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Original Issue


A holy lake of the Pueblos has become a symbol of America, maybe doing right—or once again doing wrong—by her Indians

In the United States Senate this week the Subcommittee on Indian Affairs, headed by George McGovern, is debating whether to return 48,000 acres of beautiful, sacred land to the Indians of the Taos, N. Mex. pueblo. This measure has already passed the House twice, yet it is being blocked in the Senate. In the last month President Nixon and Interior Secretary Walter Hickel have been moved to its support, and Kim Agnew, the 14-year-old daughter of the nation's most quoted phrasemaker, has ridden horseback into the mountains and danced to chants and drums to show how she feels about it.

To most Anglos, even sensitive ones, one mountain is pretty much the same as any other mountain, and a pond is a place to swim in or yank fish out of. The idea of feeling reverence for a mountain lake to the point of making it a site of religious worship seems nonsense to many who have never lived where water is scarce.

But the watershed that comes down from Blue Lake on the eastern slope of Wheeler Peak, the highest place in New Mexico, has sustained the inhabitants of the Taos pueblo for at least 1,300 years, and probably for much longer. To these people everything that grows or gives life is sacred. There is a belief among these Indians that life originated at Blue Lake, that the Old Ones, the first of their tribe, arose from its waters. To ancient migrating people the rich green valley of Valdez, watered by the Hondo River, and the high plateau of Taos, fed by Lucero Creek and the Rio Pueblo de Taos, must have seemed a paradise. Dominant over the valley and the plateau are the Taos Mountains, with Wheeler Peak as their Olympus, often shining with snow and thrusting into the clouds: far off to the south stand the dark humps of the Pecos Mountains, and to the west, across the Rio Grande gorge and desert, continually shifting in colors, are the Ortega Mountains, visible from 80 miles away.

Not only the Indians perceive a magical quality to the place. Several small communities of religious mystics have settled in Taos County, erected adobe houses and tepees, planted vegetable gardens and entered meditation, seeking to discover the Indian ways. The mystics suggest, quite seriously, that Blue Lake is one of seven energy nodes in the world, one of the earth's five magnetic concentrations, hence a source of great strength. Brooks Morris Jr., a classical musician and maker of hand-carved furniture, lives in a house among bunches of flowers on the rim of the plateau overlooking the desert and the valley. "If you live a party life and stay distracted, you could be here for years and never know why the place has a hold on you," he says. "But if you sit quietly for a while until the city has washed out of your senses, you will begin to understand that this is a profoundly spiritual place." For whatever reason Blue Lake is a shrine.

The story of what the Taos Pueblo Indians have gone through in an attempt to cling to their Blue Lake watershed is of sufficient emotional appeal to lead President Nixon in a message to Congress last month to call it "an issue of unique and critical importance." Both the Spanish and Mexican governments recognized the Indians" right to use Blue Lake. The Indians built their first pueblo in the area around 700 A.D. and occupied pit houses there much earlier. In the 18th century the King of Spain, whose flag had been carried in by Coronado, granted five miles square of land to the Indians, primarily to separate them from the Spaniards against whom they had fought a bloody revolt. That grant did not include Blue Lake but did take in what is now the town of Taos. Presumably the Indians thought their isolated shrine would be safe. Then, in 1906, six years before New Mexico became a state, the U.S. Government put Blue Lake into the Carson National Forest, thus in effect taking control of it. The Indians have been trying to get the lake back and protect their land rights ever since.

Until 1918 the Indians used the good grass at the top of Blue Lake watershed on the east as summer pasture. That year, in a letter that is one of the few documents the Indians have retained, the Forest Service asked the Pueblos' permission to issue, just for one year, permits on the best 9,000 acres of the watershed to non-Indian stockmen to graze beef for the war effort. The Indians agreed to this—and have never been able to use this pasture since. White stockmen continue to run animals on the 9.000 acres, and even if the current bill passes the Senate the Indians will be forced to buy the grazing rights from these stockmen.

