A few years ago, a Palestinian man from Gaza visited me in New Mexico. In addition to the typical tourist sites, I wanted him to see the indigenous people in Taos Pueblo, thinking he might draw some connections, or simpatico as we say in New Mexico.
Quite by accident, we happened to visit Taos Pueblo on a Feast Day, and we witnessed the music, dancing and solemn ceremonies involved in the tradition of these people. My Palestinian friend didn’t say much, and I’m not sure if he felt any kinship or connection with Taos Pueblo. Maybe I had assumed too much.
I wish I had told him the story about Blue Lake.
Taos Pueblo members believe that their tribe was created from the sacred waters of the Blue Lake, or Ba Whyea. From the 1600s, the Spanish and Mexican authorities recognized the Taos Pueblo land rights. And when the U.S. government took control of the Southwest, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo (1848) also recognized the Pueblo’s sovereignty over their land and Blue Lake.
Then in 1906, by Executive Order President Theodore Roosevelt placed Blue Lake and the surrounding watershed into the hands of the Forest Service as part of the Carson National Forest. For the next 64 years, Taos Pueblo leaders struggled to regain their sacred land and waters. They traveled to Washington, DC many times to try and convince Congress to return Blue Lake to them.
In testimony before Congress in 1969, Paul Bernal explained, “In all of its programs the Forest Service proclaims the supremacy of man over nature; we find this viewpoint contradictory to the realities of the natural world and to the nature of conservation. Our tradition and our religion require people to adapt their lives and activities to our natural surroundings so that men and nature mutually support the life common to both. The idea that man must subdue nature and bend its processes to his purposes is repugnant to our people.”
A good history of the Blue Lake controversy can be found here. Finally, in 1970, President Nixon approved a bill that returned full sovereignty of Blue Lake and its watershed to Taos Pueblo.
In speaking of the Bill’s significance, President Nixon stated, “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.”
The Palestinians have been struggling since 1948 to regain sovereignty over their lands, by negotiation, by violence, and most often by nonviolent Sumud, or steadfastness. There are certainly big differences between the struggle for Blue Lake and the occupation of Palestine, but I also see some similarities.
- Both indigenous peoples have a spiritual connection to the lands that were taken from them.
- Both cases involved Anglo settlers moving in and pushing out the indigenous people with an arrogance and sense of entitlement that makes me cringe.
- Both Palestine and Taos have generations of younger people who learned the stories and lessons passed down from their elders about the injustices perpetrated years ago; and memories don’t die.
The Israeli occupation of Palestine will have to end before there is justice in the Middle East, but I have no doubt that the Palestinians will find their justice, as Taos Pueblo did in 1970.