Sacred Land News & Reports From the Field
As we finally close in on completion of our four-film Standing on Sacred Ground series, I find myself asking: Why didn’t I realize that finishing four films is at least four times harder than finishing one film? This is HARD!
I’m back in the editing room in Berkeley after traveling to Toronto to record Graham Greene’s final narration for Episodes Three and Four. Graham has a great voice and he is really into our stories. While I will miss Peter Coyote, we agreed that our eight indigenous rights struggles would be better told — or more appropriately told — by an indigenous insider. Graham is Oneida from Canada, and he really gets it.
Our D.C. sneak preview screenings in March were a great success. On Saturday night we packed a small theater for Episode One, Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven, on the Altai of Russia and Winnemem Wintu of northern California. On Sunday afternoon, for Profit and Loss, on Papua New Guinea and the tar sands of Canada, we had a great crowd in the massive Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium. In the intense Q&A discussion that followed the screening I realized how desperate people are for solutions, as many demanded an answer to the same question: “What are we going to do about the fact that corporations control governments?” I’m working on that answer!
The world premiere of the series will be June 22 in the Karakol Valley in the Altai Republic of Russia, in southern Siberia, where shamans will gather for a summer solstice fire ceremony. My family is coming along and accompanying northern California Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk, who has received a grant to travel with us for a cultural exchange to participate in four screenings of the Altai/Winnemem segment.
After returning from Altai, we should be done with all four films in July and we have started planning a series of premiere events in September and October, so stay tuned and please plan to join us for our rolling out party, where we will give birth to Standing on Sacred Ground!
President Obama has sent a clear message to the environmental community: ‘I need to hear from you loud and clear and often.’ The economic and political pressure on the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is enormous. Recent rallies in Washington, D.C. were a great start, but a sustained outcry is imperative if Obama is going to make the courageous decision to deny the permit for the $7 billion pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil to Texas refineries, mostly for export.
In the second hour of our new Standing on Sacred Ground series, Profit and Loss, we devote a half hour to the cultural and environmental impacts of oil sands extraction in Alberta. The debate about the Keystone XL pipeline has understandably focused on inflated job projections, the likelihood of spills, threats to the Ogallala Aquifer, destruction of farmland and release of greenhouse gases. However, the best argument against the pipeline is the moral argument: tar sands is causing cancer death in native communities and fish deformities through massive contamination of water and air in territory protected by treaty with numerous First Nations of Canada. This is unethical oil as well as dirty oil.
The United States is already importing 1.3 million barrels of tar sands oil every day and refining that for your car. Killing Keystone XL will not stop the tar sands, though it may slow industry plans to triple production by 2025. Another controversial proposed pipeline, the Enbridge Northern Gateway, would carry the same corrosive crude oil to Canada’s British Columbia coast for export to China. First Nations are fighting that pipeline with equal vigor as the Keystone XL. This is a big, complex fight, and it will need to be sustained.
You can weigh in on the State Department Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. Comments are due by midnight on April 22. Also, please send a copy of your comments to President Obama. If he does not hear a loud, steady cry of opposition, he will not have the political backing to deny the permit for Keystone XL. This is your chance to make a difference!
Please send your comments to email@example.com.
For more information on the U.S. government position: U.S. State Department’s Keystone XL page.
Click on the links below for more information:
After joining a 500-year-long struggle, inspired every step of the way by the deep commitment of so many determined allies, it’s nice to watch the wheel of history turn — ever so slowly.
For the last 15 years, the Sacred Land Film Project has worked to improve U.S. government recognition and protection of Native American sacred places. In December 2012, this long-term struggle moved a giant step forward, when four Cabinet secretaries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on improving sacred site policies over the next five years. The Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture and Energy agreed to consult with tribes, create training programs for federal employees, launch a new website and establish management practices regarding sacred sites on federal land.
In a statement, Tom Vilsack, who directs the U.S. Forest Service, said: “The President is insistent that these sacred sites be protected and preserved: treated with dignity and respect. That is also my commitment as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I know my fellow Secretaries share in this commitment. We understand the importance of these sites and will do our best to make sure they are protected and respected.”
