Native activists resist erasure – sacred sites under attack

Often known for their oral tradition, the Native people of the United States will have many stories to tell of this time, particularly pertaining to their struggles in care taking of the planet. The years of counter revolution these past ten years have pitted a people who live in accordance to the planet, against the forces of unchecked authority eager to obtain complete control of the earth’s resources via corporations and/or government.

A most vivid example can be seen in the recent fight in Arizona to preserve and protect the San Francisco peaks. Native people had a victory March 12th in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals that reaffirmed the integrity of the peaks as a space sacred to tribes such as the Navajo and the Hopi. They hold the land as a cornerstone for origin myths and a place for renewal and reconnection to the inside worlds. As of now the Forestry Department, who was helping push for development on the peaks, hasn’t decided to appeal, leaving a moment’s respite.

The impetus of the development is itself a result of climate change and how it hampers the insanity of consumer culture. The ski seasons have been growing shorter and shorter compelling the Snow Bowl on Humphrey’s peak to scheme ways to ensure a longer tourist season. The proposal included spreading recycled water from nearby Phoenix, providing the daunting image of shit water being used to build children’s snowmen. The Forestry Department basically proceeded to help the ski resort despite the contradictions that arise from their noting that “the tribes believe that the water, soil, plants and animals from the peaks have spiritual and medicinal properties.” That’s not to imply that skiers don’t derive an at-oneness from doing their thing, but it begs the question, at what price, or rather at whose expense?

The most recent fight coming down the pipe line out west is with the idea to build a Geothermal power plant on Medicine Lake in Northeastern California. This bright idea is being pushed by the Calpine Energy Corporation who already lost their proposal in the 9th circuit court back in Nov. of 2006. They are seeking an appeal but the people opposed to it held a protest April 6th 2007 in front of the Department of Justice. Around 150 people showed up delivering the message for the DOJ to respect the 9th Circuit ruling, and are asking that they do not file the appeal. If there is a retrial and the natives lose, they will have to take their case to the supreme court.

On the surface Geothermal may seem to be a practical solution to an American populace soon to be hung up on energy crisis and climate change. Often touted as a Green Energy for it’s neutral carbon emissions, this tag line may be soon magnified in the American imagination and thus legitimize pushing it through. But simple entreaties such as curbing energy use or enforcing corporate accountability has a tendency to get buried under during times of heated public debate.

The Geothermal plant is being sold to the public as a “Green” energy source, without any of the contentiousness being revealed. They include the surrounding area being clear-cut to build toxic slump ponds, roads, pipelines, cooling towers and the tallest building in Northeastern California. The building would be fully lit and generating noise around the clock. This will disturb the present natural harmony as well as create a blemish in what native people consider to be a citadel. The Geothermal plant would have to drill 9,000 ft. into the earth extracting hot water or steam from the earth’s crust. The run-off from this process could taint the near by water supply with a variety of toxins. Most notable among them is arsenic, mercury, and hydrogen sulfide. The water supply of Medicine Lake connects to the Pitt River which flows into the Sacramento River, which then flows into the Bay of San Francisco. The hard question not being posed could be; do we have lights and computers running on while not being used, or do we have drinkable water?

Both court victories are promising but stand on unstable ground. When the 9th circuit ruled against Calpine’s proposal the Bureau of Land Management, who was helping push forward the plan, stated to the Pitt River Tribes that they would not appeal the decision. Then without notice to those tribes they filed an appeal. Native people have learned to not believe what they are told by the federal government and saw little out of character from such a maneuver. But the fact that the Forestry Department is a stake holder in both the San Francisco Peaks and Medicine Lake should caution us that the plans will not be easily put to bed. Another factor is that the laws today have little regard for the protection for Native American sacred spaces.

While considering the treatment of the first nation people one encounters the most naked discrimination. People like Native Hawaiians were forbidden to even teach their language as late as the 1970’s. The right to practice ancient ceremonies such as sweat lodges were not allowed in prisons until about ten years ago. And around that time debate raged about Native people’s right to use peyote during ceremonies, linking it to the paranoia of the drug war. All of these examples are practices a people have known for thousands of years on this continent and to continue to erase them is to continue in the practice of erasing a people. So it goes when questions of Native people’s sovereignty and acknowledgment of sacred spaces are raised the response is more than slow. Probably because the property centric culture of America can identify with protecting a church or a Starbucks, but can’t see the value of the land as it was before those entities existed.

Americans can greatly benefit from having a belief system that values nature and get off its addiction of profit for profit’s sake. While Native people are hardly asking you to give up technology and live a primitive lifestyle, you could benefit in not being so goddamn wasteful.

As the fight truly comes home and we are faced with compliance with the state sanctioned consumer rat mazes that are in effect open air prisons, or with the totality of life on earth and their various rhythms. The government may not take seriously the petitions of Native People alone, but it will be hard to avoid the demands of a broad range of the populace, in solidarity giving voice issue by issue. Unfettered development locally has threaten the Oak Grove in Berkeley and the Shell Mounds in Emeryville and Vallejo. The potential is here that we too can share in the story to the next seven generations in how we moved decisively and effectively in not spoiling our relation with the earth during this time of transition.