LeBeau: Protecting American Indian sacred places and cultures in California

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A sacred movement is underway to protect American Indian sacred places and cultures in California from further threats and destruction. While many Indian sacred places in California have been destroyed or altered from their natural states for corporate or research interests, such as mining gold and geothermal energy or archaeological excavation, a number remain in pristine form. Many Indian nations, organizations and people, as well as non-Indians in California and abroad, are vocalizing that these natural places must be protected in order to ensure a healthier future for all communities of life on and in the earth.

American Indian elders teach that the practice of Indian spirituality requires undisturbed access to culturally significant places and their resources. These specific places derive their power and sacredness from their natural state that is provided by "Hewesis" or Creator. Indian cultures hold the earth sacred, whereas secular culture considers the earth to be real estate. Sacred places, and the ceremonies associated with such areas, are a necessary expression of Indian spirituality, and often are key to wellness. Sacred places are part of the history of Indian nations, and are a significant aspect of the traditions handed from one generation to another.

One such sacred place in California, among a number, is the Medicine Lake Highlands of the northeastern part of the state. This area is the Ancestral Territory of the Pit River and Modoc Indian nations and is sacred to these people, as well as the Shasta, Karuk, Wintu and others. The Pit River people believe that Hewesis and his son bathed in the lake after creating the earth, and Hewesis imparted his spirit into Medicine Lake. The water has power to heal and to rejuvenate. The mountain area around the lake is used as a training ground for medicine men from the West Coast to the Midwest.

The Medicine Lake Highlands is vitally important to the culture of many Indian nations and people as a place for physical healing, prayer, spirit quests and other traditional activities. These cultural values and practices by the nations depend entirely on maintaining within the area or district the environmental qualities that now exist, including natural land forms, heavy forested cover, scenic vistas, and a natural quiet that reinforces a sense of solitude and contemplation. Tragically this sacred place is under siege by a geothermal mining company wanting to drain the areas life-blood for corporate profits.

The Clinton and Bush administrations of the federal government have done very little to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands from the environmental consequences of geothermal mining by the California-based Calpine Energy Corporation. While the Clinton administration allowed exploratory drilling at Fourmile Hill of the Highlands, it denied Calpine's permit application for Telephone Flat, a 15-acre site one mile east of Medicine Lake. In response Calpine filed a $100 million lawsuit against the federal government and lobbied Congress to reverse the decision blocking mining and an energy plant at Telephone Flat. After George W. Bush assumed the presidency, his administration reversed the mining blockages making way for what could be the beginning of massive geothermal mining in the Highlands. Calpine has rights to 43 federal leases encompassing 47,800 acres in the mountainous, pristine Highlands, and the energy company can now move forward with plans for clear cutting trees, building bridges, paving roads, driving in and setting up drill rigs, establishing transmission lines and a sulphur-spewing power plant.

Similar to the federal government, the State of California has also failed to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands from the Calpine power plan. The geothermal power mined by Calpine, while originating in California and subsidized by the California Energy Commission, is contracted to the Bonneville Power Administration (a federal Energy Department agency headquartered in Portland) and will be sold primarily out of state. The deal is worth at least $14.5 million. The California Energy Commission has approved a $21 million renewable power subsidy to the company, which would start if the geothermal energy is located in the Highlands and is forthcoming in 2004. The financial backing for this energy plan would come from the state's half billion-dollar Renewable Resources Fund, accumulated from California taxpayer and ratepayer contributions.

In spite of what the federal and state government may claim, the ratepayer-funded geothermal project will not help California solve its energy problem because Bonneville sells power in California only when it has surpluses, which are becoming rarer:

It was not until Calpine saw the opportunity to fund a large portion of the project at the expense of California taxpayers that it began seriously to pursue development. Ratepayers and California taxpayers are being asked to finance a significant share of a private corporate undertaking that would exploit public resources, degrade the natural environment and destroy the age-old religious practices of [American Indians]. (Earthjustice, 2003 Case, www.earthjustice.org)

The application filed by Calpine Corporation with the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy Geothermal Resource and Development admits they will cause irreparable damage on the cultural and spiritual uses of the Sacred Medicine Lake Highlands by American Indian peoples. Clearly, the international human rights and fundamental freedoms of the Pit River and Modoc Indian nations and traditional practitioners from the Klamath, Karuk, Shasta, Wintu and others are being violated by Calpine's geothermal mining plan. This is particularly the case as such issues are referenced in Articles 1, 18 and 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights to which the United States is a party.

