On Monday, April 22, the California Native American Heritage Commission (NAHC) recognized the 12,000 acre Ocotillo Wind Project site, in what the local Quechan tribe refers to as the “Valley of Death,” as a sacred Native American cultural landscape and burial ground. This resolution was passed by a 4-0 vote.
The NAHC also agreed to make itself available on subsequent projects as a mediator between the parties involved; the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the tribes, Pattern Energy and is determined to work with the CA Attorney General on possible legal steps to protect the cultural and historic importance of the Ocotillo area to Native American tribes, and protect the area from further harm.
The Commission determined that the lead agency on the utility-scale wind energy development, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), failed to engage in federally required meaningful consultation with affected tribes, and that the BLM’s development partner, Pattern Energy, failed to mitigate significant negative impacts on documented historic Native American cultural resources.
(This decision has prompted the Quechan to file an appeal, regarding their denied request for an injunction against the Ocotillo Express Wind Project, on April 26. There are now three impending legal actions against this wind farm.)
Close to thirty Native American leaders, a number of concerned citizens and a Pattern Energy representative spoke at Monday’s NAHC meeting, held in the State of California Office Building in downtown San Diego.
The BLM failed to appear at the hearing to defend its record.
Pattern Energy’s representative, Natalie McCue (top of page), claimed that Pattern has been a “responsible steward” who complied with, and exceeded, all Federal regulations. She said the project employed archaeologists to ensure the project did not violate sacred Native American burial grounds. McCue claimed that no remains were found in any of the 208 test pits at turbine sites and only one surface cremation was found in the work area. This was consequently relocated.
She said Pattern Energy moved the location of 38 turbine sites, and reduced the project’s size by around 40%, in response to Native American sensitivities. As a result, Pattern had to inform San Diego Gas & Electric they could not deliver the amount of power their original contract called for and the two companies had to draw up a new agreement.
She added that the Viejas and Quechan never accepted a pre-development meeting invitation.
Viejas Chairman Anthony Pico informed the Commissioners that they had met with both Pattern Energy and the BLM, but it was impossible to reach an agreement. They wanted mitigation; The Viejas maintained the entire Ocotillo site was one contiguous sacred area and “total avoidance was the only option.”
His ancestors have been in that area for 10,000 years. The BLM’s own archeologists declared the project area a cultural resources “mega site.” Hundreds of significant Native American cultural resource sites have been documented, including cremation sites, petroglyphs, geoglyphs, ancient villages and prehistoric trails. Pico is not opposed to renewable energy, which may one day save Mother Earth, but is opposed to the Ocotillo Wind Project. This is “clearly the wrong project in the wrong location.” Wind turbines now “blight” the view of three sacred mountains, Coyote, Signal and Sugarloaf.
Quechan President Escalanti explained that these mountains are sacred in tribal creation stories. The Ocotillo Valley has long been sacred to his people. “Hundreds of significant Native American cultural resource sites and thousands of individual artifacts have been discovered. He said, “the Ocotillo Wind was constructed on top of the graves of our ancestors” and approval of the project has been a “violation of trust to the Quechan people.”
Frank Brown, Chair of the Intertribal Protection Counsel, testified that he had accompanied the San Diego coroner to six cremation sites in 2010, but the BLM did not record this. Though the BLM archaeologist was shown 400 agave roasting pits, only 200 were recorded. “I’ve had BLM staff out, showed them ceremonies. It fell on deaf ears. It was not recorded.”
On July 18 of last year, East County Magazine (ECM) reported that forensic dogs, whose accuracy had been established elsewhere, “located some 50 sites with probable human remains in Ocotillo, on Federal Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property.” The tribes did not seek confirmation of the dogs’ finds, through a coroner’s analysis or carbon dating, as they did not wish to disturb their ancestors’ remains.
McCue pointed out that though none of these dog alert sites were positively established as cremation sites, Pattern Energy designed the Ocotillo Wind site to avoid them.
Chairman Pico claims “hundreds of artifacts were removed” from Ocotillo and “there is no merit to Pattern’s claim that sites were adequately protected.”
He claimed there was no real public interest or necessity for this project. No alternate sites were offered, though there were 15 million acres available through-out the US.
President Escalanti also mentioned the absence of any alternative sites and adds the Quechan were not kept abreast of developments before construction started.
“How much power has really been produced since the project went online?” Chairman Pico asked. (Check out the video logs @ http://www.youtube.com/user/SaveOcotillo) “After all it was tax payer dollars and the tribe’s Cultural resources that have been sacrificed for a project that creates a few hundred temporary jobs and some tax revenue for Imperial County. These gains are at the expense of 10,000 years of history …”
“Does economics trump justice in this country?” he continued. “I believe it does and that profoundly saddens me,” he said. “I cannot understand, we cannot understand, how federal and state institutions who have trusted fiduciary responsibility to Native Americans, allowed the utter destruction of arguably the richest cultural resource in our country in Ocotillo Valley. The Federal government ignored our concerns and rushed to approve Pattern’s project … Federal laws are not adequate…The laws focus on procedures followed, not on actual harm.”
In his closing remarks NAHC Chairman John Ramos said the Bureau of Land management has to be more sensitive to communities it is working in. Ocotillo is Native American sacred ground, “If the definition `Valley of the Dead’ doesn’t fit that, I don’t know what does.”
Commissioner Marshall McKay said, “I really want to say `Dismantle it and give the land back to the tribes, but I can’t do that. But I’d like to ask the Attorney General to…give this commission more teeth so we could say `Tear that wall down.’”