On Native American sacred sites and religious freedom in North America

Winona LaDuke and I co-authored this report to the United Nations on the threats facing Native American sacred sites throughout North America:

Honor the Earth

Briefing Document Prepared on Sacred Sites and Religious Freedom in North America

Prepared by Sean Cruz and Winona LaDuke for the UN NGO Forum on Sustainable Development, Brazil 2012

The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples assures that all indigenous people have the right to be who they are, that they have the right to exist as distinct peoples, and that they have the right to “maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures.” We have the stated right to “practice and revitalize” our sacred cultural traditions and customs.

The Declaration affirms the rights of indigenous peoples to “manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies,” and “to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites.”

The Declaration recognizes that much of what indigenous peoples hold sacred in this world has been taken or otherwise lost “without their free, prior and informed consent or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs,” and it calls for states to provide redress “through effective mechanisms” and “through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms developed in conjunction with indigenous peoples concerned.”

The phrase “through effective mechanisms” appears twice in Articles 11 and 12, serving to underscore the fact that nation states should utilize the power of regulatory, legislative and other authorities to assure that the rights of Indigenous peoples to practice and worship in sacred sites and continue religious and cultural ways of living are secure.

In this documentation, we will discuss the lack of compliance with these essential elements of the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples in the North American context.

 “It’s not like a church where you have everything in one place.  We could describe how sacred sites are the teachers….” –Calleen Sisk – Winnemum Wintu

Since the beginning of times, the Creator and Mother Earth have given our peoples places to learn the teachings that will allow us to continue and reaffirm our responsibilities and ways on the lands from which we have come. Indigenous peoples are place-based societies, and at the center of those places are the most sacred of our sites, where we reaffirm our relationships. These sites must be preserved to continue our existence, and we believe the existence of all living beings.

We are in the midst of a great planetary crisis, a holocaust of lost species and disappearing indigenous peoples. In the Western hemisphere alone more than 2,000 indigenous nations and tribes have become extinct in the last 500 years. Languages and species are rendered extinct that we may never know existed. This speaks to the pace of extinction, the pace of the holocaust. Changes in technology (some would call these changes advances) deepen and widen the threats we face as indigenous peoples, and accelerate the pace of destruction. We must recognize the vast scale and urgency of the common threat. The ability to pray remains an essential element of the preservation of Mother Earth. As indeed, the converging crisis broadened by climate related disasters and industrial expansion is planetary.

“…While traditional Western religions view creation as the work of a deity ‘who institutes natural laws which then govern the operation of physical nature,’ tribal religions regard creation as an ongoing process in which they are morally and religiously obligated to participate.  Native Americans fulfill this duty through ceremonies and rituals designed to preserve and stabilize the earth and to protect humankind from disease and other catastrophes.  Failure to conduct these ceremonies in the manner and place specified, adherents believe, will result in great harm to the earth and to the people whose welfare depends upon it.  In marked contrast to traditional Western religions, the belief systems of Native Americans do not rely on doctrines, creeds, or dogmas…. Ceremonies are communal efforts undertaken for specific purposes in accordance with instructions handed down from generation to generation.”

From the US Supreme Court decision in NorthwestIndianCemetery Association v. Lyng, dissenting Opinion by Justice Brennan.

Everywhere there are indigenous people, there are sacred sites, there are ways of knowing, there are relationships. The people, the rivers, the mountains, the lakes, the animals and the fish are all related. We know this, as did our ancestors in these lands long ago.  The sacredness is specific to its place and its people that speak to the sacred relationships between humans and their relatives.  Within the place and the cultural practice of Indigenous peoples are many of the answers that are essential to our collective survival.  The protection of sacred sites is, therefore, a UN recognized essential right, and it is an essential strategy for preservation of our future.

The Absence of Effective Mechanisms in the United States to Protect Indigenous Sacred Sites

Over the course of the past twenty years, the United States government has paid lip service to the religious and cultural freedom of Indigenous peoples through passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 2003, which insured that the practice of Native religions was legal in the United States.  However, the fact that Native American religious practices are land based requires that access to cultural sites, land, ceremonial foods and all essential elements of a religious practice are accessible. In this, the United States had continued to fail consistently.

Two legal cases in the United States – one in l987, and a second decision in 2012 (we refer to the 2008 decision in this document), frame the boundaries of U.S. judicial compliance with the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and illustrate the lack of protection of sacred sites for the religious practice.  In a case known as Northwest Indian Cemetery Association v. Lyng, (then Secretary of Agriculture), the foundation of this problem was illustrated.

 Absence of Legal Recourse

In 1987, the U.S. Forest Service was considering building a road through a culturally sensitive area of the SixRiversNational Forest, lands taken from the Yurok, Hoopa and Karuk peoples of the Klamath River watershed in northern California.  The Indigenous peoples exhausted their recourse in the federal court system and were rebuked by the U.S. Supreme Court.

In a 5-to-3 decision, the U.S. Supreme Court held that the Forest Service was free to build the road and harvest the lands.  Justice O’Conner wrote:  “Even assuming that the Government’s action here will virtually destroy the Indians’ ability to practice their religion, the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding the Indians’ legal claims.”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Brennan wrote:

“Native American faith is inextricably bound to the use of land. The site-specific nature of Indian religious practice derives from the Native American perception that land is itself a sacred, living being…”.

