Taxpayers shelled out more than a quarter of a million dollars over the past year to try to determine whether some rocks in a Boulder field constitute a federally protected Indian sacred site.

The money was used to pay representatives of fourteen federally recognized tribes--many with nebulous or transitory historic ties to this part of the state--consulting fees of $150 a day, as well as to board them, entertain them and wine and dine them on three different occasions. The biggest single chunk of change, however, went to a white archaeologist who set up the meetings and will write the official reports, set to be released around Thanksgiving.

So what did the money buy? Well, they came, they saw, they said: Yes. Maybe. Doubt it. I don't know. Could be.

The group of rocks in question is in a field in Boulder, next to where the U.S. Department of Commerce plans to build a $54 million, 240,000-square-foot building to house the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The building itself would not be built on the rocks, but an access road and sewer lines will cut across the area.

Ever since the plan to construct the new building became public four years ago, it has met with opposition. Opponents first attempted to throw a monkey wrench into the works by contending that the NOAA building would adversely affect flora and fauna such as falcon nesting sites. When that failed, the opponents--described by the feds as white new-agers--claimed that certain rocks were actually an ancient American Indian medicine wheel.

A medicine wheel is a circle of stones with rock spokes that radiate out from the center. More common are medicine circles without the spokes. Both were used by some tribes to delineate spiritual sites, although in many cases their actual use and meaning have been lost to antiquity. Several federal laws protect Indian religious and habitation sites from destruction.

When opponents of the new building made their assertions in 1993 about what became known as the "Alleged Rock Feature," the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers called on the services of its Native American coordinator in Oklahoma. (The Corps will write the required Environmental Impact Statement, which will contain the sacred-site study.)

The coordinator's charges for labor, travel and per diem for the project over the next two years totaled $20,000. He recommended tribes that should be included in consultations regarding the site and suggested hiring Michael Burney & Associates of Boulder.

Burney is a white archaeologist who in the past has been a consultant for the Rosebud Sioux and Northern Cheyenne, two of the tribes represented at the ensuing "Rock Feature" project. In March 1994 Burney was awarded a $64,685 contract to consult with the tribes, all of which claim current or historic ties to Colorado's Front Range. The contract amount later was increased to $84,525.

Clair Green, who heads up projects in Colorado for the General Services Administration (the federal government's "landlord" agency), came aboard in May 1994 to spearhead the consulting process.

Green says she was following an April 1994 mandate from President Clinton requiring federal agencies to consult with the sovereign tribal governments about such matters. She immediately found herself caught between the rocks and a hard place: Not only did she face the building's opponents, whom she describes as "anti-growth, left-wing radicals and new-agers," but she says she also had to contend with a reluctance on the part of the Commerce Department to talk with the Indians.

The first meeting with the tribes was set for October 1994 in Boulder. When the date arrived, so did more than sixty representatives, mostly spiritual leaders and traditional elders from as far away as Oklahoma and the Dakotas. The tribes represented were the Arapaho, Ute, Apache, Kiowa, Sioux, Cheyenne, Comanche, Pawnee and Eastern Shoshone, including members of independent branches such as the Southern, Ute Mountain and Northern Utes.

Some had stronger historical ties to the Boulder area than others. For instance, the Arapaho traditionally wintered in the area, the mobile Cheyenne traveled up and down the Front Range, and the Ute lived and traveled throughout the mountains of Colorado. But some were at most occasional visitors, here to raid or hunt. Others were merely ancient passersby, like the Apache, who are thought to have been pushed from the mid-Colorado plains by the 1400s and now recall being residents only through oral traditions.

Tribes like the Sioux, who made their home in the Dakotas after being shoved eastward a couple of hundred years ago, and the Pawnee, whose traditional lands are generally considered to be Nebraska and points east, didn't spend much more time in Boulder than a modern-day tourist might. It is also a matter of debate among archaeologists how many of these tribes used medicine wheels and would now be able to identify one.

Yet they were all invited to come to Boulder to visit the site and debate its significance. They were paid $150 a day for two and a half days and had their travel by plane and car paid for, to the tune of $19,000. (That included mileage paid to multiple representatives from certain tribes who came from the same origination point. Apparently, they all drove their own cars.)

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