As people gather in our great lands to give thanks for the bounty of this time, I am grateful that two threatened sacred places are protected – Medicine Lake and Topock Maze in California – even if one of them is not fully out of danger.
Topock Maze is a complex landscape of earth drawings and sacred areas on a bluff above the Colorado River in the Mojave Desert. It has been revered for millennia by the Mojave and other tribes as a pathway to the afterlife.
Medicine Lake is a ceremonial place of spiritual and physical healing for the Pit River, Wintu, Modoc, Shasta, Klamath and other nations. The lake is in the caldera of a volcano on Pit River Nation territory near Mount Shasta in the northern part of the state.
These sacred places have been threatened and desecrated by energy companies. Pacific Gas and Electric Co. violated Topock Maze with a water treatment plant and the Fort Mojave Tribe sued. On Nov. 9, they announced a settlement, with PG&E apologizing and returning 125 acres of the sacred land to the tribe.
Medicine Lake is the subject of a Nov. 6 protective ruling by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, but federal agencies could appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.
The appellate judges reversed a 2004 district court ruling and disapproved lease extensions issued in 1998 by the Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service to a private energy company, Calpine, for a proposed geothermal power plant in the Medicine Lake Highlands.
Caretakers of Medicine Lake ask supporters to join them in petitioning Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns to let the appellate decision stand.
“Another appeal would further drain taxpayer dollars,” said Mark LeBeau, a Pit River citizen of the Illmawi Band. “The [agencies] need to abide by the current letter of the law in this case.”
LeBeau vowed to “increase pressure on Calpine to demand that they respect our culture, sacred sites and environment and drop their plans to build power plants in our sacred areas.”
Attorney Deborah Ann Sivas, counsel of record for protection of Medicine Lake, outlined the next steps in the case: “The Ninth Circuit will send the case back down to the district court, and the district judge will enter summary judgment in our favor. That means the lease issues and the project approval will be back before the federal agencies for further consideration.”
Sivas thinks it is “an open question” whether Calpine wants to pursue the leases further or is in a financial position to do so. “Calpine might try to argue that the agencies should merely suspend the lease, do the proper review and affirm the old lease decision, but we will vigorously resist that approach.”
The appeals court ruled that the federal agencies failed to comply with consultation requirements of federal laws. Sivas, who directs the Environmental Law Clinic at Stanford Law School, said the leases “are null and void” because they were illegally extended. “Thus, if BLM wants to issue them again, the process has to start from scratch, with a full environmental review process and full tribal consultation on the question of whether the leases should be issued in the first instance.”
“The victory is a good feeling,” said Radley Davis, who also belongs to the Illmawi Band of the Pitt River Nation. “This decision represents a victory for all the traditional people and sacred places that have no voice. It represents the acknowledgment of tribal sovereignty [and] the strength of grass-roots people.”
Davis speaks of the struggle to protect Medicine Lake as multigenerational: “Our elders and leaders who have fought all their lives to protect Saht Tit Lah [Medicine Lake] and for such victories are looking down on us with great pride. We thank them for giving us direction, wisdom and strength in carrying out the work they left for us continue.”
Davis cautioned that the fight is not over: “We must stay alert and expect that Calpine and the U.S. government to respond with great force.”
Fort Mojave Tribal Chairman Nora McDowell also spoke of generational duty, in announcing the Topock Maze settlement with PG&E: “We have responsibility not only to the past and present, but to the future. It wasn’t easy getting a corporation to understand, to recognize and to accept this.”
“The settlement is more than any of the parties could have received through litigation,” said tribal attorney Courtney Ann Coyle. She and her husband, Steven P. McDonald of Luce, Forward, Hamilton and Scripps, represented Fort Mojave.
“A court decision makes winners and losers,” said Coyle. Instead, the tribe receives a part of its sacred land and “can secure a more direct seat at the planning and management tables and steward the area. As for PG&E, they have begun the process of learning how to work in a sacred area in cooperation with the tribe, something that would have been unlikely to occur if litigation proceeded. Because the remediation may take several decades, it is imperative that the parties learn to work together.”
While calling it “a big step in the right direction,” Coyle said that “no settlement could fully remediate the desecration that has been done to this area from the construction and operations. We need to actively work to reduce or discontinue these uses, restore these areas and provide them an appropriate level of management.”
When asked if the settlement were replicable, Coyle responded: “We hope that these settlements will be used by other tribes in their efforts to protect the sacred. That precedent has been set that tribes have the right to ask for better corporate responsibility and sustainability practices, that it is not too much to demand sensitivity training for the corporations and agencies working with tribes and that an apology to tribes is not an admission of weakness, but rather, sometimes a necessary step in the healing and trust building processes that allow all the parties to move forward.”
Coyle gave credit for the settlement “to the leadership on all sides of this case.” At the state level, the toxics control director with a background in anthropology “quickly understood that the litigation was best settled and put his personal mark on those efforts. The PG&E chief executive got directly involved in the litigation and came to the reservation and heard for himself from the affected tribal elders how the company’s activities were affecting their connection to the afterlife.”
“The Mojave chairperson’s personal involvement and leadership style was invaluable and highly persuasive with the other leaders. She was ably supported by Linda Otero, the Mojave’s AhaMakav cultural society director. It was a coming together of these leaders that enabled the settlements to occur.”
Coyle said that “consultation at the earliest point in project planning is surely the best way to go.”
Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.