Senate dives into sacred site debate
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Tribal representatives and mid-level military officials presented divergent views on the federal government's protection of sacred lands at an occasionally emotional and crowded Senate hearing on Tuesday.

While several witnesses praised the Department of Defense for considering tribal views, they described a lack of meaningful input into military projects that impact burial grounds, ceremonial sites and religious places. "The consultation process is simply not there," said Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), the largest tribal organization in the country.

In particular, criticism was directed at the Army Corps of Engineers for its massive water projects that have disrupted reservations and ancestral lands throughout the country. A frequent target of lawmakers who question its bloat and bureaucracy, panel members told the Senate Indian Affairs Committee they were being outright ignored.

"Our sacred sites are not an item of priority" to the Corps, said Pemina Yellow Bird, who works on cultural issues for the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation of North Dakota.

Calling the agency a "federal monster," Scott Jones, the cultural resource officer for the Lower Brule Sioux Tribe of South Dakota, testified that dam and diversion projects have uprooted the spirituality of the Missouri River. "[E]ntire Native populations were removed from the safety of their 'reservation' homes, had their farms and gathering areas flooded, their burial grounds flooded or exposed and their traditional lifeways thrown into turmoil," he said.

Defense officials acknowledged the department needs to improve its standing in Indian Country. "We could do more," said Chip Smith, who handles tribal issues for the assistant secretary of the Army.

Philip Grone, a mid-level Defense official, described a "long standing relationship with Native Americans" that dates back to the tradition of Indian military service. He said the department has identified 45 known cultural sites at military installations and is working on 15 additional "suspected" areas.

"Consultation is extensive," he said.

The hearing is just the first in a series on the issue, promised committee chairman Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii). Federal agencies, he said, often "fail to provide adequate protections" for sites.

Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), the panel's vice-chairman, noted that sacred sites aren't often apparent to non-Indians. "There's no big building there," he said.

"Protection of resources is, or certainly should be, a concern for all Americans," he said.

A similar sentiment was expressed by Caleen Sisk-Franco, a leader of the unrecognized Winnemem Wintu Tribe of California. Her tribe's lands were flooded by Corps work on Lake Shasta, she said, causing the loss of hundreds of burial grounds and traditional areas.

"Our sacred sites are the heart of all people," she said.

Relevant Documents:
Written Witness Testimony (6/4)

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