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Mark Trahant
ICT

TAOS, New Mexico — July 8 should be a holiday. It could be called “Self-Determination Day.” Or “Blue Lake Day” or the name once given to this celebration by the Taos Pueblo, “Justice Day.”

A commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the events of July 8, 1970, was held as a hybrid event at the University of New Mexico Harwood Art Museum in Taos. The celebration had been delayed for two years by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Gilbert Suazo Sr., a member of the Taos Pueblo Council, said remembering the return of Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo is important because it reminds people of the significance of what happened.

“The return of Blue Lake, our beautiful and culturally important land, took over 64 to 90 years of our people's energy and dedicated efforts against complex legal, governmental and political obstacles to accomplish,” Suazo said. “This was the first time the federal government returned land wrongfully taken from an Indian tribe.”

There are so many lessons – and stories – to tell about Blue Lake and that effort. It’s not an understatement when Suazo calls this an “epic accomplishment … what our people went through to achieve justice.”

That story includes perseverance. Blue Lake was illegally taken by the federal government and added to national forest lands in 1906. This was extraordinary for many reasons, but most important, the loss of Blue Lake made it impossible for the Red Willow People to practice their religion. In 1970, that leadership included the Council Secretary Paul Bernal, Governor Quirino Romero and the Cacique Juan de Jesus Romero.

“A great victory did not come easy,” Suazo said. “It took generations of our people's energy, stress, strong will and persistence to achieve the victory. It took the great patience and strong determination of decades of tribal governors, war chiefs, and tribal councils to continue to fight for 64 years until victory was achieved with a return of the sacred path area in 1996, that was omitted from the initial return of the Blue Lake area. It was overall a 90-year effort.”

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Suazo said even as a young man he understood the injustice. “I learned from my uncles and other men to always hide when I go into the mountains because the forest service was patrolling the area and I might get in trouble.” The regulations were complicated and interfered directly with the spiritual practices that began in time immemorial.

“The significance of this victory is that if the federal government had had its way at that time, the public's cultural relationship with Blue Lake would've been settled. That's how important that particular fight was,” Suazo said.

Gilbert Suazo Sr., a member of the Taos Pueblo Council, stands before the historic photo of President Richard Nixon meeting with the pueblo delegation about the return of Blue Lake at a celebration held July 8, 2022, in Taos, New Mexico, to mark the day more than 50 years ago when Nixon returned the lands to the people. (Photo by Mark Trahant/ICT)

One significant obstacle was New Mexico Sen. Clinton P. Anderson. Anderson, a Democrat, had a long record of public service – and power. He had been the Secretary of Agriculture (and therefore the head of the U.S. Forest Service) and he was determined to never let the land go back to its rightful owners. Back then a senator from a state often had the final word on an issue within a state.

But the leadership of the pueblo kept working at it, meeting with anyone who could help. One of those meetings was with Oklahoma Sen. Fred Harris, a Democrat, who also happened to be married to a Comanche, LaDonna Harris.

“When I first heard about the desire to have the return of their 48,000 acres of sacred Blue Lake land from this delegation,” he said, “I was totally convinced of their sincerity … (about ) how important this was and central to their religion and their culture.”

He said he understood why it was vital to prevent outsiders coming in “or invading this territory” and why the pueblo should have complete control.

“I said, ‘If we don't do another thing while we are here [we should] see that this land is returned to Taos Pueblo,” Harris said. He wrote to the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee and asked for a public hearing, only to have that blocked by the senator from New Mexico.

“The Democratic members of the Senate Interior Committee … did something very unusual,” Harris recalled. They had a private meeting, including Harris, designed to pressure him to back off.

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Anderson, who began to lecture him about what he thought ought to be done, warned Harris that if he didn’t support a provision giving the pueblo limited use to the forest, he would make sure that no legislation at all passed the Senate.

Harris countered by promising to attach Blue Lake legislation to every bill that came out of the Interior Committee, requiring vote after vote.

