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Protecting Sacred Lands

WASHINGTON, D.C. ? For decades now, a growing number of Native people have been alarmed by the desecration and destruction of sacred sites in this country and have long advocated for increased protection.

Now a coalition striving to broaden protections is hosting a forum designed to educate government officials and the public about why federal agencies should help protect Native American sacred sites and places, many of which are on public and federally managed lands.

The "Native American Sacred Lands Protection Forum" is scheduled for March 20 from 1 to 5 p.m. at the Department of Interior Sidney Yates Auditorium. The forum is being sponsored by the National Congress of American Indians and coordinated by the Sacred Lands Protection Coalition.

"Every year, our sacred sites are being destroyed," said Tex G. Hall, NCAI President. "For hundreds of years our people have fasted and performed Sun Dances and other ceremonies at sites throughout this country. These sites are sacred to us and integral to our Creation stories and religions.

"It is our hope that this forum will start raising awareness in the nation's capital about the importance of our sacred lands, the well-being of our cultures and the health of the earth."

Lakota author and historian Vine Deloria Jr. will talk about the history and status of sacred land protection in a keynote speech at 2:30 p.m.

It will be followed by a panel discussion featuring Deloria, Hall, Eddie Tullis of the United South and Eastern Tribes and Interior Assistant Secretary ? Indian Affairs Neal McCabe, who will announce a new initiative to protect sacred sites.

There also will be a special screening at 1 p.m. of the award-winning documentary film In the Light of Reverence, a documentary that tells the stories of three communities and their struggles to protect sacred sites: the Lakota at Mato Tipila (Devil's Tower,) Wyo., the Hopi in the Southwest Four Corners area and the Wintu Tribe at Mount Shasta, Calif.

The film documents obstacles to religious freedom for many Native people, and the impact on sacred sites from mining, development, ski resorts, rock-climbing and New Age practices. In the Light of Reverence was nationally broadcast on PBS in August 2001.

Dr. Henrietta Mann, chair of Native American Studies at Montana State University, said it is critical for Native people to maintain their connection to the land.

"Without the land there is no sovereignty, without sovereignty there is no relationship, and without relationship there is no responsibility to the Earth. Protection of sacred sites is a constant struggle for Native people with as much as 75 percent of those sites unavailable to us today.

"We've already lost 98 percent of our land base, so it's critical to protect our sacred sites from further development and destruction."

Dozens of sacred sites are the focus of ongoing struggles by Native activists, elders, environmentalists and religious organizations concerned about protecting the spiritual welfare of Native peoples and sacred places on Mother Earth.

In the Southwest, they include:

Dzil Nchaa Si An (Mount Graham) in central Arizona, where a seven-telescope observatory is being erected on a holy mountain that is home to the Apache Mountain Spirits, sacred springs and pilgrimage site where medicines are gathered. Two of the telescopes have been built and a third is under way. The San Carlos Apache and many tribes throughout the region oppose expansion plans.

Zuni Salt Lake, home of the sacred deity Ma'l Oyattsik'i, or Salt Woman, in New Mexico. The lake could be drained by an Arizona utility company's plans to mine coal 12 miles from the lake and pump millions of gallons of water from beneath it. Puberty ceremonies for young Zuni boys are held here, and the Navajo Salt Clan reveres the area as home to their clan mother.

Petroglyph National Monument, the largest group of petroglyphs in the country, carved into lava more than 1,000 years ago. The 17,000 petroglyphs are threatened by the city of Albuquerque's plans to build a six-lane highway through the monument to allow easier access to new homes. The road is opposed by all of New Mexico's 19 Pueblo tribes, who want to preserve the messages their ancestors left.

The forum also will bring together members of the newly-formed Sacred Lands Protection Coalition, which includes representatives from the Association on American Indian Affairs, Seventh Generation Fund and the Native American Rights Fund.

"The Coalition plans to seek Congressional oversight hearings and legislation to ensure that the U.S. government fulfills its trust responsibilities to Native Americans, including freedom of religion and protection of tribal resources," said Hall.

The Sacred Lands Protection Forum will be part of a week-long conference from March 19-23 that will include an organizing meeting of a new Sacred Lands Protection Coalition on

Tuesday March 19 at NCAI headquarters.

Coalition members also will meet with Rep. Nick Rahall, D-WV, who has announced his intention to introduce legislation to protect sacred lands.

The Sacred Lands Protection Forum is hosted by NCAI and coordinated by Christopher McLeod, Sacred Land Film Project of Earth Island Institute; Emogene Bevitt, U.S. National Park Service (DOI); Kevin Tennyson, Office of the American Indian Trust (DOI); Pemina Yellow Bird, Cultural Resources Representative, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation; Danny Gogal, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Justice; and Lillian Sparks, NCAI.

In the Light of Reverence also will be screened at the Pentagon on Friday, March 23.

For more information, visit www.sacredland.org