Matthew van Buren Taos Pueblo Gov. James Lujan said he hopes the story of Blue Lake will inspire the pueblo's youth to fight for what they believe in, even if defeat seems inevitable.
Lujan addressed hundreds of people gathered Saturday on the Taos Pueblo Plaza to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Blue Lake's return to pueblo ownership. He spoke of the importance of honoring the sacrifices and accomplishments of those who fought for decades against seemingly impossible odds. The fight spanned generations, he said, incorporating spirituality, politics and basic human rights. And it is an affirmation of Indian religious freedom and self-determination.
President Richard Nixon signed HR 471 into law Dec. 15, 1970, returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo after 64 years of federal control over the 48,000-acre area surrounding the lake. Blue Lake was taken from the pueblo by presidential order in 1906, and pueblo members and sympathizers spent the next six decades fighting for its return.
The day he signed the Blue Lake bill, Nixon said the return of the land represented justice and respect for the religion of the Taos Pueblo people. It also represented a dramatic shift in federal policy, ushering in a new era of self-determination and an end to the trusteeship relationship between the U.S. government and Native American tribes.
Blue Lake is central to the pueblo's religion, which also requires privacy. Tribal member Gilbert Suazo, who organized the Youth of Taos Pueblo during the struggle for Blue Lake's return, said the happiness people felt when it was returned to the pueblo is hard to describe.
"There was great jubilation in Indian Country nationwide," he said. "The joy felt was unbelievable."
Suazo said to have Blue Lake back as part of the pueblo's land, so that members don't have to seek special-use permits from the U.S. Forest Service in order to practice their religion, still evokes strong emotion.
Lujan said it is important to take time to remember pueblo members and sympathizers who did not live to see Blue Lake returned to the pueblo. He said the story of the Blue Lake struggle resonated with people all over the world and continues to inspire people today.
"Blue Lake was a victory that didn't come easy," he said, adding that "sometimes the struggle is just as meaningful as the outcome."
Ongoing Blue Lake-related events organized by Taos Pueblo's Blue Lake Committee culminated in Saturday's event, which featured traditional songs and dances as well as speeches and an exhibit of old photographs, petitions, news clippings and even the pen Nixon used to sign HR 471, returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo.
A traditional feast was also served. Lillian Monroe said a group of women had been cooking for days. They used 150 pounds of flour to make different types of breads, cookies and pies. Rose Romero said everything was baked outside in hornos.
They made dough Monday night, Florinda Concha said, and started baking Tuesday morning.
Concha was stirring pots of stew over a fire Saturday morning. She said the cooks made red- and green-chile stews, cabbage stew, vegetable stew and posole, including pork and buffalo meat into the recipes. "We've been here since the wee hours of the morning," she said, adding that she was hoping for time to see some of the old photographs.
Among the guests who attended the celebration Saturday were former Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, a former staff assistant to Nixon, Bobbie Kilberg, and U.S. Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry Echo Hawk.
Jack Straus, who worked as an attorney for Taos Pueblo in 1969 and 1970, also spoke Saturday. He recalled a conversation with Paul Bernal he had the day the bill passed. Bernal was the principal member of the tribal delegation that lobbied for Blue Lake's return. Straus said he told Bernal that nothing in his future career could match the importance of helping to return Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo people. "That has proven to be the case," he said.
He said he still displays the moccasins former Taos Pueblo Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero presented to him after the victory.
Suazo said his grandchildren have started going to Blue Lake for the first time in recent years, and he believes the area will continue to be important to Taos Pueblo as young people inherit the pueblo's land and culture.
"The land remains in beautiful, pristine condition," he said.
Blue Lake, closed to nonmembers of Taos Pueblo, is now managed as wilderness by pueblo rangers and the war chief's staff. Twenty or more hilly miles lie between the pueblo and Blue Lake. War Chief Secretary Scott Fields said it is an arduous climb to the area, and tribal members continue to go to Blue Lake with a sense of reverence, recognizing that it is a special place.
Suazo said it is significant that after going through the patience, stress, hardships and disappointments of the Blue Lake struggle, justice was achieved.
"The ability to endure was a blessing," he said. "Patience and endurance resulted in prayers answered."