Please Help Complete Our New Film Series!

We are just a few months away from completing all four hours of our Standing on Sacred Ground series. It will provide a powerful tool to indigenous allies fighting to protect sacred places around the world. (Watch the trailer here.) Your tax-deductible donation will help us finish the series and give you the satisfaction of joining a time-tested team with a solid track record of effective education and advocacy that results in cultural and environmental preservation.

At the Sacred Land Film Project, we believe the values, worldviews and sacred places of indigenous peoples hold the key to restoring our damaged relationship with nature. Our greatest hope is that our work will help ensure a vibrant future for generations to come and for the ecological wisdom of indigenous cultures. But we cannot accomplish these important goals without your help now.

To help us finish the film series, one of our donors has offered a challenge grant to match all donations up to $25,000, so your gift will be doubled!

Please click here to make a tax-deductible donation. We are confident you will feel proud to contribute to the significant impact these films will have on our world – and are already having on the world.

Thank you very much for your interest and support!

IUCN Approves Sacred Natural Sites Motion

On September 12, delegates attending the World Conservation Congress in Jeju, South Korea, voted overwhelmingly to approve a motion aimed at strengthening protection for sacred places. The congress is convened every four years by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and represents governments, NGOs and environmentalists focusing on global issues. Ten thousand people attended this year’s congress. The motion, “Sacred Natural Sites – Support for Custodian Protocols and Customary Laws in the Face of Global Threats and Challenges,” was drafted by SLFP’s Christopher McLeod, along with Rob Wild and Bas Verschuuren of the Sacred Natural Sites Initiative, Liz Hosken of the Gaia Foundation and Gleb Raygorodetsky of the United Nations University, who all went to the congress to continue developing a global network of indigenous sacred site guardians and allies.

The motion is the second one on sacred natural sites and follows a similar motion — “Recognition and Conservation of Sacred Natural Sites in Protected Areas” — approved at the last World Conservation Congress in Barcelona, Spain, in 2008.  These two motions grew out of McLeod and Wild’s work producing the IUCN Best Practice Protected Area Guidelines, “Sacred Natural Sites: Guidelines for Protected Area Managers,” which were launched in Barcelona.

“Protected areas,” such as national parks, comprise more than 10 percent of the earth’s surface. Many of these areas contain places held sacred by indigenous people who may be denied access and who may have no role in taking care of these important places. Meanwhile, threats from development, tourism and mining are everywhere on the rise.

After the IUCN guidelines came out in 2008, Hosken took a copy to the Venda community in South Africa to see if the guidelines could be useful protecting the sacred Phiphidi Waterfall (more information at Gaia Foundation website), which was threatened by tourism development. The Venda community welcomed the guidelines and the motion, but more importantly they responded by articulating their own community governance laws for Venda sacred sites. The Venda, along with traditional custodians from three other African nations, then drafted a “Statement on Common African Customary Laws for the Protection of Sacred Natural Sites,” which the Gaia Foundation published, and it is valuable reading for indigenous communities working to protect sacred sites.

This year, recognizing that indigenous custodians the world over have their own protocols and guidelines for taking care of sacred places, the authors of the motion wanted to try to gain formal IUCN recognition of such indigenous customary laws, protocols and governance systems that have long protected sacred sites and territories around the world. This year’s motion was approved by 100 percent of NGOs and 97 percent of the governments who voted.


SLFP would like to thank those who sponsored the motion and everyone who voted for it, including our sponsor, Fundacion Pro-Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta (Colombia), and co-sponsors, Fundación Urundei (Argentina), Center for Humans and Nature (USA), Applied Environmental Research Foundation (India), Fundación para el Desarrollo de Alternativas Comunitarias de Conservación del Trópico (Ecuador), Terralingua (Canada), The Christensen Fund (USA), Indigenous Peoples of Africa Coordinating Committee (South Africa) and The Wilderness Foundation (South Africa).

Taos Pueblo Tribe Regains Ownership of Sacred Hot Springs

As the sun set on the annual Taos Pueblo Powwow in Taos, N.M., on July 14, representatives of the Taos Land Trust, surrounded by dancers and tribal members from across the country, officially returned a sacred hot springs property to the Taos Pueblo Tribe.

The Ponce de León Hot Springs, just south of Taos, is a sacred site to the Taos Pueblo and has been used by tribal members for ceremonial activities since time immemorial. For more than a century, however, the 44-acre property had been in the hands of private landowners.

