PORCUPINE, N.D. - The district council of Porcupine, one of eight districts that make up the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, in North and South Dakota, voted Aug. 9 to close down a botanical sanctuary within its boundaries. The 85-acre tract shelters many species of traditional medicine plants, including some that may have been planted by Lakotas of generations past, according to experts who certified the refuge as part of a continent-wide network.
Elder Kenneth Painte Sr., Lakota, called threats to the continued existence of the sanctuary ''a downgrade for Standing Rock.'' When contacted by Indian Country Today, district Chairman Benjamin Harrison declined to comment.
For the district's decision to go into effect, the Standing Rock tribal council must ratify it. Doing so would presumably clear the way for a cell phone tower to be built on the land; the installation would be one of 29 to be placed around the 2.3-million-acre reservation by 2009 in order to improve communications, especially for police and other first responders.
However, abolishing the sanctuary may not be necessary for the communications project to proceed. According to the Department of Interior Indian Affairs spokesman Nedra Darling, the tower sites are not entirely settled. The tribal telecommunications office has agreed to move five because of cultural concerns, she said. ''More towers could be adjusted due to recently raised concerns,'' she added. ''There's been a lot of cooperation between the federal government and the tribe on this matter, and respectful accommodations continue to be made. The sensitivity to the issues has given us a high level of comfort.''
Aubrey Skye, Hunkpapa Lakota, and his wife, Monica, Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians, did not share Darling's positive assessment. The couple, who are stewards of the sanctuary, point to the ''Finding of No Significant Impact'' in the environmental assessment that was prepared by the BIA's Great Plains regional office in 2005 to determine whether the reservation-wide communications project complies with the National Environmental Policy Act. This determination left the sanctuary vulnerable to development, they say.
While the plant refuge was mentioned in the report, neither placing a 197-foot tower near its sweat lodge nor introducing noxious weeds such as leafy spurge, which the assessment described as an inevitable result of construction, were deemed a ''significant impact.''
The sanctuary also abuts the nesting ground of 10 to 12 pairs of bald eagles, according to local residents. These were not described in the report, though possible ''bird strikes'' were, as cell phone towers kill 4 million to 5 million migrating birds annually, according to the document.
The Skyes' objections, which were initially focused on the Porcupine tower, have broadened, particularly since the tribal council's rejection in July of a motion to relocate that particular installation to a less sensitive spot. The couple has been working with Painte to organize tribal members against the communications project; they've referred to studies showing possible ill effects on health and the environment and cited the American Cancer Society's reluctance to declare cell phone radiation either dangerous or safe. More than 200 tribal members have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the towers.
The protesters also set up a conference on the consequences of radiation from varied sources, including uranium mining and wireless communication, which took place Aug. 28 at Prairie Knights Casino in Fort Yates. ''Our health is already poor,'' Painte said. ''The towers will make matters worse.''
Both Painte and Aubrey Skye appeared before the Porcupine District Council during its Aug. 9 meeting. They had been summoned there to explain the presence of the sanctuary's sweat lodge, which Painte established in its present location some 15 years ago, and to account for $600 the refuge had received over two years for seeds and other items from United Plant Savers, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of native plants.
''We had the receipts and a letter from United Plant Savers,'' Skye said. ''Council members were firing questions at me from all directions, and when they couldn't find any irregularities with the sanctuary, someone suggested that they get rid of it. So they took their vote.''
In addition to organizing tribal members against the communications project, Painte and Skye have requested a Traditional Cultural Properties survey of all proposed tower locations. The study would ascertain the existence of any ceremonial or historic sites that could be adversely affected. This request, according to Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Tim Mentz, Upper Yanktonai Dakota/Hunkpapa Lakota, has been turned over to the BIA.
''It's the responsibility of the federal agency to satisfy the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act Section 101(d)(6)(B) when an individual or tribe applies 'religious and cultural significance' to areas they deem important,'' Mentz explained. Such a survey can, however, introduce its own problems. ''It may force us to reveal information about sacred sites that should remain proprietary," Mentz said.
Painte called the entire situation ''a test from the Creator'' and said, ''Do we want spirituality or do we want 'progress' that's killing everything? It's all about money. No one was arguing about any of this until the cell phone towers came up. We need to sit down and discuss this in a moderate way.''