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A Public EIS
"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?
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:
“Sacred site” means any specific, discrete, narrowly delineated location on Federal land that is identified by an Indian tribe, or Indian individual determined to be an appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion, as sacred by virtue of its established religious significance to, or ceremonial use by, an Indian religion; provided that the tribe or appropriately authoritative representative of an Indian religion has informed the agency of the existence of such a site.
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:
The Camp Coldwater spring is a sacred spring. Its flow should not be stopped or disturbed. If the flow is disturbed, it cannot be restored. Also, if its source is disturbed, that disturbs the whole cycle of the flow. The spring is the dwelling place of the undergods and is near the center of the Earth. The Spring is part of the cycle of life. The underground stream from the Spring to the Mississippi River must remain open to allow the Gods to enter the River through the passageway. The Spring is the site of our creation myth (or “Garden of Eden”) and the beginning of Indian existence on Earth. Our underwater God “Unktehi” lives in the Spring. The sacredness of the Spring is evident by the fact that it never freezes over, and it is always possible to see activity under the surface of the water.
In January 1999 Gary Cavender stated further:
The whole area around the confluence of the Mississippi and Minnesota Rivers is sacred to the Dakota people. The most sacred site is the natural spring that is known as Camp Coldwater. My [earlier] affidavit . . . addresses the sacredness of the Coldwater Spring. It is spiritually and culturally essential that the spring and the source water be preserved. We are extremely concerned about evidence that the proposed construction of the highway and its service sewer will destroy the natural flow of the spring.
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:
At Camp Coldwater there is a Spring which is sacred to the Indians. Water is a giver of life and makes things grow. The people in the old village used the Spring water for medicine, ceremonies, washing and purification. They prayed to keep the water pure. Water comes directly out of the ground is very pure. The water nurtured the Indians who lived in the village; it was sacred. They used the water in their sweat lodges.
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:
Through our oral traditions, our history, recent and older, we know that the falls which . . . came to be known as Minnehaha Falls, that there was a sacred place, . . . a neutral place for many nations to come, and that further geographically define the confluence of the three rivers, which is actually the two rivers, that that point likewise was a neutral place. And that somewhere between that point and the falls, there were sacred grounds that were mutually held to be a sacred place. And that the spring from which the sacred water should be drawn was not very far, and I’ve never heard any direction from which I could pinpoint, but there’s a spring near the [Midewiwin or medicine] lodge that all nations used to draw the sacred water for the ceremonies.
Now that’s in the words of our people of the [Midewiwin] lodge. And the people that are conceerned or the people that are indentified there are the Dakota, the Sac, the Fox, the Potawatomi, the Wahpeton Dakotas, the Mdewakanton Dakotas, the Meskwaki people as all having used and recognizing and mutually agreeing that that is forever a neutral place and forever a sacred place. That is confirmed in our oral history. And it is difficult even to estimate when the last sacred ceremony was held inter-tribally, but my grandfather who lived to be 108 died in 1942, and I will tell you this, that many times he re-told how we traveled, he and his family, he as a small boy traveled by foot, by horse, by canoe to this great place to where there would be these great religious spiritual events, and that they always camped between the falls and the sacred water place. Those are his words. . . .
Within my physical memory, visiting the Prairie Island Dakota Nation as early as the 1940s, there were still elders in that community in the 1940s who were still members of the Midewiwin Lodge along with the Winnebago of Wisconsin. And my memory serves me to say that there was a great dialogue among our people and those of the Prairie Island Community regarding the lodge, and that’s how we have always known this way of life and practice as the lodge, but meaning the Midewiwin Lodge as a system of belief. . . . The Honorable Amos Owens . . . is the last person of that community I ever heard talk about that mutually sacred place, meaning the falls and the spring from which sacred water is drawn, Coldwater.
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:
(b) Within 1 year of the effective date of this order, the head of each executive branch agency with statutory or administrative responsibility for the management of Federal lands shall report to the President, through the Assistant to the President for Domestic Policy, on the implementation of this order. Such reports shall address, among other things,
i. any changes necessary to accommodate access to and ceremonial use of Indian sacred sites;
ii. any changes necessary to avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of Indian sacred sites; and
iii. procedures implemented or proposed to facilitate consultation with appropriate Indian tribes and religious leaders and the expeditious resolution of disputes relating to agency action on Federal lands that may adversely affect access to, ceremonial use of, or the physical integrity of sacred sites.
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
intended only to improve the internal management of the executive branch and is not intended to, nor does it, create any right, benefit, or trust responsibility, substantive or procedural, enforceable at law or equity by any party against the United States, its agencies officers, or any person.
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.