“Today, the Court holds that a federal land use decision that promises to destroy an entire religion does not burden the practice of that faith in a manner recognized by the Free Exercise Clause.  Having thus stripped respondents and all other Native Americans of any constitutional protection against perhaps the most serious threat to their age-old religious practices, and indeed to their entire way of life, the Court assures us that nothing in its decision ‘should be read to encourage governmental insensitivity to the religious needs of any citizen.’  I find it difficult, however, to imagine conduct more insensitive to religious needs than the Government’s determination to build a marginally useful road in the face of un-contradicted evidence that the road will render the practice of respondents’ religion impossible.  Nor do I believe that respondents will derive any solace from the knowledge that, although the practice of their religion will become ‘more difficult’ as a result of the Government’s actions, they remain free to maintain their religious beliefs.  Given today’s ruling, that freedom amounts to nothing more than the right to believe that their religion will be destroyed.  The safeguarding of such a hollow freedom not only makes a mockery of the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the[ir] traditional religions, it fails utterly to accord with the dictates of the First Amendment. I dissent.”

Twenty years later, a similar case came to the US Court system in that of the San Francisco Peaks case in what is today known as Arizona.

San Francisco Peaks

The volcanic highland area of Arizona began forming over 6 million years ago with the eruption of nearly 600 volcanoes. The most dramatic of those eruptions created a place sacred to 13 tribes, a cluster of three 12,000-foot mountain peaks, known as Doko’oo’sliid, the Sacred Mountain of the West to the Navajo; Hvehasahpatch or Huassapatch-Havasu ‘Baaja to the Havasupai; Tsii Bina -Aa’ku to the Acoma.  To the Yavapai Apache, Dził Tso-Dilzhe’e is the place “where the earth brushes up against the unseen world.”

The highest point in Arizona, the only arctic-alpine vegetation in the state grows here in a fragile two-square-mile zone, and Arizona’s best examples of Ice Age glaciation can be found here. It has been a place for the gathering of sacred herbs and the practice of religious ceremonies since the dawn of time. To the Zuni, this is Sunha K’hbchu Yalanne-A:shiwi; and the Mojave know these sacred sites as ‘Amat ‘Iikwe Nyava-Hamakhav.

Over the past two decades, expansion of a ski resort on the slope of a mountain taken from the Dine or Navajo people has been promoted as an essential economic development strategy by non-indigenous businesspeople in the region. In the time of climate change, recharge at the top of the mountain, and a snow pack for a ski resort has become increasingly elusive.  Thus, the proposal to use recycled water from the sewage treatment facility in the city of Flagstaff has been promoted as the solution. In an ongoing set of legal battles, the Dine, and other Indigenous nations have forwarded  all arguments to protect the so called San Francisco Peaks from desecration. The US Courts, citing the Lyng case have ruled against the Indigenous peoples.

From the 2008 U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit opinion:

“In this case, American …claim the use of such snow on a sacred mountain desecrates the entire mountain, deprecates their religious ceremonies, and injures their religious sensibilities. We are called upon to decide whether this government approved use of artificial snow on government-owned parkland violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, and the National Historic Preservation Act. We hold that it does not, and affirm the district court’s denial of relief on all grounds.

Citing the Lyng Court decision

The Lyng Court held the government plan, which would “diminish the sacredness” of the land to Indians and “interfere significantly” with their ability to practice their religion, did not impose a burden “heavy enough” to violate the Free Exercise Clause. …Like the Indians in Lyng, the Plaintiffs here challenge a government-sanctioned project, conducted on the government’s own land, on the basis that the project will diminish their spiritual fulfillment. Even were we to assume, as did the Supreme Court in Lyng, that the government action in this case will “virtually destroy the . . . Indians’ ability to practice their religion,” there is nothing to distinguish the road building project in Lyng from the use of recycled wastewater on the Peaks. We simply cannot uphold the Plaintiffs’ claims of interference with their faith and, at the same time, remain faithful to Lyng’s dictates.

Dissenting opinion

“The San Francisco Peaks have been at the center of religious beliefs and practices of Indian tribes of the Southwest since time out of mind. Humphrey’s Peak, the holiest of the San Francisco Peaks, will from this time forward be desecrated and spiritually impure. In part, the majority justifies its holding on the ground that what it calls “public park land” is land that “belongs to everyone.” There is a tragic irony in this justification.  The United States government took this land from the Indians by force. The majority now uses that forcible deprivation as a justification for spraying treated sewage effluent on the holiest of the Indians’ holy mountains, and for refusing to recognize that this action constitutes a substantial burden on the Indians’ exercise of their religion.

RFRA was passed to protect the exercise of all religions, including the religions of American Indians. If Indians’ land based exercise of religion is not protected by RFRA in this case, I cannot imagine a case in which it will be. I am truly sorry that the majority has effectively read American Indians out of RFRA.”

W. FLETCHER, Circuit Judge, dissenting, joined by Judge Pregerson and Judge Fisher:

These two legal cases frame the lack of recourse under the laws of the United States for the protection of sacred sites and places of worship as recognized in the UN Declaration on the rights of Indigenous Peoples…to “manifest, practice, develop and teach their spiritual and religious traditions, customs and ceremonies,” and “to maintain, protect, and have access in privacy to their religious and cultural sites.”

Case studies

In the following section, we discuss three present cases which illustrate the lack of US compliance with various international protocols in the protection of sacred sites.

Winnemem Wintu and the Shasta Dam Project

In Northern California, the Winnemem Wintu have known since time immemorial of their relationships to the Nur, the salmon people. They have known that they have a sacred responsibility to protect and care for the salmon that has sustained them on the slope of Boyum Patuk, the sacred mountain, now known as Mt.Shasta. It was the Nur who gave the Winnemem their voice, who taught them to sing. The Winnemem were told long ago that if the salmon disappeared, so would they. All is under threat, the salmon, the river, the mountain and the people, and all imposed from the outside, from powerful and distant interests.

