Forest Service listens and offers hope

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CRAZY HORSE, S.D. - By its own admission, the National Forest Service has
made mistakes, ignored tribal involvement in forest management decisions
and not understood the concept of consultation.

Change, if not a mea culpa or two, is in the wind and a gathering of Forest
Service officials and tribal leaders and members Feb. 22 - 23 offered proof
that at least one federal agency is willing to work closely with tribes to
make decisions based on cultural and spiritual beliefs.

While the Black Hills of South Dakota was the focus of the meeting, Forest
Service officials attended because national policy is also in a positive
transition.

The Forest Service's tribal relations policy is more than 11 years old and
contains many inconsistencies, said Dorothy Firecloud, Rosebud, Black Hills
National Forest deputy supervisor.

"The Forest Service lacked any type of process to evaluate ... tribal
relations. Forest Service line officers and staff do not have critical
skills and knowledge on tribal relations and didn't know what consultation
meant," Firecloud said.

To correct those problems, the Forest Service will hold training sessions
and write a consultation policy based on extensive participation from the
tribes.

Important to the elders is access to the sacred lands and sites so that
youth can be taught cultural and spiritual values central to the Lakota or
other tribes.

"If you want to earn trust, get the youth involved. Getting us back to
protecting the area is important. If you want to have a healthy forest, get
us involved - let us make those decisions incumbent on us, not the federal
process," said Tim Mentz, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe's Tribal Historic
Preservation officer and veteran of many consultation gatherings.

Burials need to be addressed, Firecloud said: 85 percent of all remains
come off national forests and the agency is facing the challenge of
reburying thousands. Seven thousand remains have been repatriated to the
tribes.

Elders fear that knowledge of plants and certain sacred sites will become a
magnet for people who want to exploit the plants and herbs for profit and
for others who practice pseudo-religious activity to mimic true Lakota or
American Indian ceremonies and spirituality.

Charles Colombe, Rosebud Sioux Tribe president and keynote speaker, told
Forest Service officials building trust would be the hardest thing.

To the Lakota people, the Black Hills represent wrongs committed by the
federal government that have continued for more than 150 years.

The Black Hills and many other locations across the country are sacred
places used by American Indians to heal and nurture mind and body and to
understand the world they live in. Past policies of the federal government
agencies and the Forest Service have not considered the Tribes' history of
the area, and the national parks' and forests' visitors rarely learn the
area is anything more than a place to relax.

Desecration of the land by developers and mining in which entire hilltops
have been removed to extract gold bring on emotional responses from many
elders. Some elders say the wrongs need to be righted and that forest and
land management is not just about trees: it's about protecting sacred
sites, treating discovered remains respectfully and identifying sacred
sites.

"First thing we have to do is recognize there is a wrong and then [develop]
some type of compromise in how to fix it. [The Black Hills is] a very
explosive issue. If any politician would bring it up he would be tarred and
feathered. The most important thing we can do is continue to talk," Colombe
said.

Gerard Baker, Hidatsa, superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Monument,
said the problem is that the staff comes from all over the country and does
not know the history of the region in which they serve.

"They don't understand the feelings [that stem] from the beliefs of the
tribes ... From a government standpoint, our first responsibility is to
educate our own staff and understand why we have these issues and why we
have these conversations," Baker said. "We need to make sure the staff has
the blinders off. They have to understand what and who was here, and
understand what happened. We have to expand our education and not read it
from books, but listen to elders."

For the tribes, the center of the debate is opening sacred lands to tribal
members and protecting them for future generations so the culture will
continue to survive, and allowing tribal input in decisions that
drastically change the landscape and affect the land.

"We are talking about bringing youth back into the center. He Sapa [the Black Hills] is sacred, a wholeness. The Lakota people's belief is that it
is here for a purpose. Emphasize that to your employees. Tourism is big,
and as people come you need to relay that. Tell them that there is a group
of people out there who believe this land to be sacred," said Russell Eagle
Bear, Yankton Sioux Tribe council member.

Tribal leaders were encouraged by what they heard.

"This is one of the most promising meetings I've ever been to," said Mentz.
"In the past we were ready to fight. Trust between the agency and the
tribes is important, and attendees said this did a lot to begin the process
of earning that trust."

More meetings between the Forest Service and the tribes all over the
country are planned.