SPIRIT FIRE at NCAI: Sacred Places Protection on the Agenda

Gale Courey Toensing

Spirit Fire: Protection of Ancestors and Sacred Places Symposium & Art Exhibit is a unique event that will bring together a traditional chief, an Indian attorney, a professor, poets, artists and candidates for the presidency of the National Congress of American Indians during the organization’s 70th Annual Convention & Marketplace taking place this year at the Cox Convention Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma from October 13-18.

Suzan Shown Harjo, a Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee poet, writer, lecturer, curator, policy advocate, who has helped Native peoples recover more than one million acres of land and numerous sacred places, will moderate the panel discussion in conjunction with the 70th annual convention at Spirit Fire on October 16 from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. at the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame.

The symposium will include an NCAI candidates forum at which all NCAI officer candidates are invited to speak about protecting ancestors ad sacred places. The four candidates for NCAI president are expected to participate. An art exhibit featuring some of the best contemporary artists in the country will open that day and run for a week.

Five notable panelists will present their views on the protection of ancestors and sacred places including George Thompson, Muscogee (Creek) Nation Mekko, Oce Vpofv (Hickory Ground); Mario Gonzalez, Esq. Oglala Lakota attorney and co-author of The Politics of Hallowed Ground: Wounded Knee and the Struggle for Indian Sovereignty; James Riding In, Pawnee, associate professor of American Indian Studies at Arizona State University and editor of Wicazo Sa Review; John Trudell, Santee Sioux, poet, performer, recording artist; and Richard Ray Whitman, Euchee and Pawnee, artist, actor, poet.

Harjo, a leading advocate for the protection of ancestors and sacred places, developed a number of federal laws to protect Native sovereignty, culture, language, arts, human rights, and religious practices, places and objects, including the 1978 American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the 1989 National Museum of the American Indian Act, the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and the 1996 Executive Order of Indian Sacred Sites. She called the speaker list “pretty impressive.”

“We want to hear from more and more people who are pretty deep thinkers and have been for years and what their thoughts are on protecting ancestors and sacred places. It’s as broad and as narrow as that,” said Harjo, who is also the president and executive director of The Morning Star Institute, a national Native rights organization founded in 1984 for Native peoples’ traditional and cultural advocacy, arts promotion, and research.

Harjo said she was particularly interested in having the NCAI presidential candidates participate.

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George Tiger, Principal Chief of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation, will welcome symposium attendees to the event, which is located in Muscogee (Creek) Nation territory. Tiger is also in the running for the NCAI presidency.

“I personally invited the other three candidates and they all responded very graciously that they plan to be there and we look forward to it. We want to hear their thoughts on those important subjects. They all have rich experience in these areas and it will be important for them to be heard and they’ll have a receptive audience. Everyone is going to be really interested in what they have to say,” Harjo said.

The sacred places symposium comes at a time when sacred lands and waters from Nantucket Sound off Massachusetts to the Mojave Desert in California are under increasing pressure from renewable energy and mineral extraction developers.

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One of those places is at Hickory Ground, the Muscogee sacred ceremonial ground and burial site in Wetumpka, Alabama, where the development is by another tribe.

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Asked if stronger legislation is needed to protect the ancestors and sacred place and if that will be talked about at the panel, Harjo said, “Well, I hope so and also at NCAI. NCAI has called for stronger laws and legislation for some time as a body and various kinds of calls for action that NCAI and Morning Star have crafted together have not gained any kind of traction in Congress, mainly because of the actions of Poarch Band, for example, working against whatever we do to strengthen existing protections for either ancestors or sacred places.”

Poarch Band spokeswoman Sharon Delmar denied Harjo’s claim, “Our Tribal leadership is committed to protecting sacred places, and our representatives’ actions in Washington reflect that commitment,” Delmar said in an email responding to a request for comment. Asked if Poarch representatives will attend the Spirit Fire event, Delmar said, “We are not sure who from the Tribe will be attending NCAI or any specific events there.”

The Muscogee Nation will provide bus transportation from the Cox Convention Center to the Oklahoma Jazz Hall of Fame every 15 minutes all afternoon.