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Mdote Minisota

A Public EIS

Part 8


"A truthful, open, and ongoing environmental review process carried out by the public for the public, is needed to examine, document, and review all actions planned or undertaken by public agencies and private entities within the area of Mdote Minisota. Without such a process in place, this sacred and historic space may continue to be destroyed, bit by bit, historic property by historic property."Mdote Minisota, A Public EIS, Part 1

-October 16, 2006-

Is It Sacred Now?

Bruce White

[email protected]

In a television commercial a man travels the world with his cell phone, saying into it repeatedly “Can you hear me now?” Recent discussions about the sacredness of Coldwater Spring in Hennepin County, Minnesota appear to revolve around a similar question, based on the need by federal officials to test assertions about the sacredness of the spring, again and again. But given the skepticism with which the idea of sacredness is sometimes greeted by federal agencies and non-Indian people and the slim protection triggered by such assertions, it may be wondered why any Indian person or group would even bother stating to a federal agency that a place is sacred.

The draft EIS released by the National Park Service concerning the Bureau of Mines property near Fort Snelling, casts doubt on whether the Dakota or other Native Americans in Minnesota actually believe that Coldwater Spring, which flows out of the ground on the BOM property, is sacred. The key problem is how recently, by whom, and in what manner it was stated.

In ordinary speech sacredness is a linguistic and metaphysical matter and a matter of belief. What is sacred differs from group to group and actions required in dealing with them may vary. Often sacredness means something that is very important in intangible ways, something to be protected or avoided. Given the varying meanings of the term, Tom King, author of many works on traditional cultural properties and similar sites has proposed the term “spiritual places,” instead of "sacred sites," as a way of avoiding some of the terminological pitfalls of sacredness.

For the purposes of the National Park Service, the term “sacred” has special meaning under federal law, apart from its meaning in ordinary language. The source for this is President Bill Clinton's Executive Order of May 24, 1996, No. 13007, dealing with Indian Sacred Sites:

It is important to note that the order offers two separate and distinct methods of determining whether a site is sacred. The first is through an Indian tribe. A previous installment of this series describes the letters sent in 1999 by the chairpersons of each of the four federally recognized Dakota communities in Minnesota stating, “We once again state our support of our spiritual leaders that the Coldwater Spring is a spiritual and cultural sacred site.” These leaders failed, for whatever reason, to send the same statement the next year, when asked by the National Park Service. Similarly, although the Iowa Tribe of Oklahoma stated in 1999 that the spring was sacred, they had not replied in more recent years to letters from Park Service officials in Minnesota. As a result, Park Service officials appear to have questioned these peoples’ beliefs that the spring was sacred. (More recently, though, the Park Service has stated that it was not skepticism but management responsibility that led it to keep trying to get in touch with the Iowa of Oklahoma; the agency simply wanted to know how to manage the property for the Iowa. A recent statement issued by the Park Service states that Coldwater Spring is officially considered sacred to the Iowa of Oklahoma.)

The second method for identifying something as sacred under the Executive Order is identification through an “appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion.” While it is generally understood that “a tribe” is a federally recognized tribe, it is less clear how federal officials might identify an authoritative representative of an Indian religion.  Since the two methods of sacred-sites identification are distinguished from each other, there appears to be no reason to believe that the religious representative would have to approved by a particular federally recognized tribe. Rather, it seems clear that the representative would have to be defined in relation to a particular set of beliefs characteristic of Indian people that would fit the term “religion,” though it is always perilous to assign a narrow word such as religion to some Indian spiritual beliefs.

Given that there are two stated ways of identifying such sacred sites, the continuing emphasis by the Park Service and others on statements and non-statements by tribal leaders ignores a rich record of evidence regarding the sacredness of Coldwater Spring for Dakota and Ojibwe people. Individuals whose religious credentials are widely respected have stated unambiguously that Coldwater Spring is sacred. It is difficult to imagine government officials questioning their credentials or their assertions.

