The Native American Fight For Sacred Sites

Native Americans Capitalize On Obama’s Promises To Protect Sacred Sites

Marisa Demarco
5 min read
An Olive Branch
Rep. James Roger Madalena in the courtyard of the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. (Eric Williams
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Laurie Weahkee speaks with groups large and small that are fighting to protect areas sacred to their people. Those fights, she says, are being lost.

But tribes around New Mexico keep at it. "You’ll find these little communities that are experts, real experts, on land policy, the park service, the local county," she says. They deal with numerous federal agencies, state and local jurisdictions. "It’s just a lot of weight. It’s an unfair process to try to protect our places of prayer." That bulky process overwhelms smaller tribal organizations, she adds.

Weahkee is a community organizer for Sacred Alliance for Grassroots Equality
(SAGE) Council, an organization that led the charge to protect the petroglyphs from the Paseo del Norte extension. That battle, too, was lost when the city punched six lanes through the national monument, home to 20,000 carved images, in 2007.

Now the Council and the state are asking President Obama to establish legal protections for Native American places of prayer. Weahkee says no one has to seek tribal permission to build on sacred sites. Instead, tribes are simply alerted before development begins in a holy area. "That, in itself, is a huge problem," she says. "Sometimes you’ll find agencies or local developers or whoever willing to sit down with the tribe and be good neighbors, and together they’ll carve out an alternative to desecrating the particular site. In other cases, that’s not the sentiment."

House Memorial 128 passed unanimously in the Legislature this session. Copies of the measure will be sent to Obama, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar and Native American officials. It calls for issues of sacred site protection to be given legal weight under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978. Malcolm Bowekaty, associate director of SAGE Council and former governor of Zuni Pueblo, says that part of Obama’s electoral platform included the protection of holy places. "That’s the first time we’ve seen an olive branch extended to a lot of the tribes," Bowekaty says.

New Mexico shines among other states, he says, because it enforces a strong
Cultural Properties Protection Act.

But even with the act, arguments for holy areas have to be approached indirectly. "We kind of have to transfer dialogue to environmental protection," Weahkee says. "A lot of times that works for many tribes, but we’re not able to speak directly to the issue of sacred sites.” Still, the Cultural Properties Protection Act is more strident than the laws other states have on the books. New Mexico is telling the federal government, "This is a two-way street, and you need to do your part at the national level," says Bowekaty. "We’ll be doing our part at the state level."

Bowekaty and Weahkee are hopeful about establishing legal protection for holy places nationwide, they say, because Obama has appointed prominent Native Americans to top cabinet positions and because tribes are seeing a cut of stimulus dollars.

SAGE Council is realistic about the impact of the House memorial, viewing the legislation as "the beginning call from tribes throughout the nation.” It should tell the president that “we heard this promise and we want to implement it," Weahkee says. "A memorial is just a memorial. It doesn’t have the force of law. It does clearly demonstrate the sentiment that this is important and something that we want to work on."

Rep. James Roger Madalena of Jemez Pueblo carried the measure forward. He’s been in the House of Representatives for 25 years and fighting for legislation like this for a decade, he estimates. He chairs the Energy and Natural Resources Committee on which ranchers from around the state serve. "They’re always leery. They’re always concerned," he says of ranchers when faced with a potential increase in federal control. Madalena has also observed skepticism from those in the business of mining coal and uranium.

Weahkee says there is fear from developers that Native Americans will claim whatever site they like with impunity. "That’s not the case," she says. "There really are set places, designated areas that the trained religious leaders know about and need to utilize to keep up their responsibility to their ancestors, to the generations yet to come."

Bowekaty says taking nephews and nieces to Salt Lake as a right of passage is similar to Catholics making the pilgrimage to El Santuario de Chimayó. "Tribal members shouldn’t always be looking to the courts to preserve their right to visit their churches," he says. "That’s the only way that we can be on an equal plane, is not only to consider Native American places as sacred places but also to consider them as churches."
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