Tribes, Air Force eye protection of sacred sites during ICBM project
The Air Force’s massive project to replace its 50-year-old Minuteman III nuclear missile system has triggered a review of how hundreds of prehistoric archaeological sites on the Utah Test and Training Range will be protected during the work.
The Northwestern Band of the Shoshone Nation, other tribes and Hill Air Force Base will be working together during the Air Force’s planned decommissioning of the Minuteman and the deployment of the Sentinel, the U.S. military’s ground-based nuclear force of the future. The solid rocket motors of 400 Minuteman missiles, arrayed in silos in Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana and North Dakota, will be transported to Hill and UTTR, many of them to be destroyed on the test range.
Hill’s cultural resource program has identified 822 archaeological sites on the UTTR, most prehistoric, including at least one that’s 12,000 years old, archaeologist and program manager Anya Kitterman said. One site is considered sacred by the Northwestern Band.
Hill officials and a tribal spokesperson were asked about the potential effects of the Minuteman-Sentinel project’s elements in the UTTR. They said they do not expect any of the work to affect the sacred site, but all voiced the importance of ongoing efforts to monitor and protect the site.
“The tribe really feels the area needs to be protected and to see that our voices are heard,” said Patty Timbimboo Madsen, the Northwestern Band’s cultural resources director. The tribe is headquartered in Brigham City and historically ranged in southern Idaho and Northern Utah.
She said she does not expect any difficulties from the ICBM project. Hill hosts quarterly and annual meetings with the Shoshone, Goshute and other tribes regarding protection of sites in the UTTR.
“Hill has always been important and really good stewards of the land,” Timbimboo Madsen said. “And the tribes know what the land is used for, the training of the military, and that means all of us.”
The Air Force’s newly released draft environmental impact statement on the Sentinel project refers to the Northwestern Band’s sacred site, and officials sent a letter to the tribe outlining the review process to come as the EIS is finalized. The Air Force “will consult with the tribe regarding possible development of a comprehensive agreement under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act,” the letter said.
A spokesperson for the Air Force Global Strike Command in Louisiana, which is directing the Sentinel project, said Hill is responsible for the sacred site and keeps it secure. “The area is avoided for regular mission activities and it is outside of any impact areas of the Sentinel project,” Lt. Col. Rodney Ellison Jr. said by email.
Michelle Cottle, Hill’s environmental branch manager and the tribal liaison officer, said the sacred site “is out in the middle of the desert” and is well away from areas where the Sentinel project will occur.
Kitterman said once a sacred site is identified, “it’s really a no-go area. We don’t have any mission activities there.” Under an agreement with the tribe several years ago, Northwestern Band and Hill officials visit the site annually or as needed. She said monitoring at a sacred site also includes botanical observations.
Timbimboo Madsen was reticent to describe the site because of its sacred nature to the tribe.
“And our thing is to keep it safe by not divulging its location,” she said. “We want to be sure it is in a safe place and that it is maintained.”
Kitterman said one advantage for protecting the tribe’s sacred site and other archaeological sites is that the UTTR has been largely blocked off from the public since World War II. “It’s a pristine environment, museum quality,” she said. “We have been very fortunate to keep some of that heritage.”
Characteristics of sacred tribal sites may include places for traditional ceremonies, gathering areas, botanical gatherings, pathways, rock shelters, even a place from which a mountaintop can be seen, Kitterman said.
She said the Hill contingent approaches its relationships with the tribes with “humility, working with another government and culture.”
“It is a living culture that is still very much tied to the past,” she said. “You do not think you know everything, you do not assume anything, and really listen. We understand they were here before us.”
A federal agency document written to educate personnel about sacred sites speaks to the dangers the sites may face. “The fact that most Indian sacred sites are no longer under the control of Indian tribes makes them vulnerable to damage and destruction,” it said. Development and other activities, it said, “threaten the existence of sacred sites and, in turn, tribes and their cultures.”
A sacred site may be more than just its physical location, perhaps including plants, animals, sound, light and intangible features. “These places are essential for tribal communities to pass on traditions, language and beliefs to the next generation,” the primer said.
The Minuteman III decommissioning work is expected to take eight to 10 years, according to the Air Force EIS, and it is anticipated to begin mid-decade. The 400 missiles must be disassembled, transported, repurposed or destroyed. Hundreds of rocket motors will be destroyed or stored on the UTTR. The draft EIS will be refined in its final version to address any concerns that tribes or others may express.
“It’s important for people to understand that the sacred site is validating our presence in the area,” Timbimboo Madsen said. “We’d rather not have to move anything. We want to leave it where it is, undisturbed.”