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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.

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Beginning in the 1880s, Indian religions – including the Sun Dance and other ceremonies and practices – were declared illegal under federal law. Up until the 1970s, US law and practice also sought to break up tribes through a policy of assimilation into the general society and economy. That policy of tribal "termination," as it was called, was reversed during the Nixon administration. Tribes once again were recognized, but in many cases, great social and economic damage had already been done.

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Meanwhile, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act was passed in 1978 "to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions ... including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites." Twelve years later, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act was enacted, providing that remains and funerary objects be returned to those shown to be lineal descendants or those with close cultural affiliations.

But Indians and their supporters say such laws (and presidential executive orders meant to protect sacred sites) haven't prevented large mining operations and other development that sometimes destroy such sites.

"Native people have been fighting for centuries to safeguard their sacred places, with little or no success," says Tex Hall, president of the National Congress of American Indians and chairman of the Mandan, Hidatsa and Arikara Nation in North Dakota.

With new bill, a shifting context

The proposed "Native American Sacred Lands Protection Act," scheduled for congressional hearings this month, would change that.

"Our bill gives Indian tribes the ability to petition the government to place federal lands off-limits to energy leasing or other incompatible developments when they believe those proposed actions would cause significant damage to their sacred lands," says Representative Rahall, the bill's author and senior Democrat on the House Resources Committee, overseeing federal land management and native American affairs.

"This is an extremely important provision," says Mr. Rahall. "The tribes would no longer have to depend on the good graces of federal bureaucrats to protect these lands. Rather, the tribes ... could initiate those protections."

There may be a contemporary model for strengthening federal protection of Indian sacred sites.

The US House recently passed legislation transferring a portion of federal Bureau of Land Management land in Wyoming to the Mormon Church because Mormons consider the land to be sacred.

"Passing this legislation has set a precedent for considering comprehensive sacred land protection legislation," says a congressional source.

In a related development last week, a federal magistrate ruled that scientists may examine the 9,300-year-old skeleton found along the Columbia River in Washington State in 1996.

Area tribes assert that "Kennewick Man" (named for a nearby town) falls under the federal law protecting Indian graves and thus must be turned over to them for burial.

The US Interior Department and the Army Corps of Engineers had agreed with the tribes. But the scientists who filed suit (eight top archaeologists and anthropologists) say preliminary investigation shows this ancient individual more likely descended from populations in Polynesia or from the Ainu people, a Caucasoid group in Japan.

"The secretary [of the Interior] erred in defining 'Native American' to automatically include all remains predating 1492 that are found in the United States," wrote US Magistrate John Jelderks.

The ruling undoubtedly will be appealed, and the US Supreme Court could ultimately settle the case.