Lightning over Bear Butte in South Dakota at dusk (Thinkstock)

The Challenge of Protecting Sacred Land

Duane Champagne


We have tried treaties. We have tried court cases. We have tried state and federal legislation. In all cases, the results have been mixed.

How should Native Americans best attempt to protect sacred land?

For many Indians, the entire world is full of sacred purpose and being. But even within such contexts, there are certain especially important places where the creator or spirit beings brought people into existence, and the present world into order. These are the places to be revered, remembered and continually honored.

All this was taken for granted before colonization. As the incursion pushed northward, westward and southward, many Indian peoples were removed from their sacred origin lands and forced to live in new territories away from their most sacred places.

The tribes did what they could under the circumstances. Tribal communities often gathered their sacred bundles, moved to their newly assigned locations, and continued to seek protection of the creator through ceremonies and prayers. Even as they continued to be separated from their ancient locales, sometimes by hundreds of years and hundreds of miles, they continued to honor those points of origin and understand their attachments to them.

But today, many U.S. tribal communities still do not control their most sacred places. And in many cases, the geographical displacement has been so arbitrary and calamitous as to render mere remembrance meaningless.

The federal officials who are supposed to assist in these matters are often of little help. They may produce treaties and reservation assignments. But they don’t generally understand or appreciate the spiritual geography of the land and its relation to the peoples.

Now, if a tribe’s most sacred spaces happen to remain on their reservation, then the tribes have access to their preservation. That, alas, is the exception. Most sacred sites are not located directly on reservations. As a result, Indian nations have had a difficult time gaining access to and protecting them. The difficulties of the Lakota and Cheyenne to protect the Black Hills and Bear Butte are well known examples.

What of the much-touted idea of U.S. law allowing tribes to place land back into trust? Well, it is frequently problematic. The best candidates for returning land into trust are lands within the reservation lost through allotments or land contiguous to the reservation.

Sacred places far away from reservations, by contrast, present a more difficult problem. Legal cases to protect sacred mountains have resulted in concessions of minuscule areas in which Indians can pray. Though the American Indian Freedom of Religion Act requires government officials and agencies to respect tribal sacred spaces, they do not offer enforcement capabilities.

A new and promising movement, however, may be afoot. Lately, various nonprofit land-conservancy organizations have used federal and state law to buy land and put it into conservancy trust. And Indian tribes have organized and joined such conservancies, e.g. the Native American Land Conservancy. These groups have also used existing law to remove sacred places from the market and taxation, while preserving plants and animals thereon. Under this approach, the land can be protected from intruders. In many cases, tribes don’t have to explain why they want to preserve the land—as long as they can make strong environmental arguments.

It’s an ideal arrangement. These sacred places are protected but their nature is not revealed. Rather than being under tribal control, the conservancy trust land is controlled by tribal, state and federal agencies and groups seeking to preserve its original condition. The whole approach promises a means for providing protection for the most spiritual and unprotected places in the country.

It sounds like an idea worth considering. Some may not cherish the idea of joining forces with other parties. But better that sort of concession to reality than the complete surrender of the fight on pure principle. 

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Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
God help us. There are many who like me do not know much about their heritage and any one who can help me I pry they will help me \

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
This is more of a philisophical question, in general, but why isn't all land considered sacred? The attitude of making some parts sacred, and others, well, not so sacred seems to do a disservice to the whole concept of treating the earth as a whole.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
I hope and pray they can get their sacred places back. I have four different Native American tribes in my heritage. two from my dads side and two from my moms side.

badbadgramma's picture
Submitted by badbadgramma on
I do not have Native American in my blood line, but I have always had a respect for all that which is right and that makes sense. Like the Native American Indian heritage that states no one can own the earth, the seas or the sky. It is too be respected and revered or it will turn on us all. It is because this heritage and culture will not destroy it, that I feel they are the ones who deserve to protect it the most, and keep it safe from those who would destroy it for a profit. My prayer will always be for the right, justice and the best decisions to prevail that will save us from our greed and destruction of all that was given to us naturally.

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
its a shame that beings that inhabit the earth have lack of respect for nature and the spirits, mostly the ones that are brainwashed by the modern world and its electronics t.v. ect.,we must stand up for the great mother! it will come to pass when man is no longer controlled by people they never met and we can get back to our mother without restraints physically and spiritually, seek as much wizdom from the elders as we can so that we may pass the stories to the children

Anonymous's picture
Submitted by Anonymous on
If it has not already happened I wish that it would, like in the 1800's Native American chiefs from many tribes visited Washington and its leaders and NOW is the time for it again. If pre. Obama wants to protect mosqes from other nations here or the country mourns over very old churches being burned, then why not mr. Obama see fit to protect Sacred Land sites that were here and worshiped over LONG before this country became CIVILIZED, so to speak, thank

Klee Benally's picture
Klee Benally
Submitted by Klee Benally on
There are very few options when it comes to protecting sacred places on public lands. Engaging in the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process offers no guarantees, litigation is risky based upon negative precedents (Lyng v. Northwest), and so-called "buy-outs" are not really a solution either. While the strategy of using conservancy trust's to protect sacred lands may be effective for some Indigenous Nations, these "buy-outs" have a few pitfalls themselves: 1. It may encourage developers to hold ransom sacred lands. 2. This approach would generally only apply to sacred places without pre-existing developments. (In the case of the San Francisco Peaks we are dealing with expansion of existing ski area infrastructure and wastewater snowmaking.) 3. Local agencies may not be compelled to work with a trust. This article assumes that support from gov agencies and/or municipalities would be supportive of such agreements. If you look at most ongoing cases of sacred place protection you will see that local agencies and municipalities generally side with corporations and developers, not environmental groups or Indigenous Nations. While buy-outs and land trusts may work for some, we need guaranteed protection for Indigenous People's spiritual freedom. That could look like amending the Religious Freedom Restoration Act to qualify what substantial burden means or creating new legislation. Either way, either congress or Obama has to act or we are going to continue to have these conflicts.