In March 2002, with the Pentagon still damaged from the 9-11 jetliner crash, I made my way inside the damaged fortress with Hopi elder Vernon Masayesva and Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk, to screen In the Light of Reverence for Defense Department officials. We had learned that military bases around the U.S. contain dozens of Native American sacred sites, and native people who were working inside the Pentagon wanted to educate the top brass about a little discussed subject. Uniformed officers were scurrying around the halls with huge briefing notebooks as they continued bombing Afghanistan, and we showed the film to a good-sized audience, with lots of interesting questions. On the walls of the room there were military aircraft of every vintage painted in living color…sacred sites in the crosshairs.
To see Leon Panetta’s signature on this document is amazing. Check it out.
We were shocked to learn that SLFP colleague Rogelio Mejia narrowly escaped death three months ago. Mejia, a leader of the northern Colombian Arhuaco tribe, survived an attack that riddled his car with 40 bullets. Such an act of violence committed against the Arhuaco people is not uncommon. Colombian guerilla groups — and the government itself — perpetuate murder and continue to deny justice to the Arhuaco.
The Arhuaco are the indigenous inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern Colombia, comprising a peaceful, agrarian community. They believe in sustaining their sacred land and consider themselves the protectors of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a place they believe to be the heart of the world. Yet they find themselves in the middle of a massive civil war that rages between leftist guerilla armies, paramilitaries and the Colombian government that has the Arhuaco fighting for survival.
The attempted assassination occurred on November 12, and had no clear motive. Mejia, who sustained three bullet wounds, was only slightly injured. He escaped by the time gunmen interrogated the two other people in the car, who also escaped without injury before police arrived. The crime will likely go unpunished and without a thorough investigation, if past response by the Colombian government to similar violent crimes against the Arhuaco is any indication.
The Colombian government turns a blind eye toward the killing of the Arhuaco people and has participated in such murder through the use of right wing paramilitaries. Twenty-two years ago, three Arhuaco leaders were traveling to the Colombian capital when they were kidnapped, brutally tortured, and later murdered by members of the Colombian army.
When Dilla Torres, widow of Angel Maria Torres, one of the three Arhuaco leaders assassinated in 1991, found her husband dead ten days after the kidnapping, his hair was torn out and his fingers cut off. No one has been punished despite government acknowledgment that members of the army had in fact committed the murders. Such crimes continue to go unpunished, such as the rape and murder of a 13 year-old Arhuaco girl last year. An investigation has yet to be conducted.
Left wing guerilla militias, the sworn enemies of the Colombian government, also pose a threat to the future of the Arhuaco community. In 2004, Arhuaco spiritual leader Mariano Suarez Chaparro was murdered by the Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia (FARC), a renegade guerilla force. Chaparro was the 20th Arhuaco killed between 2000 and 2004. Since then, countless Arhuaco lives have been cut short in the civil war between armed forces and the government. Many members of the Arhuaco community have also been forcibly recruited into guerilla armies such as FARC in their fight against the government.
Rogelio Mejia was not the first, and likely will not be the last, affected by the viciousness of the Colombian government toward its indigenous peoples. The attempted assassination of Mejia is not an anomaly, but one of many documented cases of violence against the Arhuaco.
Thanks to Survival International for their original reporting on this story.
The Sacred Land Film Project is pleased to announce advance screenings of the first two documentary films of the Standing on Sacred Ground series. Please join us for sneak previews in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24 at the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.
On opposite sides of the globe, a northern California tribe and indigenous shamans in the Russian Republic of Altai confront massive government projects—and find common ground. Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven will screen at the Letelier Theater, 3251 Prospect St. in Georgetown on Saturday, March 23 at 7:00 PM.
In Profit and Loss, indigenous communities fight mining and confront viewers with the ethical consequences of consumerism. Villagers in Papua New Guinea resist forced relocation and battle a nickel mine dumping waste into the sea. In Canada, First Nations people are divided by a tar sands industry that provides economic growth but is destroying traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Profit and Loss will screen at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium at the intersection of 10th Street and Constitution Ave. on Sunday, March 24 at 3:30 PM.
Smithsonian Anthropologists Joshua Bell and Gwyneira Isaac will lead a panel discussion after the screening. Producer/Director Christopher (Toby) McLeod, who circled the globe for five years filming the four-part series, will be on hand to take questions at both screenings. Co-producer Jennifer Huang and editor Marta Wohl will attend the Sunday screening of Profit and Loss.