According to a press release, Taos Land Trust, a local land conservation organization, received funding in 1997 to acquire the property from private landowners, to protect it from commercial development. After a 15-year search for the best entity to preserve the land and its natural and cultural resources, the organization has now transferred legal ownership to the Taos Pueblo, returning the site to its original indigenous owners.

“This is kind of relationship between a conservation organization and a tribe is a rare thing, but we think a very important precedent,” former Taos Land Trust Executive Director Ernie Atencio said. “Giving this property back to its original indigenous owners was a victory for conservation, for community relations and for justice.”

New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez attended the ceremony, where Taos Pueblo Governor Laureano Romero, Warchief Benito Sandoval and Taos Land Trust President Christopher Smith signed the land-transfer documents.

“Blue Lake, the Rio Grande, Red Clay, the Hot Springs … these areas are critical to our well being, without them we would not exist,” Sandoval said. “It is important to preserve these areas for the future of our children and all who live here. We are very grateful!”

A conservation easement signed by the land trust in 2009 permanently protects the property, limiting any future development, no matter who owns it. Under the terms of the easement, the property must remain accessible to all the people of the Taos community, who have been enjoying its waters for generations.

While acknowledging the challenge of balancing land preservation with public access, Atencio said the Taos Pueblo were committed to providing that access and would continue to do so through a free permit system.

Standing On Sacred Ground Screenings a Success

A standing-room only crowd of indigenous leaders, NGOs and U.N. representatives previewed Sacred Land Film Project’s forthcoming film series Standing on Sacred Ground at a side event of the U.N. Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues in New York on May 9. It was the first of two successful May screenings of the four-part series, which explores the interconnection of indigenous communities, sacred-site protection and environmental justice.

The event showcased a segment on the Winnemem Wintu tribe of Northern California, whose ancestral sacred site on the McCloud River, known as Puberty Rock, is at risk of being submerged forever if the U.S. government raises the height of nearby Shasta Dam. The Winnemem are also fighting to preserve the sanctity of their annual puberty ceremony from the often disrespectful public who gather at Lake Shasta, a popular site for tourists.

Immediately after the segment was shown, Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk spoke on the historical plight of her tribe and provided an update on plans for this year’s puberty ceremony. Sisk reminded the audience that the effort to save sacred places “is not an individual struggle — it’s our struggle overall.”

The U.N. event also featured a segment about the efforts of the Telengit of Russia’s Altai Republic to create nature parks to protect sacred sites and to stop a planned gas pipeline across their sacred Ukok Plateau, a UNESCO World Heritage site. Afterwards, Suzanne Benally of Cultural Survival updated the audience on their global campaign to stop the pipeline. A lively dialog between the audience and the participants continued on well after the presentations.

On May 15-16, SLFP had the opportunity to participate in the annual conference and film festival of the International Funders for Indigenous Peoples, whose theme this year was “Towards a Better World: Strengthening Indigenous Sustainability.” In a dedicated screening room, SLFP previewed the first two episodes of Standing on Sacred Ground over the course of two evenings.

The first night featured episode two, “Profit and Loss,” which focuses on threats to indigenous sacred lands  in Papua New Guinea and Alberta, Canada. In Papua New Guinea, construction of the Ramu NiCo nickel mine has led to the forced relocation of a village and destroyed a cemetery; the mine threatens to pollute the life-giving Ramu River and will soon begin dumping mine waste into the sea. In the Athabasca River Delta of Alberta, the Dene, Cree and Métis people are on the front lines of a corporate onslaught caused by tar sands extraction, which is polluting their land, river, air and sacred sites, coinciding with a surge in deformed fish and cancer rates.

On the second night, audiences previewed episode one, “Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven,” which featured the above-mentioned stories of the Telengit of the Russian Altai Republic and the Winnemem Wintu of California.

On both nights, Standing on Sacred Ground Producer/Director Toby McLeod and Managing Producer Jennifer Huang were on hand to discuss the films and answer questions.

CA Tribe Fights Wind Farm on Sacred Land

As bulldozers began clearing the site of a new wind-energy facility in the desert of western Imperial County, California — ripping up forests of ocotillo cacti, damaging sensitive wildlife habitat and threatening ancestral graves of the Quechan Tribe — tribal members and their allies stood outside the La Jolla corporate offices of Pattern Energy on May 15, demanding a halt to the project.

