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Harjo: Protecting sacred places against all odds

It's no wonder that many Americans, including a fair number who work on Capitol Hill, do not understand the problems that traditional Native American people encounter in protecting sacred places. The history of our religious oppression and the fact that it continues today are outside their own knowledge and experience.

Yes, there are all sorts of folks who do the actual oppressing - those who profit from it, those who represent the profiteers in courts and government agencies, those who craft the laws to protect them, those who cover up their dirty deeds - and even more who stand around and let it happen.

But most Americans are not part of that ring.

Most Americans believe that everyone in the United States has religious freedom, even if they do not know the First Amendment to the Constitution guarantees it. They know that the United States stands for religious liberty and is a beacon for people fleeing oppression in their own countries.

Place-based religions are something they left in their homelands or practice from a great distance, with an occasional pilgrimage to holy sites. They don't know that we are sometimes outlaws in our own homes and have to go past "No Trespassing" signs to get to our holy lands.

No other people in the United States have had their religious liberties trampled on and their sacred places destroyed for the purpose of eliminating their religions.

The federal government tried to stop the wholesale assault against Native traditional religions in the 1930s by withdrawing its Indian "civilization" rules, after more than 50 years of banning our ceremonies, confiscating our sacred objects, keeping us from our sacred places and breaking the backs of most of our traditional religions.

But the government didn't stop itself or others from defiling and destroying sacred places.

It didn't stop the demonizing of Indian children in federal boarding schools. It didn't stop teachers from telling them to fear their traditional religious places because devils live there. It didn't stop people from calling some of our sacred places by foreign names: Devil's Tower, Devil's Lake, Hell's Canyon.

The federal government tried to do the right thing in 1978, with the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

But it didn't give Native people a way of protecting sacred places in court.

Ten years later, the Supreme Court said that neither the Indian religious freedom law nor the First Amendment protected a Native sacred place in California against a Forest Service logging road, and invited Congress to enact a protective cause of action.

The high court's ruling started a development rush that has increased in intensity over the past 15 years, and federal, state and private developers are ignoring or flaunting laws that could and should be used to protect sacred places.

While Congress protected certain burial grounds in the 1989 and 1990 repatriation laws, others are being destroyed under color of law, and grave robbing is on the rise again.

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What are these sacred places that Native Americans are trying to protect? Most of them are naturally-formed churches - lands and waters where people go to pray for the good day, the precious earth, the blessing waters, the sweet air and peaceful life for all living beings the world over.

Here's the way sacred places were explained in the 1979 report that the religious freedom law required President Jimmy Carter to make to Congress:

"The Native peoples of this country believe that certain areas of land are holy. These lands may be sacred, for example, because of religious events which occurred there, because they contain specific natural products, because they are the dwelling place or embodiment of spiritual beings, because they surround or contain burial grounds or because they are sites conductive to communicating with spiritual beings. There are specific religious beliefs regarding each sacred site which form the basis for religious laws governing the site. These laws may prescribe, for example, when and for what purposes the site may or must be visited, what ceremonies or rituals may or must take place at the site, what manner of conduct must or must not be observed at the site, who may or may not go to the site and the consequences to the individual, group, clan or tribe if the laws are not observed. The ceremonies may also require preparatory rituals, purification rites or stages of preparation. Both active participants and observers may need to be readied. Natural substances may need to be gathered. Those who are unprepared or whose behavior or condition may alter the ceremony are often not permitted to attend. The proper spiritual atmosphere must be observed. Structures may need to be built for the ceremony or its preparation. The ceremony itself may be brief or it may last for days. The number of participants may range from one individual to a large group."

Today, many of these sacred places are being threatened by development, pollution, poisons, recreation, looting and vandalism. Some of these places and ongoing threats to them are addressed elsewhere in these pages:

Black Hills by logging, housing, mining and other South Dakota, private and federal development; Buckeye Knoll Cemetery in Texas by the Dupont Corporation and the Army Corps of Engineers; Haskell-Baker Wetlands by the Kansas Department of Transportation and the Army Corps of Engineers; Quechan Indian Pass in California by a Canadian company, Glamis Gold's Imperial Mine, through the Bureau of Land Management and NAFTA; Snoqualmie Falls in Washington by a century-old hydroelectric dam, through the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

During the past two years, Native nations and traditional religious practitioners have identified more than 40 specific sacred places as being under direct attack.

At the same time, there are some sacred places that are no longer threatened with damage or destruction. One of these is Kaho'olawe, a former Naval bombing range in Hawaii, where Native Hawaiian people were willing to risk injury and death from unexploded ordinances in order to conduct traditional ceremonies.

In May of 1979, the Secretary of the Navy made the Naval stations aware of the requirements of the religious freedom law and pledged to "cooperate with Native traditional religious leaders in an ongoing effort to ensure the free exercise of religious rights while at the same time ensuring the safety of all personnel and the completion of its military mission."

Sen. Daniel K. Inouye, D-Hawaii, championed a later law that set up the Kaho'olawe Island Reserve Commission, which is chaired by a Native Hawaiian leader, Colette Machado, and required the Navy to conduct a munitions cleanup. Kaho'olawe is now safe and, on Nov. 11, was formally transferred to Hawaii.

In New Mexico, voters in Albuquerque saved a sacred Pueblo place by an Oct. 28 vote of 52 percent to 48 percent, rejecting a bond referendum for a highway extension into the Petroglyph National Monument.

Laurie Weahkee, Cochiti and Zuni, who directs the SAGE Council, barely had time to celebrate the victory with her colleagues when they learned that the New Mexico House, in a special legislative session, would take up a bill on Nov. 3 to build the road, despite the referendum vote.

The House bill was defeated handily, by 44 to 22, with most members repeating that the people had spoken less than a week earlier. The SAGE group relaxed.

Then, in a surprise move on Nov. 4, the Senate took up a $12 million measure to build the road and began its hour-long debate at 7:00 at night. Gov. Bill Richardson quietly weighed in with his fellow Democrats, who defeated the bill along party lines in a heart-stopping 22-17 vote.

Perhaps now the Pueblos can focus on the Petroglyph Monument for its sacredness.

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.