At a meeting of the Pueblo Lands Board in 1926 the Indians offered to trade their land-grant to part of the town of Taos, which was being occupied by Anglos and Mexicans, for Blue Lake. Instead, the board recognized the titles of the Anglos and Mexicans who had settled in Taos. Then, in 1940, Congress granted the Indians "free and exclusive" use of most of the Blue Lake watershed for 50 years, but this did not stop Federal and state authorities from stocking several sacred lakes in the Indians' private preserve with trout, cutting trails and urging tourism. In 1965 the Indian Claims Commission upheld the Taos Pueblos' claim to "aboriginal title" to Blue Lake and conceded its religious significance. Despite the 1940 exclusive-use agreement the Indians must still go armed into the mountains, they say, to intimidate loggers and occasional tourists, who have been known to leave the banks of Blue Lake strewn with bean cans and hot-dog wrappers—the equivalent of throwing trash on an altar.

All of this is not an unusual tale in the annals of the mistreatment of Indians, but the fact of its happening in Taos has helped to attract attention. The town has been noted as a haven for beards, long hair and eccentric behavior since Kit Carson and other mountain men made it their headquarters about 1860. By the turn of the century Taos was an artists' colony. Author and painter D. H. Lawrence lived there in the 1920s. His ranch house is a private museum. The southern approach to town has become an American bad dream of root-beer stands, drive-ins and curio shops. There is a constant traffic jam along the south road and around the plaza. But there are still many craft shops, art galleries and studios hidden on narrow roads, and Indian men wrapped in blankets lean on parking meters, watching the tourists. To the north the essential beauty of Taos remains.

About four years ago several communes were set up in the area, some for religious purposes, others for what has been called "psychedelic farming." Last year thousands of hippies lied San Francisco, New York and Chicago, having heard Taos was the place to be. They met hostility from Anglo and Chicano residents, found that the Indians did not automatically regard them as brothers and were eventually turned away by the communes.

The Taos area now has four ski resorts which bring in swarms of winter people. Fishermen and hunters arrive, as well as tourists when the snows have melted. With not enough land to support the tribe and its livestock, including a herd of 25 buffalo, the Indians have been squeezed into an ever-smaller space and forced to sell jewelry and blankets to survive. They revolted against the U.S. in 1847, killed the territorial governor and saw their own mission church at the pueblo blasted apart by artillery. Angered by encroachment on their land, they nearly fought back again in 1910. A few years ago a mounted party of 40 warriors with rifles and shotguns was ready to ride against the loggers before being talked out of it. Every male over the age of 15 in the pueblo reportedly has a rifle and ammunition. But the Indians have continued to search for a peaceful solution despite frustrating behavior in Washington.

Which is why the visit of Kim Agnew last month has given them further hope. Miss Agnew, a shy, pretty girl, rode with a dozen Indians and a dozen policemen, newsmen and advisers—ore of whom was Len Garment, the Nixon counselor—up to Blue Lake from the Red River side of the mountain. The lake, which gets its name from the intensity with which it reflects the sky, is at 11,500 feet. Storms are often encountered en route while the valley below is sunny. Miss Agnew sat gasping on a rock, her head down, understandably stricken by the altitude, while it was discussed whether to try to fly her down in a helicopter. But she rode back on a horse to finish the 10-hour journey. When the Indians go up to Blue Lake they usually leave from their pueblo, a round trip of 46 miles. Their secret ceremonies up there last three days, and two more days are required for traveling. In the course of the Blue Lake watershed are some 60 Indian shrines, of which Garment said he recognized only Blue Lake. "Even some people in the Forest Service say there are no shrines up there," says John Yaple, an adopted member of a Taos Pueblo family and curator of the M. A. Rogers Foundation and Museum near Taos. "They're looking for man-made structures. But every source of water is a shrine—no need for a building around it. The Indians don't think they can improve on the work of God." Later in a speech at the pueblo Garment did refer to Blue Lake as "a sacred tabernacle" and confessed to being "deeply impressed" by the Indians' refusal to accept money for their Blue Lake claim. "A spiritual vision cannot be compensated by money," said Garment.

