BIG WHEELS

HOW THE GOVERNMENT SPENT BIG BUCKS STUDYING A SUPPOSED INDIAN MEDICINE WHEEL.

The representatives were put up in the Broker Hotel, which, with meals, cost taxpayers $15,000. A photographer was hired for $1,875 to record the event for posterity, and 8x10 photographs were later given out. Altogether, the October visit cost almost $62,000.

The representatives went back home to report what they had seen and heard. Throughout the winter, Green and her colleagues visited with the tribes at a cost of a few thousand dollars in travel expenses, not counting the man hours. Meanwhile, engineers were called in, at a cost of $2,500, to evaluate moving the road and sewer lines.

As required by the Environmental Impact Statement, the land had already been surveyed by white archaeological firms that are trained to look for such things as burial sites and other signs of past human habitation. But the tribes wanted their own survey from an Indian perspective, a process that sometimes relies more on "a feeling" than it does on physical evidence. So Curley Bear Wagner, a Blackfoot Indian from Montana and a respected archaeologist, was hired; his labor and travel expenses cost taxpayers $9,000. However, Green says the report Wagner prepared won't be released, except to the tribes, because "it covers sacred matters."

In March 1995, the tribal representatives--this time only about forty--were invited back. They were put up in the Clarion Harvest House for $8,000, including $400 for 63 in-room movies. The hotel manager did not return telephone calls to ascertain what those movies might have been. All told--including a couple of thousand dollars for videotaping and photographing the event--the March meeting cost $25,000. The consultants each were paid $150 a day for two days' work.

When the tribal representatives were asked to return once more, in May, more than sixty attended and were paid for one and a half days' work. Again they went and looked at the site and, over hors d'oeuvres and banquets, debated whether the rocks had any significance. This time the tribes decided to hold spiritual ceremonies; the cost to the government included the rental of two tepees, two sweat lodges and a cord of wood. All told, the May meeting cost $39,000.

For all of that, there was no consensus among the tribes as to what the rocks in the field actually represented. Some thought it could be a sacred site. Some thought not. Some thought that new-agers had been moving rocks around to create their own version of a wheel. And some thought that while the rocks might not signify anything in and of themselves, the land seemed to hold some spiritual essence.

Michael Burney told Westword in July that some of the building's opponents would "take you out there and try to sell you on the idea 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."

A compromise agreement--which sources say will involve moving the road and sewer lines just in case but otherwise gives the tribes' blessing to the building--was drafted. In August, the Medicine Wheel Coalition, a group of tribes that works to protect sacred sites and some of whose members participated in the consultations, arrived in Boulder with a New York lawyer to refine the wording. That cost another $3,500.

The entire process, including Burney's contract and the involvement of the Corps of Engineers coordinator, cost about $250,600, which raised some eyebrows in the General Services Administration.

An anonymous GSA source told Westword that three different GSA contracting officers (the people who pay the bills) were used because "none of them wanted to contract and pay for many of the things they were told to pay for. Clair's words back to a contracting person when they asked questions were, `Just pay for it.'"

Westword received the expense reports through a Freedom of Information Act request. However, all names and addresses--and such things as itemized room-service charges--were blotted out. Those deletions were made to "protect the privacy" of the participants, Green explains.

The consultation process was the first of its kind, Green says, and future projects will probably be cheaper now that trust has been established with the tribes. "If next time I asked them to send only one person, I'd get just one person," she says.

Green admits she "has problems" with some of the expenses submitted by the Corps' Native American coordinator. But she contends that including Burney's contract with the other expenses unfairly skews the cost of the project, because some of what he did would have had to be included in the Environmental Impact Statement anyway. However, she also doesn't include in the figures the three archaeological studies already written, or what she acknowledges was an "extensive" use of government employees (including herself) to support Burney.

The project didn't cost any more than any other government-sponsored seminar, Green says. But the GSA source says, "If we are blazing new ground in the way we deal with the tribes in that we treat them as sovereign governments, why then does the U.S. government pay for all travel, lodging, expenses, transportation, plus a $150-per-day consulting fee?"

The tribes simply don't have the money to fight the U.S. government to protect sacred sites, says Green. "Generally, what they get is a letter saying, `We're doing this,' and the government considers that consultation.

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