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BIG WHEELS

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

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.)

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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