BREAKING: Feds Agree to Repair Native American Sacred Site Feds and tribal members settle 15-year legal battle on the doorstep of the Supreme Court
Ryan Colby 202-349-7219 firstname.lastname@example.org
WASHINGTON – The federal government has agreed to restore a Native American sacred site in Oregon 15 years after bulldozing it to add a turn lane to a nearby highway. In Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, members of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde asked the Supreme Court last year to hold the federal government accountable for needlessly destroying the site in 2008. Today, in a landmark settlement agreement, the government agreed to replant a grove of native trees, pay for the reconstruction of a sacred stone altar, and recognize the historic use of the site by Native Americans.
Since time immemorial, Native Americans have used the land around Mount Hood in Oregon to hunt, gather food, fish, bury their dead, and perform religious ceremonies. The sacred site known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat (the “Place of Big Big Trees”) lay along an ancient Native American trading route and consisted of ancestral grave sites, a campground, old-growth trees, and an ancient stone altar, all on less than one acre of land. Wilbur Slockish, who is a Hereditary Chief of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Carol Logan, who is a spiritual practitioner and elder in her tribe, regularly visited the site for decades to pray, meditate, and pay respects to their ancestors through traditional ceremonies. However, in 2008, the U.S. Federal Highway Administration ignored tribal members’ pleas to protect the site and bulldozed it to add a turn lane to U.S. Highway 26, even while admitting it could have added the turn lane without harming the site. (Watch their story.)
“Our sacred places may not look like the buildings where most Americans worship, but they deserve the same protection, dignity, and respect,” said Carol Logan, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde. “It is heartbreaking that even today the federal government continues to threaten and destroy Native American sacred sites, but I’m hopeful that our story and this settlement agreement can help prevent similar injustices in the future.”
After failed negotiations with the government to restore the sacred site, the tribal members continued pressing their claims in federal court. In 2018, a lower court decided that federal law does not prohibit the government from destroying sacred sites located on federal land. On appeal, the Ninth Circuit ruled that the government could not be held accountable because it was impossible to provide relief to the tribe members. With the help of Becket, the tribe members asked the Supreme Court last year to overturn the Ninth Circuit’s decision. Once the case reached the Justices, the federal government agreed to settle the case and make efforts to restore the site by replanting trees, allowing the tribal members to rebuild a centuries-old stone altar, and recognizing historic Native American use of the site.
This settlement comes as the Ninth Circuit is still considering the case of Apache Stronghold v. United States, in which the federal government is seeking to give away another Native sacred site to a multinational mining giant, which will destroy the site in a massive copper mine.
“Our nation has a long, dark history of needlessly destroying Native American sacred sites without consequence,” said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel at Becket. “While the government can never entirely undo the damage it caused in this case, we hope this is the start of a new chapter—in which our nation’s promise of religious freedom will fully extend to Native American ceremonial, cultural, and religious ways of life, as it should have all along.”
The restoration of the sacred site is set to be completed by spring 2024. In addition to Wilbur Slockish and Carol Logan, the plaintiffs were joined in their lawsuit by Chief Jonny Jackson, who was also a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Michael Jones, who led the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. Chief Jackson and Jones unfortunately passed away before the case could be resolved. In addition to Becket, the plaintiffs are represented by Oregon City attorney James Nicita and Keith Talbot of the Seattle-based law firm Patterson Buchanan Fobes & Leitch.
For more information or to arrange an interview with a Becket attorney, contact Ryan Colby at email@example.com or 202-349-7219. Interviews can be arranged in English, Mandarin, French, German, Portuguese, Russian, and Spanish.