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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.