The Standing on Sacred Ground series is narrated by Graham Greene (Oneida), with storytellers Tantoo Cardinal (Métis) and Q’orianka Kilcher.
Please Note: Saturday night’s screening of Pilgrims and Tourists is in a small theater, and online reservations are highly recommended. For reservations visit the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital website.
Partial funding for Standing on Sacred Ground was provided by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Pacific Islanders in Communication and Vision Maker Media.
Thank you to everyone who contributed to our year-end funding appeal! Thanks to YOU we reached our $25,000 matching donation goal! We appreciate your continued support of Standing on Sacred Ground. Your contribution enables us to continue with the post-production of our four-part documentary series on sacred places in the United States and around the world. With your help we are now making the final push to completion. We have finished the fine cuts of our first two hours and are busy with final editing of the other two hours: music composition, maps and graphics, archival footage licensing, color correction and sound mix. I’m happy to report that the native Canadian actor Graham Greene (Oneida) is narrating the series, and he sounds great!
Last September, I had the privilege of joining three of the sacred site guardians featured in our film-series – Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu, Emmett Aluli of Hawai‘i and Danil Mamyev of the Altai Republic of Russia – in Jeju, South Korea at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress. We screened edited segments from Standing on Sacred Ground and Caleen, Emmett and Danil spoke to a large international audience. The importance of the alliances formed during production of our film series is becoming clearer to me as we plan our distribution campaign. Our indigenous partners are enthusiastically looking forward to putting the new films to work.
As we move forward in this final phase, you can keep up with the latest sacred site news and the progress of our work on Standing on Sacred Ground by visiting our website to watch video clips, read our blog and explore our tool kit to learn how you can take action to help protect sacred places and their indigenous guardians.
Thank you again for your contribution. I am glad to be able to count on you as a valued member of our community of supporters from all over the world.
— Toby McLeod
Month after month in early 2012, the Winnemem Wintu organized protests, online petitions and letter-writing campaigns demanding the closure of a small stretch of the McCloud River in northern California. They were requesting the river closure from the U.S. Forest Service so the tribe could hold a coming-of-age ceremony for the young woman who will be the next leader of the tribe. Their past puberty ceremonies had been disrupted by loud motor boats, drunken revelers, racial epithets and women baring their breasts as the Winnemem tried to use their traditional dance grounds and river. Finally, after a meeting with Regional Forester Randy Moore just a few days before the ceremony was scheduled to start, the tribe was granted the permits necessary to conduct the ceremony in an atmosphere of safety and respect. Despite this effort, the Winnemem were still subject to threats and harassment by outsiders, including the Forest Service law enforcement agents who were present to enforce the river closure.
At the end of a four-day ceremony, which was held during the full moon in July, Chief Caleen Sisk was issued two federal citations — each bearing a $5,000 fine. She was charged with violating the very river closure that the Winnemem had requested. During previous puberty ceremonies, the Winnemem used a motorboat to ferry elders back and forth across the river to visit the young initiate in her camp on the far side of the river. This use has been observed in the past by the Forest Service and was clearly disclosed in permit negotiations this year. Nonetheless, after the ceremony was completed, and a few minutes after Chief Sisk’s attorney left the camp the morning after the final dance, law enforcement agents swept into camp in SUVs to serve Chief Sisk with the two tickets.
In a classic Catch-22, the Forest Service law enforcement officers claimed the tribe’s own boat was a violation of the river closure. Though the need for the boat had been clearly communicated to the Forest Service, the law enforcement officers who issued the tickets said they had no knowledge of this.
A federal court date was set for October 16 in Redding, although the feds refused to tell the Winnemem exactly what the two citations were for. The Winnemem Chief planned to plead not guilty to violating the law and spent considerable time finding a defense attorney. But on the afternoon of October 15, as Chief Sisk was preparing to appear in court, the federal attorney in Sacramento decided to dismiss the citations, with no further explanation. The Winnemem are now asking for a formal apology from the Forest Service, along with acknowledgment of the disruption that the citations and harassment caused to the ceremony, and the harm done to the relationship between the tribe and the Forest Service.
