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Numerous sacred sites at risk

RAPID CITY, S.D. - The Black Hills of South Dakota, Devils Tower, Bear Butte, the Powder River Basin and the Missouri River are either sacred sites or contain sacred sites, burial grounds, ancient villages and battle locations. These places are under attack; not just by looters and collectors, but by federal and state agencies.

The Black Hills is increasing in population with new residential developments cropping up daily. With the development some areas that contain cultural and sacred sites may be disturbed or destroyed; many times without consulting with tribes or compliance with federal law.

Along the Missouri River where the Corps of Engineers raise and lower water levels in reservoirs created by large hydro-electric dams, villages and burial sites are routinely exposed. Looters collect not just some artifacts, but actual human remains of American Indians and put them on the market.

Saving sacred sites and protecting Aboriginal lands has become a full-time job for Great Plains tribes. Transfer of lands to the state of South Dakota has already caused problems for the Yankton Tribe with the disturbance of a burial site and subsequent legal action. More land along the Missouri River has been transferred to the state and in the Black Hills federal actions have placed more jurisdiction for fire prevention and fighting in the hands of the state.

A rider to the Supplemental Appropriations Bill in 2002 by Sen. Tom Daschle authorized clear cutting of timber in a wildlife area to create a fire break area of the Black Hills and removed any option for appeal or adjudication.

Some tribal leaders said the rider and negotiation was an attempt to appease the timber industry and property owners just before the 2002 election. Sen. Tim Johnson was in a heated campaign and his was seen as a necessary win for the Democrats to keep Sen. Daschle as the majority leader.

Not so said Dan Pfeiffer, spokesman for Daschle. "There was a very serious problem with fire potential and it was wrapped in litigation so they couldn't proceed with thinning. We brought all groups together and got a settlement and Sen. Daschle got the agreement enacted into law."

Pfeiffer said the negotiations were conducted way before the elections and there was not a consideration.

"We were also upset that the appeal process and litigation portion of the bill was added. And even though it may have been mentioned about Sen. Johnson's election it was not part of the negotiations," said Sam Clauson of the South Dakota Sierra Club.

He also said that it was the Justice Department that determined who would be in the negotiations and the tribes were not included.

The tribes, however, were notified of the meeting late in the process, said Charmaine White Face of the Defenders of the Black Hills.

"I was the only Native person at that meeting and I got no respect. I was interrupted during my commentary. I told them they were making decisions over our sacred place and we were not consulted," White Face said.

Tribal leaders said they worry about what appears to be the de-federalization process that will further erode the protection of sites that are either sacred or have cultural and historic significance to the many tribes in the Black Hills Region.

"We have to come together and work together as tribes. Sacred sites should unite us, we are always looking for something to unite us," said Bryce In the Woods, councilman for the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.

The formation of a Black Hills Intertribal Advisory Committee is a start. However, so far only the Cheyenne River Sioux tribe has signed on to the committee.

A problem seen by the tribes is that archaeologists have the ability to write the history of the tribes when elders and spiritual leaders are bound by moral rules to not reveal the secrets of the spirituality nor are they allowed to speak about ancestors in most cases.

Input into what constitutes or defines a sacred or cultural site is left to the non-Indians and the federal government.

"Bear Butte is now a state park. The Plains tribes have been coming here for spiritual guidance for hundreds of years. Who will decide an area is sacred and for whom?" said Johnson Holy Rock, fifth member of the executive committee of the Oglala Sioux Tribe.

"It is a complicated question. What is sacred? Who determines? What object is to be sacred? How do we define sacred?" he asked.

Black Elk, the revered spiritual leader of the Lakota said the Black Hills was the center of the universe. Geologically the Black Hills is the oldest mountain range in North America, some have said the world. Tribes throughout the region have used the Black Hills, Bear Butte and Devils Tower as sacred prayer locations. Hot springs and specific rock formations have also been labeled as sacred.

Now the tribes want the federal and state governments and private enterprises to understand when they say a site is sacred it should be left alone.

The fear is that some government agencies listen to one person who doesn't have the complete insight of the tribal history and that person's word is used.

Some spiritual leaders have information that would define a location as a sacred or cultural or historic site, but that information is not made public. Many tribes are afraid that if a location is identified, looters will destroy it and some people will exploit the sacredness for profit.

When the construction for residential, commercial or recreational purposes use inadvertent discovery of burial sites or destruction of sacred sites it sometimes goes unnoticed if on private land and could mean litigation when on state land.

What tribal historic officials want is to be consulted before any drastic work is done and with the proper information destruction of those sites can be mitigated.

Consultation on any issue that would affect the protection of a sacred or cultural site is what the tribes want. Logging, fire protection, mining, residential expansion have all led to the possible destruction of cultural and sacred sites without anyone knowing about it.

There are hundreds if not thousands of sacred sites in the western portion of South Dakota, eastern Wyoming and Montana that have not been identified by tribal spiritual leaders. But consultation where tribal information is not an essential part of the outcome is not acceptable.

"We have to be active," White Face said. "Our ancestors have lived here for thousands of years and there was not destruction to the Black Hills."