Will SCOTUS Save the Peaks?

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The Supreme Court is holding a private conference this Thursday to decide if they will review a recent decision in the ongoing legal battle between a coalition of 13 Native American Tribal Nations (and various environmental groups) and the National Forest Service (and a ski resort) over the use of treated (but non-potable) wastewater snow on the San Francisco Peaks. A mountain range that the tribes consider sacred land, and that using waste-water on it would be like putting death on the mountain”. The Obama administration is opposing review of the case, while the petitioners want to remind the government that they have a sacred responsibility towards the land they took from the tribes.

“It is worth remembering that our government took the Peaks from petitioner tribes. It placed the tribes on reservations and pledged to respect their cultures and traditions. It is hardly implausible that Congress passed a law in 1993 providing under these rare circumstances that the tribes’ religious liberty should be respected.”

So far, lawyers and judges haven’t been very respectful towards the tribes opposed to pumping wastewater onto sacred land just so a single ski resort can stay open longer. A Ninth Circuit judge said is was merely a case of damaged spiritual feelings”, while government lawyers have been outright insulting towards Native belief systems.

“Courtroom observers were dismayed by the lack of cultural sensitivity on the part of government lawyers. After a witness described how the spraying of wastewater to make artificial snow would defile the sanctity of medicinal plants gathered on the mountain, a government lawyer asked if the medicine man knew he could purchase herbs at health food stores. A government lawyer also questioned a witness by going down a long list of sacred sites one by one and asking if a particular site was on federal land. In each case, the witness, a Hopi man, humbly replied, “I don’t know.” Eventually, the witness told the lawyer that his culture doesn’t view land in that way, that there is no concept of land ownership. The lawyer did not acknowledge his statement in any way, but instead went back to the list, unapologetically asking the same questions in the same manner.”

You have to wonder if Barack “Black Eagle” Obama of the Crow Nation knows and approves of what Elena Kagan and the Department of Justice are doing in his administration’s name. Will it damage his popularity among Native American Indians, many of whom supported him in the 2008 elections? If SCOTUS decides to hear the appeal, will it be on a Supreme Court that includes Sonia Sotomayor, a judge who is a seeming advocate for the rights of minority religions?

In 1994, Judge Sotomayor ruled in favor of two prisoners who claimed to practice Santeria, a Caribbean religion that involves animal sacrifice and voodoo, saying that “distinctions between ‘traditional’ and ‘non-traditional’ religions” are “intolerable.”

Whether SCOTUS decides to hear the appeal or not, it could have lasting implications regarding the application of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and questions of how we approach issues of religious freedom and religious rights when the land itself is sacred and holy. I’m hoping SCOTUS doesn’t decide to punt on this one, and allows the case to be heard. If not, I guess “screw your sacred land, we want to ski” will be the rallying cry of our government and court system. For more information on this case, check out the round-up of official documents regarding this case at the SCOTUS Blog. You may also want to peruse the official Save The Peaks site.