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Elders defend secrets of sacred sites

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BOZEMAN, Mont. ? Prodding the federal government to protect American Indian sacred sites may place them in greater danger because subsequent publicity typically increases unwanted visitation and vandalism, tribal leaders warned at a recent conference here.

The current protection process also devalues tribal religious freedom, because practitioners of other religions, particularly Christianity, are not required to submit "proof" of their beliefs and the importance of their sanctuaries, tribal activists told participants at the recent 2nd Annual Native American Issues Conference at Montana State University-Bozeman.

"It's just a question of when the next one will be revealed," Tim Mentz, a prominent member of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, said of sacred places located on public lands". The federal process was never made for tribes. It's almost becoming mandatory that we reveal [the sites] so they can be protected."

Mentz, a former tribal council member and the first tribal historical preservation officer in the nation, said wholesale reform is needed in federal land management policies so religious sites can more easily be exempted from development without ruining them in the process. A huge black market in Indian artifacts also makes it crucial that the locations of burial plots and other cultural areas be kept as secret as possible, he said.

But Mentz, among others, noted that current federal policies are geared toward development of natural resources and the protection of private property rights, not Indian cultural values.

"How much do we have to compromise to say these areas are sacred to us?" he asked dozens of Indian and non-Indian students and others attending the event. "How much do you give to have a chance to protect?"

"I don't feel we should have to justify ourselves, our sacred history," added Bill Redfield, a Crow tribal member.

"We were created out of the ground," said Jimmy St. Goddard, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. "We didn't cross the Bering land bridge. We didn't crawl out of the ocean like a salamander. We're the most powerful people on this earth, but for some strange reason we were repressed. But that's going to change."

The conference focused on Weatherman Draw, a rugged, 4,200-acre stretch of land near the Montana-Wyoming border south of Billings. Eyed for oil by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp., the so-called Valley of the Chiefs is also home to one of the most prolific displays of American Indian rock art on the Northern Plains.

The area served as a cultural crossroads for the Crow, Comanche, Blackfeet, Northern Arapahoe, Eastern Shoshone, Cheyenne and Sioux, among other tribal groups, and is still the site of religious renewal for many of their members.

"It's truly a chapel, even though Indian people don't call our places chapels," said Howard Boggess, a Crow historian and a leader in the fight to protect the area.

"Rock art is our heritage," added George Reed Jr., a Crow cultural leader and instructor at Little Bighorn Community College. "The white man doesn't know where I come from, and it's better that he doesn't know."

Darren Old Coyote, a Crow cultural affairs official, observed that Europeans could go back to their continent to sample traditional culture and learn their native languages. American Indians, however, are already home.

"As a Crow, I can't go across the oceans," he said. "I have no place to go. I have to go to my elders. At Weatherman Draw and other places, that's the only written history we have. With non-Indians, they leave a paper trail."

Although the BLM knew that the draw was significant to at least some neighboring tribes, it didn't try to stop Anschutz from securing mineral leases in the valley in 1994. It then took the agency five years more years to determine that the site should be an "area of critical environmental concern," which puts brakes on some ? but not all ? types of development.

While one part of the BLM's mission emphasizes preservation, the agency's core focus now is finding ways to reduce U.S. dependency on foreign oil, conference participants said. But, said Hamon Wise, an Eastern Shoshone tribal member, the issue really boils down to money versus religion.

"We can't put a price on our spirituality," Wise said. "There's no price. 'In God We Trust' is the wrong word to put on a dollar because there's a lot of evil with that dollar. People kill for that dollar."

At the beginning of the fight over Weatherman Draw, "people from BLM wanted us to drop it, just leave," said Boggess, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to lobby on the issue. "They didn't want to tell us anything. I was told by at least three people I should just go mind my own business."

"The U.S. government is like God," added Reed. "They do as they please."

Now at least 20 tribes, the Sierra Club/and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have teamed up to keep road builders and drilling rigs out.

BLM officials, arguing that there would be no significant impacts to tribal cultural values, approved a revised permit for Anschutz early last year. The decision has since been appealed, largely on the basis that the government's proposed mitigation measures can't offset the damage that would be caused to tribal religious rights.

"I think there's some structural problems with the agencies," said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with the environmental group Earth Justice, which has also been involved in the battle. "It's simply ridiculous to say that putting an oil well in the middle of Weatherman Draw is not a significant impact."

"We're all assailed every day as Indian people with what they call assimilation," said Dewey Tsonetokoy, a member of Oklahoma's Kiowa Nation. "But no matter who you are, you come to a crossroads in your life where you have to decide if you're going to keep your culture or not. People are starting to understand what sacred ground is all about. But some folks have called (the rock pictographs) old graffiti. They're not old graffiti. They are sacred drawings."

BLM officials say they're getting an independent appraisal to determine how much the drilling permit is worth. At this point, according to BLM project coordinator Sandy Brooks, the exploration company, led by billionaire sports club owner and major Republican donor Philip F. Anschutz, has agreed to stay out of Weatherman Draw until Sept. 1.

In the meantime, agency officials are hashing over the appeal, and Anschutz is still weighing the consequences of giving up its leases and looking for oil elsewhere, perhaps on the Crow or Blackfeet reservations. Tribal leaders there have offered alternative exploration sites to get the company out of the Valley of the Chiefs.

"Weatherman Draw is a gift from the past to the future," said Alexandra New Holy, an instructor in the MSU Native American Studies program. "It can help us define who we are and who we will be. What we decide defines us."