Meanwhile a new president, Richard Nixon, was taking a look at the issue. By March 1970, Nixon had decided that the facts supported the Taos Pueblo. He was going to issue a statement of support. That’s when the politics of the day ramped up.

Bobbie Greene (now Kilberg) was a White House Fellow and she had been assigned to release a fact sheet on the Nixon administration’s new Indian policy and the administration’s support for Blue Lake’s return. She had mimeographed a statement and was on her way to the White House Press Room.

“Out of nowhere, I literally get tackled by the White House Director of Senate Relations, Ken BeLieu, with such force that it knocked me down,” she recalled. “Ken helps me up and apologizes, he declares that the Indian message fact sheet cannot and will not be released. Incredulously, I said to him, ‘Why?’ and BeLieu said, ‘Well, New Mexico Senator Clinton Anderson’ (my least favorite person at this point in time) ‘opposes the return of Blue Lake and is threatening to vote against the anti-ballistic missile treaty, the ABM treaty.’”

The White House conflict was resolved when John Ehrlichman, who led domestic policy in the Nixon White House, and BeLieu went to meet with the president.

Kilberg waited near the Oval Office. Then when the door opened, “I thought I saw the president wink at me, which would be highly unusual.” She said Ehrlichman was smiling broadly and BeLieu looked like a bus hit him.

“The president had instructed Ken to tell Senator Anderson that his decision stands and that if Anderson does not like it, so help me, God, he can vote against the ABM and he can go four-letter-word himself,” she said.

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The fact sheet on Nixon’s Indian policy had just been elevated to a statement. And a few days later the leadership of Taos was invited to a special meeting at the White House.

“Meeting in the cabinet room was a unique honor,” Kilberg said. “Since the cabinet room was almost exclusively reserved for meetings with the cabinet, with governors, with congressional leaders and delegations of foreign heads of state.”

This was a visible symbol of government-to-government relations.

“It was the first time in the Nixon White House that anyone other than those designees have been invited to meet the president in that room. And it was a recognition by the president of tribal sovereignty and his respect,” she said.

In addition to the support for the Taos Pueblo’s cause, the Nixon message also began the Self-Determination Era in which tribes were officially treated as governments rather than as wards of the Bureau of Indian Affairs. This policy approach actually began quietly at the end of the Johnson administration, but Nixon was able to make the issue more visible (the New York Times carried the photo of the Cabinet Room on the front page, above the fold) and to follow it up with legislation from Congress.

There were many obstacles that remained after July 8 before Blue Lake would be returned to Taos Pueblo. A Senate hearing a day later tried to dismiss the pueblo’s cause because once the federal government started returning land to Indigenous people … where would it stop?

But there was now a bipartisan coalition in the Senate. Republicans joined Democrats in support of Blue Lake. Anderson’s team had become much smaller. The final Senate vote was 70 in favor and 12 opposed, on Dec. 2, 1970.

There was a delegation in the Senate gallery.

“Gallery visitors are never, ever supposed to talk or stand up, and never, ever supposed to applaud,” Kilberg said. “But the Cacique had brought with him two canes, one that President Abraham Lincoln had given to the Pueblo and one that President Nixon had given to the Taos Pueblo on July 8, 1970, and the Cacique despite the rules, he stood up in the Senate gallery, and held those two canes up,” she said. “And then all the senators on the floor of the Senate, they stood up, and the place erupted and absolutely sustained applause, no one had ever seen anything like it before. It was extraordinarily moving.”

The signing ceremony was held at the White House on Dec. 15.

