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Interior has few answers at Senate hearing

A leading Indian Country lawmaker scolded the Department of Interior on Wednesday for being ill-prepared for a hearing on sacred sites.

During several rounds of questions, Interior officials either professed ignorance or delayed an answer by promising one in writing. Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the the Senate Indian Affairs Committee who also leads a Department of Defense panel, sent them away with some criticism.

"I always find that in discussing sacred sites with the highest officials of DOD, they are always prepared to respond as to policy matters," he said.

Although Inouye's words weren't overly harsh, he was clearly frustrated with the lack of accountability. The committee's hearings on sacred sites have been planned months in advance and have been well attended.

Yesterday's, the second in a series, was no exception and included testimony by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), Quechan Nation President Mike Jackson and other Indian representatives. The focus was on the Interior's protection of Native lands. Witnesses asserted there was none.

"Our most sacred site," said Jackson, "is under attack to be destroyed by a mining company."

Boxer joined Jackson in condemning the Bush administration's flip-flop on a huge gold mine proposed in Indian Pass, a site in California central to Quechan tribal beliefs. The development permit had been denied in order to prevent damage to rock carvings, sacred trails, cleared circles and other land features but Secretary Gale Norton rescinded the decision.

"Nowhere in the convoluted explanation that Secretary Norton gave to justify this decision did she ever address the tribe's concerns," said Boxer. "She simply acted as if it didn't matter."

"Or maybe she knew there was no legal or moral justification she could give," added Boxer.

The department's four representatives weren't able to respond to either Boxer of repeated questions by Inouye and committee vice-chairman Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.). Christopher Kearney, a political appointee brought in by Norton, and other officials said they didn't know if the tribe was ever consulted.

"I hope when we have the next meeting on sacred sites, the department would be able to give us some response on policy matters," said Inouye.

Campbell said he would seek Norton's personal attention on the Quechan Nation's concerns. "Consider your own heart," he implored of her aides.

"How would you feel if your grandfather died there, or your father, and you found out a mine was going to be built," he said.

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (7/17)

Related Stories:
Zuni Pueblo takes mine fight on the road (7/17)
House clears sale of sacred site to church (6/18)
Input sought into sacred sites (6/5)
Congress considering sacred sites (5/21)
Tribes push action on sacred sites (3/21)
Tribe prevails on sacred site case (3/19)
Norton denies politics played role in drilling (6/7)
Norton hit on exploration of sacred site (6/6)
Myers reversing sacred site opinion (10/25)
Bush nominee has no 'agenda' on Clinton decisions (6/21)
Babbitt denies Calif. gold mine (1/19)
BLM recommends mine rejection (11/10)

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