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The government just reached a landmark settlement in a religious freedom case

Native American tribes in Oregon spent 15 years fighting for the restoration of a sacred site near Mount Hood. This week, the federal government finally agreed

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The sun sets over Oak Flat Campground, a sacred site for Native Americans located 70 miles east of Phoenix, on June 3, 2023.

The sun sets over Oak Flat Campground, a sacred site for Native Americans located 70 miles east of Phoenix, on June 3, 2023, in Miami, Ariz. Oak Flat, or Chi’chil Bildagoteel, is a consecrated place used for prayer and ritual by many Native Americans in the region. Elders say the land was blessed by Usen, their Creator, and inhabited by Ga’an, the mountain spirits or angels who provide spiritual succor and guidance to seekers.

Ty O’Neil, Associated Press

Fifteen years after government-sponsored road construction destroyed a sacred site in Oregon, federal officials have worked out a landmark settlement agreement with the area’s Native American tribes.

In the settlement, the government has “agreed to replant a grove of native trees, pay for the reconstruction of a sacred stone altar and recognize the historic use of the site by Native Americans,” according to the Becket Fund for Religious Freedom, the law firm representing the tribes.

The new agreement resolves a lawsuit, Slockish v. U.S. Department of Transportation, that had been sitting on the doorstep of the Supreme Court.

For the 15 years since bulldozers tore up their sacred land near Mount Hood, the Native Americans involved in the case have been fighting for the restitution they’ll now receive.

The Slockish case

The Slockish case centered on a road construction project along U.S. Highway 26 in Oregon. To add a turn lane to the road, federal officials approved the destruction of a site called Ana Kwna Nchi Nchi Patat — the “Place of Big Big Trees” — over the objections of Native Americans who used the land for religious ceremonies.

Tribes continued fighting the project even after bulldozers had ripped into a sacred altar and surrounding trees. They wanted remediation of the site and for a court to confirm that what the government did was wrong, said Luke Goodrich, vice president and senior counsel for Becket, to the Deseret News in 2021.

“Part of what the plaintiffs want is a court ruling, a declarative judgment, that says the government violated the law. It would vindicate their ancestors,” he said.

But in the legal system, the Native Americans involved in the case faced more frustration. Multiple courts ruled against them over the years, often saying there was nothing the legal system could do to help since the land was already destroyed.

This time last year, Becket appealed to the Supreme Court on the tribes’ behalf, a move that appears to have prompted renewed settlement talks. This week, the Native Americans finally secured what they’ve been fighting for.

“I’m hopeful that our story and this settlement agreement can help prevent similar injustices in the future,” said Carol Logan, a member of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde, in a statement.

Religious freedom for Native Americans

The settlement in the Slockish case is notable given that Native Americans who raise religious freedom concerns are often ignored. Lawmakers — and the legal system — have been slow to recognize tribes’ unique faith-related needs.

“There’s often just a remarkably callous disregard of Native Americans and Native American religious practices. There’s a lack of understanding, as well,” Goodrich told the Deseret News in 2021.

Government officials and judges sometimes view conflicts through a Christian lens, he added.

“If the government took land owned by a Baptist church to build a highway, the Baptists could build another church on the other side of town. For many religious groups, that would be possible. But Native Americans can’t go create a new sacred site on the other side of town. Their religious practices are inherently tied to a specific piece of land,” Goodrich said.

Now, Native Americans in Oregon will have the opportunity to return to the land they’ve been missing next spring. Logan said in her statement that sacred tribal lands deserve more respect.

“Our sacred places may not look like the buildings where most Americans worship, but they deserve the same protection, dignity, and respect,” she said.

Although the Slockish case is now resolved, the Supreme Court could still hear a case involving a Native American sacred site in the near future.

Becket plans to appeal Apache Stronghold v. United States, which centers on Oak Flat in Arizona, to the Supreme Court if the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals allows a large-scale mining project to move forward, according to Becket’s preview of the 2023-24 Supreme Court term.