BOULDER, Colo. – The U.S. legal system has become antagonistic to Indian interests, including those involving sacred sites, said John Echohawk, executive director of the Native American Rights Fund.
Echohawk addressed those who gathered for a sunrise ceremony June 19 at NARF headquarters for one of the country-wide observances of National Day of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places.
Tribal nations “may have to use the political process” because of shortcomings in the legal system, asking President Barack Obama to enlist Congress’ aid in sacred sites protection, he said.
Valmont Butte is a volcanic formation that juts upward from the plains east of Boulder, Colo. and faces the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. It is held sacred or of special significance by a number of Plains tribes, and its preservation is sought by the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance in partnership with the Native American Rights Fund and other groups.
He pointed to a slow decline in equity on Indian issues in the nation’s court system.
“In 1970, when many of us were just starting to go to law school, you found you may have legal rights on paper, but they may be meaningless if you don’t have lawyers to protect those rights in court.”
The new lawyers “had some successes with judges who respected Native rights, but it’s becoming more and more difficult to sustain that success.”
“We don’t have the kinds of judges or the courts as sympathetic to us as they used to be, especially on the highest level of the Supreme Court,” where there is “great difficulty” in winning any kind of Indian rights cases.
NARF worked with other attorneys and organizations in an attempt to halt the use of treated sewage water for snowmaking at an expanded ski resort on Forest Service lands in the San Francisco Peaks of Arizona, sacred to a number of tribal nations.
“We asked the Supreme Court to protect us and see that we have religious rights, but it fell on deaf ears” and the high court refused to hear the case, Echohawk noted.
Indian people need Supreme Court justices who will be “sympathetic to our cause and take time to get to know us.”
NARF is a partner with tribes and other organizations in the Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance, which seeks to preserve and protect Valmont Butte, east of Boulder, a site considered sacred by Arapaho, Cheyenne and other tribal nations
NARF has also been proactive in working to address government intervention in the use of eagle feathers by tribal members who use them traditionally and, as Echohawk said, “A lot of people are not doing anything wrong – we do have our ceremonial ways.”
“The sacred sites we pray for are the center of everything,” said Ray Ramirez, a NARF staff member. “That’s where these ways come from.”
Andy Cozad, of the Native American Church, conducted a prayer and blessing ceremony.
“How come we can’t have the freedom we want in the U.S.? This is our land here, a way of life for our people.
“The white man doesn’t want to respect our ways. Something is not connecting between the Indian and non-Indian cultures.”
Cozad, who smudged the NARF staff and prayer ceremony attendees with cedar, was presented with a star quilt for his service to the organization.
The ceremony in Boulder was one of many sacred site gatherings nationwide June 19 – 23; and in the Denver area a number of Sweatlodge ceremonies took place at the same time as other solstice observances.
As part of its mission, NARF advocates for sacred site protection, religious freedom efforts and cultural rights. Its attorneys and staff participate in local and national gatherings and discussions about how to protect lands sacred to Native Americans.
NARF also works to protect First Amendment rights of Native American religious leaders, prisoners and members of the Native American Church, and to assert tribal rights to cultural property and human remains in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.