With the Taos Mountains rearing abruptly behind the dun-colored pueblos on a bright, crisp day and the clear Rio Pueblo de Taos flowing between the adobe buildings. Miss Agnew presented Pueblo Governor Querino Romero, 64, with a silver-headed cane from Nixon. He replied with a speech in Tiwa, the Indian language. She danced in a circle with men carrying eagle feathers and corn rattles and women wearing buckskin, long silk dresses and bright blankets. Bells chinked, bone whistles tooted, chanters and drummers kept up a hypnotic tempo. New Mexico Governor David Cargo said, "At long last we are keeping faith." Louis R. Bruce, Commissioner of Indian Affairs, called it "a day of justice." But Garment admitted he is not especially confident the Blue Lake measure will reach the floor of the Senate. The one man influential enough to push the bill through and return the Indian land is Clinton Anderson, senior Senator from New Mexico. As Secretary of Agriculture under Truman, he was once chief of the Forest Service. But Anderson is backing an alternate bill that will give the Indians exclusive use of 1,640 acres surrounding Blue Lake and require them to submit to "restricted entry" by non-Indians in the rest of the watershed.

There are about 1,000 Indians living in the Taos pueblo now and another 500 have gone out to find work in the white man's world. Most of the exiles have formed nontribal groups with other Indians in the cities to study the old ways. "The educated ones have experienced white society and made up their minds they don't want it," Yaple says. "They prefer their own religion, which is nature—not to waste anything in nature, not to harm anything unnecessarily. They understand the relationship between nature and the spirit. The white man is beginning to see that, too, and he calls it ecology, but it will take him a long time." When an Anglo turns his tap and what comes gushing out of the spigot is brown and smelly, that is when he is reminded, as the Indians have always remembered, that water is the source of life.


BRILLIANTLY BLUE, the lake, just 500 by 1,000 feet, sits high in the Taos Mountains.


WELCOMING SUPPORT from Washington, the tribe greets Kim Agnew, the Vice-President's daughter, who visited the lake (below) with Pueblo Tribal Leader Cruz Trujillo.


Those opposed to deeding Blue Lake outright to the Indians argue with fervor that the Pueblos never held legal title to the area, hence this is not a matter of "returning" 48,000 acres. Since the time of the Spaniards the contested land has been in the public domain. Additionally, and more important, the present bill would establish a precedent of making land, instead of that more traditional currency, cash, the basis of settlements with Indians. Other tribes, it is contended, could demand the return of much of Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the San Francisco Peaks—to mention just a few national glories—as religious shrines, which indeed they once were.

The government recognizes what it calls the "aboriginal title" of Indian tribes to lands they once occupied, and it is on this basis that it pays them for land the U.S. took from them, but aboriginal title is in no way regarded as the equivalent of legal title to the land. Indians claim aboriginal title to 90% of the U.S.

Opponents of the House bill declare that the Pueblos, under the terms of the 1940 agreement giving the tribe exclusive use of the area for 50 years, already control the Blue Lake region as if they owned it, with the exception of grazing rights. The Forest Service supervises the grazing, it is claimed, simply because the Indians have a history of overgrazing this land and misuse causes erosion and floods downriver, damaging other farmers' property.

Since 1957, tribal officials have cosigned every permit issued for entry into the area, and these passes are given infrequently. Non-Indians without permits admittedly have ventured into the land, but by and large, in the past 20 years, the prohibition has been well-enforced. Lumbering, camping and fishing by outsiders is outlawed. Young Pueblos, however, have been known to smuggle in anglers, charging them $1 a day to fish in the sacred places.

The move to cede Blue Lake is principally, the opposition says, nothing more than expiation by Americans for their guilt feelings for treatment of Indians in the past.