Oregon tribes sue over land destruction
Three Native Americans representing three tribes in Oregon have asked a federal court to restore, at least in part, land they consider sacred. Citing the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), the Aug. 8 lawsuit claims the plaintiffs’ ability to worship and observe sacred rituals ended when the highway department paved over the site.
Almost 10 years ago, bulldozers cleared a 5-acre patch of government-owned land adjacent to a U.S. highway in the shadow of Mount Hood. For centuries, Native Americans in the area traversed the route between the mountain and the Willamette Valley. In an 1855 treaty, the tribes ceded 15 million acres to the U.S. government. But regional tribes still consider the land sacred 150 years later. Two hereditary chiefs of the Klickitat and Cascade tribes, Wilbur Slockish and Johnny Jackson, and Carol Logan, a traditional practitioner from the Confederated Tribes of Grande Ronde, had used the site for personal and tribal ceremonies and education. Efforts in 2008 to avert destruction of trees and ancient burial and worship sites failed, as did subsequent negotiations after the construction.
A 2011 lawsuit against the Federal Highway Administration and other federal and state agencies garnered limited success for the tribes.
“The saddest thing about this case is that this destruction never had to happen,” attorneys with the Becket Fund wrote in court filings. “The government had numerous alternatives for widening the highway without harming plaintiffs’ sacred site. But it ignored plaintiffs’ pleas for protection and chose the most destructive alternative. That choice has deprived plaintiffs of almost a decade of religious exercise, and that is just what RFRA prohibits.”
Congress passed RFRA in 1993 in response to another case involving an Oregon Native American who, in 1990, was denied unemployment benefits after being fired for ingesting peyote as part of a religious ceremony. —B.P.