Bush’s New Assault on Sacred Lands

Earth Island News

Sacred Land Film Project

Before a screening of In the Light of Reverence at Arizona State University earlier this year, Cal Seciwa (Zuni), the director of ASU’s American Indian Institute, unfurled a canvas banner across a table (see photo below). It was a prototype for a billboard protesting the Salt River Project’s planned 18,000-acre coal stripmine, which threatens to dry up a desert lake in New Mexico the Zuni believe is the home of Salt Mother, an important protector spirit.

“We had signed a contract with Clear Channel, which owns virtually all of the billboards in Phoenix,” said Seciwa, “and we mailed it to them with a check, but the company’s president called and said they couldn’t put this message on a billboard. So now freedom of speech has joined freedom of religion as a casualty of our struggle.”

Cal and I stretched the banner out and taped it to the wall of the screening room at KAET, the local public television station that was hosting our film screening as part of an ASU conference on “Ethics When Cultures Clash.” The station manager walked by, looked quizzically at the banner, stopped, and a deep frown slowly appeared.

“Is there a problem?” Cal asked.

“Yeah, I think there might be,” replied the station manager.

“Kind of proves the point of this conference, doesn’t it?” said Cal.

After a long pause, the station manager said, “You’re right. Leave it up.”

While liberty hangs by a few strips of duct tape in public television stations and universities across America, in the corporate-government world, it is all but dead.

The Zuni battle is one of dozens across the United States in which new permits issued by the Bush administration threaten culturally significant places, or where protections previously granted are being reversed. In many cases, administration officials hired straight from the energy industry are approving new energy extraction projects, and overturning established federal policies intended to protect sacred places on public lands. The Interior Department permit approving the new Salt River Project coal mine near Zuni Salt Lake was championed by Steven Griles, a former mining industry lobbyist, and signed by Rebecca Watson, a long-time advocate for mining interests.

Another troubling case is Indian Pass, in the California desert, where the Clinton administration completed a six-year public process by denying a permit for Glamis Gold’s cyanide heap-leach open-pit mine in an area vital to the Quechan people. A network of trails and ceremonial sites there has been used by the Quechan for 10,000 years. Soon after being sworn into office, Interior Secretary Gale Norton re-opened the permit process for the gold mine, and though DOI and Glamis officials met numerous times before Norton’s decision was announced, members of the Quechan Nation read about it in the newspaper. They were not consulted as required by law.

An incensed Senator Barbara Boxer (D, CA) triggered an investigation by DOI’s Inspector General when she wrote, “Secretary Norton worked previously for the Mountain States Legal Foundation, which advocates for mining concerns; Deputy Secretary Steven Griles worked previously for the National Mining Association; Counsel to the Secretary Ann Klee worked for the American Mining Congress and is married to a partner in the law firm (Crowell and Moring) that represents Glamis Gold Ltd.; Assistant Secretary of Land and Minerals Management Rebecca Watson worked for the law firm that represents Glamis Gold Ltd. and represented at least one gold mining company; and Timothy McCrum, a member of Secretary Norton’s transition team, represents Glamis Gold Ltd. and did at the time he participated on the transition team.” On March 12, Inspector General Earl Devaney concluded “no undue influence or conflict of interest affected the decision-making process.” The report documented 30 contacts between the Interior Secretary’s office and Glamis, including nine face-to-face meetings, and none with the Quechan.

Meanwhile, at northern California’s Medicine Lake, a vision questing area of great importance to the Pit River Tribe, Bush administration officials in the BLM and Forest Service in November 2002 reversed minimal protections provided just two years earlier, and approved a geothermal power plant within one mile of the lake. Calpine Corp. is drilling exploratory wells, and a humming industrial labyrinth of roads and transmission towers, lit 24 hours a day, is being planned for this remote mountainous area east of Mount Shasta. The leases were initially signed and then renewed for 10 years without any government-to-government consultation, and no environmental impact statement was prepared. “Enron and others manipulated an energy crisis and Governor Davis panicked,” says Pit River activist Mickey Gemmill. “Now, California taxpayer money is subsidizing the desecration of a place of prayer and renewal—and the electricity will go out of state.”

At Black Mesa, in northern Arizona, Peabody Energy publicly stated its intention to stop pumping 3.3 million gallons of groundwater every day for its 273-mile-long coal slurry pipeline, but then Peabody applied to the Office of Surface Mining (OSM) for a permit to expand the coal stripmine and increase pumping by 32 percent. As word spread through Hopi and Navajo villages and opposition mounted, OSM cancelled public hearings on the proposal. Then, in an attempt to secure an alternative water source, Senator Jon Kyl (R, AZ) tried to attach a rider to an appropriations bill that would have authorized a new pump station on the Colorado River inside Grand Canyon National Park, and a pipeline up Jackass Canyon to Black Mesa to replace the groundwater that is being pumped into the slurryline. A firestorm of protest stopped the rider, but it will likely be revived in some form.

Native activists are fighting hard. The Zuni Tribe is planning a breach of trust lawsuit against DOI to require a new EIS that will adequately study the complex hydrology of the area, and recently formed a Zuni Salt Lake Coalition. The Quechan Tribe is fighting to pass legislation in California to require backfilling and reclamation of open pit mines, as well as another state bill that would protect sacred places. The Pit River Tribe and environmental allies have filed suit to challenge the validity of the leases around Medicine Lake. The grassroots Hopi organization Black Mesa Trust has sued DOI and also gained standing with the California Public Utilities Commission in an effort to shut down the air-polluting Mohave Generating Station, which consumes the coal and water from Black Mesa.

A new Sacred Lands Protection Coalition has linked many native communities and tribal leaders in a broader resistance movement, and the coalition will soon expand to include environmental and religious groups. These efforts led to a series of Congressional Oversight Hearings last year on threats to sacred lands. Members of the coalition are also pressuring Rep. Nick Rahall (D, WV) to rewrite and strengthen his Native American Sacred Lands Act through closer consultation with tribal leaders and religious practitioners.

Other battles rage on, from the Missouri River, where Army Corps of Engineers dams and reservoirs erode cultural sites and burials, to Mt. Graham, where two of seven planned telescopes have been built on the sacred peak, to the Arctic Refuge, where caribou calving grounds are threatened by oil exploration, to Bear Butte, where a proposed rifle range threatens to destroy the silence needed for vision quests, prayer ceremonies and sweat lodges. The attack on sacred places goes on.

New from the Sacred Land Film Project
Our DVD edition of In the Light of Reverence includes seven additional scenes, an extended interview with Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., a new short film on Zuni Salt Lake and Quechan Indian Pass, and two interviews with the filmmakers. Our new 48-page Teacher’s Guide contains 23 lesson plans in Social Studies, the Environment and Language Arts. You can order In the Light of Reverence on VHS or DVD from Bullfrog Films, (800) 543-3764, www.bullfrogfilms.com. The Teacher’s Guide comes free to schools that purchase the film, or you can download it at no charge at www.sacredland.org/teach.html. A compilation of essays, The Sacred Land Reader, is available free online at www.sacredland.org/reader.html. What you can do: To help support these grassroots struggles, we have created a Sacred Land Defense Team. You can join by visiting our Web site at www.sacredland.org; by emailing your contact info to slfp@igc.org; or by mail: Sacred Land Film Project, P.O. Box C-151, La Honda, CA 94020.

Christopher (Toby) McLeod directs Earth Island’s Sacred Land Film Project. He produced the award-winning PBS film on Native American sacred places, In the Light of Reverence (2001).

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