Saturday, November 24, 2007

Taos Pueblo and Sacred Lands: A Return to the People

I was recently down in northern New Mexico doing some fieldwork, and visited several of the Native American pueblos in the area. One of my favorite areas has always been Taos and the mountains outside of the pueblo. What many people don't realize is that the Taos indigenous peoples have not always had access to certain parts of the land directly behind their pueblo, despite the fact that it was part of their ancestral homeland for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. All of this changed in 1970 when the U.S. Government returned to Taos pueblo their sacred Blue Lake and the area surrounding it.

Since time immemorial the land, water, and other natural resources in the Taos pueblo indigenous homeland sustained their lives and culture. However, after the arrival of Euroamericans this vast area began to shrink. In 1906 a substantial amount of acreage within Taos pueblo's ancestral domain was designated as National Forest by President Theodore Roosevelt. Within this acreage was Blue Lake, one of the Native American's most important religious site. After this designation the Taos indigenous people had to get permits to worship and conduct ceremonies at their own site. Furthermore, because of public access to the lake and surrounding areas, the sacredness of the site became desecrated: cabins, corrals, and even an outhouse were built within the sacred area.

Now, however, things are different. Several generations of Taos pueblo leaders fought and protested the taking of this religious area. After 70 years of perseverance, 48,000 acres of the Blue Lake area was returned to Taos pueblo by President Nixon in Public Law 91-550. Today, the indigenous peoples of Taos pueblo are able to once again conduct ceremonies, rituals, and other spiritual practices on their traditional land and at some of their traditional sites, such as Blue Lake. This allows them to keep their culture and identity alive.

To me, this is a great story. Although it has many a sad part, what I really like is the fact that through perseverance indigenous peoples can continue to flourish in an age of global hegemony. Much of my work is involved in just such fights, showing that the indigenous peoples have the knowledge, and the right, to manage and maintain their ancestral lands - often to a better degree than Euroamericans do (for example, see this article). I was honored to be in such a beautiful place, and I will continue to advocate for the return of land - or at least co-management of land - to indigenous peoples. Together, we can all make the world a better place.

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