House adds sacred sites amendment to Interior appropriations bill

The sacred San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. Photo by Tyler finvold / Wikipedia

An amendment aimed at ensuring the federal government respects sacred sites was added to an appropriations bill by the House on Tuesday.

Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Arizona) introduced the provision. He said it gives greater weight to an executive order that ensures sacred sites on federal land remain open to tribal members.

"Far too often, Indian sacred sites are an afterthought during the federal government land management process," Grijalva said on the floor yesterday. "When negotiating land swaps and when constructing other management decisions, the voice of Indian Country with regard to sacred sites is ignored."

Indianz.Com SoundCloud: Debate on Sacred Sites Amendment

Grijalva's amendment drew no opposition during debate on H.R.2822, a funding bill that affects numerous land and resource management agencies at the Interior Department, the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Agriculture.

"There is no question that providing Indian tribes with access to their sacred sites is the right thing to do, so I would be more than happy to accept the gentleman's amendment," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-California), the chairman of the Interior appropriations subcommittee.

Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minnesota), one of the co-chairs of the bipartisan Congressional Native American Caucus, voiced support for the provision too.

"The gentleman's amendment will ensure that this important executive order is respected in such a way that it has my wholehearted support in protecting the liberty and religious rights of Native American Indians,"

Then-president Bill Clinton issued Executive Order No. 13007 in 1996. It requires federal agencies to accommodate tribal uses of sacred sites and to "adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites."

"These are cultural and spiritual areas that are part of the tribe's history and its living legacy," Grijalva noted. "These are places where their ancestors lived, prayed, hunted, gathered, fought, and died. They are part and parcel of tribal identity, and it is our duty to ensure they are preserved and protected."

The executive order, though, comes with some major caveats. Federal agencies must only provide accommodation "to the extent practicable, permitted by law, and not clearly inconsistent with essential agency functions," the document reads.

It also does not create "enforceable rights" to anyone in the event an agency ends up harming a sacred site. The lack of accountability has been a major issue for tribal advocates.

"Native peoples are the only people or group in the U.S. who do not have a door to the courthouse to protect sacred places or site-specific ceremonies," activist Suzan Shown Harjo, the president of The Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C, said last month as she opened the National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places. “That must change as a simple matter of fairness and equity. Without a broad statute, Native peoples have had to cobble together laws and regulations to protect sacred places on a piecemeal basis, and oftentimes courts find these solutions to be insufficient.”

The executive order has had some impacts. Numerous agencies, including DOI, USDA, the Department of Defense and the Department of Energy have developed policies aimed at protecting sacred places on federal lands.

"The President is insistent that these sacred sites be protected and preserved: treated with dignity and respect," Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said when he and other Cabinet heads signed a sacred site memorandum in 2012.

But the directive has not prevented the desecration of the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona. The U.S. Forest Service, an agency of the USDA, has allowed a privately-operated ski resort within the Coconino National Forest to use reclaimed sewage to make fake snow over the objections of tribes. Attempts to stop the practice failed in the courts.

Debate on H.R.2822 continues today. Lawmakers hope to complete work on the bill by the end of the week, according to the House majority leader's schedule.

Grijalva's amendment reads: "None of the funds made available by this Act may be used in contravention of Executive Order 13007, entitled 'Indian Sacred Sites'."

House Appropriations Committee Documents:
Press Release | Summary of H.R.2822 | Text of H.R.2822 as Introduced | Report Accompanying H.R.2822

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