Joan Livingston TAOS — To many, President Richard M. Nixon was Tricky Dick, one of the men who oversaw an unpopular war in Vietnam and quit office following the Watergate scandal.
But to many people at Taos Pueblo, Nixon was a strong ally whose support 40 years ago helped the tribe regain its sacred Blue Lake after a 64-year struggle.
Not only was this the first time that lands were returned to a tribe because of their religious significance, but the decision also is considered a landmark ruling for Native American rights of self-governance and self-determination.
"If you go to an All-Indian Pueblo Council meeting today and you get up and say President Richard Nixon had the best Indian policy of any president in history, they'll give you a standing ovation," said Republican David Cargo, the former New Mexico governor who assisted Taos Pueblo in regaining Blue Lake.
During the Theodore Roosevelt administration, the U.S. government seized ownership of 48,000 acres of tribal lands as part of the Carson National Forest. The land included Blue Lake, site of the tribe's annual pilgrimage and some of its sacred ceremonies.
"In 1906, my people began a battle that would last 64 years," Gilbert Suazo Sr., a tribal elder, said at the Taos Pueblo Powwow on July 10. "Nobody knew how long it would last, how complicated it would be."
As the late Paul Bernal, longtime tribal secretary, once said, not one person alone is responsible for Blue Lake's return. The effort, which ended in 1970, took the persistence of Taos Pueblo leaders (many of whom are now deceased), other tribes and non-native friends.
Federal officials stymied the tribe's opponents, including Clinton Anderson, a New Mexico U.S. senator who said returning the land would set a bad precedent.
But Taos Pueblo had the bipartisan backing of key legislators such as U.S. Sens. Fred Harris, Edward Kennedy, Robert Kennedy, Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. And the tribe found a formidable supporter when Nixon became aware of its cause.
Taos Pueblo will hold celebrations commemorating the return of Blue Lake on Friday and Saturday.
Suazo told those attending the powwow that he paused July 8 to recall what had happened that day 40 years ago when he was part of the delegation that spoke with Nixon about the tribe's plight concerning Blue Lake.
"The president of the United States told us, 'I believe in your fight, I believe in your cause. I've always wanted to help Indian people in my heart ever since I was a young boy,' " Suazo said.
Suzanne Poole, widow of Rufus Poole, the Albuquerque attorney who spent the last six years of his life working on the Blue Lake case, said Nixon's interest likely stemmed from his admiration for a football coach at Whittier College who was Native American.
After a two-day debate, the Senate voted 70-12 on Dec. 2, 1970, to return Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo. On Dec. 15, Nixon signed the measure into law alongside tribal leaders, including Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero and Pueblo Gov. Quirino Romero.
Bobbie Greene Kilberg was fresh out of Yale when she became a White House fellow during the Nixon administration. She had worked with the Navajo Nation while a student, and she said when John Ehrlichman, Nixon's domestic affairs counselor and her supervisor, asked at a senior staff meeting whether anyone had experience with Native Americans, she raised her hand. Thus, Ehrlichman assigned her the task of developing the Nixon administration's policies toward American Indians.
Kilberg said Blue Lake's return was a defining moment in Native American relations with the federal government.
"Forty years ago, Richard Nixon righted a wrong that had been 64 years old," Kilberg said.
Cargo, the former New Mexico governor, was long involved with the tribe's struggle as a lawyer. He had also worked with the Navajo Nation. He recalled meeting in late winter 1969 with Vice President Spiro Agnew and Ehrlichman. Afterward, he joined Nixon in the Oval Office to give him background on Blue Lake and how it should be rightfully restored to Taos Pueblo.
"He was well versed in it," Cargo said of Nixon.
Cargo, who noted that Sen. Anderson tried to dissuade him from assisting Taos Pueblo, said Nixon was very interested in Taos Pueblo's plight and became a big supporter, writing to members of Congress. He said Ehrlichman also pushed hard for Blue Lake's return.
When Agnew's teenage daughter, Kim, came to Taos Pueblo, she brought a cane for the cacique from Nixon.
At a celebration held in August 1971 at Taos Pueblo, Kilberg read a message from Nixon: "I consider the signing of Public Law 91-550 one of the most significant achievements of my Administration. It is more than just a land settlement: It is a symbolic turning point in the history of those who were the first Americans. It is the beginning of a new era which will finally achieve for you the fullness of the prosperity and progress you deserve as citizens of this richly endowed land."