IMPERIAL, Calif. - A group of primarily youthful Quechan tribal members on the Fort Yuma Indian reservation are blaming their own tribal government for the destruction of a recently constructed ceremonial site.
The site in question sits near a proposed open pit gold mine by the Canadian-based Galmis Corporation. Quechan opposition developed into a high-profile dispute over such open pit mines and also became a focal point for proposed sacred site legislation.
Earlier in the year, former Gov. Gray Davis signed a law that put severe restrictions on such mining practices in the state at least partially as a result of the Quechan dispute.
It is mainly because of this dispute and ongoing litigation that tribal officials claim that the ceremonial grounds were dismantled.
At issue are the grounds for a Sun Dance ceremony that 16-year-old Richard "Tiky" Smith and a group of Quechan youth had constructed just outside the reservation boundary on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land.
Smith claimed that he and several other tribal youths were inspired after attending a gathering of several tribal groups from across the nation in Yuma, Ariz. where a Sun Dance was performed. He described his own recent past as troubled and said that he wanted to turn things around by getting on the "red road."
He began to actively participate in Indian activities such as last year's Spirit Run in which a few dozen tribal members ran 700 miles throughout California to raise awareness of a pending sacred site bill.
In the ceremonial area the youths constructed an arbor for nearby trees and with help from other tribal members placed several portable toilets. He claimed that several tribal members, including elders came to the site to pray and held a November Sun
During the ceremony a BLM agent approached the grounds and was denied entry by a contingent of tribal members. The agent agreed to let the ceremony continue but told the tribal members that they had to secure permission before doing it again.
Doran Sanchez, who works in the Moreno Valley field office of the BLM confirmed the incident and said the group would have to apply for a permit before holding another ceremony and that permanent objects are not allowed.
However, Smith and his aunt Pricilla Pretty Bird said the tribal government ordered the area taken down and a clean up crew that included at least two tribal members, showed up with trucks and other heavy equipment to clear out the site.
Tribal elder George Bryant, 82, said the purpose of the grounds was to eventually hold a multi-tribal nation gathering similar to the one in Yuma to bring in tribes for a Sun Dance ceremony from across the country.
"It's like destroying a church," said Bryant. It's a desecration."
However Vernon Smith of the Quechan Culture Committee said that there is another side to this story. He claims that the Committee was approached by the youth about the Sun Dance ceremony and was denied permission to build the grounds on the reservation. The reason for this, said Vernon Smith, is that the Sun Dance is not a traditional practice of the Quechan.
"We wouldn't want to go into the Dakotas and force our ceremonies on them," said Smith. "I don't even think that they are learning how do this ceremony in the right way from their elders. We've had seven deaths (on the reservation) since they did that ceremony."
He suggested that the youths have their ceremonial grounds at an off reservation site. Richard Smith said that they wanted to set it near the site where the gold mine had been proposed as a healing spot.
Sometime after the ceremony Vernon Smith said that a group of legislators and business community members went out to view the proposed gold mine site as part of the ongoing case and found the ceremonial grounds full of trash and overflowing portable toilets.
He maintained that the BLM requires camp and other use sites to be cleaned up after a group leaves and further said that he had talked to some tribal elders from South Dakota who told him that Sun Dance sites are always dismantled after the ceremony is finished.
Richard Smith claimed that the site was well maintained and said he saw the pictures of the trash-strewn site which he alleges was not in that condition after his group left the site.
"It looks like someone tore open garbage bags and littered them," said Richard Smith
Vernon Smith said that he is planning on having a meeting in the next week or so with the youth to try and come to a resolution but that the site will remain off limits.