Federal Court dismisses tribal chiefs case over destruction of sacred site in Oregon
A federal appeals court has dismissed a lawsuit against the tribal leaders of the Confederate tribes of Grand Ronde and the Yakama Nation, who claimed that an extension of the highway in 2008 destroyed a sacred site near Mount Hood. The U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on Wednesday sided with the federal government, saying the tribal chiefs case was moot.
This expansion added a central turning lane to a mile-long stretch of US Highway 26, which had seen an increase in traffic accidents and fatalities. The Oregon Department of Transportation (ODOT) owns the highway right-of-way easement which tribal chiefs say also encompasses a small sacred area known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat, or the place of large trees.
In the lawsuit, the tribal leaders called on the federal government to return much of the site to its original state before the highway construction razed the area, citing that the destruction of the sacred site violated religious laws, environmental and land conservation. It was deposed by Carol Logan, an elder of the Confederate Grand Ronde tribes, as well as Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson, hereditary chiefs of the Klickitat Band and Cascade Band of the Yakama Nation, respectively. Jackson died in 2020 from COVID-19.
According to the complaint, the Road Safety Extension cut down old Douglas firs, bulldozed a cemetery and a stone altar, and covered herbs and other parts of the site with an earth berm in 2008. The tribal leaders wanted the federal government to replant trees and medicinal plants, remove the berm and a guardrail, and rebuild the stone altar – which the federal government called “a pile of stones.”
“… when it comes to our sacred site – which is like a church to us – the government has unleashed chainsaws and bulldozers,” Logan wrote in a Washington post editorial. âI was devastated to see this destruction – the ground with tombstones was torn open like an open wound, and the great noble trees were cut to pieces. My heart broke when I saw that Ana Kwna Nchi nchi Patat was no longer the “place of great and great trees”.
According to previous court documents, tribes have used this site since time immemorial for religious ceremonies that cannot take place anywhere else. Villages, campsites and cemeteries were traditionally established by tribes for the deceased along the intricate and deeply rooted network of regional trails. The tribes used the campsites on trade trips to Celilo Falls, which was later destroy by the construction of the Dalles Dam, and also stopped at the site on their way to the Willamette Valley to pick the traditional food camas.
In a video which had been presented during the case, Slockish said the tribes have always taken care of their sacred lands and burial grounds.
âThis is what we have been commissioned by our Creator – to take care of them, to make sure that they are not disturbed,â he said.
Logan said in the video that the tribes have tried to educate ODOT over the years by attending meetings and speaking on TV and radio, but they have refused to listen. Since the Yakama nation, represented by Slockish and Jackson, is based in Washington, ODOT was left out of the long-running trial in 2012 on the basis of the 11th Amendment, which protects states from prosecution by people living in an other state.
“Because ODOT was unsuccessful in this action, none of the defendants has the authority to make the changes requested by the plaintiffs,” reads the dismissal.
In court documents, the federal government said tribal members never formally offered alternative solutions when the expansion was proposed, although lawyers for the leaders argued that the ODOT and the Federal Highway Commission could have found ways to add a central turning lane that did not. harm the site.
Further, according to the video, âNative Americans have repeatedly informed the government of the location of the graves and their significance. Even when the natives offered reasonable alternatives to the building plans, the government refused to listen, and instead they razed the cemeteries in 2008. â
In oral argument on Tuesday, November 16, lawyers for the federal government claimed that by the time tribal leaders filed a lawsuit in October 2008, the site had already been destroyed. One of the lawyers, Joan Pepin, claimed that no one knows what happened to the rocks that make up the stone altar, and therefore cannot be restored.
However, tribal chiefs argued that the federal government had not listened to their concerns before filing the complaint. While the sacking claimed that tribal chiefs’ demands would have made the highway less safe, lawyers representing the leaders said in their opening briefs that the federal government had changed plans to expand the highway in the 1980s when officials learned of the site – considerations not taken by road authorities in 2008.
In a response on Twitter, Luke Goodrich, senior counsel for Becket, the firm representing tribal chiefs, said the move – made days before Native American Heritage Day – demonstrates that the federal government should not be held accountable. destruction of sacred sites. .
âThe government did not care that devastating an ancient stone altar, bulldozing indigenous cemeteries and destroying the surrounding nature that people use to gather food and medicine would hamper their religious worship, a flagrant violation of the law. Restoration of Religious Freedom Act, he tweeted.