A millennium on the river did well for both the people and the salmon. Three rivers meander through the foothills of Shasta, filled with spring runoff from the mountain, and eventually turn into the Sacramento.  Then came the hard times.  First came the plagues of small pox- wiping out 90 % of the people in the region, none of them immune to any of the European diseases. Then came the bounties on Indian scalps, sparing only a few of the people, a practice which enabled the California Gold Rush.  The Wintu continued to be pummeled by federal and state Indian policies. Although signatories to an ungratified l85l treaty and identified as the tribe who would be drowned in the l941 federal act which created the Shasta Dam, the Winnemem Wintu ceased to exist as “ Indians’ under federal law.  This strange irony, that the government of settlers and intruders who took your land and killed your people gets to determine if you are still an Indian, remains particularly bitter to many tribes, the Wintu are particularly caught in this quagmire.

In what Bruce Granville- Miller at the University of British Columbia calls “ termination by accountant” a convenient set of legal determinations make the Wintu all but invisible to federal law, and subsequently the protection of a trustee. “ Miller, who studies unrecognized indigenous peoples on a worldwide scale, notes, “ It’s easy for nations to find ways to disqualify them, to make them simply disappear”.  This is particularly convenient in the case of the Wintu, whose way of life is tied to a river others want, a fish  that industry seeks to replace, and face a huge set of agricultural lobbyists.  Federal recognition would mean that the federal government would help you protect your way of life.  And, in the case of the Wintu that would be problematic to a large set of interests.

So it is that through a set of massacres, and later a set of legal maneuvering   the US and California governments made the Winnemem Wintu disappear- hid them under that cloak of invisibility of federal Indian law.  It turns out, that , even if the federal government says you do not exist (as it does for an estimated 250,000 native people in the US who are part of unrecognized tribes).

The people, despite all, remain on the river, holding their young women’s coming of age ceremonies, their doctoring ceremonies and their sacred sites- spanning some 77 miles of the McCloudRiver in northern California.  Finally, as a last insult, in l941, the Shasta dam drowned more than 26 miles of the lower McCloud River system, burying sacred sites, villages and history under a deep pool of water destined to benefit cities far away and tourists who could afford the way of life.  The dam drowned the history of the Wintu and the dam blocked the passage of the salmon people – the McCloudRiver salmon, the Nur, either interbred with the Sacramento River Salmon, or died out in California.

Then came the next round of demands as populations increased, and the greed of American agriculture aggregated itself into California’s central valleys.   The Shasta dam would provide the lifeblood for the agriculture and the cities, all at the expense of the Wintu and the Nur.  California’s biggest dam by a million acre feet is the Shasta dam. In the spectrum of the big dams, it is to some a bit of a disappointment, shadowed by Hoover, Glen Canyon, Three Gorges and every other mammoth dam of new.  It did, in its first round, however, swallow l25 Wintu ceremonial sites including Salmon Heart rock, where the Winnemem Wintu gathered to catch and dry salmon. In turn, Fish Rock was blown up to make room for a railroad track in l9l4, which was, like everything else , drowned by the waters. What is left of Dekkas Rock, a prayer site, protrudes from the reservoir as, as one reporter notes, “a malformed atoll”.  It was here, next to the river, the Winnemem held what other tribes in the region call Big Times, where disputes were adjudicated, songs and ceremonies were held and marriages were arranged.

A new round of destruction is proposed with the motivation of the almond industry in California. As of 2009 California is in the third year of a drought and with 68% of the world’s almonds produced in California this is a challenge. The almond mono-crop orchards have been pushing further and further out. What they need is water. The primary source of water is Shasta Dam.  An additional l8 feet of water would provide water for a million Californians and water to the almond orchards. Proposals are under consideration to raise the Shasta Dam water levels from 6.5 to l8.5 feet, with corresponding increases of reservoir storage from 256,000 to 634,000 acre feet.” “How do they justify flooding the Winnemem Wintu people out twice?” Calleen asks, “They still haven’t fulfilled the 1941 Act of Congress that said they are to provide like lands and pay for all the allotment and communal lands. And the Shasta Dam is still not paid for by the public.”

Calleen Fisk has reviewed the Environmental Impact Statement on the dam and refers to it as a “dehumanizing document – it takes our beautiful culture and summarizes it into a couple paragraphs, and just names a couple sites.” The Environmental Impact Statement, “…doesn’t describe the importance of the sites to our people or the heartache and psychological destruction it would cause to us if these places were submerged,” Sisk said. “They don’t talk about us as the people most impacted, or the fact we have nowhere else to go to practice our religion. We can only teach our distinctive lifeway to be Winnemem here. It will be extremely hard to teach the tribal youth when you can’t go to the sacred site, see it and feel it and develop a relationship with it to be  Winnemem.

Celilo Falls and Celilo Village

From time immemorial, Celilo Falls was the epicenter of a vast salmon-based fishing and trading economy that spanned thousands of miles. It was here that the Creator supplied the first nations with countless millions of salmon and other sustenance, where the Columbia River begins to carve deeply into the high desert plateau, where ancient petroglyphs line the canyon walls where the People fished.

Celilo Falls was a natural wonder of the world, by volume the largest waterfall in North America and the sixth largest in the world. Salmon runs on the Columbia River numbered in the millions well into the 20th Century. Native fishers dip netted and speared their catch from hundreds of wooden platforms. There was no reason to believe that any of this would ever change.

