Native Americans’ decades-long struggle for control of sacred lands progresses

Who should manage sacred public lands for Native Americans?

This is the question that the United States government and some states hope recent policy changes will answer by giving Indigenous peoples greater participation in the management of these lands. Co-management, as this policy is called, could reduces friction that emerges when sacred landscapes are managed without Native American input.

Mauna Kea, a 13,802-foot dormant volcano on the island of Hawaii, is one example. The mountain is managed as public land by the State of Hawaii. Native Hawaiians protested the state’s stewardship of Mauna Kea for decades, claiming Hawaii has allowed too many research buildings on their sacred mountain, disrupting their ability to practice their religion.

This type of conflict is not unique to Hawaii. Indigenous peoples have lived in what is now the United States for thousands of years and developed intimate relationships with the lands they inhabit. For years, Indigenous people across the country have demanded more input into how the government manages areas they consider sacred.

Now the government can finally listen.

“We love it”

Like a Native American scholar religion and the environment, I am interested in indigenous peoples relation to the natural world and their struggle to protect their sacred landscapes.

Native Hawaiians believe that Mauna Kea is the first creation from Mother Earth, Papahānaumoku, and Father Sky, Wākea. The mountain is an important part of their origin story.

For astronomers, the mountain has another meaning. They believe the summit of Mauna Kea has the clearest skies for conducting research. For the past 50 years, the State of Hawaii has leased the mountaintop to dozens of research institutions. Together they built 13 telescopes and numerous buildings on Mauna Kea.

The Subaru, Keck I and Keck II telescopes at the Mauna Kea observatories.
Julie Thurston Photography/Contributor via Getty Images

For years, Native Hawaiian leaders have argued that the state is ignoring their concerns about such construction. When Mauna Kea was selected in 2009 as the preferred site for the Thirty Meter Telescope, a new class of extremely large telescopes, Native Hawaiians protested to stop the project.

Native Hawaiians, like those of other native religious traditions, believe that sacred places should be left alone without roads or buildings because they are the abodes of the divine.

“We love the iwis of our kupuna there [bones of our elders] are buried there, Mililani TraskHawaii Island Administrator for the Office of Hawaiian Affairs, said during a public meeting regarding a Mauna Kea environmental impact statement with the National Science Foundation on Aug. 9, 2022. “No,” said she continued, “you will not build here.”

The State of Hawaii hopes to resolve this ongoing dispute with the creation of a new committee of eight people which includes three native Hawaiian chiefs to manage Mauna Kea.

“I believe we can find a way for science and culture to coexist on Mauna Kea in a mutually beneficial way,” Hawaiian said. Governor David Ige said on September 12, 2022, when he announced the new commission.

What makes the land sacred?

Native American religions, like other religions, consider areas sacred because they are the abodes of gods or places sanctified by a god. sacred places can be physically small or large areas, they can be built or natural areas, such as churches and shrines, or mountains and rivers.

Religious studies scholars such as Tisa Wenger argued that Religious Freedom for Native Americans was difficult because “the U.S. government has often acted as if Indian traditions are somehow not truly religious and therefore cannot benefit from the constitutional protections of the First Amendment”.

Two men are standing with signs saying
People are calling for the protection of Indigenous sacred spaces to commemorate the delivery of a totem pole carved by the Lummi Nation as a gift to President Joe Biden on July 29, 2021 in Washington, DC
Jemal Countess/Getty Images for the Alliance of Indigenous Organizers

In a dispute In the 1980’s, the US Forest Service wanted to build a road through a sacred mountain in Northern California. A consortium of tribes fought back and the case ended in the Supreme Court; the tribes lost.

Following this decision, in 1996, President Bill Clinton created a definition of the sacred land of Native Americans as a “specific, discrete, and tightly bounded place on federal lands”.

This language intentionally excludes large areas such as mountains or open landscapes in favor of smaller sites. This does not fully represent the variety of places that Indigenous peoples consider sacredscholars of religious studies say, leading to inevitable clashes over the meaning and uses of these lands.

Co-management is a small step

On September 13, 2022, Home Secretary Deb Haaland released new federal guidelines help resolve these long-standing conflicts.

The new policy, which focuses on publicly managed areas that Native Americans consider sacred or culturally significant, will allow certain tribes to share management responsibilities with federal agencies.

“By recognizing and empowering tribes as partners in the co-stewardship of our nation’s lands and waters, every American will benefit from strengthened stewardship of our federal lands and resources,” Haaland said.

In a related effort, Congress held September 14 hearings on two new invoices to solve this same problem. If passed, their supporters hope they will facilitate the inclusion of “tribal management of public lands” and strengthen the “protection of sacred and cultural sites”.

Such changes are “a small step, but a significant step, in giving tribal nations the respect and authority they deserve,” Rep. Raul M. Grijalvaa Democrat from Arizona.

But, he added of the federal government’s new desire to share land management with the tribes, “No act can undo or fully compensate for the historic neglect and desecration of this country to the culture and places of the native peoples sacred to them”.

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