We are just a few months away from completing all four hours of our Standing on Sacred Ground series. It will provide a powerful tool to indigenous allies fighting to protect sacred places around the world. (Watch the trailer here.) Your tax-deductible donation will help us finish the series and give you the satisfaction of joining a time-tested team with a solid track record of effective education and advocacy that results in cultural and environmental preservation.
At the Sacred Land Film Project, we believe the values, worldviews and sacred places of indigenous peoples hold the key to restoring our damaged relationship with nature. Our greatest hope is that our work will help ensure a vibrant future for generations to come and for the ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures. But we cannot accomplish these important goals without your help now.
To help us finish the film series, one of our donors has offered a challenge grant to match all donations up to $25,000, so your gift will be doubled!
Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. We are confident you will feel proud to contribute to the significant impact these films will have on our world – and are already having on the world.
Thank you very much for your interest and support!
On September 12, delegates attending the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea, voted overwhelmingly to approve a motion aimed at strengthening protection for sacred places. The congress is convened every four years by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and represents governments, NGOs and environmentalists focusing on global issues. Ten thousand people attended this year’s congress.
The motion, “Sacred Natural Sites – Support for Custodian Protocols and Customary Laws in the Face of Global Threats and Challenges,” was drafted by SLFP’s Christopher McLeod, along with Rob Wild and Bas Verschuuren of the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative, Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation and Gleb Raygorodetsky of the United Nations University, who all went to the congress to continue developing a global network of indigenous sacred site guardians and allies.
The motion is the second one on sacred natural sites and follows a similar motion — “Recognition and Conservation of Sacred Natural Sites in Protected Areas” — approved at the last World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008. These two motions grew out of McLeod and Wild’s work producing the IUCN Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines, “Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers,” which were launched in Barcelona.
“Protected areas,” such as national parks, comprise more than 10 percent of the earth’s surface. Many of these areas contain places held sacred by indigenous people who may be denied access and who may have no role in taking care of these important places. Meanwhile, threats from development, tourism and mining are everywhere on the rise.
After the IUCN guidelines came out in 2008, Hosken took a copy to the Venda community in South Africa to see if the guidelines could be useful protecting the sacred Phiphidi Waterfall (more information at Gaia Foundation website), which was threatened by tourism development. The Venda community welcomed the guidelines and the motion, but more importantly they responded by articulating their own community governance laws for Venda sacred sites. The Venda, along with traditional custodians from three other African nations, then drafted a “Statement on Common African Customary Laws for the Protection of Sacred Natural Sites,” which the Gaia Foundation published, and it is valuable reading for indigenous communities working to protect sacred sites.
This year, recognizing that indigenous custodians the world over have their own protocols and guidelines for taking care of sacred places, the authors of the motion wanted to try to gain formal IUCN recognition of such indigenous customary laws, protocols and governance systems that have long protected sacred sites and territories around the world. This year’s motion was approved by 100 percent of NGOs and 97 percent of the governments who voted.
SLFP would like to thank those who sponsored the motion and everyone who voted for it, including our sponsor, Fundacion Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia), and co-sponsors, Fundación Urundei (Argentina), Center for Humans and Nature (USA), Applied Environmental Research Foundation (India), Fundación para el Desarrollo de Alternativas Comunitarias de Conservación del Trópico (Ecuador), Terralingua (Canada), The Christensen Fund (USA), Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (South Africa) and The Wilderness Foundation (South Africa).
As the sun set on the annual Taos Pueblo Powwow in Taos, N.M., on July 14, representatives of the Taos Land Trust, surrounded by dancers and tribal members from across the country, officially returned a sacred hot springs property to the Taos Pueblo Tribe.
The Ponce de León Hot Springs, just south of Taos, is a sacred site to the Taos Pueblo and has been used by tribal members for ceremonial activities since time immemorial. For more than a century, however, the 44-acre property had been in the hands of private landowners.
According to a press release, Taos Land Trust, a local land conservation organization, received funding in 1997 to acquire the property from private landowners, to protect it from commercial development. After a 15-year search for the best entity to preserve the land and its natural and cultural resources, the organization has now transferred legal ownership to the Taos Pueblo, returning the site to its original indigenous owners.
“This is kind of relationship between a conservation organization and a tribe is a rare thing, but we think a very important precedent,” former Taos Land Trust Executive Director Ernie Atencio said. “Giving this property back to its original indigenous owners was a victory for conservation, for community relations and for justice.”
