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Sacred lands could be protected

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WASHINGTON - A high-tech telescope on Mount Graham, open pit gold mining in California, federal officials collecting fossils and bones in the Badlands of South Dakota, and logging in the Black Hills and on Bear Butte all qualify as desecration of sacred sites, according to American Indian elders and spiritual leaders.

The battle to educate states and federal agencies about sacred lands and the importance to present day American Indian cultures has a sordid and sometimes ignored history. But a bill now in Congress could add some legal clout to tribes that wish to stop the desecration of sacred sites.

The bill, the Native American Sacred Lands Protection Act introduced by Rep. Nick Rahall, D-WV would, as it reads, requires that government agencies treat oral history of a geographic area be referred to as Native science and be treated as scientific evidence that a geographic structure or area is sacred.

The act, if passed, would precede the implementation of the Native Graves Protection and Restoration Act. It would require consultation with tribes before any activity of mining or resource exploration, logging or any other activity that may alter the cultural and religious significance of the sacred site.

Other laws and acts are not specific to energy and other types of development that may or has occurred on sacred lands. This act would give the tribes some leverage to have a say about whether or not the development could take place or how it would be approached.

The act allows tribes to petition the government departments or agencies to designate certain areas as unsuitable for exploration or development.

"(The sacred sites) are the essence of who we are," said Tex Hall, president of NCAI.

The possibility of the bill's passage this session is in question, Lillian Sparks of the National Congress of American Indians said, because there is opposition. What is needed is for the tribes to lobby their congressional representatives for passage of this bill.

"I think it is a call for unity between tribal nations and their members of Congress to move this legislation forward," said Darrell Hillaire, chairman of the Lummi Nation.

What is at stake is mining operations in California, oil drilling in Alaska, development of recreation areas, roads built through the Black Hills and increased logging in forests that federal officials claim are subject to wildfires.

An example of why the bill may face strong opposition is the fact that President Bush rescinded an executive order by President Clinton to prevent open pit gold mining at Indian Pass in California. The area is sacred to the Quechan people and the 1,600 acre open pit mine would devastate the area.

The state of California is involved with protecting the site, but the federal government continues to allow mining.

The Zuni Pueblo uses a salt lake for religious purposes. When the lake water evaporates in the summer the spiritual leaders and medicine men use the salt for religious purposes. A public utility wants to build a coal strip mine to the north of the lake, using the aquifer that feeds the lake for the coal mining, thus harming the lake itself.

For the Lummi, access to sacred sites within the Snoqualmie National Forest around Mount Baker is limited. The area runs from the Canadian Border along the western slopes of the Cascade Mountains to Mount Rainier National Park.

The Medicine Wheel, which is very sacred to the many American Indians who live in the region is threatened by logging interests that have filed suit against the federal government to allow access to an area adjacent to the site.

And most recently in the state of Montana, the Valley of the Chiefs was under attack by oil conglomerates that intended to drill in the valley that is also referred to as the Valley of Peace. Over a year of negotiations with the tribes and the companies ended with the oil leases being transferred to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. Rep. Rahall introduced the legislation that saved the Valley of the Chiefs from destruction.

"At a time when the Bush administration is promoting increased energy development, we must enact comprehensive legislation that prohibits the loss of further Indian sacred lands. We must not stand idly by as these unique places are wiped off the face of the earth," Rahall said.

The new Sacred Lands Protection Act would do what lengthy negotiations and court battles sometimes fail to do - protect the sacred sites.

Educating the members of Congress and the general public to what constitutes a sacred site and why, is a formidable task by American Indians.

Charmaine White Face, coordinator of the Defenders of the Black Hills told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs on June 15, that for thousands of years the people of the Cheyenne, Arapaho, Lakota and other nations from Canada and beyond came to what is known as Bear Butte to pray.

"Mount Sinai was the place to which Moses went and received the Ten Commandments that are used by Christians, Muslims and Jews. At the time Moses did this, his people were living in tents.

"Is it so inconceivable that American Indians, who also on the plains lived in tents, did not have a sacred place to go in which to receive guidance? Their sacred place was Bear Butte, a tiny mountain on the northeast corner of the larger, sacred Black Hills," White Face said.

The Black Hills in South Dakota are known by geologists as possibly the oldest mountain range in North America, and some say the world.

Black Elk, the revered Oglala spiritual leader, referred to what the non-Indian world calls Harney Peak in the Black Hills as the center of the universe. Today many American Indians make a pilgrimage to Harney Peak to pray and receive guidance. The area is within the Black Hills National Forest and Custer State Park and is subject to restrictions and regulations imposed by both agencies.

"Most Americans understand a reverence for the Sistine Chapel, or the United States Capitol. Too often non-Indians have difficulty giving the same reverence we give to our sacred places to a mountain, valley, stream or rock formation," Rahall said.

The Yankton Sioux Tribe continues its battle to save a sacred burial ground from construction by the state of South Dakota.

Human remains were uncovered while state contractors removed dirt for fill in an area that is to be used as an RV waste dump site. A federal court ordered the dirt returned to the original burial ground.

The Yankton elders claim that the entire area that is along the Missouri River contains the remains of their ancestors. Under this new act the tribe would have the opportunity to petition the proper authorities to designate the entire area as sacred and place it on a protected list.

The act would require consultation with the tribes prior to any operations or activities in the areas that may be deemed as sacred areas. And as the act requires the acceptance of oral history or Native science as evidence of sacredness, a case can be made for sacred areas.

Should the departments or agencies not abide by the conditions of the act, the federal courts would be the courts of jurisdiction.