CONGRESS: Bill seeks to protect sacred Indian lands -Lummi leader in D.C. to support protections

Ellyn Fergusion,
The Bellingham Herald


WASHINGTON, D.C. - Lummi Chairman Darrell Hillaire worries about the future of his tribe's sacred lands in the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie national forests, but hopes legislation introduced Wednesday will aid American Indian efforts to protect spiritual sites on public lands.

"Today, some of our prayers are answered," Hillaire said. "Certain rights to our homelands have never been given up and they are still retained today. And that's our burial sites, where we gather ... where we go to cleanse our minds and take care of our bodies and spirit within these forests."

At a Capitol Hill news conference, he joined other Indian leaders in supporting U.S. Rep. Nick Rahall's second legislative attempt to require federal agencies to take all precautions to protect sacred lands in their jurisdiction from "significant damage" and to accommodate tribes' access to and ceremonial use of religious areas.

Rahall, D-W.Va., and supporters say the Bush administration's push for oil and gas exploration on public lands and its willingness to open national forests to logging put sacred sites in more danger than ever.

Largely unenforced

Federal agencies now operate under a 1996 executive order issued by the Clinton administration that directs them to consult with Indian tribes when developing policies that might affect sacred lands or before taking action that could damage a sacred area. But critics say it is only a policy statement and goes largely unenforced.

Under Rahall's bill, tribes would have the right to administratively challenge proposed U.S. government action or federally aided actions they believe imperil sacred lands. An agency would have to hold a public hearing within 90 days of receiving a petition and the department would have to issue a written decision within 60 days after the hearing.

If the department found that a federal action would result in significant damage to a sacred site, the agency and the Interior Department would remove the area from consideration for development and create a new land-use plan.

Building support

Rahall, the top Democrat on the House Resources Committee, said he was counting on the National Congress of American Indians and co-sponsors such as Rep. Rick Larsen, the Lake Stevens Democrat whose district includes Lummi Nation and Bellingham, to build support for the legislation.

Rahall got hearings on his bill last year, but it did not get out of the Resources Committee.

Larsen said he expects support from Democrats and Republicans whose districts include parts of Indian country.

"We need to be responsive here in the nation's capital to the far corners of this country on the issue of sacred lands," Larsen said.

Hillaire, chairman of Lummi Indian Business Council, said Lummis are determined to avoid desecration of sacred areas such as when the city of Blaine unearthed a burial site during construction of a sewage treatment plant on Semiahmoo Spit. An archaeologist hired by Blaine moved some remains to Denver.

"The direction of our elders is we should never let the desecration of a sacred site like Semiahmoo happen again," Hillaire said.

On the Net, National Congress of American Indians., Lummi Nation.


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