Sacred lands are a serious issue


All of the Earth is sacred, according to the oldest teachings. The basis of the belief is that this real world contains the miracle of life. Just being alive in the world is a source of connection. "Where is your belly cord buried?" some elders would ask, meaning, "where do you belong?"

Then there are the special places ? places of power, of recurring history, of reflection, vision quest, prayer, ceremony and connection. Every tribe has them, every Native nation. They are in the collective memory, these natural altars where the Great Spirit, and the spirits of nature, become available to the human beings. As Keetoowah elder Sam Beeler, has expressed, "Many faiths worship the Creator, but totally disrespect the Creation. We respect the Creation, because if you have a direct relation to the Creation, you have a direct connection with the Creator."

For the Keetoowah, the most sacred place is a "Mother Mound" near Bryson City, North Carolina. For many Plains tribes, the Valley of the Chiefs, in Montana, is a sacred place, as are, of course, the many special places in the Black Hills. For the Apache, the issue is Dzil Nchaa Si A (Mount Graham) in central Arizona. On this holy mountain, a seven-telescope observatory is being built. The San Carlos and other Apache are against it. For the Zuni, the issue is the sacred Zuni Salt Lake, where lives the sacred deity Ma'l Oyattsik'i, or Salt Woman. It is a place of puberty ceremonies for young boys, while the Navajo Salt Clan considers the area "mother." But an Arizona utility company plans a large coal mine, one that would drain the sacred lake. The Zuni are contesting the plan. For the Quechan of Arizona, it is the Quechan Indian Pass, now threatened by a proposed open-pit gold mine. President Clinton had decided to protect Quechan Pass, but the incoming Bush administration reversed the decision.

Protection of sacred lands is a major issue for indigenous peoples, indeed, perhaps for all people. People who come from and identify with particular natural formations nurture their long-term altars and prayer places. These belief systems of traditional American Indians are still alien to mainstream American life. The concept of "pagan" or "nature worshipers" is still used by some to castigate Indians for these beliefs. Most recently, however, Mormon elders are clamoring for the federal government to turn over to the Mormon Church a special place in their history, Martin's Cove, Wyoming, where many of their faith died during their migration west. But most sacred and ceremonial places are related to Native ceremonial cycles and teachings that continue to be practiced and represent philosophies of long standing among human beings.

A recent push by Native leaders and scholars to strengthen legal protections of the sacred places of Native America has generated some understanding and we commend it heartily. Congressional bills are being formulated and fielded. Tribes with cases of sacred lands being trampled or otherwise damaged or disturbed may see in the moment a good opportunity to make their case heard, explained and taken up by the emerging coalition mobilizing legislative attention.

In March, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) hosted a Native American Sacred Lands Protection Forum at the U.S. Department of Interior. The forum included American Indian leaders and federal government officials. The Department of Interior used the occasion to announce a new initiative to protect sacred lands.

Among sacred places are burial mounds and other funerary spaces of American Indians. This is an area of the problem that has received excellent attention in recent years.

Since passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) in 1990, there is increased agreement to repatriate and to respect the funerary properties of Native nations and communities. Nevertheless, since the Missouri River was dammed by the Army Corps of Engineers there has been a disregard of cemeteries as sacred. This agency has some 500 water projects under its jurisdiction and had promised to care for, and rebury human remains when needed, but in one recent case, never did. Heavy rains late Spring revealed graves and remains of Native people.

This is but one of many stories. Tribal leaders from North and South Dakota, California, Arizona, and Hawaii testified before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on June 4. Among many cases, they told how the Navy and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers fail to seek input before building dams and other facilities that ruin sacred lands. The committee is considering whether Congress needs to put up stronger measures to identify and protect Indian holy places.

Some Indian witnesses before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee included:

o Tex Hall, president of the NCAI and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara affiliated nations in North Dakota. "Our sacred sites ? so integral to the practice of our religions ? are being destroyed," he said. Hall would educate congress on "the importance of our sacred lands, the well being of our cultures, and the health of the earth."

o Leonard Selestewa, a farmer from the Village of Lower Moencopi, in Tuba City, Ariz., said plans by the nearby Peabody Coal Co. to direct water flows for mining has threatened his livelihood.

o Scott Jones, a cultural resources officer with the Lower Brule Sioux in South Dakota, noted that "every rock and every plant" along the Missouri River is considered sacred by nearby tribes.

o Rachel Joseph, tribal chairwoman of the Lone Pine Paiute-Shoshone Tribe in California's Owens Valley, complained that a Navy geothermal plant in the Hot Springs has made the water so hot, tribal people can no longer bathe there. The Navy has ignored tribal objections and is expanding geothermal drilling, she said.

Among the positive news is that the Senate Indian Affairs Committee is making administrative gains with its series of oversight hearings and is building the solid record that will be needed for legislation in the 108th Congress. Then, too, the U.S. Supreme Court let stand a ruling that supported the right of the Hoopa Valley people to protect a ceremonial site. There is a newly formed Sacred Lands Protection Coalition that includes representatives from the Association on American Indian Affairs, Seventh Generation Fund, The Morning Star Institute and NCAI. Five hundred nations should sign behind it. The Coalition supports Congressional oversight hearings and legislation to ensure that the U.S. government fulfills its trust responsibilities to American Indians, including freedom of religion.

Protection of sacred places is a battle cry whose moment has come.