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.