RAPID CITY, S.D. - Environmentalists who protest forest management practices and American Indians who want to protect cultural sites have joined forces to bring awareness to the public about the sacredness of the Black Hills.
Logging, residential development, shooting ranges, mining and tourism have adversely impacted the Black Hills, sacred to the American Indians of the Plains, advocates assert.
"The forests are the lungs of the planet, the lungs of our bodies," said Julia Butterfly Hill, the woman who sat in a redwood tree for two years to stop a development project.
"We live in a world full of problems. The solutions lie in the connection to the Earth," Hill said. She started an organization called We the Planet and tours the country advocating a reconnection to nature.
Hill and others were part of a gathering here to protest a proposed shooting range that was funded by a grant from Housing and Urban Development. The proposed range is in the vicinity of Bear Butte, one of the most sacred sites for Plains Indians in the Black Hills range.
A group formed to protest the devastation of the Black Hills, Defenders of the Black Hills, filed a lawsuit against the hunting club that proposed the shooting range under the assumption that the range would not cater to low-income or underemployed families.
A HUD investigation determined the grant was misused and the state will return the funding. It isn't clear what will happen to the shooting range, so the Defenders are continuing their pressure to stop the progress of the construction, organization officials said.
"The project will have to find private money if it wants to continue, but then it will also have to face us in court based on religious freedom, said Charmaine White Face, director of the Defenders of the Black Hills.
Hill said that all the issues of poor environmental concern by groups and the government were symptoms of a disease that needs to be solved and it is only done through the connection with the earth. And while groups like Hills and the Defenders criticize the management of forests for different reasons they have the same goal in mind; corrective action to change policy.
"Those of you who have an education and learn about who you are and why gives us reason to think this earth was made special. There is nothing to hold it in place, there is one energy that makes it possible, the Great Spirit," said Johnson Holy Rock, fifth member of the Oglala Sioux Tribal executive committee.
Holy Rock said the Black Hills are sacred and evidence comes from the buffalo. Oral history tells the story of a herd that lived in the Black Hills and each spring would migrate to the prairies through what is known as Buffalo Gap. He said the people would wait for the buffalo and when it was time for migration to occur, this particular herd would go back to the Black Hills and not migrate like many others.
There are hundreds and estimated thousands of sacred sites in the Black Hills. The mountain range is considered by geologists as the oldest in North American and many tribes have a history with the Black Hills, Devils Tower and Bear Butte.
Sacred sites are not just in jeopardy in the Black Hills. Winona LaDuke, director of the White Earth Land Recovery Project and 2002 vice presidential candidate, said Spirit Mound near Lake Superior in Minnesota was a special place for the Anishinabe people but the mound was under consideration as a location for a golf course.
"There are enough golf courses, there are not enough sacred sites," LaDuke said.
"We have to protect that which restores us, the places where we talk directly to the creator. This country was founded on religious freedom, but it wasn't until 1978 that we had the right to practice our freedom, and the problem today is that your sacred site is someplace where they want to extract coal or oil and we have to prove why it is sacred," LaDuke said.
The fight to save sacred and cultural sites in forests and the prairies is an increasing battle. Along the Missouri River, the Corps of Engineers has jurisdiction over the hydro power dams and reservoirs and each year sites that had not been surveyed or identified fall into the river, the result of erosion.
Tribes try to have a say in how the Corps manages the river and takes land along the river, but the struggle is long and overlaid with bureaucracy, regulations and rules.
"Many people recognize how we feel," said Tim Mentz, director of the Tribal Historical Preservation Office on the Standing Rock Reservation.
"We all walk in these areas and feel something. The federal government forgot our spiritual needs - these areas are spiritual."
Mentz, who has testified numerous times before Congressional Committees said the tribes have to constantly try to convince congress that areas are sacred and then the government pulls out regulations that show the situation is not covered by sacred sites.
"One slip of a pen can take it all away from you," Mentz said.
To the Lakota people, the belief is that they have been given the responsibility to protect the cultural, sacred and burial sites left by their ancestors over hundreds and thousands of years.
Federal protection of the land is also important to maintain the integrity of the sacred and cultural sites. There are federal laws such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, National Environmental Protection Act and others that pertain to cultural and funerary sites.
But in the Black Hills a recent rider, called the Daschle Rider, to open parts of the national forest and some wilderness areas to logging for the prevention of wildfires has upset tribal members and has circumvented the laws that protect sacred and cultural sites.
"Protection is gone from us by the stroke of a pen," Mentz said. "Some say they don't want to give the tribes veto power, they know our tie to sacred lands."
A bill now on in Congress would add further protection to sacred sites on federal lands, but the bill is slow moving at this time.
White Face asked the crowd that gathered to take form letters and send them to their legislators with the request to override the Daschle Rider. "It's a myth that ordinary people can't fight the federal government, that's baloney. We can push legislation through as a rider to keep the Black Hills sacred sites.
"This will make our sacred sites sacred again," she said.