“How would you feel if the President proposed a wind project on top of your ancestors’ graves, or on top of the Arlington National cemetery?” Keeny Escalanti, president of the Quechan Tribe of the Fort Yuma Indian Reservation, asked at the La Joya press conference, where the tribe formally announced it was going to court to save its sacred land.

On May 11, the U.S. Department of Interior gave final approval to Pattern Energy’s Ocotillo Wind Energy Facility, granting it a 30-year right-of-way to build and operate the project over nearly 15 square miles. It would be California’s largest wind farm on public land, placing 112 giant turbines alongside the desert community of Ocotillo, at the far southern end of the Imperial Valley.

But the Quechan and other area tribes, including the Viejas Band of Kumeyaay Indians, say the area — which contains at least a dozen cremation sites, hundreds of archeological sites like petroglyphs and geoglyphs, and countless sites of spiritual significance — meets the criteria to be designated and protected as a traditional cultural property under the National Historic Preservation Act. The desert region is also home sensitive plant and animal species, including the endangered Peninsular Bighorn Sheep.

The Quechan Tribe filed a complaint in federal court on May 14, seeking an injunction to stop the project, one of 19 renewable energy projects designated last year by the Bureau of Land Management for “fast-track” approval. The complaint alleges that the Department of Interior, in approving the project, violated several federal laws and regulations, including the National Historic Preservation Act and the land’s designation as a Class L “limited use” area, which is intended to “protect sensitive, natural, scenic, ecological, and cultural resource values.”

Prior to project approval, according to a press release issued by the tribe, “motorized vehicles could only travel on designated roads and it was forbidden to move rocks around. With the stroke of a pen, the area can now be bulldozed to dig foundations 25 to 35 feet deep and 70 to 80 feet in diameter to accommodate 112 wind turbines over 440 feet tall as well as 42 miles of new roads.”

The complaint also claims the Quechan Tribe’s efforts to participate in the permitting process were “impaired by Interior’s failure to exchange and share information with the Tribe, and Interior’s failure to consider or incorporate the Tribe’s comments and concerns in the planning process.”

In contrast, the Department of Interior, in its record of decision on the project, said it “sought meaningful consultation with the affected tribes,” and that, in response to tribal concerns, the final project eliminated 43 of the 155 turbines initially proposed, reduced the project area by 2,285 acres, and increased the distance of the turbines from “a number of important resources.” Still, the department acknowledged that the project would “still have an unmitigated adverse effect on resources that are spiritually and culturally significant to the affected tribes.”

For its part, Pattern Energy says it is “committed to building the project in a responsible manner” and that the project’s environmental impact statement “clearly demonstrates that we have designed the Ocotillo Wind Project to minimize impacts on cultural and environmental resources.”

But at the press conference, Escalanti said the final environmental impact statement “does not begin to state the significance this area has for our people, does not contain the voices of indian people.” He continued, “If our concerns were taken seriously, then the administration, which promised a better government-to-government consultation and a better relationship with tribal governments, wouldn’t even think about placing a wind turbine near our cremation sites.”

Escalanti noted that the Quechan tribal council is not opposed to renewable energy. “We believe that the fundamental values underlying renewable energy, such as a harmonious relationship with the earth, are in agreement with our own traditional values.” However, he said the tribe was opposed to the Ocotillo project because it is “unnecessarily leading to the destruction of our cultural resources and heritage.”

Some environmental conservationists and local residents are also opposed to the project. Concerns include threats to plant and animal species and habitats, most notably the authorized “take” (i.e., displacement and even death) of 10 endangered bighorn sheep — five ewes and five lambs — within the project area. There is also the question of the project’s potential benefits: although the Ocotillo Wind Energy project website says the wind farm will be able to power 125,000 homes, the Interior Department’s record of decision sets that number at 25,000.

On May 18, a federal judge heard a motion to consider issuing a temporary injunction to halt construction. That decision is forthcoming. Meanwhile, a train loaded with what appeared to be segments of wind turbines arrived in Imperial Valley on May 20.

Action Alert: Help Protect Winnemem Ceremony

Each summer, the Winnemem Wintu, whose home is the McCloud River watershed in northern California, hold a four-day coming-of-age ceremony on the river for the tribe’s young women. But this sacred ritual has, in recent years, been threatened by the presence of outsiders drinking alcohol and shouting threats and racial slurs as they travel on the river.

