Sacred sites on federal land are mammoth issues

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CRAZY HORSE, S.D. - The definition of "sacred site" is open for discussion,
and it all depends on which side of the cultural divide a person stands on.

The Lakota have no word that means "sacred": the word "waken" is the
closest substitute. So who defines the word "sacred"?

With that question hanging over the heads of federal agencies and tribal
cultural officials, it could become difficult to define a sacred site and
agree on its meaning.

The topic of sacred sites and their protection commanded a large portion of
a recent meeting between the National Forest Service and tribal officials
in Crazy Horse.

A 1996 executive order mandated the National Forest Service to develop a
policy on how to deal with sacred sites: protect physical integrity,
protect access to and use of sacred sites and protect locations'
confidentiality.

The Forest Service tried to comply with the order, but in 1997 it was
determined the agency did not have the right components in place and -
despite being out of compliance - agency officials decided not to form the
policy. But now the time is right: the agency has tribal liaisons and
knowledgeable people in place. A policy has already been written but is
open for change, forest officials said.

"The tribes decide what is sacred. This is keystone to the policy," said
Susan Johnson, Hidatsa, National Forest Service.

The policy will provide direction and guidance, develop training and
fulfill the mission of protecting and managing sacred sites with tribal
involvement. Listening meetings held across the country will provide the
input that will craft a final policy.

Then what does the Forest Service consider sacred?

It could be a small site or a vast expanse of land, they said. Forest
Service guidelines say the entire Black Hills can be considered sacred, but
within the boundaries there are also more discreetly small sacred sites,
said Sonia Tamez, Tribal Relations Program Manager.

The Black Hills National Forest consists of 1.3 million acres and it is up
to the tribes to decide on the sacredness, Tamez said. "We don't know where
the sites are, but the Indian people know," she said.

All of the Black Hills' original area of 7.3 million acres is considered
sacred, according to Mario Gonzales, Oglala Sioux: "Lakota people use the
Black Hills for spirituality and survival."

Within the Black Hills there are shrines such as different peaks, canyons
and Bear Butte and Devils Tower. An area where Sun Dance rocks are gathered
is located near Sundance, Wyo., Gonzales said.

"Hopefully the outcome will be a policy that provides direction to the
field. The issues raised here about the entire Black Hills as sacred ...
I've heard similar comments about large landscapes. Now it comes down to
the nuts and bolts; now we have multiple tasks on the land, hard tasks -
and that's why we are here. We need your ideas and comments," said Mit
Parsons, special assistant to the deputy chief for State and Private Forest
Service.

The task of protecting sacred sites is challenging. Most of the land not
privately owned is multi-use. Bear Butte, on the northern edge of the Black
Hills, is the most sacred mountain to the Lakota and Cheyenne. Being a
state park, divisiveness between those who use Bear Butte as a prayer
location and those who insist it is also a recreation area continues.

"When you talk about our sacredness, be careful: these are my ancestors.
You can't define sacredness," said Marie Randall, Lakota elder.

To teach the culture to the young, the Black Hills needs to be the
classroom, elders say. "We need to help, as elders, to teach the treaties
to the grandchildren. I don't want my grandchildren thinking they have to
give up sacred land," said Elaine Quiver, Oglala and member of the task
force that drew up the policy draft.

The conference and proposed policy are not without critics. Victor Herald,
Lakota, reminded people that the National Forest Service traded land with
actor Kevin Costner to develop a resort in the Black Hills. Herald said
there were sacred sites on the property Costner received and that testimony
from tribal members was ignored.

"Each of us that spoke showed you a picture, told you a story. If you have
any common sense you will see the whole picture. See the picture - that's
all we are asking," Herald said.

An important part of this and other conferences is to build relationships
and also that the sacred sites policy be a process inviting input from the
tribes. Through a memorandum of understanding, tribes would be consulted
every time a thinning or other process takes place. "This is the intent of
the scope of what we want to do. It's a dynamic give and take," Parsons
said.

The process of writing the sacred site policy may take time, if not years.
The National Forest Service has been out of compliance for eight years, and
Johnson said if it takes another eight years that would be fine.

A major hurdle to overcome is the claim to the Black Hills, the treaty of
1868, and the difference of opinion between the government and the tribes
about the use of the land.

"We need to do this otherwise someone else will, and they will change our
guidelines. I'm getting old and before I die I want to see our children use
the Black Hills the way they should," Quiver said.