Tribes and Forest Service discuss sacred sites

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CRAZY HORSE, S.D. - Tribal leaders, elders and members met with National
Forest Service officials in a two-day consultation/listening session Feb.
23 - 24 to begin a process of forming an advisory group, define
consultation and sacred sites in an atmosphere a majority of people
described as powerful and unprecedented in dealings with federal agencies.

Frequently referring to "blank page policies," National Forest Service
officials told tribal representatives that although they had some policy
and plans for an advisory group on the local and national levels, the page
was clean.

Emotions ran high on both sides, and for the most part there wasn't a
Forest Service person in attendance who didn't have praise for what was
said and heard.

Three words from the Forest Service described the intent of the conference:
collaboration, communication and coordination.

"We want to put more emphasis on tribal relations," said Brad Exton, acting
supervisor of the Black Hills National Forest.

"We want to continue ... working with tribes in many areas. It's your
ancestors that were in the Black Hills. We are working on partnerships to
see how we can make the Black Hills for everyone," Exton said.

The Black Hills is claimed as ancestral lands by some 22 different tribes.
The Lakota, now located here, claim the Black Hills (He Sapa in Lakota) as
sacred land. The Black Hills, by an 1868 treaty, was to always be the land
of the Lakota; however, a gold discovery by Lt. Col. George Custer, on an
illegal expedition in the Black Hills in 1874, turned the treaty sour and
the influx of unwelcome guests began.

Non-Indian settlers and gold prospectors trumped the Lakota treaty and
settled in the region, unlawfully at first. To add insult to injury, many
of the Black Hills' peaks and landmarks took on names that were offensive
to the Lakota: Harney Peak, Custer Peak, Terry Peak, Custer city, Custer
County and Custer State Park, just to name a few.

The people who carried those names were military leaders whose job or
determination was to eliminate the indigenous people: genocide is how the
Lakota refer to it today.

Alex White Plume, vice president of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, told a group of
Forest Service and park officials at a different gathering that the Lakota
people didn't come into the Black Hills because of what it had become. But
the healing process is taking place, and the people will once again return
to the sacred hills for ceremony and biological and spiritual nurturing.

A settlement that paid the Lakota millions of dollars for the Black Hills
has been rejected by all of the great Sioux nation tribes. The amount, held
in trust by the federal treasury, has grown to more than $600 million, yet
the Sioux nation members stand by their belief that the Black Hills is not
for sale.

Nearly all of the lands that are now designated as national parks and
forests are on the ancestral lands of one or more tribes across the
country. The Black Hills and a few other well-known parks stand as
reminders to the tribes that management of the forests and grasslands
should be in their hands, or at least they should be consulted about the
management.

To address this, a national advisory board made up of American Indians is
in the planning stages. A policy has been written but not finalized.

The Black Hills American Indian advisory board may serve as a model for the
national board, Forest Service officials said.

"The Forest Service mission and vision for our future is to sustain the
health of the nation's forests and grasslands. To meet the needs of the
future sessions like this are so important. We have a mandate to support
Indian sovereignty and culture. Line officers are on the point in this
matter and recognize opportunities for tribes to move into more active
roles in forest management," Exton said.

At stake is the sale of timber, herbs and other plants important in the
medicines of the Lakota and other tribes. Elders claim that to sell the
herbs and plants is wrong, and that if the general public is allowed to
harvest the plants they will soon disappear.

Many berries, medicinal herbs and wild sage grow in the Black Hills region
and in other areas of the country. Elders claim they should have free
access to harvest those plants that are part of the traditions without
having to reveal the location or how much they have taken.

The Forest Service now requires people to get a permit to gather plants,
and on the permit the location and amount taken is recorded. This is
unacceptable, tribal members say, adding that they would be giving away the
locations of some of the most sought-after herbs used in medicines.
Corporations would then come in, overharvest and make a profit.

The American Indian advisory board would deal with solutions to those
problems, Forest Service officials said, adding that the designation of
specific areas that are sacred will help to control outsiders' impact.

The two-day meeting included discussions on sacred sites, consultation and
the advisory council.

Tribal officials came from Utah, Wyoming, Montana, Nebraska, North Dakota
and South Dakota. Forest Service officials gathered from Washington, D.C.,
the regional office in Denver, Wyoming and Montana.

"The history and knowledge is to be shared by partners; knowledge that has
been handed down through the generations about relationships with wildlife
and habitats, and about drought. Cultural treatment is knowledge we could
benefit from to manage this land.

"We are humans and our activities are an inseparable part of the balance of
nature. Some say we at the Forest Service are behind the power curve on
learning these things. Many tribes have lived the concept of the ecosystem
for centuries and we stand to benefit from this knowledge," Exton said.