Chimney Rock, CA

The Fight for Chimney Rock

In 1982 the United States Forest Service finalized its proposal to construct a paved road through the Chimney Rock area of the Six Rivers National Forest in California.  The six-mile road is part of a 75-mile highway project that links the towns of Gasquet and Orleans.  In the following years the Forest Service also made plans to allow timber harvesting in the vicinity.  However, the Chimney Rock area is sacred land to the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians of Northern California.  The Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa use the land for ceremonies as well as to pray and assert that damaging said land with construction, traffic, and logging will gravely damage their ability to exercise their religion.  The Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa’s case, Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association, made it all the way to the United States Supreme Court before it was decided that the Constitution’s First Amendment did not permit the government to make special allowances for American Indian religious practices, meaning that the Forest Service was free to build the road and commence with the logging.  The decision for this case is indicative of the general ignorance of both the United States’ legal system and citizens in regards to the nature of Indigenous religious beliefs and practices.

The Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa peoples have historically come to Chimney Rock for rituals, ceremonies, and prayer.  Even when tribes were forced to live in the Hoopa Valley Indian Reservation, which is attached to the Six Rivers National Forest, members of said tribes continued to come to the area to conduct their religious practices.  In 1979 the Forest Service commissioned a study of American Indian cultural and religious sites in the area, including Chimney Rock.  The study found that the entire area, “is significant as an integral and indispensible part of Indian religious conceptualization and practice.”  The study goes on to explain that, “successful use of the [area] is dependent upon and facilitated by certain qualities of the physical environment, the most important of which are privacy, silence, and an undisturbed natural setting” (McCarthy).

The study’s findings are consistent with characteristics of indigenous religions, namely the vital importance of land.  Whereas most religious people in the United States go to a church or temple to pray, American Indians see the tranquility, beauty, and mystery of nature as sacred, and so they venture to sacred lands for prayer and ceremony (Epstein).  Destroying the Chimney Rock area with construction and logging would be analogous to demolishing a Christian church with a wrecking ball.  The only difference in the two situations is that the Christian church can easily be rebuilt in a year.  During construction parishioners would even be able to attend the services at a nearby church, meaning that their religious practices would be able to continue, albeit for some minor inconveniences.  Unlike the church, however, Chimney Rock cannot simply be rebuilt, and the people that go there for worship cannot simply go to another location to conduct their practices.  Every practice, ritual, ceremony, and prayer of the Indians is dependent upon the surrounding environment and its pristine condition.

Indigenous religious traditions are fundamentally different from those of the more mainstream religions, meaning that it can be hard for non-natives to understand them. In Native American Testimony: An Anthology of Indian and White Relations, Peter Nabakov writes, “When white men first witnessed Indians’ impersonating animal spirits in costume and dance and worshiping rocks and rainbows, they failed to see this as a deep form of religious worship. To their Christian minds, these were deplorable pagan rites. Worship of more than one deity and sacrificial offerings directed at the natural world stamped Indians as a misguided, lesser form of mankind” (McCarthy).  Historically these traditions were so different that people did not understand them and, because they appeared to be pagan or blasphemous, there was little, if any, desire to learn about the Indigenous ways.  People were more afraid of the Indian’s ways than curious.

Because it is hard for non-natives to grasp this concept of religion and the importance it places on land, there is a sort of general ignorance surrounding American Indian religions.  Non-native people do not necessarily understand that the Chimney Rock area is the equivalent of a church, meaning that they do not necessarily understand how sacred the land is to the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa peoples.  Evidence of this ignorance can be seen in the Forest Service’s attempt at a compromise with the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa Indians.  Through this compromise the Forest Service attempted to appease the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa by promising that the road will be built away from archaeological sites and known areas of religious significance (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association).  While the intentions of this compromise may seem noble, the plan is indicative of misunderstanding in that the Forest Service is failing to grasp that the entire area is sacred, rather than just a few choice spots being more sacred than others and hence more deserving of protection.  Furthermore, the proposed compromise underestimates the residual effects of road construction and logging that are present whether key areas are avoided or not, including noise, increased traffic, and damaged land.  These side effects are just as detrimental to the Indians’ worshiping as the very building of the road (McCarthy).  Without a proper understanding of Indigenous religions, it is difficult of distinguish the Chimney Rock area as sacred

In 1988 the United States Supreme Court ruled that, because the Forest Service and the federal government were not attempting to coerce the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa into defying their religious convictions, the construction of the road and logging endeavor do not violate the First Amendment (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association).  This decision was a huge blow to American Indians who worship in sacred lands off the reservation.  In her opinion to the court, Justice O’Connor notes that the Free-Exercise clause was written to protect the individual from the government, not so that the individual can get special treatment from the government.  Justice O’Connor even writes that, “the Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify upholding respondents’ legal claims” (Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Association) meaning that it is not the job of the federal government to insure that Indians get to practice their religion as they see fit.  In this instance, however, Justice O’Connor is failing to take into account the guardian-ward relationship that exists between sovereign American Indian nations and the federal government.  Because Indian nations are essentially the wards of the United States it is up to the federal government to take extra special care of Indian nations, like a parent would a child.  John Marshal and the first Supreme Court established the precedent for this trust relationship.  If the courts were to revert back to this relationship and give it the clout it deserves other sacred lands might meet happier fates than Chimney Rock.

– Elaine McCartin

Works Cited

Echo-Hawk, Walter R. In the Courts of the Conqueror: The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided. Golden, CO: Fulcrum Publishing, 2010. Print.

Epstein, Aaron. “Court Narrows Religious Freedom Interpretation.” Miami Herald 20 Apr. 1988: B10. Print.

Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, 795 F. 2d 688 (1988).

McCarthy, Colman. “American Indians Want Religious Freedom Law.” National Catholic Reporter. 30.12 (1994): 27. Print.

Shreve, Bradley Glenn. “Of Gods and Broken Rainbows.” New Mexico Historical Review. 82.3 (2007): 369-90. Print.

“U.S. Supreme Court.” FindLaw. N.p., 2011. Web. 29 Jan 2011. <>.

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