Laura Harris, left, and her mother, LaDonna Harris, center, join Bobbie Kilberg in discussing the events that led up to President Richard Nixon's announcing the return of Blue Lake to the Taos Pueblo on July 8, 1970. A celebration was held July 8, 2022, in Taos, New Mexico, to celebrate the decision more than 50 years ago. Kilbert was a White House Fellow at the time, and LaDonna Harris was the wife of U.S. Senator Fred Harris of Oklahoma, who was involved in the discussions. (Photo by Mark Trahant/ICT)

Linda Yardley, Taos Pueblo, and a niece of the late Paul Bernal, talked about the role of the family in this fight. Her uncle had been an entrepreneur and was busy.

“When things started getting really complicated with the Blue Lake situation, he gave all of that up and devoted his entire life, his entire adult life to the return of Blue Lake,” she said. “You know, he never really talked about what it was like for him, personally. His biggest concern was for the elders that he had to take with him on the trains, on the airplanes to go to the East Coast, to the West Coast, New York, Chicago, to raise money. We didn't have money. Our tribe was very poor back then. And it was really hard on him, because he didn't have personal wealth himself. He had to work and make sure everybody was taken care of and that they had shoes, socks. They had a coat to wear, a blanket to take with them. It was that hard of a situation.

"And he talked a little bit about what it was like to be on the train because the partners that used to take care of 'em had never seen any Indian men with long braids," she said. "They used to pull their braid and they used to wonder why they weren't wearing regular shoes.”

He continued to press for a fix to a glitch in the Blue Lake legislation that left some of the land under Forest Service control. That was resolved in the Clinton administration.

“That was the last time he went to D.C.,” Yardley said. “After that he devoted his entire life to being a traditional elder. He stayed home. People had come to him for advice. He would go to the Kiva. He was technically a traditional elder, which I think his parents wanted him to be.”

Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-New Mexico, said the story of Blue Lake continues to have meaning today.

“Several weeks ago, we held a hearing on the bill dealing with the truth and reconciliation, the healing bill coming out of the boarding schools,” she said. “I need to tell you that that was a very sad, sad hearing. It was so important, but there was nobody who did not cry listening to those stories of the horrors that we as the federal government inflicted on those young children, because we wanted to beat the Indian out of them. And it really wasn't until a Republican president came in and recognized that that was not working and that was simply wrong. It was an injustice. And so in many ways, the self determination, the sovereignty, the tribal sovereignty that Blue Lake does represent is both the symbol of faith and it is the symbol of hope.”

She said the Supreme Court’s decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta is an example of continuing injustice.

“We must all recognize [this decision] is the opposite of what President Nixon did with Blue Lake and with the Indian Self-determination and Education Act, because let me quote … the opinion says, ‘Indian country within a state's territory is part of a state, not separate from a state. As a matter of state sovereignty. A state has jurisdiction over its territory, including Indian country.’ That is language that we must not be quiet about, and that is language that we must then recommit ourselves to do what Blue Lake symbolizes the fight to protect tribes, their sovereignty, to recognize and honor the sacred nation and the sacred objects.”

Laura Harris was helping her mother, LaDonna, speak at the event. She said her mother wanted people to know what the world was like for Indigenous people in the 1960s and 1970s.

“The racism against Native Americans was very harsh, and the paternalistic, federal policies of assimilation were brutal,” she said.

She said senators did not understand that tribes were governments, retaining the rights that had always been there.

“Senators made very ugly remarks, mostly born of ignorance, but also of anger that these Indigenous peoples would want their own land back,” she said. The government still “knew” what was best for Indigenous peoples from boarding schools to land ownership.

The victory by Taos “was a victory for all indigenous people,” Laura Harris said. “It was the first time of course, that land was returned to an Indian tribe, but it wasn't the last part of what these old senators were scared of – the precedent to give one piece of land back. ‘Everybody will want their land back.’”

She said the senators were right, of course. And Blue Lake was a symbol of the power of that eventual justice.

Mark Trahant, Shoshone-Bannock, is editor-at-large for Indian Country Today. On Twitter: @TrahantReports Trahant is based in Phoenix. The Indigenous Economics Project is funded with a major grant from the Bay and Paul Foundations.story

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