Although geothermal power is touted as a "clean" and "environmentally friendly" source of energy, deep drilling in the Medicine Lake Highlands would give rise to dangerous chemicals. Some of the life-threatening chemicals that could be unearthed are arsenic, mercury, chromium, boron and hydrogen sulfide. The scale of drilling may lead to contaminated springs, creeks, rivers and lakes. The exploratory drilling appears to have already resulted in the ice cold waters of Medicine Lake becoming overheated. Further drilling could also result in chemical alteration and other disturbances to wildlife, damage to plants used for food and medicine, noise and air pollution and overall ecological disaster in this natural and sacred place.

Tribal government opposition to geothermal exploitation of the Medicine Lake Highlands extends beyond local concerns. The International Indian Treaty Council, National Congress of American Indians, the Inter-Tribal Council of California and the California Council of Tribal Governments have all passed resolutions in opposition to geothermal development in the Highlands. Recognizing the importance of this issue, the California Rural Indian Health Board, which represents and serves 33 federally-recognized tribes in the state on health and wellness issues makes staff available to assist in this effort.

The Pit River Indian Nation passed a federal resolution in 1996 opposing any geothermal development in the Medicine Lake Highlands. Since that time, the Pit River Nation and Native Coalition have been giving input into the process on both the Fourmile Hill and Telephone Flat projects, issuing long and detailed comments at every juncture in the National Environmental Protection Agency, California Environmental Quality Act and National Historic Preservation Act review processes, as well as in other forums relating to these projects. Civil Rights Act complaints were filed with the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Energy, and participation in California Energy Commission hearings registered opposition against subsidies. The tribe and coalition have been active in the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, as well as with coalitions promoting sacred lands legislation.

The Pit River Indian nation has also sought and received support from some lawmakers in the House and Senate of the Untied States Congress on protecting the Medicine Lake Highlands. Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., D-N.J., became a champion of protecting the Highlands by sending letters to President Bush and his administration, strongly urging the federal government to abide by the federal resolutions of the Indian nation on this issue. One would think that lawmakers representing the needs and interests of Californians would also be supporting this issue, but as it now stands there has been minimal interest and support. A few California lawmakers, like Sen. Barbara Boxer, have weighed in on the side of the Indian nation, urging decision makers to deny the project. "If the project were to proceed," wrote Boxer, "the unique and sacred character of the Medicine Lake Caldera will forever be lost."

Currently, California's Governor, Gray Davis is willing to support a revised Sacred Sites Bill, which is in the process of being developed. The Governor is also considering issuing an Executive Order to address the need to protect the Medicine Lake Highlands as a sacred place. Many American Indian nations, organizations and people, as well as non-Indians in California, are looking forward to the completion of the legislation and executive order and the implementation of its directives for California to abide by.

At different points in history, American Indian peoples sacrificed their lives at the hands and legislative actions of colonizing forces so that their nations and coming generations might survive and again prosper using methods of sustainability. Those Indian people living today who are the descendents and benefactors of such honorable and noteworthy ancestors, as well as all other citizens of the U.S., have a duty and responsibility to help bring the earth and its Indian nations back to healthier states. One major way to accomplish this is to help protect sacred places. For those Indians who have accepted financial "gifts" from Calpine to support or be silent about their geothermal mining exploitation efforts - give back the money and stand up for indigenous cultural and tribal sovereign rights.

Though many humans continue to sell, transform and extract resources from the natural environment in the name of "progress," our earth maintains the ability to revitalize itself. In spite of this revitalization process, numerous species, sacred places, natural environments and cultures have been destroyed, negatively impacted or threatened because of inappropriate decisions. The time for sitting on the fence or behind an office desk and making the wrong decisions to not help Indian nations, peoples and the natural environments to be healthier and protect sacred places is over. Sacred places and American Indian cultures are worth more than gold or geothermal energy and must be protected.

In response to environmental and cultural injustices brought by supporters of sacred place destruction for profitability, American Indian nations, organizations and people, as well as non-Indians in California will be coming together at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif. on June 20. The gathering will include a sunrise ceremony, four circular walks around the capitol and mid-morning discussions on strategies to protect sacred places in California. This gathering is a part of the larger National Day of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places being organized by Suzan Harjo and the rest of the leaders of the sacred places coalition in Washington on this same day. Please attend either event and show your support for protecting American Indian sacred places and cultures in California and abroad. For more information on the gathering in Sacramento, contact: Mark LeBeau at (916) 929-9761, Philip Hunter at (559) 781-4271, Mickey Gemmill at (530) 242-4510 or Radley Davis at (530) 275-1650.

Mark LeBeau, Pit River Tribal Member, AITEN Programs Manager and CRIHB employee, has been working with tribal governments in California since 1999 to develop effective and culturally appropriate tobacco policies on tribal lands. During 2002, Mark worked for Congressman Frank Pallone Jr. in Washington, D.C., on American Indian/Alaska Native legislative initiatives to benefit Indian country. LeBeau can be reached by e-mail at mark.lebeau@mail.ihs.gov