Congressman Ben Ray Luján Offers Amendment to Protect Native American Sacred Sites

Congressman Ben Ray Luján of New Mexico’s Third District offered an amendment today to H.R. 687, the Southeast Arizona Land Exchange and Conservation Act. His amendment would protect Native American sacred and cultural sites in a land exchange between the federal government and Resolution Copper Mining. Below are Luján’s remarks as delivered. Further consideration of H.R. 687 has been postponed and a vote on his amendment is not expected today.

“Mr. Chairman, thank you. I rise today to offer an amendment that would protect Native American sacred and cultural sites associated with the land conveyance outlined in this bill. This bill transfers land out of the public domain and into the hands of a private mining company, with no guarantee of protecting sacred sites.

“Currently, the cultural and sacred sites of Apache Leap and Oak Flat are located on public land and not on an Indian Reservation. Although these sites are not on an Indian Reservation, they are still sacred to the San Carlos Apache, the Yavapai Indian Tribe, and other tribes in Arizona – just as a Catholic church, where I practice my faith, is considered a holy place even though it’s not located in Vatican City.

“Because these sacred and cultural sites are currently on public land they are protected under certain federal laws. This bill would transfer these lands that contain sacred sites to a private company for private ownership, effectively taking away any protections under federal law.

“Additionally, it is important to protect the subsurface area of these sacred sites, which this bill does not do. Native American sacred sites, just as a church or temple, have both surface and subsurface religious qualities. Would we allow subsurface mining below the National Cathedral? I would say not.

“I have heard from my colleagues that mining would take place below the ground and therefore leave the sacred sites undisturbed. But this is a rather absurd argument, and quite honestly not factual.

“Mr. Chairman, I reserve the balance of my time.”

“I appreciate that Mr. Chairman. I don’t know where to begin with the comments suggested by one of my colleagues who I respect, Mr. Gosar, Mr. Chairman. Look, I don’t know how to be more clear. These sacred sites are on public land. I think it would be a new low for this Congress to go and tell tribes across America that sacred sites that are not located on a reservation are no longer sacred. I’m surprised. I’m appalled, and I think tribes across the country would be as well.

“But let me be clear, Section 4(i) and 4(j) – I ask the author of the legislation to come back and maybe read it with me – the way that I read this, there is only one section of law that is referred to that can’t be enforced because this is on private lands not public lands. And the area that’s identified in the law is the National Environmental Policy Act.

“What happens when this land is given from a public perspective back to a private perspective is we lose the opportunity and ability to enforce the National Historic Preservation Act, the Native American Graves Preservation and Repatriation Act, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and the Administration’s December 2012 Memorandum of Understanding protecting sacred sites.

“Mr. Chairman, I would like to ask for unanimous consent to submit into the record all of the organizations, including tribes across America and all the tribes from Arizona that are opposed to this underlying legislation.

“Now Mr. Chairman, I have here not a picture of Apache Leap, but a picture of what happens with block cave mining. So even the poor attempt that talks about trying to address Apache Leap, the author of the legislation failed to include Oak Flat, which is a sacred site that would be covered here.

“Now this is what happens with block cave mining, and don’t take my word for it. I’d also like to ask unanimous consent to submit into the record a presentation by Resolution Copper Mining, Mr. Chairman. Now in this, which I wish I would have blown up, Resolution Copper shows pictures of how this starts to cave in so it eventually looks like this.

“This is a commonsense piece of legislation, and Mr. Chairman [Natural Resources Committee Chair Doc Hastings], in your words, this will improve the law. This will improve what we are trying to do here. This doesn’t give the Secretary blanket authority to do anything. Let’s just protect sacred sites and work together. The Congress has always done this. There is a reason why Democrats and Republicans have come together to create a Native American Caucus and to advocate for tribes across the America.

“With that Mr. Chairman, I would ask that my colleagues please give due consideration to support this amendment, and I hope to work with the Majority and Chairman Hastings, who I respect very much, to try to get this addressed. Thank you.”