The United States came to Celilo Falls in 1805 in the form of the Lewis and Clark military expedition, however, and in a matter of a few decades unimaginable destruction would follow. In the 20th century, dam building and widespread habitat destruction rendered every fish species upriver from Celilo threatened, endangered or extinct.

Among the several villages that clustered around the Falls when Lewis and Clark reached the area was Celilo Village. At that time, dozens of Northwest tribes occupied hundreds of villages along the Columbia River. Just fifty years later, however, U.S. Army troops and white vigilante mobs, aided by lethal waves of epidemic diseases, had taken over all of those village sites and forced the surviving Indians onto distant reservations. All but one village was destroyed.

So strong were the tribes’ connections to Celilo that despite the many depredations they suffered, the People remained at Celilo Village, becoming today the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America, stretching back more than 12,000 years.

Here, as Lewis and Clark noted in 1805, was a “great emporium…where all the neighboring nations assemble.” Yet, today, Celilo Falls and Celilo Village are rarely marked on any maps.  The flooding of Celilo Falls destroyed the ages-old economy and neither site is listed in the National Register of Historic Places, or on the Oregon and Washington state registries.

It was unthinkable that any of this would ever be lost, but on March 10, 1957, the Army Corps of Engineers deliberately ordered the gates closed at the new dam downriver at The Dalles, and its backwaters covered the falls just six hours later, flooding many sacred sites, petroglyphs and burial grounds.

The People mourned. This was the era of both the federal Termination and Relocation policies, designed to destroy tribal communities.  Tribes were devastated and weakened by the wholesale abrogation of treaty rights and loss of land, the scattering of the unwilling to distant bus stations, and the continued policy of forced removal of Indian children to boarding schools.

There are treaties that ostensibly guarantee certain reserved rights “to take fish at the usual and accustomed places” to the tribes. The Columbia River Treaty tribes are the Yakama, the Nez Perce, the Confederated Tribes of Warm Springs and the Confederated Tribes of Umatilla.  The Columbia River Intertribal Fish Commission today represents their treaty fishing interests. The treaties do not grant rights that the tribes already had. The tribes reserved their rights to fish at CeliloFalls.

In 2008, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers conducted a sonar survey, which confirmed that the rock structure of CeliloFalls was intact, unchanged under the surface of the lake. Flooding CeliloFalls may have inadvertently preserved the falls, saving the site from being dynamited to oblivion.

Now, in 2012, organizing efforts are under way to recover and protect Celilo Falls and its environs, spurred by the awareness that the last generation of those who saw Celilo Falls with their own eyes are still with us, and by the growing pressure to use the Columbia River Gorge as an industrial corridor for Heavy Haul equipment to the Alberta Tar Sands and for Rocky Mountain coal shipments for export.

Surprisingly, the recovery of CeliloFalls does not require the removal of the dam that has kept it flooded for the past 55 years. CeliloFalls was not flooded for the sake of hydropower generation, but in order to engineer barges past the Celilo portage. Due to the steep drop in elevation, there is ample storage in the pool behind the dam at The Dalles for hydropower even with CeliloFalls exposed.

Barge passage on the middle Columbia River has always required massive public subsidies. Even so, there is only enough commerce on the river to support a single barge company, and the public bears all costs to maintain and operate the multiple lock systems for the benefit of a small number of actual shippers. Maintaining the Columbia River as a series of slackwater ponds is beneficial to barging operations on the river, but harmful to salmon species, and the public bears the additional expense of recovery as well.

Eagle Rock and the Return of Multinational Mining Corporations to Anishinaabe Akiing

“The Keweenaw Bay Indian Community (KBIC), along with other bands, submit this statement of information describing destructive mining activities impacting our lands and waters. Our community is confronted with overwhelming prospective mine development in all directions, and within our established reservation homeland. The State of Michigan, with essentially no federal authority due to regulatory loopholes and delegated programs, has permitted Rio Tinto (through its subsidiary Kennecott) to blast and drill its mine portal directly into our sacred place, Migi zii wa sin (Eagle Rock).  As we submit this letter, Rio Tinto continues to construct this controversial underground sulfide mine upstream from Lake Superior. Our concerns and rights as a people continue to be ignored, and numerous domestic remedies have proven to be non-protective and discriminatory.

“Currently, an aggressive mining boom throughout Anishinaabeg territory, of present-day Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Ontario, threatens the water quality and ecosystem of almost every sub-watershed of Lake Superior.1 This is due to our region’s valuable geology, increases in global metal market prices and friendly political administrations at state government levels — whose political representatives are focused primarily on short-term job prospects. Mining, with its potential widespread, destructive and long-term affects to the natural environment that we depend upon, threatens our culture, health and well-being as a people.

“We urgently seek your assistance and intervention to promote domestic recognition and protection of our rights as recognized in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and stipulated in treaties signed by the United States of America. “

—From Statement of Information on Mining Activities Occurring on AnishinaabegTerritory in the Great Lakes Region of the United States of America. Submitted to the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the rights of indigenous peoples, S. James

Anaya; Submitted by Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, others , March 2012;

Prepared with the assistance of: Jessica Koski, Keweenaw Bay Indian Community Tribal Member, Nicole Friederichs, Independent Legal Consultant Philomena Kebec, Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe Staff Attorney

Eagle Rock, is known as the “Home of the White Wolf”, and is a sacred site and prehistoric navigation site located today on what is known as the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The Rock correlates to the Bighorn Medicine Wheel and other rock formations and sites in Wisconsin and east of the Mississippi River.

