Protecting American Indian sacred sites

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At a time when our nation's oil and mining exploration and extraction activities are creeping further and further into the last pristine spaces of America, I have been outspoken in urging my colleagues in Congress to resist the temptation to support further intrusion on American Indian sacred lands.

Between 1887 and 1934, the U.S. Government took control of 90 million acres of land from American Indian tribal governments without compensation ? including sacred lands. Between 1945 and 1968, Congress decided that federal recognition and assistance to more than 100 tribal governments should be terminated, creating economic and socio-political disaster and resulting in millions of acres of valuable land being lost through tax forfeiture sales.

Congress has since moved to rectify its prior decisions by recognizing a number of previously terminated tribal governments and passing Indian tribal self-determination and self-governance policies. As a result, tribal governments today have greater control over their lands and resources. They have made great strides toward reversing the economic and social blight that resulted from previous federal policies, and have strengthened their communities.

While Congress and the federal government have come a long way, it is important that we withstand pressure from groups that call for backtracking to old Indian policies, such as termination, reduction of tribal sovereign rights and desecrating and damaging sacred sites.

Traveling throughout Indian country, I have heard from numerous American Indian people that the practice of Indian spirituality requires undisturbed access to culturally significant sites and their resources. Such spirituality is irrevocably tied to specific places, which derive their power and sacredness from their natural undisturbed state. American Indians consider the earth sacred, whereas secular culture considers the earth to be real estate. Sacred lands, and ceremonies associated with such lands, are a necessary expression of Indian spirituality, and often are key to wellness. Sacred lands are part of the history of Indian peoples, and are a significant part of the traditions handed from one generation to another.

As history often demonstrates, it is hard for the strong to give up their ingrained habit of overpowering the weak, but it is essential if we are to make multiethnic societies like ours work. As Americans, we must become more tolerant and widen our definitions of what constitutes appropriate sacred places.

In 1978, recognizing the need to protect American Indian spirituality through the religious freedom guaranteed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. While this legislation served many of its intended purposes, it also established an avenue by which lawsuits could be brought to undermine sacred lands and the ceremonies associated with those lands. The lawsuits have resulted in further desecration and damage of sacred places and continued a pattern of sacrificing Indian spirituality to the interests of dominating groups.

I have urged my colleagues in Congress to support the Valley of Chiefs Native American Sacred Site Preservation Act, which was introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

This legislation would safeguard an area sacred to many American Indian people in Montana, Wyoming, North and South Dakota and Oklahoma. I commend my colleague, Rep. Rahall for introducing this legislation to prohibit the Secretary of Interior from issuing oil and gas drilling permits in this sacred place.

In addition to supporting the Valley of Chiefs Native American Sacred Site Preservation Act, I call for additional sacred lands legislation to be developed in consultation with Indian country. Congress must enact the establishment of a government-wide, effective and comprehensive procedure that safeguards against the loss of additional American Indian and Alaska Native sacred lands.

There is not a lot of time left to act before more sacred lands, such as Mount Shasta and Medicine Lake of California, Devil's Tower and Black Hills of South Dakota, to name a few, are further desecrated and damaged.

Congressman Frank Pallone, Jr., D?N.J., currently serves as an active member of the Native American Caucus of the U.S. House of Representatives. As a member of the House Resources Committee ? the committee with jurisdiction over all matters regarding the relations of the United States with Native Americans and American Indian tribes ? he has been a defender of the sovereign status of Indian tribal governments.