The Sacred Grounds of Weatherman Draw
Here in America, prospective homeowners sometimes enlist the services of an appraiser who evaluates how much a property or house is worth. This is useful because it allows one to know a more accurate market price and from there, be better able to determine if a property is believed to be worth its asking price. This is a common occurrence in America, yet if one were to ask an Indigenous Person of America what value a plot of land is worth, the answer received would starkly contrast the answer a typical American citizen would provide. This is due to the unique nature of the relationship American Indigenous Peoples have with their land; the land and environment in which they live is their ultimate source of spiritual power. From these powers, Indigenous Peoples are able to obtain their requirements for survival. (Kidwell, Velie 11-12).
To further illustrate the value of land to these people, in 1980, the Supreme Court offered a settlement of 17.5 million plus dollars in exchange for land claimed by the Sioux Nation. They, of course, refused this offer, instead desiring to reclaim the land with which they hold a strong connection to (Forbes-Boyte 319). The Natives’ ties to the land present a challenge, as the Indigenous Peoples currently possess a fraction of the land they once ruled. This is even more significant in the case of sacred lands, which are thought to be especially powerful places. These sacred places are the environment in which vision quests, pilgrimages, and prayer are made, but unfortunately their sacred lands end up used for utilitarian purposes such as parks, rock climbing walls, or mining. The unique relationship between the United States’ government and its native peoples cannot be ignored either. Cases of reclaiming sacred lands are clearly complex issues of conflicting interests that trace their roots far below the surface. If Americans can fully understand the spiritual significance of the land to these people and the history of our country with its people it becomes overwhelmingly clear that these lands must end up in the hands of their rightful owners.
Weatherman Draw is a small canyon found in south-central Montana that is renowned for containing the largest collection of Native American art in all of North America. The canyon’s walls are covered with large paintings, done by the natives, who call it the Valley of Shields or the Valley of Chiefs, of shields, animals, and people. Over the last thousand years, this artwork has been amassed and as such, it is considered sacred by many tribes that include the Crow, Blackfeet, Comanche, Northern Arapaho, Northern Cheyenne, and Eastern Shoshone (Zarsky 27). It is historically thought to be a place of peace and it is used for vision quests, burials, prayers, and the gathering of medicinal herbs. Today, this land is under the ownership of the federal government and managed by Bureau of Land Management, or BLM. (Zarsky 27)
Philip Anschutz, owner of The Anschutz Exploration Corp. is an oil company based in Denver. Philip is also one of the richest people in the United States with an estimated worth of nine billion dollars (Zarsky 29). He owns stakes in companies including United Artists, Qwest Communications, and the Los Angeles Lakers, is deeply involved in the energy industry, and, ironically, is an avid collector of art. He acquired mineral rights to Weatherman Draw in 1994 in order to search for possible oil drilling locations. (Zarsky 29).
Creating an oil operation on these sacred lands would have a number of negative effects on the Indigenous Peoples. Besides increased publicity to the area and more public access, noise and workers would disturb those partaking in prayers, rituals, and pilgrimages. One native stated that these actions would, “disturb the power of the spirits” (Zarsky 30). Addressing the BLM, the Northern Cheyenne Tribe noted that if the spirits of the area were to be driven out, important Northern Cheyenne ties with the spirit realm would permanently be cut (Zarsky 30). Although the land is considered by non-natives to be just another financial venture to increase one’s fortune, the Indigenous People find deep spiritual significance in the area. Clearly this place has two very different viewpoints: one of reverence, and one that warrants crude vandalism by some (Zarsky 28).
Over the course of six years, these opposing viewpoints clashed as the BLM evaluated the case. Although the leases to the land should technically be illegal, they were allowed since they took place at dates before the laws that outlawed them were put into effect (Zarsky 30). Twelve days after President Bush Jr. took office, an exploratory drill was allowed. In outrage, ten tribes appealed this decision alongside environmental and preservation groups. Despite this, in May 2001, the BLM held its position. The tribes responded to this action with three of their own when they: appealed the decision to the Department of Interior, pointed out that Mr. Anschutz is a billionaire art collector, and simultaneously sought out help from Congress (Zarsky 29).
With increased exposure and a potential lawsuit at hand, Anschutz decided to directly negotiate with the tribes and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The result of which, was a precedent-setting case wherein Anschutz forfeited their leases and canceled drilling plans. Although this instance ended up quite successfully, the sad truth is that many of these conflicts do not end in favor of the land’s natives. Even this very conflict may not have reached complete resolution as Joel T. Helfrich, researcher of American Indigenous Peoples, says,
Although the oil and gas leases at Weatherman Draw were eventually turned over to the National Trust for Historic Preservation in 2002, the future of Weatherman Draw is still not secure. In Utah, the Utes and the Hopis are still hoping to find protection from the BLM for what is called the world‘s longest art gallery. (Helfrich 2010:12)
Due to this fact, it is important that American people are more educated on these issues. The exposure by the media to this particular incident was a likely cause for the eventual shutdown of the drilling operation. If more people are aware of what is happening in these conflicts and possess knowledge of the value of the land to the natives, these problems are more likely to end up in the favor of the Indigenous People.
Although everyday Americans are put to work evaluating how much a stretch of land is worth, whether it will appreciate with time, and whether a lot will appreciate or depreciate over time, Natives are consistent in their attitude towards the land. It is revered, a source of power, and especially sacred in some instances. To abuse the legal system in order to steal again from these people to whom we are indebted, for capital gain, is a disgrace. To them, the land is worth more than silver, gold, or a 17.5 million dollar check and we should feel compelled to contribute to the preservation of what traditions have survived the trail of tears and previous illegalization of Indigenous culture. Seeing these people for what they are: human beings, in addition to their ties with the land and unique history provides overwhelming evidence to help us realize that it is imperative that these lands end up in the hands of their rightful owners.
- Sean Kwo
Helfrich, Joel. A Mountain of Politics: The Struggle for dził nchaa si’an (Mount
Graham). Diss. University of Minnesota 2010. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2010.
Kari Forbes-Boyte. “Fools Crow Versus Gullett: ‘A Critical Analysis of the American
Indian Religious Freedom Act.’” Antipode (1999) : 16. Print.
Kidwell, Clara Sue, and Alan Velie. Native American Studies. UK: Edingburgh
University Press. 2005. Print.
Zarsky, Lyruba. “Corporate Responsibility for the Protection of Native American
Sacred Sites.” Sacred Land Film Project (2006) : 29-32. Print.