The rock is considered sacred to not only the Anishinaabeg, but also the Hochunk and Cheyenne peoples. Today, the Keewenaw Bay Band of Anishinaabeg and LacVieuxDesert bands of Anishinaabeg live in this territory, and the tribes, as well as the National Congress of American Indians have requested that the rock should be protected as a site of religious worship. The Michigan regulatory authorities, which have taken jurisdiction over the area, have ruled against the tribes, the water and the sacred site., stating essentially that the site could not be sacred or did not have spiritual significance because a place of worship must be a building…. “.  The state, on this grounds approved the mining permit. In response, the leadership of the HoChunk Tribal Court noted, “  consultation should include learned tribal members who are the leaders of our ancient societies. Their knowledge spans the time prior to Christianity and Christopher Columbus. It is this understanding that makes who we are. There is no other place where tribal people can gain this understanding….”

This is the difference between world views – where one society, an industrial society, views a rich ore body, and another society views this as a source of great spiritual and cultural wealth.  So it is, that, the copper ore body appears in GIS imaging as a baby – Miskwaabik Abinoojiins and awaits its scheduled end like a convict on death row.  Rio Tinto Zinc, a United Kingdom-based mining company, through it’s subsidiary Kennecott, plans to demolish Eagle Rock for the sake of mining primarily nickel and copper, but also gold and other precious metals. It has been a seven year battle for the sacred site, marked by arrests and legal actions, and now a petition to the United Nations for intervention under the declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples to not only protect their sacred sites but to be protected from minerals exploitation which will destroy their life ways. A separate petition to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, by the National Congress of American Indians requests,“that requirements be imposed on Kennecott Eagle Minerals to mitigate the negative aesthetic impact of the proximity of the mining operation to Eagle Rock and that members of the various Native American communities be provided unfettered access for traditional use of the sacred ceremonial place”.

The mine will also impact the larger ecosystem and the wolves themselves, numbered at an estimated 500 in this area.  According to the complaint registered at the United Nations, the mine is ..”controversial due to its location within a delicate watershed and underneath the SalmonTroutRiver, which flows directly into Lake Superior — which contains approximately 20% of the world’s freshwater. In addition to the Eagle Project, Rio Tinto intends to open up six additional mine sites. The company is heavily focused on exploration throughout the western Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Mining infrastructure is also proposed which would serve the expansion proposals in the region. In particular, the Rio Tinto Humboldt Mill where ore would be processed from the proposed Eagle Mine. This milling site is located within the Escanaba River Watershed of Lake Michigan and on traditional Anishinaabeg territory.  The Humboldt Mill site is contaminated from previous disposal of sulfide-bearing tailings from the Ropes Gold Mine from 1983-1991.  The State of Michigan already permitted Rio Tinto to slurry over 2 million tons of sulfide bearing tailings into the bottom of this already contaminated pit lake.  A Superfund investigation is currently under review.

Additional mining projects are proposed in Anishinaabeg territory in Wisconsin, Gogebic Mine in the Penokee range which will impact the Anishinaabeg bands of Minnesota, particularly the First Nation at Bad River; and a set of copper and taconite mines proposed in the Boundary Waters Canoe area, one of the most pristine aquatic ecosystems remaining in the world, and central to the cultural practice of the Anishinaabeg.

Partial list of threatened sacred sites in the United States and Canada

AthabascanRiver Delta: The largest industrial site in the world, the Alberta Tar Sands, threatens the Athabasca River and vast areas of boreal forest that are home to the Cree, Chipewyan Dene, Dunne-za and Métis peoples. Through the proposed Keystone XL pipeline, the Tar Sands catastrophe threatens sites many hundreds of miles away, including the Ogallala aquifer, which provides 82% of the drinking water and 30% of crop irrigation water for eight states in the Great Plains. The construction of the Keystone XL pipeline has become a significant issue in the 2012 Presidential campaign.

Badger – Two Medicine: “The isolation of the area and its ties to creation stories make Badger-Two Medicine an integral part of the Blackfeet religion,” and it is critical habitat for bison, grizzly bear, bighorn sheep and elk. The Blackfeet nation and its coalition of allies have succeeded in defeating attempts to desecrate the sacred sites by oil and gas drilling interests.

Bear Butte – Mato Paha: This mountain in the Black Hills of South Dakota, called Mato Paha by the Lakota, is sacred ground for as many as 17 American Indian tribes. Believed to be the spot where the Creator communicates with his people through vision and prayer, the mountain earned its nickname because of its resemblance to a bear sleeping on its side. For thousands of years, American Indian tribes, including the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, Cheyenne, Arapahoe, Kiowa, Arikara, Hidatsa and Mandan have traveled to Bear Butte to perform annual prayer ceremonies. The National Trust for Historic Preservation lists Bear Butte among its 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites for 2011. Last November, the South Dakota Board of Minerals and Environment approved a plan to establish a 960-acre oil field adjacent to Bear Butte. The sacred mountain has been threatened with tourism and exploitation in the interests of expanding use for the world’s largest motorcycle rally, and oil and gas interests are eyeing the area for hydraulic fracking.

Bighorn Medicine Wheel and Medicine Mountain:  Sacred to many Plains tribes, the Medicine Wheel in Wyoming dates back more than 7,000 years, and Medicine Mountain remains threatened by logging interests.

Black Hills – Paha Sapa: The Black Hills and their thousands of archaeological and burial sites have always been sacred to the Lakota, Northern Cheyenne and Omaha tribes, and the land was guaranteed in perpetuity by treaty. Then, white prospectors found gold and the entire region was stolen. Today, uranium mining companies retain an interest in the sacred Black Hills.

Black Mesa: To the Hopi and Navajo who inhabit this desert region, what could be more sacred and precious than water? Many thousands do not have running water in their homes, yet mining operations pumped billions of gallons out of the aquifer for decades, and the threat of further depletions persists.

