Since moving onto reservations most Native American communities have lost direct control over many of the sacred places within their community history and teachings. Holy or special places are vulnerable to non-Indian forces, which do not know about the meaning and purpose of the places and often destroy the sites for economic purposes.
Indian communities have always protected their sacred places. In recent decades tribal communities have worked hard to present legal cases, legislation, nonprofit foundations, and social protest as means to protect the burial grounds, history, and sacred places still living within their oral traditions.
The American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA) of the 1970s and later, provided directives from U.S. presidents that federal agencies needed to consult with tribal communities about actions that might affect tribal heritage and sacred sites on federal land.
The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was an outgrowth and legal version of AIRFA. Many criticized AIRFA for not having effective enforcement powers for tribal interests. NAGPRA extended and created some limited enforcement powers over the disposition of Indian ancestral remains, funeral gifts, and significant ceremonial bundles. NAGPRA addressed federal lands, museums, and organizations that were holders of Indian materials subject to repatriation.
NAGPRA’s enforcement power was restricted to withdrawal of federal funding for any organization that declined to repatriate. Nevertheless, protecting sacred places under federal jurisdiction has also been difficult for many Indian nations. Most of the Sioux communities refuse to take money for the Black Hills and instead are asking for return of the land. The Black Hills are a central sacred place within Sioux creation traditions. Since the federal government has trust responsibility for Indian peoples, the federal government enforces law on federal land and with agencies that receive federal grants. NAGPRA and AIRFA, however, did not extend federal enforceable actions over private landowners.
From a U.S. legal point of view, Indian lands ceded in treaties become the property of the United States. U.S. law does not recognize that Indians own land, rather Indians have the right to use land and sell only to the U.S. government. Indian peoples have not fully embraced the use and meaning of land as private property or solely as pieces of real estate.
For Indians, land was given as a gift from the Creator. The people belong to the land as do the plants and animals. The people are stewards of the land and are responsible for its preservation, management, and productivity to support future generations. The land is complete with sacred teachings, marked by tribal history, and places of interrelations to the powerful beings of the nature-spirit world.
Indian ceremonial and moral obligations to the creator cannot be satisfied without respecting the gifts of life, stewardship, land, and the give and take of cosmic order. Indigenous Peoples maintain an interpretation of the land that is largely irrelevant in U.S. law. Despite the privileging of U.S. legal interpretations of land, Indigenous Peoples maintain their own understandings of land, and the need to maintain the obligations and relations of the land. These age-old obligations motivate Indian communities to protect the land and its cultural heritage on both federal and private land.
In recent decades, nonprofits like the Native American Land Conservancy, created by the Twenty Nine Palms Reservation, buys land containing sacred sites and culturally significant plants to protect them from abuse or desecration. The Muscogee Creek village of Hickory Ground carries on ancient ceremonies in Alabama, within the old village sacred square, despite having been removed from that location over 170 years ago. Indian communities still see the land as a sacred gift that needs periodic ceremonial renewal and collective management and responsibility.