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It’s time for Congress to allow Native peoples to protect sacred places

Columnist

Native American sacred places are under attack. Now.

Not in the distant past. Not when it’s too late to do anything about it.

Now.

Sacred places are being desecrated and damaged today.

When something can be done about it.

The problem is that Native Americans cannot go through the door of the First Amendment to defend sacred places. The Supreme Court slammed that door and locked it 18 years ago..

Congress has the power to make a new key.

In fact, the Supreme Court said, if Congress wants to protect Native American sacred sites, it needs to enact a statute to do so.

What has Congress done to make that key? It’s thought about it. For 18 years.

Talk about your deliberative body.

The churches of non-Native peoples in the United States are protected under the First Amendment, even if they are located on public lands.

These sacred places are Native American churches.

But, the Supreme Court ruled that the First Amendment does not provide a right of action for Native peoples to defend Native natural churches.

That case pitted a Native sacred place in northern California against a U.S. Forest Service logging road. The loggers won.

The Supreme Court threw the Indian policy question to Congress in 1988.

And Congress is still thinking.

Federal agencies pretend to scratch their heads, too, even in those cases where they have existing laws to keep them from harming historic, environmental, archaeological and burial areas, and to authorize them from preventing others from doing the injuries.

State agencies and other interests ignore the existing legal authorities because they are aware that the feds are looking the other way.

It seems that no one is breaking a sweat to use the threads of present law while Congress is contemplating the entire fabric.

If Congress enacted a simple, no-frills right of action allowing Native peoples to get into the courthouse, sacred places would begin to receive the attention they need and deserve. Native peoples would be part of serious determinations.

Federal, state and private interests would use the laws they are more familiar with, in order to avoid the new law from being used.

But, Congress is still thinking about that right of action.

In the meantime, Hickory Ground in Wetumpka, Ala., is being desecrated and damaged. The orange sandy earth of its ceremonial grounds is being dug up today – along with millennial evidence of Muscogee (Creek) and other peoples – and being readied for a fantasyland casino in the name of Creek culture.

And Congress is thinking.

The Cheyenne, Lakota and other Native peoples who hold traditional ceremonies at Bear Butte are about to have a biker bar and rock concerts move in next door. The surrounding county of Meade in South Dakota – home of the annual Sturgis motorcycle roundup – is about to grant liquor and amphitheater licenses and doesn’t seem to care about the effect of loud music and drunken drivers on the sanctuary of this holy mountain.

And Congress is thinking.

The Maze in southern California is being desecrated today. Mount Graham and the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona are being desecrated today.

Native peoples who revere these holy places are begging agencies and courts and the public to help now.

All of these sacred places are in peril:

* Etowah Mounds in Georgia.

* Little Creek Mountain in Tennessee.

* Medicine Lake Highlands in northern California.

* Ocmulgee Old Fields in Georgia.

* Petroglyphs in New Mexico.

* Snoqualmie Falls in Washington.

* Wakarusa Wetlands in Kansas.

These sacred places are running out of time.

In 2002, the National Congress of American Indians identified other endangered places: Indian Pass, which was named on the 2002 list of America’s Most Endangered Historic Places; Coastal Chumash lands in the Gaviota Coastal region in southern California; Yurok Nation’s salmon fisheries in the Klamath River; Berry Creek, Moore Town and Enterprise rancherias’ lands; the sacred Puvungna of the Tongva and Acjachemen peoples; and the sacred Katuktu (Morro Hill) of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians.

Others that are not out of danger are the Hualapai Nation landforms in Truxton and Crozier canyons of Arizona; the Boboquivari Mountain of the Tohono O’odham Nation; the Carrizo/Comecrudo lands flooded by Amistad Lake and Falcon Dam in Texas; the Badlands, Black Hills, Medicine Wheel and Missouri River in the Plains; the Pipestone National Monument and Cold Water Springs in Minnesota; and the Elwha and Tulalip burial grounds in Washington.

These sacred places need and deserve attention now.

It is long past time for Congress to stop thinking and to act.

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.