Blue LakeNew Mexico:  Recognition of its sovereignty and land rights in the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo was no protection for the Taos Pueblo when the U.S. appropriated sacred BlueLake. The tribe won its return in 1970.

Boundary Waters Canoe Area: The largest non-motorized watershed in the world, the Boundary Waters is the heart of the Anishinaabeg people, full of pictographs, wild rice, sacred medicine plants, and the solace of a thousand years. New proposals for taconite mining are being forwarded at state legislatures, and gold mining proposals are moving forward in Canadian administrative processes, which will contaminate the waters of the region.

Cahokia Mounds: One of several large pre-Columbian settlements of the Mississippian period (800–1350), the Cahokia Mounds are a UNESCO World Heritage Site and exemplify prehistoric cultural, religious and economic traditions and practices. Other important mound compexes include Great Serpent Mound, Great Circle Earthworks, Octagon Earthworks and Alligator Mound. All are endangered, facing multiple threats.

Celilo Falls and Celilo Indian Village:  The oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America, dating back more than 12,000 years, is where the Wyam people await the recovery and protection of the sacred and awesome roar of Celilo Falls and its environs, to see the salmon leap again among the dip nets.

Chaco Canyon: In 2011, the National Trust for Historic Preservation placed the Greater Chaco Canyon Landscape on its 11 Most Endangered Historic Sites list. The legacy of the Chacoan people in what is now New Mexico includes thousands of ancient pueblos and shrines, along with an extensive road network that provided a physical and cultural link for people across the region. Although one of only 20 UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the United States, Chaco faces multiple threats from human activity, most importantly energy exploration and exploitation.

Da ow ga – Cave Rock: The Washoe people call this 360-foot high rock on the shore of Lake Tahoe, Da ow ga. It is a place of great spiritual importance. To outsiders it is known as Cave Rock, and they brought dynamite and rock climbers.

Desert Tortoise: The desert tortoise Gopherus Agassizii is traditionally revered by five lower Colorado River tribes, and threats to the fragile habitat of this endangered species in Ward Valley, California are cause for great concern.

Dzil ncha si an (MountGraham):  Known to the San Carlos Apache and White Mountain Apache as Dzil ncha si an, the sacred mountain is known to the astronomical community as Mt.Graham, and is a prime place to site observatories. In order to pray on the mountain, Apaches must request permission in writing 48 hours in advance.

Eagle Rock – Migizi Aasiin: In the heartland of the KeewenawBay is Eagle Rock, a sacred rock from which emerges the Great Wolf Spirit, the fellow traveler in this world of the Anishinaabeg. The rock is situated on top of the Miskwaabik Abinoojiins, a copper ore body which appears as a child in a fetal position. Rio Tinto Zinc is seeking to pulverize Eagle Rock over vociferous tribal opposition.

Glen Cove – Songorea Te Shellmound:  Hundreds of ancient burial sites once ringed San FranciscoBay, but nearly all have been bulldozed or covered over. Glen Cove Songorea Te shellmound in the City of Vallejo is 3,500 years old. In the winter of 2012, a battle was won to protect remaining shellmounds in the San Francisco area from shopping mall developers.

Haleakala Crater: “The holy site or wahi pana of Haleakala Crater is known to native Hawaiians as the ‘House of the Sun.’” To astronomers and scientists, it is a place to build observatories. To the U.S Pacific Military Command it is a place to monitor satellites, rockets and spacecraft.

Hanapepe Salt Ponds: Belief in the wisdom of elders and importance of family are central reasons as to why the ancient Hanapepe salt beds still exist today. Hanapepe salt cannot be sold, it can only be given away. It is valued for its medicinal properties as well as its taste. Pa’akai (salt) farmers have been tending these ponds for many generations. The elders teach the cultural practice to their children from a very young age, integrating the cultural and sustainable practice into their life and what they will then eventually pass on to their children. An airport bustles close by, and the salt ponds are also impacted by climate change.

Haskell-Baker Wetlands: The sacred aspect of these wetlands was created by Native youth during the infamous Boarding School Era of the 19th and 20th centuries, when U.S. Indian policy imposed the forcible removal of Indian children from their homes and families and their sequestration into harsh, concentration camp-like conditions.

The Haskell Indian Industrial Training School near Lawrence, Kansas, was one of those shameful, horrific institutions. “The wetlands became a place of comfort and ceremony for many of the students… (who) often went to the wetlands to perform ceremonies, pray, commune with nature and the environment, and even to bury their dead. The children’s deaths were caused by disease, suicide, sometimes the environment itself, as runaway students died of exposure in the wetlands. Students were secretly buried in the wetlands by their fellow students, who performed spirit release ceremonies using a lock of hair.”

The “unknown and unmarked graves in the wetlands are a constant reminder of the brutal realities which boarding schools forced on the children. Because of these graves, the history of the wetlands, and the experiences that these native children experienced as chattel of the United States government, many tribes consider this land sacred. Indian people continue to use the area for prayer and in 1992, Haskell students constructed a Medicine Wheel which is a site of ceremony. Its historical and cultural significance also makes this land worthy of protecting as a National Historic Site.”

Heart of the Monster – The most sacred site of the Nez Perce, from where the Creator helped them emerge and defeat evil, is threatened by attempts to build an industrial corridor along the banks of the Clearwater River for large equipment destined for the Athabascan tar sands. Thus far, this has been averted, but the threat remains.

