Saving faith 

Tribes struggle to preserve sacred sites on public lands

Prodding the federal government to protect American Indian sacred sites is a proverbial double-edged sword because publicity often increases unwanted visitation as well as vandalism.

The process also undermines tribal religious freedom, because practitioners of other religions, particularly Christianity, are not required to submit “proof” of their beliefs and the importance of their sanctuaries, tribal activists told participants at last week’s Native American Issues Conference at Montana State University in Bozeman.

“It’s just a question of when the next one will be revealed,” said Tim Mentz, a prominent member of South Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, about sacred places located on public lands. “The federal process was never made for tribes. It’s almost becoming mandatory that we reveal them so they can be protected.”

Mentz, the first tribal historical preservation officer in the nation, said that wholesale reform is needed in federal land management policies so that religious sites can more easily be exempted from development without ruining them in the process. A massive black market in Indian artifacts also makes it crucial that the locations of burial plots and other cultural areas be kept secret as often as possible.

But Mentz, among others, said that current federal policies are geared toward developing natural resources and protecting private property rights, not Indian cultural values.

“How much do we have to compromise to say these areas are sacred to us?” Mentz told dozens of Indian and non-Indian students and others attending the event. “How much do you give to have a chance to protect?”

“I don’t feel we should have to justify ourselves, our sacred history,” added Bill Redfield, a Crow tribal member.

“We were created out of the ground,” says Jimmy St. Goddard, a member of the Blackfeet Tribal Business Council. “We didn’t cross the Bering land bridge. We didn’t crawl out of the ocean like a salamander. We’re the most powerful people on this earth, but for some strange reason we were repressed. But that’s going to change.”

A main focus of the conference was Weatherman Draw, a rugged, 4,200-acre stretch of scrubland south of Billings near the Montana-Wyoming border. Eyed for oil by the federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the Denver-based Anschutz Exploration Corp., the so-called Valley of the Chiefs is also home to one of the most prolific displays of Indian rock art on the Northern Plains.

The area served as a cultural crossroads for the Crow, Comanche, Blackfeet, Northern Arapahoe, Eastern Shoshone, Cheyenne and the Sioux, among other tribal groups, and is still the site of religious renewal for many of their members.

“It’s truly a chapel, even though Indian people don’t call our places chapels,” said Howard Boggess, a Crow historian.

“Rock art is our heritage,” added George Reed Jr., a Crow cultural leader and instructor at Little Bighorn Community College in Crow Agency. “The white man doesn’t know where I come from, and it’s better that he doesn’t know.”

Darren Old Coyote, a Crow cultural affairs official, observed that Europeans can go back to Europe to get in touch with their traditional culture and learn their native languages. American Indians, however, are already home.

“As a Crow, I can’t go across the oceans,” he said. “I have no place to go. I have to go to my elders. At Weatherman Draw and other places, that’s the only written history we have. With non-Indians, they leave a paper trail.”

Despite the fact that the BLM knew that Weatherman Draw was significant to at least some neighboring tribes, it didn’t try to stop Anschutz from obtaining mineral leases in the valley in 1994—five years before the agency decided the site should be an “area of critical environmental concern,” which puts the brakes on some types of development. But as conference participants observed, while one side of the BLM mantra stresses preservation, the other is now being pushed by the Bush administration’s focus on reducing U.S. dependency on foreign oil.

At the beginning of the fight over Weatherman Draw, “people from BLM wanted us to drop it, just leave,” said Boggess, who traveled to Washington, D.C., last year to lobby on the issue. “They didn’t want to tell us anything. I was told by at least three people I should just go mind my own business.”

“The U.S. government is like God,” added Reed. “They do as they please.”

Now at least 20 tribes, the Sierra Club, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation have banded together to keep road builders and drilling rigs out. BLM officials, arguing that there would be no significant impacts to tribal cultural values, approved a revised permit for Anschutz early last year. The decision has been appealed, largely on the basis that the government’s proposed mitigation measures can’t offset the damage that would be caused.

“I think there’s some structural problems with the agencies,” said Abigail Dillen, an attorney with the environmental group Earthjustice.”

It’s simply ridiculous to say that putting an oil well in the middle of Weatherman Draw is not a significant impact.”

“We’re all assailed every day as Indian people with what they call assimilation,” explained Dewey Tsonetokoy, a member of Oklahoma’s Kiowa Nation. “But no matter who you are, you come to a crossroads in your life where you have to decide if you’re going to keep your culture or not. People are starting to understand what sacred ground is all about. But some folks have called [the rock pictographs] old graffiti. They’re not old graffiti. They are sacred drawings.”

BLM officials say they’re getting a lease appraisal in an attempt to determine how much the drilling permit is worth. According to agency project coordinator Sandy Brooks, the exploration company, led by billionaire sports club owner and major Republican donor Philip F. Anschutz, has agreed to stay out of Weatherman Draw until Sept. 1.

“We can’t put a price on our spirituality,” said Hamon Wise, an Eastern Shoshone member. “There’s no price. ‘In God We Trust’ is the wrong word to put on a dollar because there’s a lot of evil with that dollar. People kill for that dollar.”

“Weatherman Draw is a gift from the past to the future,” added Alexandra New Holy, an instructor in the MSU Native American Studies program. “It can help us define who we are and who we will be. What we decide defines us.”

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