A lawsuit over a sacred site on Mount Hood was settled Oct. 5, 2023 after 15 years of litigation and negotiations. (Courtesy of law firm Becket — Religious Liberty for All)
A 15-year-old case pitting Northwest Native Americans against the federal government that’s been awaiting a U.S. Supreme Court hearing has settled, with the government agreeing to partially restore a sacred site in Oregon.
The agreement was announced Thursday, with a filing in the Supreme Court calling for the case to be dismissed. Luke Goodrich, lead counsel for the plaintiffs, the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation and the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, called the agreement a “landmark settlement.”
“The plaintiffs are encouraged that this is a step in the right direction, and that they’re going to be able to resume their religious and cultural and traditional ways of life at the site,” Goodrich said.
The U.S. Department of Transportation and Department of the Interior did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
The case, Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, centered on a federal and state decision in 2008 to build a turn lane off Highway 26 about 13 miles from Government Camp near Mount Hood. That expansion, which the agencies said would help prevent traffic accidents, altered a sacred site known as Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat, the “Place of Big Big Trees,” which was used by tribes for ceremonies.
Tribal members and their supporters said the expansion at the sacred site violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, a 1993 law that essentially prohibits any state or federal agency from impeding religious practices.
They asked that trees at the site be replanted, that the federal agencies remove an embankment over the ancient burial ground and that they allow reconstruction of the stone altar.
The agreement excludes the embankment, but the transportation agency agreed to plant a tree barrier protecting the site. A diagram with the agreement details where the agency will plant a barrier of 28 native trees, a mix of Western redcedar, bigleaf maple and vine maple. The government also agreed to look for stone to replace the altar. Goodrich said an archeological study determined that the stone was several centuries old.
“We haven’t been able to find the stones that were scattered. So the altar will be rebuilt, but it won’t be the same as it was before,” Goodrich said.
Goodrich expects that the tribes to resume their practices at the site next year.
The suit was brought by Wilbur Slockish, hereditary chief of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation. Other plaintiffs include Carol Logan, an elder with the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde and a spiritual practitioner, and the nonprofits Cascade Geographic Society. They were joined by Chief Jonny Jackson, a member of the Confederated Tribes and Bands of the Yakama Nation, and Michael Jones, who led the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. Jackson and Jones have died since the suit was originally filed in 2008.
The case coincides with a similar lawsuit before the Ninth Circuit, Apache Stronghold v. United States, over a sacred Apache site in Arizona. That case stems from a 2014 congressional act that led to a trade of land between Resolution Copper, a multinational mining company, and the federal government. Resolution Copper gave the government 5,300 acres of environmentally sensitive and culturally important lands and, in exchange, the government gave the company 2,400 acres. That tract contains large copper deposits but also a sacred site, Chi’chil Bildagoteel, which the Western Apache use for numerous religious ceremonies.
Goodrich said a decision in that case is expected any day.
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