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Sacred places under attack in Native America

It's been a busy fall for federal, state and private exploiters of Native American sacred places.

The Bureau of Land Management and the Forest Service take the prize this season for abetting their constituent developers in the desecration of Native holy lands. (The National Park Service and Army Corps of Engineers still share the lifetime-achievement title for violating Native burial grounds and other sacred areas, and are the culprits attacking many of the places listed later.)

Medicine Lake Caldera is a sacred place to the Pit River and other tribes, who have used it for thousands of years for ceremonies and healing. It sits in the Modoc National Forest in northeast California on the cratered edge of the largest shield volcano in the United States.

Two years ago, the outgoing administration denied geothermal power development there because of the irreversible physical and cultural impacts.

The BLM and FS reversed that determination on Nov. 26. They decided that the state-funded Calpine Corporation can build the network of power plant facilities, roads, cables and drills it will need to dig deep into Mother Earth, tap the hot water, convert it to electricity and export it to Bonneville Power Administration for consumers in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

Pit River Chairman Gene C. Preston called the decision a "very serious blow." Pit River's press release stated that the "Tribe has no intention of giving up the battle."

BLM reversed another decision the prior administration made as it was leaving office. On Sept. 27, BLM issued a report finding that Glamis Gold, Ltd., has valid claims to mine in the Quechan Indian Pass area of the California Desert.

The Quechan Indian Tribe says the proposed Glamis Imperial Mine is a "massive, open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mine on 1,600 acres ? in the heart of an area now withdrawn from future mining claims to protect Native American religious and cultural values." Included in the area are 55 properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places; items subject to the graves protection and repatriation law; and religious sites - "prayer circles, ceremonial places, shrines, ceramic scatters, petroglyphs and spirit breaks linked by ancient trails."

The Interior Inspector General is investigating the Indian pass decision processes, as well as the ties between several decision-makers and the mining industry generally and Glamis specifically.

Lawsuits are contemplated in both the Medicine Lake and Indian Pass cases.

On Dec. 2, a federal appeals court ended a case that tried to stop the massive telescope project atop Mount Graham, an Apache sacred place in the Pinaleno Mountains in Arizona. The University of Arizona and its development partners, the Forest Service and the Vatican, launched the project, and Congress waived all laws to accommodate it.

An Apache and environmental coalition claimed that the National Historic Preservation Act was not followed in developing power for the project. The court ruled that the appeal was moot because the power line and electricity were in place, and the "harm that the coalitions seek to prevent has already occurred and no effective relief for the alleged NHPA violation can be given." More litigation is likely at the next phase of the project.

Whenever Congress has explored legislation to protect Native sacred places, the most strident objections have been raised by the extractive and logging industries and the federal agencies that represent them. They and other developers say they don't know the location and details of Native sacred places, implying that they would refrain from harming known sacred places.

This, of course, is not true. It is more the case that a voluminous record on a sacred place is tantamount to a neon invitation to "Dig Here."

By the federal agencies' own account in the Medicine Lake case, the "decision follows extensive consultations with the affected Tribes to hear their concerns regarding the significance of the Medicine Lake Highlands as a sacred area and the manner in which the proposed development would affect this important cultural property and its use.

"Although the Tribes remain opposed to the project, (BLM and FS officials) met personally with them, which led the agencies to seek design changes to reduce the visual and audible impacts of the project wherever possible."

In other words, the Indians had their say; now, let development begin, except for some minor cosmetology, if you developers feel like it.

Two dozen endangered sacred places were identified in San Diego at a Nov. 8-9 gathering to protect sacred places and at the National Congress of American Indians Nov. 10-15 annual convention. The public record of each of these identified places is exhaustive.

Because both conferences were held in California, many of the endangered sacred places identified are located there:

o Coastal Chumash lands in the Gaviota Coastal region in southern California.

o Yurok Nation's salmon fisheries in the Klamath River affected by the Interior Department's waterflow decreases.

o Berry Creek, Moore Town and Enterprise Rancherias' lands impacted by the California Water Project's fluctuation zone at the Oroville Dam Reservoir.

o the sacred Puvungna of the Tongva and Acjachemen Peoples.

o the sacred Katuktu (Morro Hill) of the San Luis Rey Band of Mission Indians.

The groups called for the protection and recovery of sacred places in the Southwest:

o in Arizona - Hualapai Nation landforms in Truxton and Crozier Canyons from private extraction of boulders for decorative landscaping; Hopi and Navajo lands and the Navajo aquifer from slurry coal mining by Peabody Coal Company; the San Francisco Peaks from FS and private expansion of the Arizona Snow Bowl and the Boboquivari Mountain of the Tohono O'odham Nation.

o in New Mexico - the micaceous clay-gathering place of the Picuris Pueblo from mica mining by Oglebay Norton Specialty Minerals and Zuni Salt Lake from coal strip mining by the Salt River Project.

o in Texas - Carrizo/Comecrudo lands flooded by Amistad Lake and Falcon Dam.

Other sacred places identified as under attack now, include

o Badlands, Black Hills, Medicine Wheel and Missouri River in the Plains.

o Semiahmah Village burial ground and Snoqualmie Falls in Washington.

o Pipestone National Monument and Cold Water Springs in Minnesota.

o Hickory Ground ceremonial and burial ground in Alabama.

o Ocmulgee National Monument and Ocmulgee Old Fields in Georgia.

o Taino Caguana ceremonial site in Puerto Rico.

o Yaqui Zona Indigena in Sonora, Mexico.

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.