Indian Country Today
There is a familiar narrative that surfaces when our young people take on a cause that results in a shift of public policy.
It was a group of Native youth who ran 500 miles from Cannonball, North Dakota, to the district office of the United States Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha, Nebraska, to protest the Dakota Access Pipeline. Then they ran 2,000 miles to Washington, D.C., to the Army Corps’ headquarters. Then “Standing Rock” happened.
Or that push from Native youth to call out professional sports teams and their mascots. Or a call to vote. Or … there are so many good stories, generational ledgers that pass on the values of a community, a society, a people.
There is another story to tell about youth; the one where we add time and context.
Fifty years ago Gilbert Suazo Sr. was in such a youth society representing Taos Pueblo. Their mission was the return of the sacred Blue Lake. Suazo serves on the Taos Pueblo Council and is a former governor.
“Thinking back,” Suazo recalls, “I realize now how complicated that would have been. It’s almost impossible for it to have happened with the opposition that was there. And thankfully we didn't think like that at the time, all we were interested in was we were going to get that land back one way or another.”
Along the way there were a lot of steps, and a few missteps, but the most important thing is that the pueblo’s leadership was resolute. The land had been taken by the Forest Service in 1906 and the pueblo remained focused on its return.
“I'm really thankful,” Suazo said, they were “not willing to give up the fight.”
In 1970 that leadership included the Council Secretary Paul Bernal, Governor Quirino Romero and the Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero.
Suazo went to Washington as the youth representative. He said he remembers driving around and seeing various government buildings. Then he drove past the National Archives.
“That kinda caught my eye and I had a notebook where I was keeping notes and I wrote on there we'd passed the national archives,’ he said. “I wrote on there, like tribal archives, I thought, ‘well, why not?’ You know, why I can, we have, uh, our own archive?”
That may happen soon. He said the state funded an archival project to document the Blue Lake story. There is so much rich material.
(Related story: 50 years since Richard Nixon’s ‘break with the past’)
An April 17, 1970 memo from Leonard Garment to President Richard Nixon made the case for the return of the Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo.
“In 1906 the President signed a proclamation making 130,000 acres of this area a National Forest; the Indians have contested this ever since.” The Indian Claims Commission and the Justice Department reached the conclusion in 1965 that the United States “took said lands … without compensation.”
“Over the years, since 1906, this particular issue has snowballed,” Garment wrote. “It is now the single specific Indian issue and as such of major symbolic importance.”
Some wanted to pay the tribe (an idea that was unacceptable); while others wanted token lands returned or limited use permits granted.
“To be very candid, the question before you is not what happens to the bill,” Garment wrote. “The answer seems to be little chance. The question, however, is what position you as president should take, for both moral and political reasons.”
The moral reasons were clear: Blue Lake had been stolen by the government. Not that that particular fact had ever been enough.
And the political reasons were at best complicated. I interviewed John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy advisor, in 1987 in Santa Fe. This was after Watergate. And after his prison term.
Ehrlichman cited a lot of political reasons, ranging from Nixon’s support of the underdog to the creation of a new federal Indian policy. Then he smiled. “I just wanted to stick it to Democrats,” he said.
But the Senate debate over Blue Lake defied modern politics. Team Nixon allied itself with liberals Fred Harris, George McGovern, Ted Kennedy, as well as conservative icon Barry Goldwater.
The Senate had long been an obstacle to the lake’s return. New Mexico Sen. Clinton Anderson, a Democrat, and a former secretary in the U.S. The Department of Agriculture was adamant that the land remain with the Forest Service. The Interior Committee, chaired by Henry Jackson, a protege of Anderson, did not support the legislation. But the bill made its way to the full Senate where it was expected to be a close debate.
“We still didn’t know what Barry Goldwater was going to do,” said former White House Fellow Bobbie Kilberg. Then the debate senator stood up and said he would like to make a statement. “What he said, in very measured tones, was that after thinking about it long and hard, he decided that the Taos people deserve to have their land back, that it was a matter of treaty rights. It was a matter of basic equity and it was a matter of religious freedom.”
The Senate vote was not close.
Richard Nixon signed the bill into law on December 15, 1970.
“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,” the president said. “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.”
“Today the United States passes $1 trillion in terms of its national economy,” Nixon said. The leadership of Taos showed something else. “A side that money cannot measure -- eloquence, a deep spiritual quality, and the strength that the Indian people, the first Americans have given to America generally in their contribution to this nation … something that no trillion dollars could ever possibly estimate.”
What are the lessons from Blue Lake?
“I think perseverance. What we did over generations of tribal leadership, the fight was never given up. And just like any other thing, yes, there were disputes and disagreements within the tribe,” Suazo said. “But all of those things were overcome.”
Taos News: Taos Pueblo celebrates 50th anniversary
Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor of Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix.
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