Beliefnet News

By Tim Murphy
Religion News Service

(RNS) With summer wildfires raging across the western United States, California’s two largest Indian tribes are taking aim at Forest Service officials who they say are interfering with sacred lands.
Members of the Yurok and Kurak nations consider the afflicted high country in Six Rivers National Forest to be sacred training areas for tribal doctors and priests. Tribal representatives argue that the Forest Service is prioritizing natural resources over religious concerns.
“Our desire is for them to not fight fire in that religious area,”
said Leaf Hillman, vice chairman of the Kurak tribe. “Fire is not something that we’re afraid of. Fire is a sacred entity.”
Two smaller tribes, the Hupa and Tolowa, also consider the land to hold sacred significance. Wildfires have scorched more than 100 square miles of forest since being sparked by lightning in June.
Tribal members travel to the high country to fast and pray, and to rejuvenate themselves after a ceremony. Some sites are listed on the National Register of Historic Places because of their cultural and religious significance.
Tyrone Kelley, the Forest Service’s supervisor for the afflicted area, downplayed allegations that his agency has ignored tribal concerns, stating that the agency has a “memorandum of understanding” with the local tribes. Tribal representatives have been working in consultation with the firefighting crews on the ground during fire suppression efforts, he said.
“They let us know where spiritual sights are, and how we might be able to avoid (them), or what type of tactics we might be able to use to protect those sites,” Kelley said. “We make adjustments, but of course firefighters’ safety is the top priority.”
But Bill Tripp, eco-cultural restoration specialist for the Kurak tribe, argued that tribal suggestions have fallen on deaf ears.
“There’s no assurance that anything that has to do with our consultation is going to take place on the ground,” said Tripp, who alleged that the firefighting strategy is designed to protect timber projects instead of Indian interests.
Hilmman said the Kurak are considering taking legal action to ensure future cooperation.
It’s not the first time that Western Indian tribes have clashed with the federal governments on religious grounds. Recently, the Tohono O’odham tribe, whose Arizona reservation extends into Mexico, claimed that a border fence being constructed would restrict access to important religious sites.
Copyright 2008 Religion News Service. All rights reserved. No part of this transmission may be distributed or reproduced without written permission.

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