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Cohesive plan sought to protect sacred lands -- Nevada company wants to mine gold from Indian Pass

Posted to NDN AIM by ErthAvengr

By Ryan Pearson, Associated Press December 3, 2002,1713,BDC_2419_1584267,00. html

GLAMIS, Calif. — A faint footpath threads through volcanic rock and glittering quartz in brushy desert near the Colorado River — desolate land considered sacred by the Quechan Nation and considered profitable by a Nevada gold mining company.

It marks a modern-day Indian battleground.

The "Trail of Dreams" crosses through Indian Pass, one of 23 places recently identified by American Indians as top priorities for defense in the on-and-off land war pitting tribes against companies hoping to build on, mine or otherwise impinge on their religious sites.

"Our churches are being attacked and our people can't go to them to pray," Indian rights activist Suzan Harjo declared during a recent Indian summit in San Diego. "It's a fight against white men with gold in their eyes."

The battles are fought mostly in Washington and state capitals by tribal leaders, lawyers, lobbyists and regulators. The weapons are reams and reams of paper.

But there are surprisingly few rules of combat. There is no comprehensive state or federal law protecting or even fully defining Indian sacred lands. Current regulations are muddled. A 1996 executive order asking the Interior Department to define key concepts fizzled, and a new Interior task force has been working since March to unify policy among its eight bureaus.

The Senate has hosted several hearings on sacred sites, and Indian leaders want more. In San Diego, they began planning a Day of Prayer to publicize the issue nationally and are considering a Million Indian March on Washington, D.C.

"If we can't protect the Earth, can't protect the sky, if we can't protect our sacred sites, then we've failed the world," said Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation in northwest Washington.

Every government agency dealing with Indian tribes — from the Defense Department to the Park Service — has its own policy on sacred lands, said Jack Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs.

The convoluted path Indian Pass took to its current status — cleared by federal engineers for a gold mine — reveals the ups and downs that result.

Glamis Gold Ltd. in 1987 began exploring the possibility of an open pit mine on 1,600 acres of Bureau of Land Management land near the Quechan tribe's Fort Yuma reservation in the southeastern corner of California. The federal parcel includes Indian Pass, a site of religious ceremonies and pilgrimages that contains ancient pottery shards and petroglyphs, some thousands of years old.

The Clinton administration rejected the proposal in January 2001 following six years of review, citing "undue impairment" to Quechan sacred land. But the Bush administration rescinded that ruling in November 2001, saying its power to determine cultural impact was unclear.

A state bill that would have stopped the project and substantially expanded land-protection for tribes passed the California Legislature, but it was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis in September.

BLM engineers then issued a thick report approving the mining claim, and the agency is now reviewing its previous environmental reports. But Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and a number of state lawmakers have pledged to block the project, possibly through new state mining restrictions or a targeted BLM funding freeze.

Charles Jeannes, senior vice president of Glamis, said the company spent $15 million on preparatory work and would sue for the assessed value of the mine — $68 million — if the state blocks drilling.

The back and forth has frustrated both tribal leaders and company officials.

"There needs to be some coordination among these various government entities as to how this is resolved," Jeannes said. "There is none at this point. That's hard."

Though every year in the past two decades at least one individual site has been protected by federal lawmakers, efforts to pass broad sacred lands protection bills have repeatedly failed, Indian leaders and politicians said.

Advocates for Indians complain the isolated battles have distracted from the overall goal — convincing regulators and courts that Indian sacred land is as important as a church building.

"We would never destroy a church or a temple or a mosque," Boxer said. "Unfortunately, there is no underlying law to ensure that Indian sacred sites are also protected, so we find ourselves having to pass a law every time we want to protect an individual site."

Developers that follow existing rules blame tribes for opposing projects after investments are made. And in some cases, tribes refuse to reveal where their sacred lands are, for fear they will be overrun by curious outsiders.

The National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest Native American group, this month passed a resolution opposing any legislation that attempts to define, prioritize, or draw boundaries around Indian sacred places.

John Miller, vice president of project development for energy company Calpine, calls such requests unfair. "You can't change the rules at the end of the game," Miller said.

Several Northern California tribes have opposed Calpine's development of two geothermal power plants in the Medicine Lake highlands area near the Oregon line. A coalition of tribal members and environmentalists plans to sue after the Interior Department on Tuesday approved one plant at Modoc National Forest. Exploratory drilling on the other has already begun.

"This cuts into the heart of our culture," said Gene Preston, chairman of the Pit River tribe of Burney, in northeastern California.

Preston said he was not satisfied with the mitigation requirements imposed on Calpine and fears the Interior decision will set a precedent for developers. "One leads into the next and the next thing you know, you've got a little town going on in the middle of your sacred site."

There is no national list of all threatened sacred sites. Other battlegrounds identified by the NCAI in November include Mount Graham in Arizona, where the San Carlos Apache tribe challenged plans for a $60 million telescope.

In Wyoming, the National Park Service had closed 867-foot basalt Devils Tower to climbers after Indians complained they were disturbing religious activities. And in New Mexico, the Forest Service decided against expanding a ski area because it would have meant going into a mountain basin that was culturally significant to Pueblo Indians.

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