Standing Rock botanical sanctuary threatened by cellphone tower

Published in Indian Country Today in 2007. For more on topics like this, see my book, American Apartheid: The Native American Struggle....

Porcupine, N.D. — The district council of Porcupine, one of eight districts that make up the Standing Rock Sioux Nation, in North and South Dakota, voted on Thursday, August 9, to close down a botanical sanctuary within its boundaries. The 85-acre tract shelters many species of traditional medicine plants, including some that appear to have been planted by Lakotas of generations past, according to experts who certified the refuge as part of a continent-wide network.

           Elder Kenneth Painte, Sr., Lakota, called threats to the continued existence of the sanctuary “a downgrade for Standing Rock.” When reached by Indian Country Today, the district’s chairman, Benjamin Harrison, refused to comment.

           For the district’s decision to go into effect, the Standing Rock tribal council must ratify it. Doing so would presumably clear the way for a cellphone tower to be built on the land; the installation would be one of 29 to be placed around the 2.3-million-acre reservation by 2009 in order to improve communications, especially for police and other first responders.

            However, abolishing the sanctuary may not be necessary for the communications project to proceed. According to Department of Interior Indian Affairs spokesperson Nedra Darling, the tower sites are not entirely settled. The tribal telecommunications office has agreed to move five because of cultural concerns, she said. 

“More towers could be adjusted due to recently raised concerns,” Darling added. “There’s been a lot of cooperation between the federal government and the tribe on this matter, and respectful accommodations continue to be made. The sensitivity to the issues has given us a high level of comfort.”

            Aubrey Skye, Hankpapa Lakota, did not share Darling’s sanguine view. He pointed to the Finding of No Significant Impact in the Environmental Assessment that was prepared by the Great Plains Region Bureau of Indian Affairs in 2005 to determine whether the reservation-wide communications project complies with National Environmental Policy Act. This determination, or FONSI, left the sanctuary vulnerable to development

The plant refuge was mentioned in the report, but neither placing a 197-foot tower near its sweat lodge nor introducing noxious weeds such as leafy spurge, which the assessment described as an inevitable result of construction, was deemed a “significant impact.”

            The sanctuary also abuts the nesting ground of 10 to 12 pairs of bald eagles, according to local residents. These were not described in the report, though possible “bird strikes” were, as cellphone towers kill four to five million migrating birds annually, according to the document. In respect to these threats, Porcupine resident Lynelle Bahm, Lakota, asked: “After all the environmental harm that’s been done to eagles, why are we doing this?” 

            Skye’s objections, which were initially focused on the Porcupine tower, have broadened, particularly since the tribal council’s rejection in July of a motion to relocate that particular installation to a less sensitive spot. He has been working with Painte to organize tribal members against the communications project and has referred to studies showing possible ill effects on health and the environment. For example, he has cited the American Cancer Society’s reluctance to declare cellphone radiation safe. More than 200 tribal members have signed a petition calling for a referendum on the towers.

            The protestors have also set up a conference on the consequences of radiation from varied sources, including uranium mining and wireless communication, to take place on August 28 at Prairie Knights Casino in Fort Yates, North Dakota. “Our health is already poor,” Painte said. “The towers will make matters worse.” 

            Both Painte and Skye appeared before the Porcupine District Council during its August 9 meeting. They had been summoned there to explain the presence of the sanctuary’s sweat lodge, which Painte established in its present location some 15 years ago, and to account for $600 the refuge had received over two years for seeds and other items from United Plant Savers, a nonprofit dedicated to the preservation of native  plants. 

            “We had the receipts and a letter from United Plant Savers,” said Skye. “Council members were firing questions at me from all directions, and when they couldn’t find any irregularities with the sanctuary, someone suggested that they just get rid of it. So they took their vote.” About the inquiry into sweat lodge, Painte commented, “They asked why it was ‘hidden.’ If they had spirituality and tradition in their lives, they would have known it was there.”

In addition to organizing tribal members against the communications project, Painte and Skye have requested a Traditional Cultural Properties (TCP) survey of all proposed tower locations. The study would ascertain the existence of any ceremonial or historic sites that could be adversely affected. This request, according to Standing Rock Tribal Historic Preservation Officer Tim Mentz, Upper Yanktonia Dakota/Hunkpapa, has been turned over to the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

            “It’s the responsibility of the federal agency to satisfy the requirements of the National Historic Preservation Act Section 101(d)(6)(B) when an individual or tribe applies ‘religious and cultural significance’ to areas they deem important,” Mentz explained. Such a survey can, however, introduce its own problems, Mentz said: “It may force us to reveal information about sacred sites that should remain proprietary.” 

            Painte called the entire situation “a test from the Creator,” saying: “Do we want spirituality or do we want ‘progress’ that’s killing everything. It’s all about money. No one was arguing about any of this until the cellphone towers came up. We need to sit down and discuss this in a moderate way.

Top photo courtesy Aubrey Skye; other photos and text c. Stephanie Woodard.

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