Indian Pass-Running Man Area of Traditional Cultural Concern:  This is Quechan land, a sacred landscape in the Southern California desert that has been subjected to open-pit mining and cyanide-leaching operations since whites discovered gold there in the 19th century.

Kaho’lawe Island: More than 600 archaeological and cultural sites testify to the importance of the island to Native Hawaiians, yet the U.S. Navy turned Kaho’lawe into a bombing range until 1990. Cleanup will take many years.

Klamath River: The Yurok, Hupa, Karuk, Shasta and Klamath tribes lived on the Klamath River in harmony with the salmon for thousands of years. Then came the dams, water diversions, and massive fish die offs caused by low water levels and agricultural and industrial pollution.

Mashkiki Ziibi: The heartland of the Bad River Ojibwe reservation sits at the base of a watershed which emerges from the PenokeeRange. The Penokees have the single largest iron ore deposit in North America, and the Anishinaabe have been working for a number of years to oppose the opening of a new mine.

Mato Tipila – DevilsTower:  The Lakota call this sacred place Mato Tipila (The Lodge of the Bear) or Ptehé Ǧí (Brown Buffalo Horn). The Arapaho, Crow, Cheyenne, Kiowa and Shoshone all know the monolith by their own names, their own creation stories. White intruders renamed it DevilsTower in 1875, and despite its status as the first declared National Monument, it is recreational rock climbers who defile this sacred ground.

Mauna Kea: The high volcanic summit of Mauna Kea “is sacred to Native Hawaiians as an elder ancestor and the physical embodiment (or kinolau) of deities revered in Hawaiian culture and religion.” The clear air at that altitude has drawn the infrastructure supporting 13 major telescopes so far.

Medicine Bluffs – Fort Sill: Listing on the National Register of Historical Places offers scant protection to Medicine Bluffs, sacred to the Comanche Nation since time immemorial. Fort Sill was established as a cavalry outpost to wage war against the Plains Indians, but was transformed to house the U.S. Army Field Artillery School and other major artillery units. For more than a century the southern sides of the bluffs have been used by the military as firing ranges, but through negotiations of the Comanche Nation Historic Preservation Office the attacks have ceased, and the hazardous lead materials removed. However, in spite of litigation and a formal agreement in 2010 between the Comanche Nation and FortSill, the encroachment to Medicine Bluffs through expansions of the built community is ever looming.

Medicine Lake Caldera:  The Medicine Lake Caldera northeast of Mount Shasta is sacred to the Pit River, Modoc, Shasta, Karuk and Wintu people, and gained recognition as a Traditional Cultural District in 1999. Drilling and geothermal operations threaten water quality and spiritual practices.

Newe Sogobia – MountTenabo:  Newe Sogobia  translates as “the people’s earth mother.” This is Shoshone land, and despite the fact the tribe has never agreed to this use, it is used by government and industry as the U.S.’ own  “Ground Zero” for nuclear testing, and other uses that foul the land and poison the air with mercury, cyanide and nerve toxins.

Nine Mile Canyon: The more than 10,000 documented petroglyphs, pictoglyphs and archaeological sites left here by the Archaic, Fremont and Ute people are estimated to be at most 10% of the total. Gas exploration and drilling threatens.

Ocmulgee Old Fields:  “Ice Age mammoth hunters, archaic hunter-gatherers, woodland horticulturists, and Mississippian temple and burial-mound builders left a continuous, still-visible cultural record in the earth of the Ocmulgee Old Fields.”

Onolai-tol, Histum Yani – Sutter Buttes: The Wintu and Maidu names for these eroded volcanoes rising out of the vast, flat Sacramento Valley are ancient and speak of creation and a portal to the spirit world. Then came the holocaust, epidemics and bounty hunters, and a renaming. Now it is the developers who threaten.

Papahānaumokuākea – Marine National MonumentHawaii:  For at least the past thousand years, this remote island group northwest of the main Hawaiian island chain has been crucial to indigenous cultural traditions. This is where Hawaiian way finders develop their skills at traveling the open ocean without instruments, using traditional double-hulled sailing canoes. Wayfinders learn to navigate by observing the sun, stars, ocean swells, seabirds and other signs to guide them during long trans-oceanic voyages. Recently inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, efforts are underway to remediate damage to the atolls from prior military use and invasive species. A Presidential Proclamation forbids activities such as mining or other extractive practices. Federal regulations for Papahānaumokuākea prohibit anyone from removing, moving, taking, harvesting, possessing, injuring, disturbing or damaging any of its living or nonliving resources, or attempting any of these actions unless authorized by a Monument permit. The chief threat to the near-pristine waters comes from marine debris. Although no fishing is permitted in Papahānaumokuākea’s waters, derelict nets and gear, plastics and other ocean-borne debris are concentrated by ocean currents and wash up on the reefs and beaches of the property. Entanglement in marine debris has been identified as a major threat to the endangered Hawaiian Monk Seal. Debris entanglement also threatens sea turtles, seabirds, cetaceans and coral reef organisms.

Petroglyph National Monument: 24,000 petroglyphs and National Monument status was not enough to stop a developer from pushing a road through the sacred site, with the support of the City of Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Pipestone Quarry and the Three Maidens: For centuries the Lakota, Dakota and Yankton Sioux, as well as Anishinaabe and Ho Chunk peoples have  made ceremonial pipes quarried from a sacred site near the Three Maidens, three huge rocks that figure in their creation stories. Pipes made from the distinctive smooth red stone from Pipestone Quarry were traded over vast areas, and the quarry itself a site so sacred that no weapons could be brought upon it. It has been a site of conflict ever since whites intruded into the area.

