Eagles disappear into the sun surrounded by light from the face of Creation then scream their way home with burning Messages of mystery and power some are given to snake doctors and ants and turtles and salmon to heal the world with order and patience Messages for holy places in the heart of Mother Earth deep inside the Old Stone Woman whose wrinkles are canyons Messages for holy places where snow thunder warns and summer winds whisper this is Sacred Ground.
Far too many Native American sacred places are under attack in the United States. Indigenous Peoples find it particularly hard to protect lands that are not under their ownership or control. Under the federal “Civilization Regulations,” in effect from 1882 to 1935, American Indians were confined to reservations and not permitted to travel to their sacred places outside reservation boundaries. These sites of cultural significance were declared to be public domain or surplus lands, and confiscated by federal agencies or traded away to states and private entities.
Most of these places today have “No Trespassing” signs and Native Peoples who attempt to access them are considered outlaws for exercising their religious freedom. Some sacred places are within reservation and treaty boundaries, but have been dealt away to individual non-Natives, who often attempt to sell them to the highest bidder, thus continuing the potential danger to these places.
While some steps have been taken to undo damage to Native American religious liberties and to sacred places, most remain threatened by extractive minerals production from gold to uranium and the runoff poisons used to mine them; by commercial and recreational development from strip malls to ski resorts; by housing and highway expansion from acceleration lanes to landfills; by dams and urban sprawl that dry up water resources and deplete the water tables; and by munitions storage, bombing ranges, and other military activity. One sacred place—a ceremonial, burial, and historic site of one Native nation—is even being buried by the construction of a casino and hotel resort of another tribe.
The United Nations has spoken to issues concerning sacred places in the “Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples,” which was approved in 2007 by the world community of nations. These provisions have given indigenous peoples worldwide optimism regarding the future protection of sacred places. Article 11, Section 1 of the Declaration, states: Indigenous peoples have the right to practice and revitalize their cultural traditions and customs. This includes the right to maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures, such as archaeological and historical sites, artifacts, designs, ceremonies, technologies and visual and performing arts and literature.
The Declaration’s Article 12, Section 1, states: Indigenous peoples have the right to manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies; the right to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites; the right to the use and control of their ceremonial objects; and the right to the repatriation of their human remains. Article 25 states: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.
Article 11, Section 2, of the Declaration states that countries “shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual property taken without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs.”
It would seem a clear task for the White House to direct federal agencies to review and report on the manner in which they acquired jurisdiction regarding Native sacred places and whether such jurisdiction was taken with or without Native peoples’ free, prior, and informed consent. However, the U.S. State Department has interpreted the phrase “free, prior and informed consent” to mean consultation, which is a very different and lesser standard; the State Department is also imposing that interpretation on other federal agencies.
In most instances, Native Peoples had no choice in such matters, because they were not asked or because they were coerced. During the half century of the “Civilization Regulations,” American Indian ceremonies, including place-based ceremonies that are required by religious tenets to be conducted at specific sacred places, were banned and violators were punished with severe and open-ended imprisonment and/or starvation penalties. There was no free consenting or consulting during that period or before enactment of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) in 1978, when most of the confiscation of sacred places occurred or was set in motion. AIRFA mandates federal consultation with traditional religious leaders, and subsequent laws and executive orders also include and strengthen tribal consultation.
Those Native Peoples who were removed from their sacred places have greater difficulty protecting them now. Relocated families and moieties (kinship groups) sometimes cannot return to their places of observance, commemoration, burial, or ceremony when or as frequently as tradition dictates. Some medicinal plants that are needed for healing or other purposes do not grow in the relocation areas, and needs go unmet, with consequences for the physical or spiritual health and well-being of the people.
Those tribes that are not federally recognized have added burdens, especially when it comes to negotiating with federal agencies for protected status of sacred places. United States law has developed in such a way that federal and tribal governments can negotiate protection, joint management, or transfer agreements if the tribe is federally recognized, because of the federal-tribal nation-to-nation relationship. If a tribe is not federally recognized, the federal government says there is no political relationship and the only basis for agreements would be racial, which is impermissible.
Federal-tribal agreements have been entered into for return of ownership and/ or control of sacred places, for joint management or co-stewardship, or for other kinds of protections. Some of these legislative, administrative, or judicial agreements have been in place and working to the satisfaction of all parties for over 40 years. While details of these agreements are a matter of public record, information about some locations is not available, in order to prevent future violations.
While public information exists regarding ceremonies conducted at sacred places, certain information is not disclosed, because it is private and to be respected, as any other peoples’ religious activity is private and to be respected. It has been the experience of Native Americans that disclosure about the location, nature, or use of a sacred place leads to assaults on them. Many of these places are fragile and have already been destroyed by too many visitors or vehicles. Those who visit Indian country should always be aware that they might be in a sacred place or an area of sensitivity surrounding such a place. Respect should be the watchword and guide to behavior. It is up to everyone—both Native Americans and non-Native Americans—to ensure that sacred places are maintained without damage or destruction.