SEHN

Visionary Science, Ethics, Law and Action in the Public Interest

What is Sacred?

Carolyn Raffensperger

By Carolyn Raffensperger

Last week (May 2-9, 2010), I was a member of the Defending Sacred Places Advocacy Delegation, a project of the Women’s Earth Alliance.  We met with Native American leaders in Nevada and Arizona seeking ways to use the law to protect sacred sites from mining and pollution.  Here is an update of my blog, which was originally published on the WEA website.

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What is sacred? What does the law recognize as sacred? These were the questions that haunted me on the third full day of the delegation’s trip to Nevada and Arizona to join with indigenous people to protect sacred sites from defilement and desecration.

Our first stop was at a uranium mine owned by Dennison Mines Corp.

The mine is one of the stand-by projects of Dennison.  Stand-by means the mine is on hold, with equipment in place awaiting the price of uranium to go up and the expansion of nuclear power. Dennison, according to its website, “enjoys a global portfolio of world-class exploration projects…” The problem is that the neighbors of the mine, in this case Navajo and Havasupai do not “enjoy” the exploration or the mining. The legacy of uranium mining in the Southwest is grievous. Cancer, contaminated land and water are the consequences of six decades of a nuclear weapons program and nuclear power. Indigenous people bear the brunt of the environmental problems associated with uranium mining.

This is personal for me. One of my dearest friends, an indigenous woman, grew up playing in the mine tailings near Tuba City AZ. While I was on this journey, she had surgery for her third cancer. She is in her 30s. The mining official we met with yesterday argued that the uranium miners’ high cancer rate was caused by their smoking rather than the radioactivity associated with the radon in the mines or the uranium itself.

The old argument that most cancers are a result of lifestyle “choices” is increasingly discredited by science.  Days after my friend’s surgery,  the President’s Cancer Panel, a distinguished group of scientists issued a new report on environmental causes of cancer. Radon is fingered as one of the culprit carcinogens.

Northern Arizona is full of places sacred to the Hopi, Navajo, Havasupai and other tribes that have called this place home for millennia. But it is also pock marked by uranium mines and old mine tailings. Over 10,000 new uranium mine claims were staked between 2005 and 2009.

U.S. law, particularly the antiquated General Mining Act of 1872 treats all mines and potential mines as part of the wild frontier, the cowboy west. There are few barriers to mines except some procedural hoops that might delay a mine from opening for a few months or years.

The tribes consider this land to be sacred. There are springs and mountains, canyons and buttes that hold the religion, the stories, and the histories of these people. It is the relationship of a community of humans to a place that makes that place sacred. Yet U.S. law only recognizes religion, which amounts to beliefs held by individuals. Indigenous spirituality is made up of the web of exquisitely-tended relationships that manifest and express beliefs.

We are only beginning to shape laws to reflect the sacred. The U.N. Declaration of the Rights of Indigenous People includes this statement:

“Article 25: Indigenous peoples have the right to maintain and strengthen their distinctive spiritual relationship with their traditionally owned or otherwise occupied and used lands, territories, waters and coastal seas and other resources and to uphold their responsibilities to future generations in this regard.”

While not law in the United States, the Declaration sets the standard for how the law should treat the sacred places and relationships of indigenous people. The Declaration was not signed by the United States because it clashes with the U.S. private property regime. Private property trumps the sacred. Uranium mining trumps the rights of indigenous people to care for their springs and their holy sites.

The question of what is sacred sometimes only surfaces when we see what has been defiled–the rage we feel when we think a cancer might have been prevented, or an ocean might not have been polluted. How could we contaminate the very land from which we live? How can we contaminate the bodies of our children? How can we defile the places where we bury the dead? How can we destroy the places of great beauty and much history?

All of these are sacred. We know this in our hearts.