USDA's Culture War Against Sacred Places


Amid the top-volume crossfire these days about whose religion and whose health could be threatened by federal actions, it’s noteworthy that debaters and bloviators alike don’t notice or don’t care about ongoing violations of Native American Peoples’ religious freedom and well being.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture and its Forest Service continue to wage their long-standing culture war against Native American sacred places, causing great distress and despair to practitioners of traditional religions, who are required to conduct most ceremonies and observances at particular holy areas and to protect them. At the same time, the USDA and FS present a façade of fulfilling President Obama’s 2008 campaign promise to support “legal protections for sacred places and cultural traditions, including Native ancestors’ burial grounds and churches.”

The USDA and FS won their lawsuit on February 9 before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which tossed out a challenge to the FS’s permit for the Arizona Snowbowl to make snow from reclaimed sewage water on the San Francisco Peaks. Sacred to the Hopi, Navajo and other Native nations, the Peaks were declared “public domain” and national forest lands in the late 1800s, when Native Peoples were confined to reservations and faced life-threatening imprisonment and starvation penalties if caught dancing, meditating, praying or just being there.

The FS first granted the Snowbowl a special use permit in 1938, as soon as the federal government lifted its “Civilization Regulations” that banned all ceremonies and off-reservation travel. The FS permitted a lucrative expansion for the private ski resort in 1979, over the objections of Native Nations and as the FS and all federal agencies were required by the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act to consult with Native traditional religious leaders.

I attended one FS “consultation” with Hopi Elders on the proposed Snowbowl expansion. FS representatives wanted to know how much and which parts of the Peaks were sacred, to which the Hopi Elders responded, “The Peaks are sacred.” One FS official said, “So, you say your Gods walk around the [Peaks]. How big are their feet?” The Hopi Elders who spoke English remarked that they did not speak the same language as the FS. Not surprisingly, the FS declared to Congress that it found no policies or practices that would negatively affect or abridge religious freedom of Native Americans, also claiming, “With the passage of [AIRFA] a new awareness of the needs of the Native American is occurring within the Agency.”

A lawsuit brought about by the FS and USDA pitting a logging road against a Native ceremonial site in Northern California in the 1970s resulted in the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1988 ruling that neither AIRFA or the First Amendment created a right of action to protect Native American sacred places. When the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs began to advance a statutory door to the courthouse in the early 1990s, Justice Department representatives told the Committee staff that the sacred lands provision would rise to the level of a veto, and it died after a single hearing.

The USDA and FS have taken only tiny, timid steps to protect a few sacred places, where there are no private economic enterprises to object. As the FS was fighting those who were trying to protect sacred places, it conducted “consultations” for more than a year on Native American views on sacred places, releasing a draft report in June 2011 that contained nothing to reflect that Native Peoples were heard in the “listening” sessions.

National Congress of American Indians Executive Director Jacqueline Johnson Pata responded to the draft report on October 17, 2011, with 14 pages of recommendations, commenting that USDA and FS were not using available laws and mechanisms to protect sacred places. NCAI members responded in person to USDA representatives at the NCAI convention on November 1. On November 30, a USDA form letter signed by Secretary Thomas J. Vilsack noted that the comments are “entered into the official record” for “consideration during the drafting of the final report.”

Nearly three months later, the USDA has not produced the final report, but the FS has not been idle.

On February 11, Defenders of the Black Hills Coordinator Charmaine White Face e-mailed an urgent request for comments on February 13 “to help protect the small, last wilderness area in the Black Hills,” a sacred place to many Native Peoples. “The [FS] is planning on logging and-or burning 43,516 acres in the Hell Canyon Ranger District.… the rush is due to the alleged need to reduce and preclude impacts from mountain pine beetles [and] to stop wildfires.… However, a recent scientific look at all the data for the last 100 years shows that the mountain pine beetles are not the cause of wildfires.” (

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee, is an award-winning columnist and a poet, writer, curator and policy advocate, who has helped Native Peoples protect sacred places and recover more than one million acres of land. She is president of the Morning Star Institute.