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America Has Never Cared About Sacred Sites

Trump's threat to destroy Iranian cultural sites is a dark national tradition, with the desecration of sacred tribal sites offering the blueprint.

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This past weekend, President Trump repeatedly threatened to target Iranian cultural sites should Iran respond to his administration’s assassination of Qassem Soleimani. (And on Tuesday, Iran did just that, even as the president walked back his threats.) As noted by my colleague Matt Ford, the intentional destruction of such cultural sites would be a war crime deserving of impeachment and prosecution in the Hague, not that Trump much cares. The threat was deemed “grotesque” by Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, who wrote that attacking sites like Persepolis would place America on “the same ethical plane as the Islamic State.”

Both Ford and Jenkins are correct about the obscenity of the threats, but as any Native citizen can likely attest, the if proposition here—the idea that the United States might cross a line that it hasn’t just yet—is grounded in an alternate reality. America has already engaged in this type of destruction. Was built on it, in fact. 

Chaco Canyon. The Black HillsBears Ears. Gaylor Ranch. Standing Rock. Mauna Kea. Oak Flat. America, through its founding to its present, has stretched its borders and lined its pockets by desecrating Native American sacred and cultural sites and the land they sat on. A failure to reckon with this history would be a failure to properly contextualize the president’s current threats and America’s founding ethos of capitalist imperialism.

Itching to steal land from the Great Sioux Reservation, Dakota’s Yankton Press printed the following call to break the Fort Laramie Treaty—which created the sprawling reservation, secured the Black Hills for the tribes, and stipulated that the American military would abandon its posts and forts on the land and hold accountable any citizens who violated the treaty—in an 1868 column: “The Indians can make no use of the country which has been set apart for them. The pine lands and mineral deposits are of no value to them, because they neither have the knowledge or inclination to utilize them,” the newspaper declared. “The government owes it to the country, and particularly to Dakota, to remove every obstacle to the immediate opening up and development of this vast field of untold and incalculable wealth.”

Six decades later, having stolen and developed Paha Sapa (the Black Hills in Lakota), beyond recognition, Congress contracted a Ku Klux Klan sympathizer to travel north and blast the faces of four white men into the side of the Tȟuŋkášila Šákpe (Six Grandfathers), one of the sacred sites in the Black Hills, which are central to the Lakota creation storyTwo of the men whose faces were carved into the stone were slavers, one was an unabashed Manifest Destiny idealist who gleefully spoke of killing Native people, and one was a president who willingly broke a legally binding treaty, starved out all of the Dakota people, and then hung 38 of them for having the gall to fight back. This, perhaps, was what the Press imagined as making use of the country.

Even when the American government has acted to curb the destruction of culturally important Native sites, it has always been with the expected trade-off of taking control of the land they sit on. In the early twentieth century, recognizing that looting and desecration was threatening to wipe entire sites in the Southwest clear, President Theodore Roosevelt and Congress set about declaring much of the land “public domain” so that it could be taken under the stewardship of the federal government’s new national parks system. But some of these lands were still under the care of tribal nations, such as the Blue Lake. Despite the fact that Blue Lake was described by the Taos Pueblo as an “Indian church,” and a federal commission found that the Taos visited the lake every day for “private religious reflection,” Roosevelt’s Forest Service stole the Blue Lake from the Taos Pueblo people in 1906. Just as America convinced itself that it knew best which sites were ripe for extraction and destruction, it also believed it knew best which ones to protect.

This brand of violent paternalism mutated in modern times but never went away. Nowadays, the federal guidelines requiring “tribal consultation” with any local tribal nations are just a blanket that the colonizers cover themselves in, an often ignored box to be checked so that private companies can legally claim to have done their due diligence as they plow or drill through a grave site. It’s why it took a years-long outcry from Diné and Pueblo citizens to convince Congress and the Department of the Interior to stop repeatedly trying to lease land near Chaco Canyon to oil and gas companies. It’s why Enbridge’s Line 3 pipeline is still set to snake its way past three Minnesota reservations. It’s why Dominion and Duke Energy tried to claim that their Atlantic Coast Pipeline didn’t affect any marginalized communities when its final destination would pump natural gas close to the Lumber River, an ancestral relative of the Lumbee Tribe

This is not just an institutional or corporate issue. It extends down to the American individual’s very understanding, production, and consumption of art and entertainment. How else to explain the ill-gotten collection of artifacts missionary Donald Miller hoarded in his Indiana basement? You can draw a clean line from the systemic, state-sponsored destruction of Native artifacts and sacred sites to the personal collector’s modern disregard for these artifacts’ provenance and rightful ownership. 

Just as there are laws to ostensibly prevent Trump’s threatened war crimes, there are also laws meant to protect Native nations from this kind of looting and desecration. The American Indian Religious Freedom Act, passed in 1978, should, as written, allow tribes to practice their religions by securing access to their sacred sites and objects, along with the ability to freely worship and practice ceremonies. But in practice, it only means that a museum has to return any tribal items to the correct tribal nation, leaving a loophole for private collectors like Miller and certainly for the government’s gas and oil pals.

The U.S. government has never given a damn about the sites, items, or natural beings Native people hold dear. Likewise, it has rarely shown actual care for the lives of the people protecting them. It’s in part why Congress has never recognized America’s past slaughtering of Native people as the genocide it is. 

This same violent logic applies in the president’s threats against Iran. It applied when American soldiers were ordered to stand down as the Iraq National Library and Archives was sacked but put on guard at the Ministry of Oil. Even when threats against cultural artifacts aren’t made explicit, the annihilation of culture—of the sacred and mundane things that anchor people in their histories—is always a consequence of war. The loss of Iranian lives and attacks on Iranian-Americans’ civil rights are the primary horrors of the present military escalation, but the threat to sacred sites is intrinsically connected to this violence. It displays an imperialist nation’s stark lack of respect for both people and the things they hold dear. It’s nothing new. To imagine what might be ahead, one only needs to look back.