Porcupine Caribou Herd:  The Gwich’in people and the Porcupine caribou herd inhabit a region above the Arctic Circle. Oil drilling in the Alaska Arctic National Wildlife Refuge threatens caribou calving areas and migration routes, polar bears and other wildlife, and the Gwich’in language itself is threatened.

Rainbow Bridge: its remote desert location preserved the world’s largest natural bridge for the five Native American nations who have held it sacred since time immemorial: the Navajo, Hopi, San Juan Southern Paiute, Kaibab Paiute, and White Mesa Ute. Flooding caused by the Glen Canyon Dam covered many sacred sites in the vicinity and created easy access for thousands of tourists.

San Francisco Peaks –Kachina Peaks Wilderness Area: Sacred to thirteen tribes, named in 15 languages, Arizona Snowbowl, a ski resort in the arid Arizona desert threatens to desecrate the “protected” mountain with “treated” sewage water.

San Nicholas Island -Hundreds of Native American burial sites, middens and other sacred sites cover San Nicolas, a Navy-owned 33-square mile island gunnery range off the coast of Southern California that became overrun with feral cats. They were feasting on cormorants, threatened species of foxes and lizards, so six agencies combined forces and spent $3 million dollars to catch and remove the cats for adoption, using humanely padded traps. Now, comes what may be a larger problem for ecosystem protection: the fact that the US Navy continues to bomb and conduct maneuvers on the ecologically and culturally sensitive area.

Six Rivers National Forest: Road-building and logging projects mar and threaten sites like Doctor Rock, Chimney Rock and Little Medicine Mountain, sacred to Pohlik-lah, Karuk and Tolowa people.

Snoqualmie Falls: named for the Washington tribe to whom the falls are sacred, Snoqualmie Falls has suffered from hydroelectric development, water diversions, dynamite and tourism. The Snoqualmie tribe and its allies fight to see the site returned to its natural state and preserved.

Tsimontukwi – Woodruff Butte: To the Hopi, Tsimontukwi is one of nine major pilgrimage sites that encircle Hopi traditional territory and a place sacred to the Zuni and Navajo for thousands of years as well. A gravel-making operation destroyed eagles’ nests and many shrines before concerted action ended the desecration.

Valley of the Chiefs – Weatherman Draw: The largest collection of polychromatic pictographs in the Northern Plains, dating back more than 1,000 years, resides in this traditional place of peace. Many tribes, including the Comanche, Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, Eastern Shoshone, Crow, and Blackfeet held ceremonies and vision quests here. Also called the Valley of the Shields for its numerous paintings of shield-bearing warriors, it was saved from oil exploration by a coalition of ten tribes, the Sierra Club, the National Trust for Historic Preservation and other allies.

Wao Kele O Puna: This remote rainforest, considered by Native Hawaiians to be the most sacred in the island chain, was taken when the U.S. overthrew the Hawaiian monarchy. Long threatened by geothermal development, in 2007 Wao Kele became the first of the Crown Lands to be returned to Native control.

Winnemem Wintu and the Nur: 65 years after Shasta Dam inundated 9/10 of the traditional lands of the Winnemem Wintu and cut off the Nur from their spawning grounds, a proposal to increase the height of the dam threatens all that remains of their sacred sites, just as the tribe works to bring the Nur home.

Yucca (or Snake) Mountain:  The Shoshone have never deeded over the land the U.S. nuclear industry proposes to use to store its radioactive waste. Although those plans have been halted, no other site is under serious consideration.

Zuni Salt Lake: Here is the home of “Salt Woman, called Ma’l Oyattsik’i by the Zunis. Sacred trails, like umbilical cords, tie the lake to the Zuni villages and to other sacred sites around the area. Zuni men follow these trails to gather the salt which embodies the flesh of the Salt Mother herself. Other pueblos, including the Hopi, Acoma, and Laguna use the salt for their ceremonies, as their clan ancestors from Chaco Canyon did a thousand years ago. Apache and Navajo also claim use. A 185,000 acre area around the lake, known as “The Sanctuary” or A:shiwi A:wan Ma’k’yay’a dap an’ullapna Dek’ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne, contains burial grounds and shrines and by tradition is a neutral zone where members of various tribes may come together without conflict.” Threats come from strip mining, rail infrastructure and billions of gallons of pure water to be drawn from the aquifer for industrial use.

Office: 607 Main AvenueCallawayMN56521  www.honorearth.org

About 1000nations

Sean Aaron Cruz is Executive Director of 1000 Nations and a co-founder of The Friends of Celilo Falls. He is the organizer of the Jim Pepper Native Arts Festival. He is co-author of Winona LaDuke's new book, "The Militarization of Indian Country." He is the father of four children who disappeared into Utah in a Mormon abduction in 1996, and the author of Oregon's landmark anti-kidnapping statute "Aaron's Law" (Senate Bill 1041), named for his late son Aaron Cruz. He writes online as Blogolitical Sean.
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4 Responses to On Native American sacred sites and religious freedom in North America

  1. Devonna Ellen Mcrae says:

    Thank you Winona LaDuke and Sean Cruz of 1000 Nations. THank you for this NEw BOOK “The Militarization of Indian Country”

  2. Jay Taber says:

    That 2008 9th Circuit dissenting opinion by Judge William Fletcher reminds us of the importance of federal judicial appointments. Like William’s mother before him, intellect and integrity are critical to tribal-federal relations. Thank goodness Judge Betty Fletcher, who served on the 9th Circuit until her passing http://www.trialinsider.com/?p=2377 last month, instilled these essential values in her son.

  3. Pingback: Essential Values

  4. Edith says:

    We weep; we cry; we lament. Now we must act!

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