Taos Pueblo won back its sacred lake after long battle 00:00

The Great Rural Fighting to reclaim stolen land

Taos Pueblo won back its sacred lake after long battle

It’s rare for Indigenous tribes to have their land returned, but it is possible. The story of one Pueblo in New Mexico shows how difficult and how meaningful it is for Native communities to get back their land.

Did You Know? Tap to expand
In 1910, rural African-American farm families held between 16 million and 19 million acres of farmland, but as of 2019, that number had spiraled to approximately 2.5 million. Source: PEW Trusts

Cody Nelson
Let’s start this story at its happy ending: Centuries after the native people of Taos Pueblo in northern New Mexico had their lands stolen by colonists, and, later, the federal government, Congress decided to give them back their land. Seventy-five square miles of it.

President Richard Nixon signed legislation returning the land in December of  1970. It was around Christmastime, so the Nixon White House made a whole show of it. Holiday decor lined the walls of a room packed with a mix of suit-wearing D.C. politicos and Native Americans dressed in traditional clothing and headdresses. He gave a little speech, too.  

Clip: President Richard Nixon 

It is a bill which could be interpreted particularly in the Christmas season as one where a gift was being made by the United States to the Indian population of the United States. That is not the case. 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.

Cody Nelson

The land in question is called the Blue Lake area, named for the sacred body of water that sits high in the Sangre de Cristo mountains — more than 11,000 feet above sea level, a world above the traffic and bustling ski town of Taos below.  

It took a lot of work to get to a point where the federal government would actually give back that land that colonists took from the people native to this continent. 

I wanted to learn more about how the Taos Pueblo won its fight, so I got in touch with Gilbert Suazo, Sr. , who also goes by Gil. He was born and raised in Taos Pueblo and has a lifetime appointment as a tribal council member, after serving two terms as the Pueblo’s governor. 

I’m gonna let Gil tell most of the story … but, given that we talked on a Zoom call with questionable audio quality, I’ll jump in when needed. 

But before Gil takes over, you should know that the Taos Pueblo is over a thousand years old.

And while the U.S. government didn’t formally take Blue Lake from the Pueblo until the 20th century, Gil says the theft of his peoples’ land began with Christopher Columbus’s invasion in 1492.  

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

That’s when Indian tribes, including Taos Pueblo, came under the threat of losing their lands, which, of course, eventually happened over the next few hundred years. 

For us, the Spanish explorers came into our area. And they brought with them a new concept of land ownership, meaning they’re claiming the land, wherever they arrived at, they claim the land in the name of the king of Spain. 

Cody Nelson

Native communities and the colonists had very different ideas for considering the land. 

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

The Spanish government concept, and then later, the U.S. government concept of land ownership, is different from what we have, what we occupied what we used, we considered that our lands. And just like other tribes had their areas of use, that’s what they considered their land. There was like overlap amongst the tribes;  some of them use the same hunting grounds, you might say, maybe the same areas of cultural use. But we respected each other’s area of use. 

But the boundaries of the more defined areas, like for Taos Pueblo, other tribes respected that this was Taos Pueblo land. And of course, when the Spanish settlers came in, they saw what was, to them, a lot of empty land, empty land that was in their eyes, would be very useful for them, where they could settle. 

Cody Nelson

Spanish colonists continued their gradual invasion of this region until 1680, the year of the Pueblo Revolt. The native Puebloans in the Southwest, mostly in modern-day New Mexico, drove out the Spanish in what’s now considered the most successful resistance of European colonization by a native population. 

The Spanish returned over a decade later, and Gil says the colonists had more respect for tribal culture the second time around. 

However, the colonization and dispossession of tribal lands continued — for centuries.

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

All these lands were claimed by the United States government, of course, the Spanish settlers that came in, settled on these lands, and this resulted in the loss of huge acres of land for our people. 

Of course, in areas like the mountain areas, like the Blue Lake area, all that area was still used by our people for subsistence, for hunting, for gathering of native foods, for wood and for building houses and, and of course, for cultural uses as well. 

Cody Nelson

The formal taking of Blue Lake happened in 1906.

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

President Roosevelt was beginning to take huge blocks of land to turn into national forests. Our lands were taken away by, I always say, with a stroke of a pen.

Cody Nelson

Gil says some Taos Pueblo members didn’t realize what was happening right away.

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

They didn’t know until restrictions began to be applied to these areas, restrictions on the use of the lands and then the trespassing that was going on when our people complained about trespassing. And they begin to realize that this land that we always saw as our own was, it was no longer under our ownership.  

The loss of Blue Lake really became … I guess it struck home for our people.

Cody Nelson

The Blue Lake area had become a site for logging operations. And cattle grazing. And recreation, like annual fishing trips. 

All this, on land that’s sacred to the Taos Puebloans, as well as other tribes. So, they fought back. 

Gil says tribal leaders in the early 1900s protested a few decades and eventually got what’s called a “special use permit” for the Blue Lake area. Basically, that meant the Pueblo was supposed to have exclusive use of the region for 50 years. But Gil says that didn’t happen because Blue Lake remained public land and the trespassing continued. 

In the 1950s, the federal government set up the Indian Claims Commission. The Pueblo filed a claim to get back Blue Lake, but the feds said no — they wanted to compensate the tribe instead. 

But the Pueblo didn’t want the money. They wanted to find a way to get back their land. 

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

And of course, the question was, how do we do that? Well, the avenue was congressional legislation. 

Cody Nelson

In the latter half of the 1960s, when the Pueblo was starting to lobby support to get back Blue Lake, Gil says there was a lot of negative press against them.

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

I was an observer, you might say, and reading the different articles that were appearing in newspapers are all against the Pueblo. And our people, our tribal government normally does not fight their battles in the media. A lot of negative publicity was appearing, and our people, our government was not responding. They didn’t think they should be responding through the media on those things. And I, as a younger person, I felt badly that some of that criticism was going unchecked. So I begin to respond to some of that criticism that was appearing in the newspapers on my own, you know, just as a young Taos Pueblo member. I expressed my response to those letters, you might say, and editorials that were apparent in the area regional newspapers. 

And eventually, that caught the attention of our tribal council, and then our attorneys and others that were working with a tribe on the Blue Lake case. I think I was viewed as an important new voice in this whole thing, that the voice of the younger generation was coming through. 

Cody Nelson

Eventually, the campaign by Gil and others was successful. It led up to that bill that President Nixon signed. 

Fifty years later, the Taos Pueblo still celebrates the anniversary of the day it got back Blue Lake. Now, only tribal members can be on this land that they hold sacred. 

Native people across the modern-day United States see the Pueblo’s recovery of Blue Lake as a major symbol in what’s been a centuries-long fight to get back their land, taken by European colonists.

Gilbert Suazo, Sr.

Naturally, for Indian tribes and the other tribes that have lost lands and lost their ancestral areas… I think it’s important that these tribes be able to, to the extent possible, to get ownership of these lands back, a few of them have after the return of Blue Lake, a few of them have. But for many tribes, you know, there’s a lot of meaning. You hear many of the tribes say, the bones of our people are on those lands, you know, and they’re buried, there are people in those lands, just like we say, you know, the blood of our people is in our land, you know, it’s soaked into the ground.

Basically, you know, they are the owners, their caretakers of these lands. And when these lands are taken away, then, you know, it’s diminishing the people in their lives or way of life, their culture, it’s diminishing that. 

I know for other Indian tribes that are going through hard times, to an extent possible, I just feel like their ownership should be recognized and restored.

Cody Nelson

For iPondr, I’m Cody Nelson

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Episode Fighting to reclaim stolen land