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Big Solar Obstructing Sacred Land for Native Americans

Series: Going Solar | Story 5

Last updated 5/22/2015 at 3:10pm

The supposed objective of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 was to save and create jobs for Americans, but non-American firms also applied for and were granted permits to build utility scale renewable energy projects on public lands in the western U.S. One of these, Solar Millenium AG, from Germany, is now bankrupt. BrightSource, an Israeli firm, is the company behind the controversial Ivanpah project, which was built on sections of the Salt Song Trail. This trail is sacred to Indian tribes and groups, including the Chemehuevi and Southern Paiute. La Cuna de Aztlan Sacred Sites Protection Circle, Californians for Renewable Energy and six Native America elders filed suit against the Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the Department of Energy in December 2010. The case, heard in the 9th Circuit, Friday April 10, in Pasadena, California was argued under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act of 1993, which pertained specifically to the Ivanpah project. La Cuna had challenged the project because of violations of the National Environmental Protection Act, the National Historic Places Act of 1966, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and other laws protecting Native American antiquities and heritage, practices and culture, but the argument ultimately came down to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act on appeal. Native American spiritual and cultural practices often involve spiritual practices relating to the land but the American economic system treats land as a commodity. According to Chemehuevi elder Phil Smith and Quechan/Kumeyaay elder Preston Arrow-Weed, these contrasting values result in the loss of cultural identity. Litigants say that going to this particular site is meaningful to the practice of their religion. La Cuna attorney Cory Briggs argued that in his client’s religious tradition there is a path that goes through the Ivanpah site with “significant religious markers that are part of the oral tradition and the handing down of their religion that they actually have to be at.” His clients can’t get to the particular landmarks with a fence around the entire site. “By putting up the fence, you are essentially requiring them to take a detour from Point A to Point C, except Point B is religiously significant. “According to Briggs, litigant Phillip Smith went to a meeting and indicated he wanted to be consulted on this project but BLM never responded. A ruling on this hearing could take several months.


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