Since 2005, the Winnemem have repeatedly asked the U.S. Forest Service to close a 300-yard stretch of the river to boating and general access, in order to protect the sanctity of the ceremony as well as the safety of the young initiates as they swim across the river. Instead, the Forest Service instituted a “voluntary closure,” which has only served to make the tribe a target of harassment.

Despite having documented previous disruptions of their ceremony, the Winnemem’s requests for a mandatory closure have been met with a lack of response or an ineffective effort to protect their traditions, which the U.S. government is mandated to do under the American Indian Religious Freedom Act. The tribe’s request is also consistent with Forest Service obligations to protect religious practice under the Religious Freedom and Restoration Act. The ceremony is also protected under the U.N. Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, which President Obama has signed.

This year’s ceremony, to take place June 30 to July 3, holds special importance because it’s being held for the young woman who is training to become the next tribal leader. It will be essential to maintain the security and sanctity of the ceremony, and to protect her from undue trauma — which can only be achieved by closing this small stretch of river for four days.

On April 16, Winnemem leader Caleen Sisk and other tribal leaders met with U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore at his Vallejo office to present their request for a mandatory closure; outside the building tribal members held a protest with signs reading “Respect Native Women. Close the River” and “Our Ceremony, Our Rights, Close the River.” Moore promised to review the request and respond by May 1.

To learn more about the Winnemem struggle to close the river and their meeting with Moore, watch this video on the Winnemem Wintu website.

What you can do

  • Please contact Regional Forester Randy More at or by calling 707-562-8737, and respectfully urge him to close the McCloud River to general recreational use along the 300-yard stretch where the Winnemem puberty ceremony will take place from June 30 to July 3. Click here for a sample letter.
  • If you represent a tribe and want to support the Winnemem, please print, sign and mail this tribal resolution in support of a river closure.
  • Learn more, and sign an online petition, at

Read Our Latest Sacred Site Report, Celilo Falls in Oregon

For more than 12,000 years, native people inhabited several villages clustered around the roar of Wyam of N’ch-iwana — Celilo Falls on the Columbia River — the center of a vast salmon-based fishing and trading economy and the nucleus of many sacred sites, petroglyphs and burial grounds.

Celilo Falls was a natural wonder, by volume the largest waterfall in North America and the sixth largest in the world, and it was here that the Creator supplied the tribes with countless millions of salmon and other sustenance.

It was unthinkable that any of this would ever be lost. But in 1957, a dam was built downriver at The Dalles, Oregon, and Celilo Falls was flooded to facilitate barge traffic past the rapids and in an attempt to force the Wyam people to abandon their sacred sites and homes, as had been the fate of every other Indian village along the length of the Columbia.

So strong were the tribes’ connections to Celilo, however, that despite the many depredations they suffered, the Wyam people remained at Celilo Village, and have persevered as the oldest continuously inhabited settlement in North America. They await the return of Celilo Falls.

PNG Court Rules in Favor of Nickel Mine

A court in Papua New Guinea this week cleared the way for the Chinese state-owned China Metallurgical Group Corp. to proceed with a $1.5 billion nickel-mining project, which had been blocked by injunctions over the environmental impact of the company’s plan to dispose of mine tailings in the ocean.

The long-awaited decision denied a petition for a permanent injunction and lifted a temporary injunction that had been granted to the plaintiffs, landowners on the Rai Coast, who bathe, fish and travel in the waters where millions of tons of mining waste would be dumped.

In his ruling, judge David Cannings found there was “a high likelihood that serious environmental harm … will be caused by operation of the [deep-sea tailings placement].” Yet he nevertheless refused to grant a permanent injunction, citing, among other things, the plaintiff’s delay in bringing the action (well after the government had approved waste-disposal plan), the economic consequences for the companies and other stakeholders, and potential negative impact on investor confidence in PNG as a whole.

Suggesting that the landowners might receive court help in the future — once the damage is done — the judge also noted, “If environmental harm of the type reasonably apprehended by the plaintiffs does actually occur, they will be able to commence fresh proceedings at short notice and seek the type of relief being denied them in these proceedings.” The court’s one concession to the plaintiffs’ requests was that they must be consulted and kept informed every three months on tailings-disposal issues, for the life of the mine. The Ramu plaintiffs intend to appeal the ruling.

