Ninth Circuit Fails To Protect Tribal Sacred Sites

The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals recently sustained the long-standing federal policy of subordinating Tribal sacred sites and culture to economic pursuits. The Te-Moak Tribe of Western Shoshone Indians of Nevada v. U.S. Department of the Interior decision highlights the general lack of enforceable protections codified in federal and state laws for Tribal cultural resources, and the inadequacy of President Clinton’s Executive Order 13007 in actually accomplishing what President Clinton ordered–that is, to “protect and preserve Indian religious practices.”

In the case, the Te-Moak Tribe among other Tribes and interested parties appealed the BLM’s approval of a plan to expand gold mining in and around traditional Native sacred sites where religious ceremonies are still held to this day.


The thrust of the Ninth Circuit’s recent holding is that E.O. 13007 “requires only that sacred sites be accommodated ‘to the extent practicable.’  [BLM] determined that further accommodation was not practicable given the lack of specificity as to location and as to the number of Tribal members who use any particular site on the pediment for religious activities.”

Finding no “arbitrary or capricious agency action,” the Ninth Circuit upheld the district court’s summary judgment against the Tribes and other appellants, paving the way for more mining and the destruction of Native American sacred sites.

The sole dissenter hit the nail on the head regarding the majority’s flawed and anti-Tribal reasoning that:

the analysis failed to recognize that comments regarding the proposal did point to the area where the mine is being built as an area in which worship occurs; it demanded quantification of that use as a condition of Executive Order coverage, when no such quantification is necessary; and it required greater specificity of location than comports with Shoshone religious practices. As to the last point, to require greater specificity would interfere with Shoshone religious practices, as those practices appear to regard certain recognized natural areas, rather than specific set locations, as places for worship.

In essence, without teeth (i.e. actual enforcement mechanisms and concrete directives to federal and state governmental agencies), all federal laws and executive orders purporting to “protect and preserve Indian religious practices” and cultural resources have no real authority to effect positive change and truly protect Tribes and their threatened cultures.   As such, Tribes must take a by-any-means-necessary approach to fending off government or private attacks upon Indian religious practices and ways of life.

The entire Ninth Circuit decision in Te-Moak may be found here.  E.O. 13007 may be found here.

Joe Sexton is Of Counsel with Galanda Broadman, PLLC.  Joe’s practice focuses on tribal sovereignty issues, including complex land and environmental issues, and economic development matters.  He can be reached at (509) 910-8842 and