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Sacred sites require protection

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Kudos to Indian Country Today columnist Suzan Harjo for bringing forth notice to the coming desecration of Bear Butte, which she aptly describes as a "place of peace and sanctuary." A shooting range is proposed for the ancient prayer ground - 10,000 rounds per day, a veritable battle day after day just north of the sacred Black Hills. A wide group of non-Native politicians were in on the development, including Rep. William J. Janklow, R-S.D.

The proposed shooting range is one of a number of proposals and developmental projects that threaten to destroy the natural character of places that have been traditionally used for spiritual ceremony and prayer. At Quechan, Calif., a place called Indian Pass is one of 23 places identified by tribes as sacred areas, used for ceremony. At Indian Pass, it is a gold mine that threatens to disturb a sacred prayer trail. President Clinton protected the spiritual place but mining has been approved under President Bush.

At Bear Butte, as Harjo points out, "The developers, the state and the feds ignored a whole lot of laws when they failed to consult with or even inform those tribal and traditional religious leaders with proprietary, environmental, cultural and religious interests in [the mountain]."

Disparate federal policies on issues of sacred sites protection, depending on the agency, from park service to the BIA to the Defense Department, make caretaking and proper use of sacred sites difficult.

A 1988 Supreme Court decision, Lyng v. Northwest Indian CPA, endorsed development on federal land that is Indian sacred land, judging that such is not a violation of Indian religious freedom.

Last year, the National Congress of American Indians hosted a Native American Sacred Lands protection forum in Washington, D.C. The day kicked off a host of activities around sacred sites protection, forming the Sacred Lands Protection Coalition, involving several important Indian organizations such as the Association on American Indian Affairs, Seventh Generation Fund and the Native American Rights Fund. The Coalition supports congressional oversight hearings and legislation to ensure that the U.S. government fulfills its trust responsibilities to Native Americans, including freedom of religion.

Protection of sacred sites is a battle cry whose moment has come. As Tex Hall, president of the National Council of American Indians and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara affiliated nations in North Dakota said, "Our sacred sites - so integral to the practice of our religions - are being destroyed." Hall would educate congress on "the importance of our sacred lands, the well being of our cultures, and the health of the earth."

An award-winning documentary, "In the Light of Reverence," was screened. The film depicts the stories of three communities who work to protect sacred sites: the Lakota at Devil's Tower, Wyo.; the Hopi in the Southwest Four Corners area; and the Wintu at Mt. Shasta, Calif. The film documents obstacles to religious freedom for land-based practitioners and impacts on sacred sites that range from mining and ski resorts to New Age practices and rock-climbing. "In the Light of Reverence" is highly recommended as an excellent background production and primer on sacred sites.

The Sacred Lands Protection Forum is hosted by NCAI and coordinated by Christopher McLeod, Sacred Land Film Project of Earth Island Institute; Emogene Bevitt, U.S. National Park Service (DOI); Kevin Tennyson, Office of the American Indian Trust (DOI); Pemina Yellow Bird, Cultural Resources Representative, Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation; Danny Gogal, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Office of Environmental Justice; and Lillian Sparks, NCAI.

The Sacred Land Film Project (www.sacredland.org), producer of "In the Light of Reverence," has been working with a broad coalition of Native American tribal governments, activist groups and federal officials to raise awareness of the issue of threats to Native American sacred places.

We urge American Indian people and others to get involved in this issue. Become educated and informed and help create awareness that Indian appreciation and ceremony for special places must be respected.