The federal government took this land from my people in the 1850s and forced us onto a reservation. In the 1980s, we pleaded with the government to protect our site from a highway widening project, and at first, it promised to do so. But in 2008, the government broke that promise, widened the highway and bulldozed our sacred site.
There were many ways to widen the highway while still protecting our sacred site. The government could have widened the opposite side of the highway. It could have built a retaining wall to protect our site. Or it could have built the road differently, as it did to protect nearby wetlands and even a tattoo parlor. But ultimately, when it came to our sacred site — which is like a church to us — the government unleashed the chain saws and bulldozers.
The highway expansion destroyed the altar and other burial markers, covered our ancestral burial grounds with a huge mound of dirt, cut down the tall trees, stripped the sacred medicine plants and removed safe access to the sites. To add to the insult, the government left the opposite side of the highway untouched.
I was devastated as I watched this destruction — the soil with burial markers was ripped apart like an open wound, and the tall, noble trees were cut to pieces. My heart broke when I saw that Ana Kwna Nchi nchi Patat was the “Place of Big Big Trees” no longer.
My people and I performed ceremonies at the site afterward to tell the Creator we were so sorry we were not able to protect this sacred place. We could not fathom why the government refused to care for this special place.
That is why on Monday, after years of failed negotiations, I will be in U.S. District Court in Portland, defending our right to worship on our ancestral lands. I will be joined by Chiefs Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson of the Klickitat and Cascade Native American tribes, the Cascade Geographic Society and the Mount Hood Sacred Lands Preservation Alliance. We believe that the needless destruction of our sacred site violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA).
We are not asking for money. And we know our sacred site will never be the same. But we are asking for the return of our sacred artifacts, the planting of new trees and sacred medicine plants and the promise that such injustice will not be allowed in the future. We hope it will be clear to the judge that this destruction was totally unnecessary and against the law.
As Native Americans, we do not have large houses of worship with a steeple and pews. Instead, our places of worship are surrounded by trees and sacred plants. But they are just as sacred to us as any cathedral and just as respected as any cemetery.
As we mourn our lost lands, we also want to protect others who could suffer the same fate.
When you destroy a church, you injure Christians. When you level a mosque, you hurt Muslims. When you demolish a synagogue, you harm Jews. When you needlessly bulldoze a centuries-old burial site in a forest, you hurt Native Americans.
If the government can ignore pleas of Native Americans and destroy religiously significant sites with impunity, it can do this to any other tribe and any other religion. But if the court rules that RFRA protects our rights, as we hope, it will be protecting all of these other groups, too.
Someday, the Creator will ask me what I did to preserve these sacred places. I want to respond that I did the best of my ability to protect them for everyone — and for the generations to come.