Preservation of sacred space

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Learning to live while saving lands

BOULDER, Colo. - For Americans to consume at their present rate would require the resources of ''four more Earths,'' a national Native organization leader said June 28.

''Any gains we've had in protecting Indian lands and resources are going to be set aside,'' said Chris Peters, Yurok/Karuk, president and CEO of the Seventh Generation Fund for Indian Development.

He was a keynote speaker at ''Lifeways and Landforms: Stewarding Sacred Lands,'' a conference organized by the Native American Land Conservancy and Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance, with support from the Seventh Generation Fund, Indian Land Tenure Foundation, and others.

Petro-politics, dwindling food and water supplies, species extinction and global warming will affect Native resources and preservation efforts, he told some 100 participants at the three-day conference held at the University of Colorado.

Sacred sites embody the ''prescribed protocol passed down from the mythical world'' and are ''used for our ceremonies; used to heal people; used to maintain harmony - the equilibrium of the world itself,'' he said.

Yet ''nothing is safe,'' Peters said. ''With gas at $4 a gallon, they're saying, 'Let's drill offshore.' They will get the last amount of gas, the last amount of oil.''

Grass-roots groups are taking on massive oil and mining multinationals to protect cultural sites that ''will never be completely safe'' without continued vigilance, he said.

Tribal representatives, scholars, academics and others heard presentations on sacred sites preservation in areas ranging from Hawaii to mainland Southwest, Northwest, intermountain and Colorado Plateau regions.

Tony Genia, Ottawa, of the Northwest Area Foundation and a keynote presenter, addressed the economics of cultural preservation. He described Indian poverty as a result of the dependency and paternalism imposed on Native people who may not consider themselves poor because they have values, family, survival skills and other resources.

But ''the longer you are in poverty, the harder it is to get out of it,'' he said. On some reservations with generations of poverty, some people ''have known no family member who had a wage-paying job.''

Successful economic development will have to consider sacred lands, sovereignty, equitable institutions and sustainability, among other factors, he said.

Matthew Leivas Sr., Chemehuevi/Opata, a council member and former chairman of his tribe, is a director of the Salt Song Project, a cultural preservation program of the Native American Land Conservancy. He told conference participants that off-road vehicles are damaging petroglyphs and other cultural features in areas of California, Nevada, Utah and Arizona.

Leivas said theft of artifacts is also a problem, recalling that 16 large petroglyphs, sacred to his tribal nation, were documented by the BIA as having been taken illegally by a former county sheriff and former game warden and displayed in a private yard.

The Salt Song Project relates to the lands and peoples of the Mojave Desert and Colorado Plateau. The songs themselves are sung at sites where ancestors died in contact with the colonizers and at other ceremonies.

Among cultural sites targeted at the three-day conference was Valmont Butte, near Boulder, the focus of several years of controversy. The Valmont Butte Heritage Alliance has hoped that the butte can be placed in a preservation trust, but the city of Boulder is concerned about losing money in a sale and the matter is still unsettled, spokesmen said.

Other presenters described the sometimes difficult task of balancing sacred sites preservation and ceremonial use with public access.

The Medicine Wheel Alliance and other advocates were able to preserve ceremonial privacy at the Medicine Wheel National Historic Landmark in the Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, essentially without controversy, said Mary Randolph, a former Forest Service employee.

At a four-day Sun Dance at the Medicine Wheel, 750 tourists and others who wanted to visit the site were turned away because of the need for privacy at the ceremony, but there were no lawsuits or other protests by those denied access. ''Maybe we were lucky,'' she said.

Privacy during ceremonies at the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in southeastern Colorado is also necessary, said Alexa Roberts of the National Park Service, who described the irreversible, multigenerational impacts to the Cheyenne and Arapaho whose ancestors were killed there by U.S. military in 1864.