STEADFAST AND AUTHENTIC
Taos Pueblo celebrates the 50th anniversary return of Blue Lake
by Rick Romancito
IN 1906, PRESIDENT THEODORE ROOSEVELT established the Carson National Forest, setting aside over a million acres in Northern New Mexico for outdoor recreation, grazing and resource extraction.
However, inside this land was the 48,000-acre Blue Lake Watershed that had been used for Native religious ceremonials by Taos Pueblo tribal members for millennia.
When it did this, the federal government did not inform the pueblo of its intentions. Tribal leaders learned of it after the fact. When the tribe objected and asked the federal administration to reverse its decision regarding Blue Lake, it refused, stating such a move was “foreign to the policies of the Department of Agriculture, when once some land has been set aside as a National Forest, to allow it to be withdrawn completely and donated to a private purpose.”
Battle lines drawn
Thus began a decades-long fight, waged by tribal elders some of whom spoke only their native Tiwa language but who traveled many times to Washington, D.C., with interpreters to plead their case, often to deaf ears. Most never lived to see its end. But, the fight finally did end.
Fifty years ago, on Dec. 15, 1970, then-U.S. President Richard M. Nixon signed into effect Public Law 91-550 finally returning Blue Lake to Taos Pueblo, an epic victory for Native American rights and upholding tribal sovereignty, according to taospueblo.com.
In a statement, Nixon said, “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. The Congress of the United States now returns that land to whom it belongs … I can’t think of anything more appropriate or any action that could make me more proud as president of the United States.”
That victory is but one chapter in a vivid history that saw the people of Taos Pueblo at the center of monumental events.
The Taos people have occupied this valley for more than a 1,000 years, during which they thrived with their own language, traditions, tribal government and religion that predated Plymouth Rock, the Liberty Bell and the Constitutional Congress.
They were here when a group of scouts led by Captain Hernando Alvarado, who were under the command of Spanish conquistador Francisco Vázquez de Coronado, first glimpsed their multistory adobe village on Aug. 29, 1540.
And, they were here when the Spanish began establishing colonies nearby in 1598. But this cultural exchange was not without conflict.
When Spanish colonists arrived south of here, led by Don Juan de Oñate, their mission followed Coronado’s failed expedition to find the fabled Lost Cities of Gold almost 60 years before. While no glittering castles of gold were found, the church took note of a new population of souls to save in New Spain.
But the many adobe villages (pueblos, in Spanish) dotting the landscape, mostly along the Río Grande, were a diverse collection of people following a variety of beliefs and customs. Spanish missionaries immediately set out to make inroads by employing translators and learning the Native languages.
While this may have started out as a positive cultural exchange, a great offense began to grow in New Mexico as some of these holy men, isolated from the formal church in Mexico City, violated the tenets given them as they headed north.
Instead of following orders to respect the beliefs of the Native population, some were convinced the religion followed by Pueblo Indians was satanic and set about destroying it by using allies in the Spanish military. Tribal religious leaders were arrested and tortured, some killed, and the underground chambers where rituals were conducted known as kivas, were torn apart. Objects and shrines of great significance to the proper performance of ceremonials were ruined.
These ceremonials, part of complex and dynamic ritual cycles, were, and continue to be, extremely important to the people of these pueblos. Without them, they envision a world thrown into chaos.
In addition, the Spanish imposed two systems as part of their government that led to more abuses. One, called encomienda, meant that lands and the Natives living upon it could be seized as reward “for purposes of tribute and evangelization” (merriam-webster.com). The other, called repartimiento, allowed colonists to use Native people as forced labor (britannica.com).
Still, when marauding bands of nomadic Natives attacked to rob colonists of horses, goods and slaves, they would take refuge at Taos Pueblo where the multistoried homes had entrances in the roof accessible by ladders, which they pulled up to prevent invasion.
Seeds of rebellion
Combined with violent acts designed to suppress Native freedoms, these systems created enormous upheaval. Finally, in 1680, the Pueblo people of New Mexico had enough.
It began with a religious leader named Pópay. Although he was from Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo (formerly San Juan) where Oñaté established the first Spanish colony, his plans for a revolt were fomented at Taos Pueblo. From here, he enlisted a secret network of runners that would take messages to other pueblos to alert them of the coming uprising.
The week before the planned uprising, a runner carrying a knotted rope — which signified the days remaining before the event — was captured and tortured. Although he revealed the plan, it was too late to stop it. On Aug. 10, 1680, the Pueblo Revolt began at Taos Pueblo and quickly spread to all the pueblos.
Surviving Spanish colonists fled to Santa Fe, where they took refuge until pueblo rebels cut off their water supply. They were then allowed to safely leave for Mexico City.
The Spanish colonists were allowed to return in 1692 in what some have called the “reconquest.” In reality, the return was marked by sporadic outbursts of violence and bloodshed, but eventually the Spanish reestablished their foothold in New Spain. This was partly successful because the government in Mexico rebuked church and military leaders for abusing the powers granted them in the first place.
The Spanish reentry into New Mexico was relatively accepted. At Taos Pueblo, the blend of cultures began to see the introduction of mountain men and other adventurers seeking a new life in this rugged land. Eventually, Mexico gained independence from Spain in 1821.
The last great uprising in Taos occurred on Jan. 19, 1847, when combined Taos Pueblo and Hispanic rebels rose up against the Americans who were planning to annex New Mexico as part of the United States. They believed the new government, represented by Territorial Governor Charles Bent, was intent on seizing all their lands. They murdered Bent and many government and civil officials before heading north to Arroyo Hondo and attacking Turley Mill.
As soon as Col. Sterling Price was informed of the revolt, he and more than 300 troops and volunteers rode north, defeating a large contingent of rebels at Embudo Pass before heading to Taos. There, rebels had taken refuge within the adobe walls of the San Geronimo Church at Taos Pueblo in the belief soldiers would honor the time-honored tradition of sanctuary.
They did not. It should be noted that many of those inside the church were women and children as the men retreated into mountains above the pueblo hoping to lead the soldiers away. A fierce battle ensued in which American cannons destroyed the church walls, killing about 150 rebels and capturing hundreds more.
As vibrant today as in the past
Taos Pueblo persevered, and became the center of attention for artists at the turn of the 20th century. By 1912, when New Mexico became a state, the community of Don Fernando de Taos was a thriving art colony known over the country as a place of scenic wonder.
The people of Taos Pueblo maintain a way of life that is based upon a culture that continues to thrive despite challenges and conflict. Tribal members were and are a strong presence in America’s military, having participated in every action from the Civil War to the present, always with the dedication in mind that they represent a strong warrior tradition to protect their land and people whatever the cost.
Many are artists themselves, distinguishing their works on the local and national stage where their unique vision is celebrated for its creative vision. And, many tribal members excel in the professional sector, adding their skills to the region’s burgeoning infrastructure.
The tribe also invites visitors to various dances and ceremonials over the year, but there are some restrictions. Because these dances are part of the tribe’s Native religion, officials prohibit all cameras (including cellphones) and recording devices.
And, don’t forget the annual Taos Pueblo Powwow, which usually happens on the second weekend in July, but which is cancelled this year due to COVID-19 precautions.
This secular event, put on by a committee of tribal members separate from tribal government, brings intertribal dancers and drummers from all over the country to an arbor arena west of the historic village.
Located at the end of Ben Romero Road in El Prado, the powwow offers a three-day colorful and vibrant Native American experience under the watchful gaze of Pueblo Peak.
For more information, visit taospueblo.com or call (575) 758-1028.