Sacred site coalition takes fight to The Hill
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TUESDAY, MAY 21, 2002

Tribal leaders and Native activists seeking to protect hundreds of sacred sites are taking their concerns to Congress, where they have found a receptive voice among Indian Country advocates.

Beginning next month, the Senate Indian Affairs Committee will hold a series of oversight hearings on sacred places. Among other issues, the first session will address threats along major waterways, like the Missouri River, where tribes say the risks are great and the dangers imminent.

"We're losing 40 to 80 sites a year," said Tex Hall, chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota, one of the tribes along the river which is currently the subject of a tug-of-war between the federal government, the industry, states and environmentalists.

Hall is also president of the National Congress of American Indians, just one of the organizations taking part in the political and legislative debate on sacred places. Armed with promises of support from government departments and recent court victories affirming Native religious rights, the diverse group hopes to capitalize on momentum.

The movement may get a boost in a related case this week. The House Resources Committee is voting tomorrow on a bill to transfer a parcel of federal property known as Martin's Cove to the Mormon Church, which considers the land one of its most sacred.

According to Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the panel's ranking member, the legislation should pave the way for protection of areas like the Valley of the Chiefs, an area in Montana that was threatened by oil development. He is working on a Native lands package and has thrown his support behind the Martin's Cove bill.

"Why is it lawful to transfer federal lands to mining companies for fast food hamburger prices," he said last week of the proposal, "but not a sacred site such as Martin's Cove or Valley of Chiefs to a church and to a tribe?"

Opposition to religious access of federal lands has come from a number of fronts. Environmentalist and conservationists, for example, oppose Hopi tribal members collecting baby eagles in a national park in Arizona.

Property-rights groups, some of which are aligned with anti-treaty rights organizations, have challenged Native use of public lands and tribal sovereignty. Courts in recent years, however, have sided with tribes and federal policies of accommodation.

Noted scholar and professor Vine Deloria Jr. spoke about sacred lands, and the challenges he has faced on the issue, at a NCAI forum in Washington, D.C., recently. He encouraged Indian Country to engage in "dialogue" with religious and political leaders to bolster broad support for Native rights.

"We have the most difficult, if not impossible, task ahead of us," he said. "We're walking along a razor's edge here."

Related Documents:
Executive Order No. 13007: Indian Sacred Sites (May 24, 1996)

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