Rewind one week, to a seemingly unrelated gathering at the David Brower Center (SLFP’s home office in Berkeley, Calif.) sponsored by Earth Island Institute, where Stewart Brand and Winona LaDuke debated about technology and the environment. An audience member — our friend Peter Coyote — stood up and commented that Brand was operating from a place of intellect and LaDuke from a place of wisdom. Peter suggested leaders would do well to have wisdom advisers, not just intellectuals and technocrats offering policy advice.

The concept strikes us as directly relevant to the court case in PNG. The ruling, applauded by the governor of Madang and PNG’s mining minister, is a clear example of the values that currently preside across the globe — particularly here in the United States, where our need to consume drives a frantic demand for more. The search for ever-increasing profits and more and more stuff is finally becoming imbedded in places previously considered too remote, pristine places like PNG, where people still live off the land and many deal in trade rather than money. These places are now under siege by a new value system that will reshape the land and the culture until they are a direct reflection of the dominant system. Wisdom seems far off indeed as mining waste begins to flow into the sea.

Here at the Sacred Land Film Project, we follow the news from afar, feeling as though it was just yesterday we were filming in Madang with our new partners and friends, promising to bring their story to the world. We are now in the heat of writing and editing the story, to fulfill our promise and produce a documentary record that will be a tribute to the voices of wisdom that still remain.

For more information, read the full court decision, visit Papua New Guinea Mine Watch, and listen to the plaintiffs’ lawyer, Tifanny Nongorr, comment on the decision.

July 21 Event: Winona LaDuke and Stewart Brand

Two thought leaders with clashing viewpoints on the future of environmental stewardship will be going head to head on the topic of whether technologies like nuclear power can be used to foster sustainability, at 7 p.m. on July 21 at the David Brower Center in Berkeley, as part of  Earth Island Presents.

Winona LaDuke, Anishinaabekwe (Ojibwe) environmentalist, economist and writer will appear with Stewart Brand, author, former editor of the Whole Earth Catalog and founder of several organizations like the Global Business Network. The discussion promises to be enlightening and contentious as Brand is a proponent of nuclear power, GMO crops and geoengineering  (check out his book, “Whole Earth Discipline“), while LaDuke advocates for a nuclear-free future, green energy and ecological practices. LaDuke’s latest book, “The Militarization of Indian Country from Geronimo to Bin Laden,” addresses military impacts on Native Americans, from naming to nuclear testing.

Journalist Mark Hertsgaard, environment correspondent for The Nation and author of the recent book “Hot: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth,” will moderate the discussion.

Don’t miss this event! Get your tickets now.

What: Fix or Nix: The Environment & Technology
Mark Hertsgaard in conversation with Stewart Brand and Winona LaDuke

When: Thursday, July 21, 2011
7:00 p.m.; doors open at 6:30 p.m.

Where: Richard & Rhoda Goldman Theater
The David Brower Center
2150 Allston Way (at Oxford), Berkeley
One block from downtown Berkeley BART

Tickets: $10-$20 for adults, $5-$10 for ages 21 and under (buy them here)
For more information call 510-859-9100.

Grand Canyon Mining Ban Extended

U.S. Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar yesterday announced a six-month extension of the moratorium on new uranium mining claims in a million-acre buffer zone around the Grand Canyon.

The temporary ban — enacted in July 2009 and due to expire next month — will now be in effect until December of this year, while the Bureau of Land Management completes a final environmental impact statement that evaluates the department’s “preferred alternative” of a 20-year ban on new mining in the full million-acre zone. Once that statement is published in the fall, Salazar said, he will be ready to make a final decision on the 20-year withdrawal.

Speaking from the South Rim of the canyon, Salazar emphasized the need for a management plan guided by “caution, wisdom and science,” in order to protect the World Heritage Site, drinking-water supplies, the tourism economy and tribal interests, noting that “many tribes in the area see their history and culture woven throughout the Grand Canyon’s landscape.”

Attempting to quell criticism that the withdrawal would deny access to uranium resources in the area, Salazar pointed out that it would apply only to new claims — the small number of existing claims would remain in effect and could continue to be developed. Referring to those claims, Salazar urged “cautious development with strong oversight.”

Salazar recalled the words President Theodore Roosevelt, spoken years ago at the same location: “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve on it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.”

Read this Feb. 25, 2010 Sacred Land News post to learn more about the moratorium, the existing mining claims and the potential environmental impacts.