Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation
For centuries—long before this nation was founded—the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of Yakama Nation have considered areas surrounding Mount Hood, Oregon, to be sacred sites. When in 2006 the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a project to expand a highway by bulldozing one of these sacred sites, the tribe leaders alerted the government and asked that they spare their sacred sites. But despite these requests, the government bulldozed ancestral burial grounds in 2008, destroying a sacred stone altar and removing safe access to burial sites. Since then, the Chiefs of the Klickitat and Cascade Tribes have been legally pursuing remedies for the destruction of the tribes’ sacred land, and the promise that they will be consulted before the government orders further construction in the area.
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A spiritual promise to protect sacred lands of Mount Hood
The Klickitat and Cascade Tribes of Yakama Nation have lived in the areas surrounding Mount Hood for centuries. It has been the center of tribal quests, spiritual rituals, and sacred burial ceremonies since long before this nation was founded.
As the hereditary chiefs, Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson serve as spiritual leaders for their tribes. For more than 30 years they have taught the tribes’ traditional ways and organized religious ceremonies such as vision quests and water ceremonies along the mountain trails. As chiefs, one of the most crucial roles is to protect the welfare of the people and their lands. The protection of sacred sites allows tribal members to safely return to these areas to fish, hunt, gather food and medicine, and bury their dead to safeguard the individual’s spiritual journey home.
Government bulldozes sacred lands
In 2006, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration announced a project to expand U.S. Highway 26, which is the main highway linking Portland to Mount Hood. The tribal chiefs alerted government officials to the importance of the burial grounds, as tribal members had done in the past when the government announced expansion plans. Yet, this time, the government refused to listen.
In 2008, in direct violation of a 1987 Highway 26 Widening Agreement, government officials bulldozed the ancestral burial grounds. Although the government left the other side of the highway untouched—protecting nearby wetlands and a tattoo parlor—it buried the Natives’ ancestral grave sites, destroyed a sacred stone altar, and removed safe access to the sites.
Defending the religious rights of Native Americans
In October 2008, Chiefs Slockish and Jackson, and tribal elder Carol Logan, together with the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance, sued the government, citing federal laws including the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the Free Exercise Clause of the U.S. Constitution. After two-and-a-half years of negotiations between the tribal members and the government, negotiations failed.
In 2015, the tribe members returned to court to seek remedies for the destruction of their lands and ensure they are consulted before the government orders any future construction in the area. In October 2017, an important hearing was held in which the tribe members asked the court to find that the destruction of their sacred site substantially burdened their religious practices. Sadly, the tribes were denied justice when the judge ruled that the government was free to bulldoze sacred Native American burial grounds and destroy sacred artifacts without violating RFRA.
In December 2018, the tribe members asked the court for relief based on their claims that the destruction of their sacred site violated environmental laws. Following a magistrate judge’s preliminary recommendation against the tribe members in April 2020, the district court denied relief to the tribe members in a 3-page order on February 21, 2021. On November 24, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government will not be held responsible for its destruction of the sacred site. The tribe members are now pursuing further appeals.
The tribe members are represented by Becket together with Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm, Patterson Buchanan Forbes & Leitch.
Importance to Religious Liberty
- Individual freedom: Religious liberty includes the right to worship how and where one’s faith dictates. Government should not restrict the ability of individuals or groups to access religious sites, especially when there is an alternative way for the government to achieve its goal.
- Religious liberty for Native Americans: Whether they are directly targeted or indirectly affected by government actions, minority religious groups are particularly vulnerable to government violations of their religious liberty. Actively defending religious liberty for Native Americans strengthens religious liberty for people of all faiths.