educational materials that eventually may reside at a heritage center at Taos Pueblo.