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez attended the ceremony, where Taos Pueblo Governor Laureano Romero, Warchief Benito Sandoval and Taos Land Trust President Christopher Smith signed the land-transfer documents.
“Blue Lake, the Rio Grande, Red Clay, the Hot Springs … these areas are critical to our well being, without them we would not exist,” Sandoval said. “It is important to preserve these areas for the future of our children and all who live here. We are very grateful!”
A conservation easement signed by the land trust in 2009 permanently protects the property, limiting any future development, no matter who owns it. Under the terms of the easement, the property must remain accessible to all the people of the Taos community, who have been enjoying its waters for generations.
While acknowledging the challenge of balancing land preservation with public access, Atencio said the Taos Pueblo were committed to providing that access and would continue to do so through a free permit system.
A standing-room only crowd of indigenous leaders, NGOs and U.N. representatives previewed Sacred Land Film Project’s forthcoming film series Standing on Sacred Ground at a side event of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on May 9. It was the first of two successful May screenings of the four-part series, which explores the interconnection of indigenous communities, sacred-site protection and environmental justice.
The event showcased a segment on the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Northern California, whose ancestral sacred site on the McCloud River, known as Puberty Rock, is at risk of being submerged forever if the U.S. government raises the height of nearby Shasta Dam. The Winnemem are also fighting to preserve the sanctity of their annual puberty ceremony from the often disrespectful public who gather at Lake Shasta, a popular site for tourists.
Immediately after the segment was shown, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk spoke on the historical plight of her tribe and provided an update on plans for this year’s puberty ceremony. Sisk reminded the audience that the effort to save sacred places “is not an individual struggle — it’s our struggle overall.”
The U.N. event also featured a segment about the efforts of the Telengit of Russia’s Altai Republic to create nature parks to protect sacred sites and to stop a planned gas pipeline across their sacred Ukok Plateau, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Afterwards, Suzanne Benally of Cultural Survival updated the audience on their global campaign to stop the pipeline. A lively dialog between the audience and the participants continued on well after the presentations.
On May 15-16, SLFP had the opportunity to participate in the annual conference and film festival of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, whose theme this year was “Towards a Better World: Strengthening Indigenous Sustainability.” In a dedicated screening room, SLFP previewed the first two episodes of Standing on Sacred Ground over the course of two evenings.
The first night featured episode two, “Profit and Loss,” which focuses on threats to indigenous sacred lands in Papua New Guinea and Alberta, Canada. In Papua New Guinea, construction of the Ramu NiCo nickel mine has led to the forced relocation of a village and destroyed a cemetery; the mine threatens to pollute the life-giving Ramu River and will soon begin dumping mine waste into the sea. In the Athabasca River Delta of Alberta, the Dene, Cree and Métis people are on the front lines of a corporate onslaught caused by tar sands extraction, which is polluting their land, river, air and sacred sites, coinciding with a surge in deformed fish and cancer rates.
On the second night, audiences previewed episode one, “Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven,” which featured the above-mentioned stories of the Telengit of the Russian Altai Republic and the Winnemem Wintu of California.
On both nights, Standing on Sacred Ground Producer/Director Toby McLeod and Managing Producer Jennifer Huang were on hand to discuss the films and answer questions.
As bulldozers began clearing the site of a new wind-energy facility in the desert of western Imperial County, California — ripping up forests of ocotillo cacti, damaging sensitive wildlife habitat and threatening ancestral graves of the Quechan Tribe — tribal members and their allies stood outside the La Jolla corporate offices of Pattern Energy on May 15, demanding a halt to the project.
“How would you feel if the President proposed a wind project on top of your ancestors’ graves, or on top of the Arlington National cemetery?” Keeny Escalanti, president of the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, asked at the La Joya press conference, where the tribe formally announced it was going to court to save its sacred land.
On May 11, the U.S. Department of Interior gave final approval to Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, granting it a 30-year right-of-way to build and operate the project over nearly 15 square miles. It would be California’s largest wind farm on public land, placing 112 giant turbines alongside the desert community of Ocotillo, at the far southern end of the Imperial Valley.
