Sacred lands campaign comes to U.S. Capitol

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WASHINGTON ? Standing in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, a sacred site of the American government, leading Congressmen joined with Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians, and Quechan Nation President Mike Jackson on July 18 to announce a bill that would give tribes new leverage to protect their own sacred lands.

The Native American Sacred Lands Act (NASLA) would turn President Clinton's 1997 Executive Order promoting consultation with tribes on endangered sites into a federal law. It would also give tribes a new ability to petition the federal government to prevent damage to sacred lands from federal or federally assisted actions.

The proposed bill would impose a mandatory procedure on the federal bureaucracy and incorporate safeguards for tribal traditions. The government would be required to admit oral histories as evidence and hold public hearings within 90 days of receipt of the petition. The Secretary of the relevant department would then issue a written decision within another 60 days. If evidence shows that any action would cause significant damage to sacred lands, the lands must be designated as "unsuitable" for development.

The bill also contains a confidentiality clause to protect details of religious practice, the significance of a particular land or its location. None of this information could be released without the consent of all parties. First violations could be punished by fines up to $10,000, a one-year jail term, or both. Subsequent violations could entail a $100,000 fine, five year sentence, or both.

U.S. Rep. Nick J. Rahall, D-W.Va., co-sponsor of the bill and ranking member of the House Resources Committee, said, "At a time when the Bush Administration is promoting increased energy development, we must enact comprehensive legislation that prohibits the loss of further Native American sacred lands. We must not stand idly by as these unique places are wiped off the face of the earth."

He singled out the petition process as "an extremely important provision. The tribes would no longer have to depend on the good graces of federal bureaucrats to protect these lands."

Co-sponsor of the bill is U.S. Rep. Dale Kildee, D-Mich., co-chair of the Native American Caucus in the House.

The presence of Quechan President Jackson underscored the constant threat of development to sacred lands. His tribe holds sacred the Indian Pass site in California, where a Canadian company is seeking to locate a 1,600-acre open pit gold mine. The Clinton Administration denied a permit for the project in January 2001, but the new administration suspended the decision and is still reconsidering it.

Announcement of the bill followed a day of hearings before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee featuring testimony by Jackson and Malcolm B. Bowekaty, governor of the Zuni Tribe, who spoke in defense of the Zuni Salt Lake.