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

The Challenge of Protecting Sacred Land

Duane Champagne
January 16, 2013


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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American Indian History
Researching the Past
Sacred Sites