But the Quechan and other area tribes, including the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, say the area — which contains at least a dozen cremation sites, hundreds of archeological sites like petroglyphs and geoglyphs, and countless sites of spiritual significance — meets the criteria to be designated and protected as a traditional cultural property under the National Historic Preservation Act. The desert region is also home sensitive plant and animal species, including the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.
The Quechan Tribe filed a complaint in federal court on May 14, seeking an injunction to stop the project, one of 19 renewable energy projects designated last year by the Bureau of Land Management for “fast-track” approval. The complaint alleges that the Department of Interior, in approving the project, violated several federal laws and regulations, including the National Historic Preservation Act and the land’s designation as a Class L “limited use” area, which is intended to “protect sensitive, natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resource values.”
Prior to project approval, according to a press release issued by the tribe, “motorized vehicles could only travel on designated roads and it was forbidden to move rocks around. With the stroke of a pen, the area can now be bulldozed to dig foundations 25 to 35 feet deep and 70 to 80 feet in diameter to accommodate 112 wind turbines over 440 feet tall as well as 42 miles of new roads.”
The complaint also claims the Quechan Tribe’s efforts to participate in the permitting process were “impaired by Interior’s failure to exchange and share information with the Tribe, and Interior’s failure to consider or incorporate the Tribe’s comments and concerns in the planning process.”
In contrast, the Department of Interior, in its record of decision on the project, said it “sought meaningful consultation with the affected tribes,” and that, in response to tribal concerns, the final project eliminated 43 of the 155 turbines initially proposed, reduced the project area by 2,285 acres, and increased the distance of the turbines from “a number of important resources.” Still, the department acknowledged that the project would “still have an unmitigated adverse effect on resources that are spiritually and culturally significant to the affected tribes.”
For its part, Pattern Energy says it is “committed to building the project in a responsible manner” and that the project’s environmental impact statement “clearly demonstrates that we have designed the Ocotillo Wind Project to minimize impacts on cultural and environmental resources.”
But at the press conference, Escalanti said the final environmental impact statement “does not begin to state the significance this area has for our people, does not contain the voices of indian people.” He continued, “If our concerns were taken seriously, then the administration, which promised a better government-to-government consultation and a better relationship with tribal governments, wouldn’t even think about placing a wind turbine near our cremation sites.”
Escalanti noted that the Quechan tribal council is not opposed to renewable energy. “We believe that the fundamental values underlying renewable energy, such as a harmonious relationship with the earth, are in agreement with our own traditional values.” However, he said the tribe was opposed to the Ocotillo project because it is “unnecessarily leading to the destruction of our cultural resources and heritage.”
Some environmental conservationists and local residents are also opposed to the project. Concerns include threats to plant and animal species and habitats, most notably the authorized “take” (i.e., displacement and even death) of 10 endangered bighorn sheep — five ewes and five lambs — within the project area. There is also the question of the project’s potential benefits: although the Ocotillo Wind Energy project website says the wind farm will be able to power 125,000 homes, the Interior Department’s record of decision sets that number at 25,000.
On May 18, a federal judge heard a motion to consider issuing a temporary injunction to halt construction. That decision is forthcoming. Meanwhile, a train loaded with what appeared to be segments of wind turbines arrived in Imperial Valley on May 20.
Each summer, the Winnemem Wintu, whose home is the McCloud River watershed in northern California, hold a four-day coming-of-age ceremony on the river for the tribe’s young women. But this sacred ritual has, in recent years, been threatened by the presence of outsiders drinking alcohol and shouting threats and racial slurs as they travel on the river.
Since 2005, the Winnemem have repeatedly asked the U.S. Forest Service to close a 300-yard stretch of the river to boating and general access, in order to protect the sanctity of the ceremony as well as the safety of the young initiates as they swim across the river. Instead, the Forest Service instituted a “voluntary closure,” which has only served to make the tribe a target of harassment.
Despite having documented previous disruptions of their ceremony, the Winnemem’s requests for a mandatory closure have been met with a lack of response or an ineffective effort to protect their traditions, which the U.S. government is mandated to do under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The tribe’s request is also consistent with Forest Service obligations to protect religious practice under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The ceremony is also protected under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which President Obama has signed.
This year’s ceremony, to take place June 30 to July 3, holds special importance because it’s being held for the young woman who is training to become the next tribal leader. It will be essential to maintain the security and sanctity of the ceremony, and to protect her from undue trauma — which can only be achieved by closing this small stretch of river for four days.
