by Brennan Lagasse
On October 12, 2011, indigenous elders and medicine people came together on a conference call with several representatives of the federal government. The purpose of the call was to continue an ongoing dialogue centered on the protection of indigenous sacred sites that continue to be comprised under federal leadership. It was a very relevant exercise in where the modern day power culture of the federal government still stands in regards to respect for the well-being of indigenous peoples.
Although several governmental representatives took part in the call, the clear and salient message received by those not affiliated with the federal government was, firstly, that sacred site protection is not important enough for Secretary Tom Vilsack to be a part of the call—the one whom all indigenous elders and medicine people were planning on being involved. And secondly, that it is not important enough to honor the request of those who hold these places as central to their well-being and way of life, to hold this conversation in person.
What progress has been made in the many years of working to protect sacred sites through executive orders, rules, laws, regulations, policy, and court cases if the present-day reality remains the same today for indigenous peoples as it has since any repatriation work first began?
When will the federal government respect that in order to seek a lasting solution to this dire problem, that dialogue must happen in person, and those that make the ultimate decisions, like Secretary Tom Vilsack, must be present and fully engaged in order for lasting work to take place? Without representation like his, as was articulated to indigenous elders and medicine people that he would at least be on this important phone call, what message does this ultimately send? That any “progress” will be filtered through other representatives, continue as non-binding, and that overall, this engagement is merely business as usual.
What more can indigenous peoples do to have non-Native leaders understand their perspective? It has been articulated time and time again, and does not stray in any way from the following system of beliefs as articulated last March:
“The Creator gave the Aboriginal Indigenous Nations of the People Laws to follow and responsibilities to care for all Creation. These instructions have been passed down from generation to generation from the beginning of Creation. It is the Law that no one can overpower the Creator’s Law, you are a part of Creation, thus if you break the Law, you are destroying yourself.
We speak on behalf of all Creation: the four legged/those that swim/those that crawl/those that fly/those that burrow in the Earth/the plant and tree Nations. This one life system includes the elements of fire, water, earth and air, the living environment of ‘Mother Earth.’
The Sanctity of the Creator’s Law has been broken. The balance of life has been disrupted. You come into life as a sacred being. If you abuse the sacredness of your life then you affect all Creation. The future of all life is now in jeopardy.
We have now reached the crossroads. As Aboriginal Indigenous People we ask you to work with us to save the future of all Creation.”
—Aboriginal Indigenous Nations of the People’s Message (March 11, 2011)
The perspective of those fighting is to save their sacred places, the most holy places on earth, is clear and succinct. It has been since day one. What must be honored is this path, as a way forward to try and help agencies like the US Forest Service understand the sincerity and importance of this dialogue, and to prevent future desecration to these places that have been compromised spiritually and environmentally for years.
Indigenous elders and medicine people have asked that the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People be included in any binding documents moving forward. How is that not clear at this moment in time? Furthermore, without mentioning the Creator’s Law in such documents, a Law that is binding to indigenous peoples that speaks to all life and creation being sacred, oppression continues. This Law cannot be altered or manipulated and is unchangeable from the perspective of indigenous peoples. Again, it can’t be much clearer than that.
The federal government continues to respond to indigenous concerns in a manner that does not honor the merit of indigenous peoples’ respect and connection to their sacred places. It can’t be said much more simply, that there are no lasting, meaningful safeguards in place to protect sacred places. Even still, a path of unsustainability continues under a guise of “progressive conflict resolution.”
Harmony can and must be achieved, but respect of perspective, tradition, and spirituality must be acknowledged for its profound and lasting nature if actual balance between “public land” and sacred sites is to be realized.
If federal entities are to truly accept the wrongs of the past, but cease to take meaningful steps forward, how can indigenous peoples trust not only their role in the process, but be led to believe ultimately that cultural genocide by way of killing language, traditional ways of living, and holy places to pray are not going to continue as they have for hundreds of years?
Many efforts have been made to heal from the past, but if you listen to indigenous peoples, they will tell you that not only are they still feeling the burdens of the past, but their way of life also continues to be undermined by current work that is viewed by federal entities as “progression.” This is a glaring, major issue that consistently gets glossed over.
Much work is still needed, and even with all that has happened on indigenous sacred lands in years past, elders, medicine people, and all vested stakeholders continue to be willing to attempt to find a sustainable solution now, and for future generations to come. That is of the utmost concern and directly reflects the Creator’s Law, that when formally acknowledged and honored by federal entities, may allow for a solution to come forth.
Perhaps the most amazing fact in this ongoing issue is that indigenous people continue to be willing to sit down and work on solutions, even with continued acts of disrespect, like Secretary Vilsack skipping out on the vitally important March 2011 phone conference. However, no future progression can happen without honoring these words. A meeting must be set, to take place in person, where face-to-face dialogue will ensue between indigenous nations and the leaders of federal entities like the USDA that have the power to create legislation that can honor the concerns, traditions, and beliefs of indigenous peoples.
The federal government’s modern culture continues to disrespect indigenous culture. People of modern culture, even those who wield power, do not have to be so oppressive and disrespectful to argue their perspective of “modernity” to those that live differently from the status quo. The only question that remains is, will the USDA and others involved accept this invitation, and will they actually come to the table with an open mind and an open heart, ready to listen and make the necessary changes all parties know must come forth in order for work on the ground to be felt by those most affected?
Brennan Lagasse is a writer and environmental consultant living in Lake Tahoe, CA. He is also the backcountry reporter for Unofficial Networks, www.unofficialnetworks.com. Brennan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.