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Protections for sacred sites called inadequate

Citing threats that include a shooting range, a highway project and a power plant, Indian advocates called on the federal government to ensure the highest protections for sacred places.

Despite the existence of laws, executive orders and other safeguards, witnesses at a Senate Indian Affairs Committee hearing yesterday said important sites remain under attack. Lack of consultation, lack of sensitivity and outright disrespect are common, they said.

"Housing developments, drag strips, campgrounds, a biker bar and other development are located within a five mile radius of Bear Butte," a small mountain in South Dakota held sacred by more than 30 tribes, said Charmaine White Face, director of the Defenders of the Black Hills, a grassroots Lakota group fighting a proposed shooting range.

Several laws are designed to protect Native remains and artifacts and other cultural resources. But witnesses said government agencies often ignore these and other mandates.

"Even though we've had existing legislation in place and administrative procedures, federal agencies often take off on a tangent and do things on their own," Steve Brady, a Northern Cheyenne tribal member, told the committee. Brady is working on ensuring continued access to federal lands that tribal members still use for ceremonies.

Native people are treated unfairly when it comes to their own religious beliefs, said Suzan Shown Harjo, president of the Morning Star Institute. She called on Congress to create a right to sue when sacred places are threatened.

"We need a way to get into court if only to avoid going there," she said. "Without a cause of action to protect sacred places we have no way of getting around a negotiating table. We don't have any leverage."

William D. Bettenberg, a Department of Interior official, agreed that legislation was needed but for a different reason. He said that confidential information sometimes has to be kept from prying eyes. "You don't want people to know about the site for fear of looting," he said.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the committee, has introduced a bill, S.288, that could address consultation and other sensitive issues. It would allow tribes and tribal organizations to enter into contracts with the Interior to identify important cultural sites.

On the House side, Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) has introduced the Native American Sacred Lands Act to enforce an executive order signed by former President Bill Clinton. It would allow tribes to petition to have federal lands excluded from development.

Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) recounted five examples this year alone that have caused confusion and even litigation over sacred sites and burial grounds. "This really does involve a profoundly consequential matter," he said. "As Native people find over and over again, their most sacred sites [and] sacred remains [are] being treated in a way that would be considered utterly intolerable in any other community."

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (June 18, 2003)

Relevant Bills:
Indian Contracting and Federal Land Management Demonstration Project Act (S.288) | Native American Sacred Lands Act (H.R.2419)

Related Stories:
S.D. tribe loses burial site case (6/19)
List highlights threats to sacred and historic sites (05/30)
Federal funds used for shooting range near sacred site (03/25)
Tribal school project on 'endangered' parks list (01/15)
Sacred site bill increases tribal voice (7/19)
Interior has few answers at Senate hearing (7/18)
House clears sale of sacred site to church (6/18)
N.M. tribe challenges coal mine approval (6/3)
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)

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