Commentary & Essays




Read the Federal statement here:

The San Francisco Peaks, AZ — The Federal government has a lot to prove if it is sincere in its expressed interest to protect Indigenous Peoples sacred lands. The joint Statement from the Department of Justice, the Department of the Army and the Department of the Interior recognizes that the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline (DAPL) “has highlighted the need for a serious discussion on whether there should be nationwide reform with respect to considering tribes’ views on these types of infrastructure projects.” Serious discussion has happened and reforms have been made, yet the Federal government clearly does not listen unless we put our lives in between machinery and sacred lands. Apparently that is what has to happen, but how bad does it have to get until we have ensured protection for all sacred places?

Indigenous Peoples in the US have no guaranteed protection for religious freedom when it comes to sacred sites and “public” lands.

The Federal government has demonstrated time and time again that Indigenous Peoples in the US have no guaranteed protection for religious freedom when it comes to sacred sites and “public” lands. As I write this, ski area developers are tearing up the San Francisco Peaks, a mountain in Northern Arizona “managed” by the Federal government and held holy by more than 13 Indigenous Nations, for new lifts and to further operations that include spraying millions of gallons of treated sewage to make fake snow. Bulldozers are also slated to start desecration of South Mountain in Southern Arizona, this coming Monday.

The US Government has already established (limited) policies to address sacred lands protection and consultation, in the struggle to protect Sacred Rock and the Missouri River, those policies evidently have clearly been ignored.
In 2012, five Federal agencies signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) to, “ improve the protection of and Indian access to sacred sites through interagency coordination and collaboration.”,

If the Federal government was sincerely interested in protecting sacred places it would already be upholding and consistently applying it’s own laws, but that has not been the case in sacred sites struggles such as Mount Graham, Mauna Kea, Bear Butte, Oak Flat, South Mountain, Red Butte, Medicine Lake, Mt. Taylor, the San Francisco Peaks, and many more.
That the Federal government initiated nationwide sacred sites policy review in 2011 AFTER nearly a decade of litigation and direct action to stop ski area development on the San Francisco Peaks demonstrated the lack of meaningful consultation and failure of all existing statutory frameworks.
The issue became so controversial that even the UN called for immediate revocation of the Federal permits for the ski area on the holy Peaks. Through the constant inaction it is clear that the US willfully ignores relevant UN conventions and “non-binding” declarations.
The Federal government’s joint statement expresses, “It is now incumbent on all of us to develop a path forward that serves the broadest public interest.” Yet the Obama administration has sanctioned desecration of the holy San Francisco Peaks as it “served the broadest public interest.”

We can already answer the two questions for the proposed government-to-government consultations: 1. Existing statutory frameworks are obviously the problem as we have no legal cause of action to ensure protection of sacred places. 2. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, The National Historic Preservation Act, National Environmental Policy Act, Archeological Resources Protection Act, Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Executive Order 13007, have all failed, otherwise we would not have to risk our lives defending the land from corporate bulldozers. Legislation was proposed to Congress in 1993 to address statutory failings in the form of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act but effectively died in committee. What took them so long to realize a legal cause of action was missing?

If the proposed consultations are to be meaningful (at a minimum):

  • The US Federal government must halt all threats to Indigenous Peoples’ sacred places. Immediately halt desecration of South Mountain, Oak Flat, Mauna Kea, San Francisco Peaks, and all threatened sacred places.
  • Consultation must extend beyond Tribal officials to include traditional practitioners.

The powerful resistance in Cannon Ball, ND has brought the Federal government to realize that its attitude and policies towards Indigenous Peoples’ sacred lands have once again failed. This demonstrates that direct action is a necessary and effective means towards protecting our cultural survival. This was also clearly and powerfully articulated through the direct cultural actions waged by Indigenous Hawaiians against the Thirty Meter Telescope on Mauna Kea.

Ultimately, we must come to terms that the violence of the desecration of sacred places is driven by forces of capitalism, colonialism, and white supremacy. To fully stop these pipelines we also have to stop the political machinery and systems that generate them.
These systems will continue to delegitimize, criminalize, erase, exploit, and destroy any and all Indigenous lives and lands that stand in their way. Indeed, the same cops that protect corporations while they ravage our sacred lands, are the same cops that murder black and brown people with impunity. We know all too well how the courts and statutory frameworks are stacked against our interests as Indigenous Peoples, this is why we declare “No justice on stolen land.”

The momentum generated from the powerful movement against DAPL resonates deeply and connects with all struggles to defend sacred lands, this is a force of the prayers of our ancestors for future generations. It is a force that will not be stopped.

From the base of the Holy San Francisco Peaks,
Klee Benally

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