How do we defend sacred places?

Project: Native Women Leaders and Advocates Defending Sacred Places in the Southwest

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The WEA Advocacy Delegation traveled from Elko, NV to Flagstaff, AZ. We spent a remarkable and deeply moving day with Carrie Dann, Western Shoshone elder and long-time land rights activist, as well as Julie Cavanaugh-Bill, the trailblazing attorney for the Western Shoshone Defense Project.

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Carrie, along with her nephew and Julie’s husband Larson, brought us to Mt. Tenabo – a place that is fundamental to the Shoshone creation story, and is also the site of the largest open pit cyanide heap leach gold mine in the United States. We saw and felt the impact of this devastating and ever-expanding mine on the Western Shoshone people, the living land, and the unborn future generations.

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We’re now on our way to connect with women leaders in the Navajo and Havasupai tribes, women who stand at the helm of campaigns to protect their peoples’ sacred mountains from extractive industry and commercial development. As we witness each of these unique yet linked threats to environmental and cultural cohesion, we naturally seek to understand the roots of the problem. On what terms do our decision-makers justify these impacts to the earth and to whole communities’ ways of life? How does our system of laws and policies view the sacred?

Luke Cole, the late pioneer of environmental justice law, spoke of environmental injustice not as a legal problem, but as a political and economic one. Even our most powerful environmental laws are simply not designed to protect the interests of indigenous communities when it comes to resource extraction, because those laws themselves derive from the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. We protect the environment to the extent that it’s good for business. Beyond that, though, there aren’t legal or policy protections for our inherent rights to a clean and healthy environment, for the rights of indigenous peoples to live according to their traditions, or for the earth’s rights itself to be unharmed. The U.S. Supreme Court has said several times that when it comes to a clash between development of the earth for economic profit, and constitutionally-protected freedom of religion for indigenous peoples, development will win.

Moreover, laws like the 1872 Mining Law support activities that affirmatively harm communities and land. This law was written in the time when people mined using picks and shovels, long before environmental regulation — so today, it essentially allows mining companies free reign to extract with impunity. And we heard from Carrie and Larson that when protective laws do exist, mining companies usually find a way around them.

Given these conditions, how do we call for the urgently-needed shift in policy that is needed to leave water and minerals in the ground, stop contamination, and protect the sacred earth so that future generations may live?

As we travel, our intrepid delegates are already brainstorming innovative strategies at the nexus of legal action, policy advocacy, public awareness and green business development. We will use our personal and professional networks to educate people about the grave impacts of our consumption choices. We will join in with our indigenous allies to call for the implementation of indigenous rights frameworks at the national and international levels.

And within WEA’s Sacred Earth Advocacy Network, we will use our expertise and resources to provide urgently-needed pro bono legal, policy, and business advocacy support to the women leaders we are in dialogue with this week and to all of WEA’s indigenous project partners. We will stand with these courageous leaders to demand environmental protection and respect for the rights of indigenous peoples, and to point the way to sustainable, just strategies for economic development.