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Fort Sill project threatens sacred site

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FORT SILL, Okla. – The Comanche Nation and the U.S. Army are currently in litigation over a proposed training/service center that is scheduled to be built on Medicine Bluff, a sacred site of the Comanche and other tribes in the area, and would be a part of the Fort Sill complex. William Volker, director of the Comanche Nation’s Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act program, spoke with Indian Country Today about the controversy.

“The plan is for the Army to build a training center, which is basically a large service center, on the south side of Medicine Bluff,” he said. “Objections were raised almost a year and a half ago and, despite objections, they claim they have consulted with the tribe, which they haven’t. We have been notified, but there have not been any true consultations until we got the work stopped and met at the site back in July.”

Volker sees the plan as a deliberate attack on the sacred site. “We have already lost a lot of the open area around Medicine Bluff. It’s not like Fort Sill has many sites that they have to be careful about: Medicine Bluff is the only site of this magnitude on all of the Fort Sill property. It’s not like this is the only place they have to build the facility; there are many other, better places.

“When we were on the site with the garrison commander, Col. Robert S. Bridgford, one of our elders asked him, ‘What do you need from this site that you can’t get anywhere else from the base?’ Of course, the colonel could not answer him. He said, ‘It just strategically works for us.’ That was the whole rationale.”

The site’s historic relevance is overwhelming when you realize how many tribes have utilized it as a spiritual area. “Medicine Bluff has long been considered a place of puhu: that’s our word that translates into ‘medicine’ or ‘power.’

“On the open prairie, often, if you had a geological formation that was unique, like a mesa or a butte, that just rises up out of the earth, those were places of significance in the view of the people. Some places were used for vision quests, and other places had healing qualities, others were used for burial, but the unique thing about Medicine Bluff is it covers all of those bases. It’s also that it is not just unique to Comanche history; the Kiowas, the Wichitas and the Apaches, once they moved into this territory, all of the indigenous people of the area utilized Medicine Bluff.

“The high point, above its sheer face, is the site that would have been used for healing, but you approach the site from the south. In the exact vicinity of where they propose to build this warehouse, that would have been the special preparatory site where sweats would have taken place and where the people would have fasted before going up to the bluff. Directly across the road, away from the bluff, there was a burial that was unearthed in 1999.

“All we’re asking for is a one-and-a-half-mile buffer zone from the high point of the bluff. You have this burial ground on the one side of it, and on the west side of that one-and-a-half-mile buffer is another burial [site] where we reburied one of our Comanche cemeteries. Just by the burials there it’s very clear that this is a very sensitive site.”

When asked how they go about picking sites for new construction, Volker said that he liked to think it was arbitrary, but that Fort Sill has demolished so many historic sites that he is starting to think it is a deliberate assault. “I have an official letter from the Oklahoma Archaeological Survey that goes back to 2004 that points the finger at Fort Sill stating once a site is identified, Fort Sill does everything they can to obliterate it from the landscape. It seems to be a trend.

“Geronimo lived out his final years at Fort Sill, and one day the museum got a call that they were dumping asphalt at the traditional village that he resided in, which is well documented. The next thing we knew, they had leveled it and put a training facility right over the Geronimo site.”

Emily Kelly, media officer for Fort Sill, declined to comment on the controversy, nor would she comment on how the Army goes about picking a site for a new structure.