Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Despite Legal Protections Sacred Spaces Still At Risk: The Black Hills

It is a situation that repeats itself with depressing regularity. Despite legal protections put into place by domestic, regional and international law, there seems to be no end to the onslaught of destruction to indigenous sacred places. The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples provides specific protections for indigenous lands. There is article 8(2)(b) which requires state to “provide effective mechanisms for prevention of and redress for... any action which has the aim or effect of dispossessing them [indigenous peoples] of their lands, territories or resources.”

Further, there is Article 11(2):

"States shall provide redress through effective mechanisms, which
may include restitution, developed in conjunction with indigenous
peoples, with respect to their cultural, intellectual, religious and spiritual
property taken without their free, prior and informed consent
or in violation of their laws, traditions and customs."

Sacred spaces are surely “spiritual property.”

Article 26 is very clear about the protections to be given to indigenous lands:

"Article 26
1. Indigenous peoples have the right to the lands, territories and
resources which they have traditionally owned, occupied or otherwise
used or acquired.
2. Indigenous peoples have the right to own, use, develop and
control the lands, territories and resources that they possess by reason
of traditional ownership or other traditional occupation or use,
as well as those which they have otherwise acquired.
3. States shall give legal recognition and protection to these lands,
territories and resources. Such recognition shall be conducted with
due respect to the customs, traditions and land tenure systems of the
indigenous peoples concerned."

It is not disputed that the Black Hills are sacred to indigenous peoples nor that they were wrongfully taken. The United States Supreme Court, in its 1980 ruling in United States v Sioux Nation of Indians , made that clear.

Yet, according to this news report, another sacred space is being made vulnerable to destruction in the name of development. The article states that development plans are “spelling the end of one of the last quiet vestiges of traditional Lakota worship in the Black Hills, or Paha Sapa.”

What can be done to preserve sacred spaces? What good are provisions in international instruments if they are not enforceable and beyond the reach of those who need to access them? And while academic and bureaucratic debates and conversations abound on these matters, fragile landscapes continue to disappear. Surely this is unacceptable. Surely indigenous sacred spaces should be given legally required protections. Surely accessing those legal protections must not be put out of reach by those who need to avail themselves of these. But what is being done—in concrete practical terms—to make these legal provisions useable and meaningful?

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