On April 16, Winnemem leader Caleen Sisk and other tribal leaders met with U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore at his Vallejo office to present their request for a mandatory closure; outside the building tribal members held a protest with signs reading “Respect Native Women. Close the River” and “Our Ceremony, Our Rights, Close the River.” Moore promised to review the request and respond by May 1.
To learn more about the Winnemem struggle to close the river and their meeting with Moore, watch this video on the Winnemem Wintu website.
What you can do
- Please contact Regional Forester Randy More at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 707-562-8737, and respectfully urge him to close the McCloud River to general recreational use along the 300-yard stretch where the Winnemem puberty ceremony will take place from June 30 to July 3. Click here for a sample letter.
- If you represent a tribe and want to support the Winnemem, please print, sign and mail this tribal resolution in support of a river closure.
- Learn more, and sign an online petition, at SaveOurCeremony.com.
For more than 12,000 years, native people inhabited several villages clustered around the roar of Wyam of N’ch-iwana — Celilo Falls on the Columbia River — the center of a vast salmon-based fishing and trading economy and the nucleus of many sacred sites, petroglyphs and burial grounds.
Celilo Falls was a natural wonder, by volume the largest waterfall in North America and the sixth largest in the world, and it was here that the Creator supplied the tribes with countless millions of salmon and other sustenance.
It was unthinkable that any of this would ever be lost. But in 1957, a dam was built downriver at The Dalles, Oregon, and Celilo Falls was flooded to facilitate barge traffic past the rapids and in an attempt to force the Wyam people to abandon their sacred sites and homes, as had been the fate of every other Indian village along the length of the Columbia.
So strong were the tribes’ connections to Celilo, however, that despite the many depredations they suffered, the Wyam people remained at Celilo Village, and have persevered as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. They await the return of Celilo Falls. Read more…
Nearly two years after the Dongria Kondh tribe in the Indian state of Orissa won a historic victory to halt an open-pit bauxite mining project on its sacred lands, both tribe and land are facing renewed threats.
In the lead-up to an important annual festival held atop their holy Niyamgiri Hills this past weekend, the 8,000-member tribe experienced a crack-down by state security forces. The NGO Survival International said it received reports of arrests and beatings, and that in the past week alone, police had shut down six meetings where food supplies were being organized for the festival.
Giridhari Patra from the Niyamgiri Protection Committee said, “Intimidating and threatening the Dongria before one of their most important festivals is unforgivable. The mountain is the seat of their god and the basis of their identity. We will never give it up to [the mining company].”
In August 2010, India’s environment minister, citing violations of environmental and human rights laws, denied permission for state-owned Orissa Mining Corporation and a subsidiary of UK-based Vedanta Resources to build a bauxite mine in the Niyamgiri Hill range. The company had set up an alumina refinery in Orissa in 2008 with the expectation that it would be allowed to annually extract three million metric tons of bauxite, the raw material for aluminum.
The Dongria Kondh consider the remote hills — home to their god, Niyam Raja — sacred, and they also depend on the hills for their water, food and livelihood. For the past 10 years they have been fighting to protect their land and way of life.
Now, their way of life is once again in danger. Orissa Mining filed a petition last year challenging the environment minister’s decision, and Survival International says the case is expected to go before the Indian Supreme Court on April 9.
Visit the Survival International website to learn more about the Dongria Kondh and what you can do to help.
- Turning the Corner, Finish Line Ahead
- President Obama Needs to Hear from You!
- U.S. Government Acts to Protect Sacred Sites
- Colombian Leader Rogelio Mejia Survives Assassination Attempt
- Sneak Previews in Washington D.C. on March 23-24
- Thank You! We Met Our Goal of a $25,000 Matching Donation!
- Feds Drop Charges Against Winnemem
- Emily: To Rushe: I have been wondering the same thing. Back in 2011, does anyone have information about what happened...
- TOM: Fantastic submit, very informative. I’m wondering why the opposite experts of this sector do not notice...
- Michael: I really like it when folks come together and share opinions. Great blog, stick with it!
- Helena: Greetings, I was born in Colombia but at the age of 6 years old I was adopted and raised in the U.S. However,...
- Rushe Hudson: Has a petition to the White House been set up on the White House petition site?