Tribes Losing Battles To Protect Sacred Sites

CHIMNEY ROCK, Calif. - Little more than the wind can be heard these days on the two-lane highway that wends its way up the Siskiyou Mountains and dead-ends here in high country long considered sacred by Native Americans.

Three years ago, Congress designated this strip of the Six Rivers National Forest as a wilderness area that is off-limits to motorized vehicles. That stopped the diesel-chugging timber trucks that would have used the road to haul out the area's Douglas fir and cedar trees.

Still, for the 5,000 members of the Karuk, Yurok and Tolowa Indian tribes, the little-used road stands as a paved monument to what they regard as unjust limits on religious freedom in America.

Like many other places across the nation, Chimney Rock Mountain has been a sacred site for local Indian tribes since long before there was a United States or a Constitution that protects Americans' right to worship as they see fit.

The 5,727-foot mountain is one of several local holy places where tribal spiritual leaders go to pray, fast and gather spiritual power in rituals that require silence and an unobstructed view of the high country. They believe this is essential for maintaining their traditional cultures, harmony between humanity and nature and thus the well-being of the world.

At issue, Native American groups say, is the extent of the nation's commitment to First Amendment guarantees of religious freedom, America's tolerance for minority religions and its sensitivity to cultures that value land as sacred.

In the case of Chimney Rock, U.S. Forest Service officials intent on harvesting timber made plans in the 1970s for a 60-mile paved logging road between the towns of Gasquet and Orleans, within clear view of the Indian tribes' sacred site.

The tribes sued to stop the road. But the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1988 that the constitutional safeguards for religion that most Americans assume as their birthright did not protect Indian sacred sites from routine federal land management decisions. The court said the building of the road did not intentionally "burden" the religious practices of the Karuk, Yurok and Tolowa. So the Forest Service was free to complete paving the logging road, even though the justices conceded it might have "devastating effects" on the tribes' religion.

"It's just like, with the white man's religion, if we walked through their church while they were praying," said Susan Burdick, a Yurok basket weaver active in the Chimney Rock controversy. "They would never allow that."

To Native Americans, the little-known case was seen as a landmark loss in their fight for religious rights, the 20th century version of the old West's Indian wars that tribal leaders fear they again are losing across the country. Other examples:

-- In Wyoming, 70,000 tourists a year converge on the Medicine Wheel rocks sacred to the Cheyenne and Crow in the Big Horn Mountains.

-- On the rim of the Grand Canyon in Arizona, federal officials have licensed a uranium mine on Red Butte, which is considered holy by the Havasupai tribe.

-- The Forest Service wants to build a ski lift through an Indian shrine on Mount Shasta in Northern California.

-- In Paso Robles, Calif., developers want to level a small mound that is an ancient Indian burial site so motorists can see a new Wal-Mart store from the adjacent freeway.

-- And in Hawaii, native islanders are battling the operation of a geothermal plant on the slopes of the volcano Kilauea, considered home to the goddess Pele, who is believed to have created the islands.

"We are in a battle for the survival of our very way of life," said Pat Lefthand, a council member for the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes in western Montana. "We've had 500 years of attacks in this country on our way of life. The land is gone. All we've got left is our religion."

Native Americans are not the only people worried about their religious freedoms.

Mainstream Jewish, Roman Catholic and Protestant organizations are supporting a separate free-worship bill now working its way through Congress. Like the Native Americans, these groups are concerned about what they regard as restrictions on the right to worship.

Inspired by court rulings against Indian religious practices, their bill would establish a higher level of protection against government actions that might impinge on some religious practices.

Religious activists contend the legislation is needed to counter a 1990 Oregon case in which the U.S. Supreme Court refused to protect Indians' religious use of peyote, a plant that can cause hallucinations if eaten.

Indians whose faith includes use of peyote risk job dismissal or arrest in many states.

"You would think that the First Amendment would protect us, but that has never been the reality for Native American tribes," said Walter Echohawk, an attorney for the Native American Rights Fund, a legal advocacy group based in Boulder, Colo. "There are no legal protections in this country for our traditional religions."

Echohawk is assisting a coalition of Indian activists pressing for passage of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act, a measure that seeks enforceable legal protections for Indian sacred sites on federal land.

"Just because we Americans can't see their cathedral doesn't mean we shouldn't respect their practices," the bill's sponsor, Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, said at a hearing on the legislation in Albuquerque last February.

Not everyone believes the legislation is wise. Federal land managers are nervous that the law could give Indians control over vast tracts of public property in the West. And some Justice Department officials argue the law may violate the constitutional separation of church and state by forcing officials to tailor policy decisions to religious practices.

The biggest hurdle facing the Indian groups and their supporters is the legislation's attempt to protect sacred sites, the focal point of Native Americans' religious and cultural clash with modern-day American society.

Since an integral part of many Indian tribes' beliefs is that most land, if not the entire Earth, is sacred, protection of the sites is a vexing issue for federal land managers and business interests trying to maintain access to public-owned natural resources. In Chimney Rock, that was a concern for Forest Service officials who looked for an alternative route for the logging road in the 1970s, said Ken Wilson, manager of cultural resources for the U.S. Forest Service at Six Rivers National Forest.

"One anthropologist stood up there and said we should protect everything we can see," said Wilson, who was the government's main witness in the Chimney Rock court case. "Well, you can see Mount Shasta (80 miles to the east) from up there. You can see the ocean (30 miles to the west), and you can see up into Oregon (40 miles to the north). It's just not possible."

Wilson said federal officials were obligated to build the road because they had promised logging companies access to the forest as part of the negotiations leading to the act that established Redwood National Park to the west in 1967.

Recently, tribe members became concerned when they learned that a group of Forest Service managers was meeting in the woods near the mountain. Now that the agency has begun shifting its emphasis away from logging, the Indians fear it may begin promoting the area to tourists and backpackers. Julian Lang, a Karuk Indian, said that prospect would be as unwelcome as logging trucks.

Pushing through a thicket of manzanita brush in the late afternoon shadow of Chimney Rock, Lang spoke with reverence of his tribe's sacred place and of why it has fought so long to preserve it from outsiders.

"The power is focused so much here. It's so personal when someone gets their power, only they are supposed to be here," he said. "There is no precedent in (American society) for anything like sacred lands. The closest you come is a graveyard."