Native Americans in Court: Theft of Human Remains, and Efforts to Block Uranium Mining, Biker Bar

Native American nations spend a fair amount of time in courts trying to defend their rights. They can make a case based on treaty rights. They can appeal to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, a document the United States government has endorsed, with caveats.

This blog periodically provides updates on Native nations’ legal battles. They deserve attention. If these issues surfaced for the majority white community, they would receive much broader media coverage.

This summary includes updates on the theft of Native remains in Iowa, uranium mining near Pine Ridge Reservation, and a biker bar expansion moving ever closer to a sacred site for many tribes. 

LiDAR image of the Marching Bear Mound Group at Effigy Mounds National Monument
LiDAR image of the Marching Bear Mound Group at Effigy Mounds National Monument

Theft of Human Remains Exposes Indifference to Native Rights by National Park Service

If someone was stealing bones from prominent Christian Cemetery, it would certainly make headlines. Yet there has been little attention to the story about the theft of Native American human remains from Effigy Mounds National Monument in Iowa. The thief was Thomas Munson, the Monument’s former superintendent. The theft dates back to 1990. Munson will be sentenced this Friday, but problems go beyond his actions, according to an AP story run by ABC News titled: Theft of Ancient Bones a ‘Debacle’ for National Park Service.

[D]ocuments obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act point to wider problems at the federal park along the Mississippi River in northeast Iowa. A series of superintendents were warned that the museum’s entire collection of human bones had gone missing under Munson, but they did little to find them and failed to notify affected tribes. Even the current superintendent called it a devastating “debacle” that would hurt the agency for years.

Uranium Mining Near Pine Ridge Dealt a Setback

A number of native nations face health problems from uranium mining and other types of mining near their reservations. Mining activities also disrupt cultural sites. The website Cultural Survival provides some background. These issues are happening right next door to Minnesota. In Pine Ridge, South Dakota, Oglala Sioux are celebrating a May 26 court win that delayed the renewal of a uranium mining contract in Dawes County, Nebraska, adjacent to the reservation.

Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) staff had approved the license renewal. The Native Sun News article Judges side with tribe; big win for Pine Ridge Reservation explained that federal administrative law judges said the NRC review came up short. It had not done enough to consider the tribe’s rights under the National Historic Preservation Act and National Environmental Protection Act. It decisions delays permitting.

What would happen if a uranium mine permit was sought near a more populated area, such as Pierre, Rapid City or Jackson Hole?

Major Biker Bar Expansion Trumps Sacred Site Protection

If you had a quiet space that was sacred to you, a lake cabin or a state park, would you want the “world’s biggest biker bar” nearby, along with all of the traffic it generates? What is the balance of rights? As for Rosebud Reservation leaders, they were unsuccessful in stopping a major biker bar expansion towards Bear Butte, a National Historic Landmark and a significant site to more than 60 tribes.

The Native Sun News reported that planning leaders in Meede County (Sturgis) South Dakota have given unanimous approval for “‘the world’s biggest biker bar’ and resort to expand within two miles of sacred Mato Tipila, or Bear Butte.’

Calling for an environmental assessment in a letter written on behalf of the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, President William Kindle urged planning board members: “Please consider and protect our sacred Bear Butte!”

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