On Tuesday, December 15, 1970, United States President Richard Nixon signed the bill that effectively returned Taos Pueblo’s sacred Blue Lake and the surrounding 48,000 acres of National Forest to the people of Taos Pueblo.
The pristine lake, which lies at the bottom of a glacier-carved depression in the Sangre de Cristo mountains east of Taos pueblo, is the Pueblo’s most sacred shrine and the site of some of its most important yearly rituals. Blue Lake and its watershed had been confiscated by President Theodore Roosevelt’s administration in June 1906 as part of the U.S. Forest Service process of creating Carson National Park.
Pueblo leaders took action almost immediately following Roosevelt’s actions, but met with resistance from Washington. Various attempts were made to accommodate the multiple potential uses for the lake and its watershed, but, because the area was national forest, it was subject to non-recreational uses like logging. In the early 1960’s, increased interest in logging the area created a renewed sense of urgency. The resulting pressure on Washington culminated in the legislation Nixon signed in late 1970, sixty-four years after Roosevelt’s signature.
While the return of Blue Lake was of major significance to the Taos Pueblo people, it also had a wider value, because the legislation set a legal precedent for the idea of Native American land ownership based on religious significance. The law also inspired the Indian Religious Freedoms Act of 1978. This act required the U.S. government to preserve and protect American Indians’ inherent right to believe, express, and exercise their traditional religions. It also enabled access to religious sites and the use and possession of sacred objects. So, while the loss of Blue Lake for so many years was tragic, its return was a blessing that extended far beyond Taos Pueblo itself and is an event worth celebrating.
Sources: William deBuys, Enchantment and Exploitation, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1985; Rubén Sálaz Márquez, New Mexico: a brief multi-history, Cosmic House, Albuquerque, 1999; Corina A. Santisteven and Julia Moore, eds., Taos, a topical history, Museum of NM Press, Santa Fe, 2013; Marc Simmons, New Mexico, UNM Press, Albuquerque, 1993.