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Native tribes seek clout on nontribal lands

Proposals in Congress and states may let native peoples veto developments near 'sacred' sites.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / September 4, 2002



ASHLAND, ORE.

They may be among the poorest in the United States, but native Americans are gaining political clout. Part of this has to do with campaign contributions drawn from casino revenues to influence lawmakers. But it's also connected to a growing public and political consensus on the need to reverse a long history of government-sanctioned cultural, social, and economic losses.

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Specifically, native Americans are pushing for new laws that would give them what could amount to veto power over certain development projects (mining, housing, shopping malls, etc.) impacting what are considered historically sacred sites. A bill is close to passage in California, and support is growing for a similar law in Congress.

"Most Americans understand a reverence for the great Sistine Chapel, or even for a white-washed church building with a steeple and a bell," says US Rep. Nick Rahall (D) of West Virginia, author of a bill that would protect Indian sacred sites around the country. "But often non-Indians have difficulty giving that same reverence to a mountain, valley, stream, or rock formation."

There is strong opposition to granting Indians power over economic development – especially since it could apply to nonreservation land.

The California Chamber of Commerce calls the proposal there a "job killer bill" that will prohibit "virtually all development projects ... including road and highway expansions, hospitals, schools, low-income housing, and repair and renovation of existing infrastructure."

Still, the bill made it through the California Assembly and Senate with relative ease. This may have something to do with the fact (as the Sacramento Bee newspaper reported recently) that legislative leaders of both parties, as well as Gov. Gray Davis (D), have received hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions from California tribes. (Those tribes have been allowed to run Nevada-style casinos since 2000.) The bill now awaits Governor Davis's signature.

Amid drilling, hope for legal change

Native Americans – as well as environmentalists – worry that the Bush administration's push for domestic energy sources will mean more drilling and digging that could impact historic sites.

But the administration has said it will proceed cautiously, and – to the surprise of some – Interior Secretary Gale Norton has been praised by the Klamath Tribes for the way she's handling the highly controversial water issue here in southern Oregon, which pits farmers and ranchers against Indians and wildlife.

Meanwhile, native Americans are taking sacred-site cases to court, and they may have good reason to be hopeful. The US Supreme Court recently upheld a lower-court ruling that prohibits logging of a site the Hoopa tribe in northern California considers sacred – even though a private, nonnative person owns the land.

"The government of the United States has slowly but surely begun to understand that these sacred places must be protected and preserved," says Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, chairman of the Committee on Indian Affairs.

Among such places: the Zuni Salt Lake in New Mexico (where a public utility coal-mining project is said to be reducing the aquifer that feeds the lake), sacred trails on what was once Quechan tribal land in Indian Pass, Calif. (threatened by a proposed open-pit gold mine), and the Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia (which could be affected by a highway extension).

A history of claims and controversy

For 150 years or more, native American sites, artifacts, and human remains were collected – desecrated, Indians and their supporters say – by archaeologists, museum developers, university researchers, and private collectors.

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