California Protects Sacred Native American Sites
Something pretty historic happened last week. Gov. Jerry Brown of California signed a bill into law that would amend the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) — the state’s preeminent environmental law — to increase the power of Native American tribes to protect their sacred sites.
Since its passage in 1970, CEQA has been an influential and, some would say, controversial means to protect the state’s environment. Proponents of the Act point to CEQA’s many accomplishments: conserving precious groundwater resources, protecting low-income communities from harmful air toxins, and preserving species’ habitats. But opponents, which mostly consist of developers and businesses, argue that CEQA slows development and increases unnecessary litigation. (Hurry up and pave paradise so we can put up a parking lot!)
Because opponents have deep pockets, it’s hard to get legislation passed that actually strengthens the power of CEQA. But last week’s CEQA amendment did just that. It ignored the loud voices of development and business, and actually listened to the voices of tribal conservationists.
Why Native American Consultation Is Important
The Pechanga Band of Luiseño Indians have lived in southern California’s Temecula Valley for more than 10,000 years. For them, life on earth began in the valley, Exva Temeeku, the place of the union of Sky (father) and Earth (mother) — Tuukumit’pi Tamaayowit. But in the late 19th century, the tribe was forced off their ancestral land and marched to the hills just south of the Temecula River. There they remained.
Fast forward 150 years. A construction company proposes to develop a 414-acre rock quarry operation on a mountain that looms over Interstate 15 in Riverside County on private, non-reservation land. According to documents, the pit would be one mile long and 1,000 feet deep. Quarry workers would use explosives to blast the mountain and remove the rock, which would then be used as concrete and asphalt in fast-growing northern San Diego County.
The problem: the quarry is proposed on land the Luiseño consider to be highly sacred. They call the looming mountain Pu’eska Mountain and believe that it is the site of the cremation of one of the First People, or Kaamalam, whose passing introduced death into the world. At the Riverside County Planning Commission hearing on the project, tribal chairman, Mark Macarro, said that destroying the mountain would be analogous to destroying the Christians’ Church of the Holy Sepulchre or the Dome of the Rock for Muslims.
Although the Planning Commission rejected the quarry project in 2012, the Board of Supervisors overruled their decision and not only approved the quarry under CEQA, but voted to fast-track it. To stop the project and save their creation site, the tribe was forced to spend $20 million to buy the property and end the quarry dispute. The tribe’s serious concerns about the preservation of its cultural heritage had gone unheard by the local government and there was no other legal recourse for them.
But that wasn’t the only injustice facing the Luiseño. For two decades the tribe and 18 other Native American tribes, had been fighting a proposed landfill near Gregory Mountain — a mountain they called Chokla. The tribes believe the mountain is one of the residing places of Taakwic, a powerful and feared spirit that is the guardian spirit of many Shoshonean shamans. The entire mountain, including the area within the proposed landfill boundary, is considered an important place for fasting, praying, and conducting ceremonies.
Some tribal elders even said that they saw Taakwic blazing through the sky at night looking for souls to gather. They believe that he will take revenge if the landfill is built. “Taakwic is going to come out of his resting place and wreak havoc on the world — that’s the tribal perspective,” said Shasta Gaughen, the tribal historic preservation officer. “This is a sacred place.”
Although the landfill project still needs to get federal and state permits before construction, San Diego County found that the landfill complied with CEQA. Again, the local government had ignored the voice of Native American tribes.
CEQA Amendment Will Provide More Protection for Sacred Native American Sites
Although the struggles of the Luiseño brought the issue to legislators attention, many other tribes with less resources simply have their cultural resources stolen and their voices ignored. Recently, thieves stole carvings from an unprotected sacred site on the Volcanic Tableland north of Bishop, and developers have proposed countless other projects on sacred sites.
“All too often, tribes with little to no economic means to provide themselves a voice, are left out of the conversation in the decision making process on matters that impact them the most,” said Tribal Chairperson Sherry Treppa of the Habematolel Pomo Tribe of the Upper Lake.
AB 52, which was signed into law by Gov. Brown last week, will force local governments to listen to the concerns of Native American tribes. Under the law, CEQA now requires public agencies to evaluate a project’s potential impact to a “tribal cultural resource.” If evidence demonstrates that a project may cause a significant impact to such a resource, the public agency must impose mitigation measures to reduce the impact, which include a preference for preservation in place.
“This is an important step toward aligning California’s environmental laws with the values that are often espoused about respecting tribal heritage and history, not only for this generation, but for future generations of all Californians,” said Macarro of the Luiseño. “We deeply appreciate Assemblymember Gatto for his leadership, and the legislature’s support.”
“The passage of AB 52 means that our cultural sites will be given the respect and consideration they deserve as part of the CEQA process. Allowing tribes to work cooperatively with agencies and developers to protect our cultural places benefits us all. We are grateful to Assemblyman Gatto for his hard work on behalf of all California tribes,” said Robert H. Smith of the Pala Band of Mission Indians.
“Native peoples deserve protections for sites that are part of their ancient heritage,” said Gatto. “Efforts to maintain them must be considered an essential activity in the preservation of our state’s historic resources.”
A Gift for Future Generations
In a world that is almost bereft of good news about the environment and the preservation of Native American culture, California’s decision to strengthen CEQA and require protection of tribal resources should shine as a symbol of hope. Future generations of tribal members will be able to appreciate the same sacred sites that more than 10,000 years of their ancestors appreciated. And non-tribal members — American settlers — will be able to develop a deeper appreciation of the land they now call home.
Isn’t this what good conservation is all about — preserving a gift for future generations to enjoy?
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