Gary Cavender is an Episcopal minister and a spiritual leader of the Shakopee Dakota at Prior Lake, Minnesota.  He has often been a source of traditional Dakota knowledge. He was a major consultant and source for the 2002 nomination of Maka Yusota or Boiling Springs, believed to be the first Dakota traditional cultural property in Minnesota nominated to and listed on the National Register of Historic Places. In an affidavit for a 1998 court case relating to the construction of Highway 55, Cavender stated:

In January 1999 Gary Cavender stated further:

Chris Leith is a Dakota spiritual leader and healer from the Prairie Island Dakota. He has been a  Sun Dance chief for more than thirty years. In 2003 he was a source of important information for the successful nomination of Oheyawahi, or Pilot Knob, to the National Register of Historic Places. In an affidavit for a 1998 court case in Hennepin County, Leith stated the following:

Eddie Benton Benai is an educator and the leader of the Three Fires Midewiwin Lodge, a religious group of widespread importance and influence in the United States and Canada. He has often been a source of information on Ojibwe cultural and spiritual beliefs. In March 1999 he gave testimony at a hearing relating to Highway 55 construction before representatives of the Minnesota Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Benai examined the evidence from his own memory and from oral tradition to arrive at his own determination about the sacredness of Coldwater Spring and the area around it, recorded here in an imperfect transcription:

The testimony of these religious leaders, which is just one part of a more extensive record about the sacredness of Coldwater held by many American Indian people, clearly demonstrates beliefs found among Dakota and Ojibwe. The National Park Service, however, has a problem: these statements were not made directly to Park Service representatives. According to wording of Clinton’s Executive Order, a site is determined to be sacred “provided the appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion has informed the agency of the existence of such a site” [emphasis added]. To alleviate the apparent confusion among federal officials, these religious leaders and others, including tribal governments, may want to inform agency officials—through letters, personal visits, or other means—about facts of their beliefs. That American Indian political and religious leaders have already stated these facts a number of times in the past is not adequate from the Park Service point of view. But, in the meantime, whether or not the words have been said in the right order at the right time to the right officials, it would seem to be hair splitting or worse to insist that no Native Americans have ever asserted the sacredness of Coldwater Spring.

Why Call It Sacred?

It might well be asked why American Indian communities or leaders would want to insist on the sacredness of a place to federal officials. In doing so, Indian people must weigh the pros and cons of such declarations. Under federal law an assertion of sacredness has very particular consequences, though very little long term protection. Federal agencies are simply required to consult Indian people for whom a property is sacred, in managing the property. Section 2 of the Executive Order on Indian sacred sites states among other things that:

But the order goes on to state that it shall “not be construed to require a taking of vested property interests. Nor shall this order be construed to impair enforceable rights to use of Federal lands that have been granted to third parties through final agency action.” Further the order states that it is

Ultimately the order simply directs the agencies to talk to Indian people about trying to manage defined sacred sites on federal land. It does not assure Indian people that they will be satisfied with the result of such discussions and it provides no assurance of preservation.

Another problem with the sacredness under the Executive Order is that a very public assertion of sacredness may draw public attention to places Native people would prefer to be left alone. In the case of Coldwater Spring, public statements were made about the sacredness of the spring in 1999. This brought a lot of attention to the site. In the last five years, a non-Indian spiritual group laid out a labyrinth made of grasses, rocks, and wood, which has remained in the hill next to the spring to this day. Though those who built and maintain the labyrinth are sincere in their beliefs and have themselves worked for the preservation of the spring, it is not clear that Indian people in general or Dakota people in particular appreciate the labyrinth, though most have been too polite to object publicly.

Were those who placed the labyrinth at Coldwater Spring drawn to the spring by the very public expressions in 1999 about the sacredness of the spring? It is not known, but paradoxically it may be that if Indian people want this religious expression to be removed one way would be to get in touch with the National Park Service or the Fish and Wildlife Service—which actually manages the BOM property at the moment—and make clear that the spring is sacred for them and that they desire that the spring be managed by the federal government in such a way that these kinds of semi-permanent religious expressions are not allowed to be placed there. Exactly what the federal agencies might do at that point is unclear, but they might very well seek the removal of the labyrinth.

Park Service officials have stated recently that their lives would be made a lot easier if Indian people would simply say to the right person in the right way at the right time that Coldwater Spring is sacred. If that is truly the case it is hoped that Indian people will soon help them out. They should get in touch with BOM project manager Kim Berns at [email protected] or (651) 290-3030 extension 244, for more information on how to inform the Park Service of the Indian sacredness of Coldwater for federal purposes.