Feds move to protect Native American sacred sites

12.13.2012 Ron Karten Culture, Federal government, Natural resources

Two actions by the federal government on Thursday, Dec. 6, will hopefully bolster protection of Native American sacred sites.
Four federal agencies - Agriculture, Defense, Energy and Interior - signed a memorandum of agreement with the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation that calls for improving Tribal access to sacred sites that are on federal land.
"We have a special, shared responsibility to respect and foster American Indian and Alaska Native cultural and religious heritage, and today's agreement recognizes that important role," said Interior Secretary Ken Salazar in a statement.
The four federal agencies plan to work during the next five years to raise awareness about sacred sites, including development of a Web site, a training program for federal employees and guidance for managing sacred sites.
In addition, officials at the Department of Agriculture and Forest Service also announced the findings of a report on sacred sites that includes a list of recommendations for working more closely with Tribes in the protection, interpretation and access to sacred sites on public lands.
"American Indian and Alaska Native values and culture have made our nation rich in spirit and deserve to be honored and respected," said Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack in a statement. "By honoring and protecting sacred sites on national forests and grasslands, we foster improved Tribal relationships and a better understanding of Native people's deep reverence for natural resources and contributions to society."
The report recommends:
• Conferring with traditional practitioners and communities with knowledge and interests in sacred sites and protection;
• Updating agency policy to ensure consultation on sacred sites is conducted pursuant to existing law;
• Developing a joint  Tribal-agency partnership guide;
• Providing Tribes consistent advance notice of nationwide consultation opportunities;
• Using provisions of the agency's new planning rule to ensure protection of sacred sites is considered in forest and grassland management;
• And promoting cooperative law enforcement agreements with Tribal police and conservation departments to enforce cultural laws, such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
The Forest Service manages 193 million acres of public lands.
"I am worried about federal officials defining sacred," said Tribal Cultural Protection Coordinator Eirik Thorsgard. "I have commented on these proposals and other similar ones. We are always seeking ways to ensure that traditional ceremonial practices are continued and that people who need access to sites can have that in a respectful way that allows them to conduct their ceremonies."

Includes material from The Associated Press.