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Return of a Sacred Site

Taos Land Trust, New Mexico

Taos Land TrustAs the sun set on a stormy July evening over Taos, New Mexico, tribal officials and traditional dancers lined up for the grand entry to the Taos Pueblo Powwow. Near the front of the procession, looking a little bit out of place, were staff and board members from Taos Land Trust. They were being honored for returning the sacred Ponce de León Hot Springs to the Tribe.

"Critical to Our Well-Being"

As the grand entry proceeded into the arena, tribal officials and land trust folks went into the middle, eventually surrounded by dancers from dozens of tribes in full regalia. A table was brought into the center, and Pueblo officials and land trust representatives gathered to say a few words. Taos Mayor Darren Córdova read a proclamation declaring “Ponce de León Hot Springs Day.” Warchief Secretary Herald Lefthand read a public statement that New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez had sent to support and commemorate the historic event.

Then, in the presence of representatives of Indian nations from across the continent and hundreds of local community members, Taos Pueblo Governor Laureano Romero, Warchief Benito Sandoval and Taos Land Trust President Christopher Smith put their signatures to paper to legally finalize this transfer of a sacred site from Taos Land Trust to the people of Taos Pueblo. It had been a complex and occasionally challenging process, but after seven years of building a relationship based on mutual trust and respect and the hard work of many individuals, the land trust returned the site to its original indigenous owners.

Warchief Sandoval, whose leadership and determination were instrumental in forging the transfer agreement, expressed gratitude for the return of the sacred site. “Blue Lake, the Rio Grande, Red Clay, the Hot Springs … these areas are critical to our well-being, without them we would not exist,” he said. “It is important to preserve these areas for the future of our children and all who live here. We are very grateful!”

A Long Road Home

Concerned about potential development of the site, Taos Land Trust purchased the 44-acre property from private owners through a generous anonymous donation in 1997. Generations of Taoseños have enjoyed the sparkling spring water, which bubbles up from deep underground sources. But long before them, the Ponce de León Hot Springs just south of Taos was a sacred site to Taos Pueblo and had been used by members of the Tribe for ceremonial activities as long as they have lived in the Taos Valley. Archaeological remains of ancient settlements dating back at least 1,000 years are found near the springs, and in the 1962 testimony for the Taos Land Claim, tribal elders described their historic use of the site.

Though privately owned since patented by the U.S. government in 1909, and part of two overlapping Spanish land grants before that, the property has long been considered a public resource by all members of the community. In October 2009, Taos Land Trust signed a deed of conservation easement with the Santa Fe Conservation Trust to permanently protect the property, limiting any future development potential no matter who owns it.

Over the years, the land trust entertained numerous proposals and considered many alternatives for ownership and management of the property. In the end it was returned to the first people of the Taos Valley, the true and original stewards of the property. The Tribe is committed to honoring the terms of a perpetual conservation easement that restricts development and provides for continued public access for all the people of Taos. Now they will be caretakers on behalf of the entire Taos community.

“This was not an easy decision for the land trust board of directors and caused some rifts over the years,” says Ernie Atencio, former executive director of Taos Land Trust who saw the deal through to completion. “But the current board members deserve a lot of credit for their vision about what this would mean and their courage to see it through.”

In addition to the basic justice of returning a sacred site to its original indigenous owners, this transfer addresses some of the thorny issues of local history and intercultural relations, and may help heal old wounds. Crestina Trujillo Armstrong, native Taoseña rancher and long-time Taos Land Trust board member, was particularly moved by the signing: “I’ve devoted seven years of my life to this project. To see it finally completed is monumental. This is the right thing to do. I believe that in the long run, the transfer of the hot springs to the Pueblo will strengthen relations in our community.”

"We have lived upon this land from days beyond history’s records, far past any living memory, deep into the time
of legend. The story of my people and the story of this place are one single story. No man can think of us without thinking of this place. We are always joined together."

- Taos Pueblo elder and Tribal Manifesto

Saving a Cultural Landscape

In his speech during the transfer ceremony, Ernie Atencio shared these words:

This kind of partnership between a tribe and a land trust is a very rare thing, but I think I can say that we are all very proud to be helping to establish a new precedent. Land trusts deal with our most important resource—the land—and I think they have a responsibility that goes beyond simple conservation to honoring and helping sustain the cultures and traditions that are part of that landscape. Anywhere that people have such a deep and rooted relationship with the land, like the Indian and Indo-Hispano communities of northern New Mexico, it is really a cultural landscape that we are trying to protect, not just a natural landscape.

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Editors: Sheila McGrory-Klyza and Christina Soto
Photos: Courtesy of Taos Land Trust

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