Government promises to improve protection of sacred Native sites (Video)
Several weeks after rock carvings were stolen from California site sacred to a local tribe, four key agencies have signed an agreement to better protect and preserve sites held holy by American Indians and Native Alaskans.
The memorandum of understanding (MOU) could open the way to “collaborative stewardship” of the sites, and calls for expanded training for federal employees and the creation of a website explaining agencies’ responsibilities to protect the sites. It was signed Thursday by the departments of Agriculture, Defense, Energy and the Interior, as well as the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
On the same day, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) and the U.S. Forest Service released a report offering recommendations on preserving sacred areas, compiled with the help of a long list of Tribal leaders.
The report recommends that federal agencies communicate more with local tribes about the sites and consult with them about policies. It calls for tougher enforcement of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
It also challenges these agencies to make sacred sites located on federal lands more accessible to Native Americans.
While the report itself does not alter policies, the memorandum acknowledges its recommendations.
"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," USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said of the report and his agency's newly pledged commitment in a statement.
The move was welcomed by the Association on American Indian Affairs, a non-profit advocacy group that has fought development projects that impact native sites.
"I think the commitment by the federal government is positive, and it’s long overdue," said Executive Director Jack Trope. "I just hope there are some real teeth in these policies, because that’s what they’ve lacked in the past."
Trope added that he’d like to see the protections applied in the current dispute over the approved use of treated wastewater for recreational snowmaking at San Francisco Peaks, a mountain claimed as sacred by several tribes.
The government “can still weigh in here," he said. "I can’t let them off the hook for failing to deal with things that are ongoing.”
Thieves stole six ancient petroglyphs and damaged dozens more at the Volcanic Tablelands in California’s Eastern Sierra Nevada mountain range last month. That site is overseen by the federal Bureau of Land Management. A BLM archaeologist told ABC News the theft was “akin to someone going and cutting pieces out of the Wailing Wall.”
The Medicine Wheel in Bighorn National Forest, Wyoming, USA