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Steps in the right direction

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NARF, University of Colorado join National Days of Prayer events

BOULDER, Colo. - The sun's rays were already warm just after 7 a.m. June 20 as cedar was burned and ceremonial words offered in this college town at the foot of the Rocky Mountains during the National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places.

''The Native American Rights Fund has joined with tribes and national Native organizations around the country in honoring sacred places today,'' said Walter Echo-Hawk, Pawnee and NARF senior staff attorney.

Echo-Hawk and others talked about progress made in protecting sacred sites at the summer solstice ceremony, where attendees were seated in lawn chairs under shade trees at NARF headquarters on the University of Colorado campus.

The Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, adopted in 2007 in the U.N. General Assembly; a ruling in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals favoring tribes seeking to preserve the sanctity of the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona; and a bill in Congress protecting Native worship on Forest Service lands constitute ''incremental steps'' by government to protect Native sites, he said.

Andy Cozad, Kiowa, and Fred Standing, Wichita, both offered prayers for the protection and preservation of holy places and practices. Cozad said that in 1890, the federal government took away the Kiowa Sun Dance and has ''taken away our sacred sites.''

Ben Sherman, Lakota and president of the Western American Indian Chamber in Denver, said he recently visited the Black Hills in South Dakota where he found a previously unknown cultural site in a pasture that may soon be under development.

Ancestral sites are ''all over this land, and sacred places exist everywhere,'' he said. ''We will continue to lose these places as developers take over our lands.''

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Sherman cited concerns about environmental and other issues at Valmont Butte, near Boulder, where Sweatlodge and other ceremonies have been performed. ''We have a lot of work to do about that,'' he said.

Steven Moore, a NARF staff attorney, said the organization is ''standing in solidarity'' with indigenous people in the Americas who feel a special connection to the Earth.

''There is a fundamental difference in the ways in which Native peoples worship, because Native religions are often fundamentally land-based and rely on the protection and preservation of the places for the sanctity of the religions themselves.''

He and others work to preserve sacred sites through both Congress and the courts, he said, but the former has been less helpful because there are ''moneyed interests in Congress that would prefer to protect their own access.''

Mining, timber, and oil and gas exploration interests ''have more money and better access to members of Congress,'' he said.

Although the courts may have generally been more sensitive to Native issues, a 1988 Supreme Court decision overturned lower courts' rulings that would have protected sacred areas from Forest Service intrusion. The high court's decision ''began to mark a trend against Native American rights and interests,'' he said.

Echo-Hawk and Moore are active in issues concerning the Medicine Wheel National Historic Monument, Devil's Tower (also known by various tribal names) in Wyoming, and the Spirit Cave and Kennewick Man cases, both involving ancient human remains.

NARF is also involved with the Sacred Lands Protection Coalition and the Working Group on Culturally Unidentified Human Remains, and implementation of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.