Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president, is apologetic yet determined when it comes to one of the country’s special places, a place he calls “very important.” He is one of the leaders in the fight to protect the San Francisco Peaks—sacred to more than 13 Southwestern tribes—from using treated sewage water for artificial snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort near Flagstaff.

His position echoes that of leaders across North America who have watched as sacred sites have been swallowed up or damaged by private, non-Native users, government-backed projects or vandalism, or who watch sites’ protection defined simply as an archaeological issue. Some leaders contacted by telephone were steadfast in a slow fight to maintain the sites for tribal survival and future generations.

Observances and ceremonies will be held across the country from June 17 through June 21 to mark the 2011 National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places. The sites are scattered across the Plains states and the Midwest, through the Southwest into California, and resonate with a roll call of sacred names—Antelope Hills, Bear Butte, Black Mesa, Eagle Rock, Everglades, Klamath River, Mount Tenabo, Rainbow Bridge and countless others. Sacred Sites—Concern Extends Across Country

“Native and non-Native people nationwide gather at this time for solstice ceremonies and to honor sacred places,” said Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne/Hodulgee Muscogee, president of the Morning Star Institute, which organizes the National Days of Prayer.

Noting the legal struggles consuming Native peoples, she said, “Once again we call on Congress to build a door to the courts for Native nations to protect our traditional churches. Many sacred places are being damaged because Native nations do not have equal access under the First Amendment to defend them.”

American Indians “are the only peoples in the United States who do not have a constitutional or statutory right of action to protect sacred places or our exercise of religious freedom there,” she said. “That simply must change as a matter of fairness and equity.”

With greater awareness, the tide may be turning, at least in some areas.

“In the city of Flagstaff, some of the people there are starting to voice concerns that the wastewater is not going to meet the [snowmaking] needs—they are kind of afraid drinking water will be used,” Shelly said, explaining that millions of gallons might be required to create just two feet of artificial snow over the ski season.

The Navajo Nation may retain its own attorney on water issues and on what he said was the unsatisfactory level of government-to-government consultation by the Forest Service, which approved the snowmaking and authorized the start of construction on conveyance pipes even as it scheduled a first-time “listening session” with a Hopi group.

Howard Shanker, an attorney who said he has been involved in San Francisco Peaks litigation for “too many years,” said it’s nevertheless “the thing to do, and all people of conscience should be involved in protecting sacred sites and their history.”

The Justice Department under the Obama administration continues to support the snowmaking “even though that’s not consistent with what Obama has portrayed as his position with the tribes,” Shanker said.

Litigation over the Peaks has traveled through the court system without, to date, halting construction, but at least one issue remains in contention—that of whether adequate analysis was conducted of potential adverse impacts from ingesting the treated snow, Shanker said.

To the west, the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, near Needles, California, is trying to protect the Topock Maze and surrounding sacred areas along the Lower Colorado River for present-day tribal members who “still live within a sacred landscape that’s still there on a daily basis,” says Courtney Ann Coyle, tribal attorney.

The tribe initially fought against toxic groundwater pollution and its effects and currently is battling proposed mitigation measures because “some are not a good fit and some were downright insulting,” she said. The tribe is challenging Pacific Gas & Electric, owner and operator of the polluting compressor station, the California Department of Toxic Substances Control and the Bureau of Land Management.

“The Maze is the portal to the afterlife for traditional practitioners,” Coyle said. “When there is a death on the reservation now, I’ve heard from tribal leaders and elders, there’s great comfort for families during a time of great sadness, because their relative is going on.”

A common thread uniting many, if not most, sacred sites issues is the status of Native religions. The Maze and its importance “is protected freedom of religion under the First Amendment of the federal Constitution and under state constitutions,” Coyle said, noting, “You have the ability to protect what you believe—the federal government needs to accommodate that and look very hard at its projects to do them in such a way that is the least destructive.”

Shanker, discussing the San Francisco Peaks and Snowbowl, said that under a Supreme Court decision a quarter century ago, “Natives have no First Amendment rights when it comes to government land use,” although the subsequent Religious Freedom Restoration Act mandates that if the government substantially burdens religious practices, it must be for a compelling governmental interest.

The issue of cultural landscapes is difficult for some people to understand, Coyle said: “You can’t define spiritual value by identifying some archaeological site—spiritual values can’t be defined by the archaeological.”

When tribes are told that a cultural report has been prepared, “it actually is an archaeological report. In reality they didn’t get it; they didn’t talk to Indians about whether there are other values to us here than archaeology. If they did, they might have had communication about spiritual and other values, but people can articulate it only if they’re given a chance,” she said.

Other tribes, including the Fort McDermitt Paiute and Shoshone tribes of Nevada and Oregon, found last year that a federally approved pipeline could be constructed without tribal consent because, despite potential cultural impacts, it did not cross present-day jurisdictional boundaries.

Confronted with the same project, the Klamath Tribes of Oregon objected to its impact on religious integrity and aboriginal prayer sites, and similar complaints were raised by others, including Paiute tribes in Idaho and Nevada.

For the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe of Nevada, ignorance about sacred sites has been expressed in a more direct way—through graffiti vandalism of stones located near the Stone Mother, who figures in the tribe’s creation narrative.

The tribe sells recreation permits for Pyramid Lake but is trying to close the east side, home to areas sensitive to the tribe, and concentrate use on the west side, said Della John, tribal administrator.

“We want to protect the sites for the future and for the tribe’s well-being, and we want to save it from being exploited,” she said. “We want to control access and be able to recognize how important it is to the people spiritually.”