Sacred site bill increases tribal voice
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FRIDAY, JULY 19, 2002

Indian Country advocates on Thursday unveiled new legislation they said will prevent exploitation of burial sites, ceremonial grounds and other lands sacred to American Indians and Alaska Natives.

The Native American Sacred Lands Act allows tribes to petition the federal government to exempt certain public lands from drilling and other uses. "The tribes would no longer have to depend on the good graces of federal bureaucrats to protect these lands," said Rep. Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.), the bill's chief sponsor and ranking member of the House Resources Committee.

Along with tribal leaders, Rahall and other Democrats pitched the measure as an improvement on existing federal policy. By putting into force an executive order on sacred lands, they said federal agencies will have to listen to tribal input.

"For years we have been fighting to protect our sacred sites," said Quechan Nation President Mike Jackson, whose tribe is fighting development of federal lands in California.

President Clinton signed the Indian Sacred Sites order in 1996 to compel executive agencies into accommodating tribal use of public lands. Many national monuments, parks and other areas controlled by the government are home to burial grounds and other religious sites.

The directive has resulted in improved access to places like Devils Tower National Monument in Wyoming, where Sioux tribes continue to hold the Sundance and other ceremonies. It also led to changes in policy at Rainbow Bridge National Monument in Utah, under which walking is discouraged by Navajo, Hopi and other tribes.

There has been less success when the protections inherent to national monuments and parks aren't available. Drilling, mining and other developments are regularly approved on burial grounds and sacred areas despite tribal opposition.

The Bush administration, under fire for allowing exploitation at sacred sites throughout the West, has moved to strengthen the order and respond to heavy criticism it saw over places like Weatherman Draw in Montana. Secretary of Interior Gale Norton did little to stop a drilling project there and has played a direct role in keeping a mining proposal alive on lands central to Quechan culture.

But Assistant Secretary's decision to convene a Department of Interior panel on the issue has seen little action since his March announcement. Only one meeting has been held, which occurred just this month.

There are also limits to the order itself. Only federally acknowledged tribes and their members are covered, despite protections in other laws that extend to lineal descendants regardless of tribal affiliation.

Under the order, individual Indians can only be recognized if determined to be a leader of an "Indian religion," such as the Native American Church, a status which again requires federal approval. Additionally, Native Hawaiians aren't covered.

Other sponsors of the Rahall bill include George Miller (Calif.) Eni Faleomavaega (Am.Samoa), Frank Pallone (N.J.), Tom Udall (N.M.), Brad Carson (Okla.), Betty McCollum (Minn.), Patrick Kennedy (R.I.), and John Baldacci (Maine). All are Democrats.

There are no Republican sponsors but Rep. Jim Hansen (R-Utah), retiring chairman of the House Resources Committee, could help push the legislation through. Rahall supported a Hansen bill which allows the Mormon Church to buy a sacred site from the federal government.

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

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