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LeBeau: International efforts to protect indigenous peoples' sacred places

Indigenous peoples in the Americas have endured a great deal of social, economic, and political disorganization and demise resulting from historical European efforts to acquire indigenous lands and other resources. Today, many indigenous peoples are working to heal and revitalize themselves and their nations from past and current colonization strategies and to prepare to combat future attempts at erosion of their cultural and legal rights in order to ensure their survivability and sustainability. Of this, the late Beverly J. LeBeau, elder member of and advocate for the Pit River Nation, would say: "Our ancestors gave their lives so that we could be here today and to ensure that our Nation would continue. We must not waste what we have been given nor relinquish our inheritance." For many indigenous peoples, healing and revitalization is attained through traditional use of sacred places.

In September 2003, the International Indian Treaty Council (IITC) in conjunction with the World Conservation Union sent two delegates from indigenous nations to the World Parks Congress in Durbin, South Africa. These representatives advocated for the cultural and legal rights of indigenous peoples in the process of protecting natural environments and sacred places around the world. They joined the Indigenous Peoples Workgroup and provided input into the drafting of recommended legislative language delivered to the Congress. The Congress, upon adopting such language, will hopefully call upon its 70-plus member states to abide by such recommendations, including the United States, which has a notably poor record of accomplishment in this area.

A presentation on the Pit River Nation's unyielding commitment to protect the sacred Medicine Lake Highlands in California from the Calpine Energy Company (a State of California subsidized and Federal Department of Interior-backed corporation) occurred during the congress. Calpine has been attempting to drill for geothermal energy in the Highlands for over eight years. Such mining would unearth many minerals and chemicals that are dangers to all living things and threaten to deplete this sacred water system and possibly exhaust the geothermal life in this area. Calpine has had to contend with increasing resistance for their drilling activities from indigenous peoples.

The Pit River Nation and others have brought a lawsuit against Calpine in an attempt to halt the mining plans. Calpine is also in jeopardy of being eliminated from the Socially Responsible Company List of the Calvert Social Index for failing to meet with the Nation on instituting its complete evacuation from the Highlands. Federal and state lawmakers will carry legislation forward designed to protect the Highlands and other sacred places in 2004. The legislative committee of the California Energy Commission will be drafting the guiding procedures for interacting with and receiving input from indigenous peoples in California on energy issues. California Indian peoples anticipate that the committee will invite the full participation of indigenous peoples in California to assist in this process to insure its legitimacy. A boycott of all consumer items linked to Calpine is under way, as well as a shareholder disinvestments strategy.

To bolster the growing movement to protect indigenous peoples' sacred places, the IITC and the Pit River Nation will be convening the IITC's 30th Anniversary Treaty Conference July 8 - 11 in Achomawi territory near Fall River Mills, Calif. This year's conference theme is "Indigenous Nations Mobilizing for Justice, Sovereignty & Protection of Sacred Homelands."

Some of the topics to be discussed at the conference and acted upon, will be ensuring the protection of the Highlands and transitioning from sole reliance on state and federal legal processes for seeking justice for indigenous peoples to international and traditional legal remedies. Discussions regarding the 18 unratified treaties between indigenous nations and America over lands and natural resources in California, as well as the inappropriate Indian Claims Commission procedures related to this land ownership dispute will occur. Environmental justice and health concerns including the mercury contamination of Northern California lands, waters and subsistence fish as a toxic legacy of the Gold Rush will also be discussed. Other topics will be crimes against humanity under international law which have affected the indigenous peoples in California and abroad, including genocide, treaty violations and war crimes and the range of international mechanisms for holding the violators responsible.

The conference is being coordinated through a grassroots and donation-seeking effort - all contributions are welcome. For more information, contact Radley Davis at (530) 275-5871 (hestum@c-zone.net), Mickey Gemmill at (530) 242-4510, or the IITC Office at (415) 641-4482.

Mark LeBeau, Pit River Nation member, is the vice-chair of the Native Coalition for Medicine Lake Highlands Defense and an IITC Conference coordinator. He recently spoke on the need and strategies to protect the sacred Highlands at the World Parks Congress in Durbin, South Africa. LeBeau can be reached by e-mail at mark.lebeau@mail.ihs.gov and by phone at (916) 929-9761.