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THE WHEEL THING

IS NOTHING SACRED? AN UNPRECEDENTED GATHERING OF THE TRIBES IN BOULDER TRIES TO DECIDE.

The federal government intends to erect a controversial new building in Boulder despite opponents' contentions that some of the land slated for the bulldozer contains an American Indian sacred site.

The flaw in the opponents' argument, according to Clair Green, a spokeswoman for the General Services Administration, is that representatives of fourteen tribes consulted about the project don't necessarily agree with them.

The Department of Commerce's plan to build a $54 million, 240,000-square-foot building on federal land near Broadway and the Anderson irrigation ditch has faced opposition since it was proposed four years ago. In the beginning, opponents focused on environmental impact. "First it was falcons, then flowers," Green says. "When that didn't work, they turned around and started making allegations about there being a medicine wheel on the site." Medicine wheels, which have different meanings for different tribes, are basically circles of stones in which American Indians perform spiritual ceremonies.

The alleged medicine-wheel site was discovered two years ago not by Indians, Green says, "but by community members known to be against the project...anti-growth, left-wing radicals and new-agers."

The site isn't even on the specific spot of land picked for a new building to house the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, which currently has other offices in Boulder. But an access road, sewer lines and a storm drainage pond are planned for the property, and construction could affect the site.

So at Green's urging, the General Services Administration, which acts as the feds' landlord, followed an April 1994 mandate from President Bill Clinton that requires federal agencies to consult with the sovereign American Indian tribal governments about such matters.

Several acts of Congress can be used to protect Indian sites. One is the National Historic Preservation Act, which generally applies to buildings; another is the Archaeological Resource Protection Act, which prohibits disturbing sites of human habitation over fifty years old; another is the Native American Grave Protection and Repatriation Act, which protects burial sites and requires that human remains be returned to American Indians for reburial; and finally, there's the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Through Green, the GSA contacted the governments of fourteen federally recognized tribes with current or historical ties to the Front Range and Colorado and asked them to send representatives to a meeting with federal officials in October 1994.

But even before they met, the process was attacked from both inside and outside the government. Some Commerce Department officials saw no need to consult with the Indians, Green says. She also received harassing calls from Boulder residents, including a University of Colorado professor of Indian studies, "saying we weren't talking to the right Indians."

What the callers failed to understand, Green adds, is that it was not a matter of the GSA discussing the project with individuals: The government of the United States was negotiating with other sovereign governments.

More than sixty Indian representatives attended that first negotiating session, including spiritual leaders and traditional elders. They visited the site and debated its significance, then returned home to report what they had seen. Throughout the winter, Green and her colleagues visited with the tribes, and in March another meeting--this time with each tribe sending two representatives--was held in Boulder.

It turned out the tribal representatives couldn't agree on whether there actually was an ancient medicine wheel on the site. "Some felt there was. Some didn't know. Some thought that there was nothing there," says Michael Burney, a white archaeologist who works with two of the fourteen tribes, the Rosebud Sioux and the Northern Cheyenne. "Now, some of [the opposition] would take you out there and try to sell you on that certain rocks represent a bona fide medicine wheel. I've been out there many, many times and haven't seen anything that clearly demarks that."

Kenny Frost, a Ute Indian who works with the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management in identifying sacred sites, visited the Boulder property as an Indian archaeologist invited by the Rosebud Sioux and Comanche, not as the Southern Ute representative.

"I don't think there was a medicine wheel," says Frost, who last year angered a group that was trying to stop development on Arkansas Peak near Boulder when he proclaimed that area to be a new-ager site with no historical religious significance to Indians.

In this case, however, both Frost and Burney say that the fourteen tribes agree the area has spiritual significance, but not enough to justify opposing the new building.

Frost says that he and an Arapaho Indian heard voices in their native tongues at the site. "The voice said, `Don't let people make a fool out of you,'" Frost recalls. "I think the voice meant that we should make sure we're right and not let the people who wanted us to find a medicine wheel influence us. Like I tell other Indians, sometimes if you want to see something bad enough, you will, even if it's not there.

"But a true site should also have a very powerful feeling to it. Something only a Native American can feel, which is why a white archaeologist, who may know how to spot a site with artifacts, may not recognize a spiritual place."

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