Cape Wind project may be test case of Obama administration’s promises

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WASHINGTON – A meeting between Wampanoag leaders and top level Interior Department officials about a proposed wind energy project on a site that has been sacred to the People of the First Light since time immemorial may be the first test case of the Obama administration’s commitment to honor the needs and laws concerning Indian nations.

Cheryl Andews-Maltais and Cedric Cromwell, chairs of the Aquinnah and Mashpee Wampanoag Tribes, respectively, will meet with Interior Secretary Ken Salazar and Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs Larry EchoHawk Jan. 13 to voice their opposition to Cape Wind, a proposed wind farm in middle of Nantucket Sound on an area called Horseshoe Shoal, which is triangulated by Cape Cod, Noepe (Martha’s Vineyard), and Nantucket.

Last week the National Park Service said Nantucket Sound is eligible for listing in the National Register of Historic Places as a significant traditional, cultural, historic and archaeological property. The designation could delay or deny the project if it fails to meet a number of rigorous criteria.

The wind farm would cover an area the size of Manhattan – around 23 square miles – and include around 300 turbines each towering around 440 feet above water level. The turbines would be clearly visible to both Aquinnah and Mashpee people and would degrade their essential view of the rising sun for ceremonies and of the ocean view shed necessary for other rituals. The shoal itself where the turbines would be erected was once dry land and contains sacred burial sites and other cultural patrimony.

The meeting was called by Salazar who must still sign off on a federal permit before the project can move forward.

“This meeting, I believe, is going to be the first test of whether or not we’re getting lip service and rhetoric from the administration or whether they’re truly going to hear the tribal nations – whether they’re going to pay attention and try to help us or whether it’s business as usual,” Andews-Maltais said.

The nations’ voices opposing the project since its inception in 2004 have been largely disregarded. The NPS designation changes that, Cromwell said.

“Beyond the merits of any one project, this decision should help our tribe protect our history and culture by mandating that we be consulted when any proposed project will affect Nantucket Sound. We are confident that the Obama administration and the BIA will ensure that the federal government will take all necessary steps to fully consult with our tribe when considering development on Nantucket Sound,” Cromwell said.

Andrews-Maltais, who gained knowledge of the laws regulating historic preservation while serving as Aquinnah’s tribal historic preservation officer before being elected to chair the council two years ago, said the laws are all on the nations’ side regarding the Cape Wind project.

“The first step in evaluating a proposed site is to assure you don’t destroy it or negatively affect the integrity of the site. We’ve said from the beginning that we’re against this project in this location because it’s going to be devastating to us. What is so painful to us is that as we try to keep our culture and tradition and ceremony aligned and pass it on to the next generations so that we have it in perpetuity, which is what our ancestors sacrificed for, a private developer on an exclusive private property is going to be able to take this away from our people for profit? We have so little left. Have we not suffered enough?” Andrews-Maltais said.

She said the nations have suggested alternate sites for the project that would not degrade their cultural and spiritual traditions, and under the law a developer cannot refuse to locate on an alternate site simply because it might cost more.

In a statement issued after the NPS decision was announced, Salazar indicated that he is weighing the Obama administration’s commitment to alternative green energy against its promise to respect and protect the needs and laws regarding Indian country.

“America’s vast offshore wind resources offer exciting potential for our clean energy economy and for our nation’s efforts to reduce our dependence on foreign oil. But as we begin to develop these resources, we must ensure that we are doing so in the right way and in the right places,” he said.

In addition to the meeting with the tribal leaders, Interior officials will meet with all the stakeholders, including representatives of the state, the Cape Wind developer, and federal agencies to try to work out an agreement by March 1.

“If an agreement among the parties can’t be reached, I will be prepared to take the steps necessary to bring the permit process to conclusion. The public, the parties, and the permit applicants deserve certainty and resolution,” Salazar said.

Andews-Maltais worries that an attempt would be made to make the tribes an offer they can’t refuse. “My fear is that they’ll try to throw money at us just to go away and let it happen, but what kind of legacy would we be leaving for our children? We won’t be bought for feathers and beads again.”

A draft memorandum of understanding has been received, but she refuses to read it. “I just hope that we’ll be able to have our traditional cultural values respected and if the wind project cannot be moved that the Interior Department finds that the tribe’s rights to our religious practices and religious freedoms and our spiritual values are upheld, and they deny the permit for Cape Wind in Horseshoe Shoal.”