Opinion: Blocking the landfill would protect Indians’ sacred cultural heritage

As Chairman of the Pala Band of Mission Indians for nearly a quarter century, I have seen dramatic changes take place throughout Indian Country. But one thing that has not and never will change is the importance that Native Americans place on their cultural traditions and sacred sites.  

In an effort to protect two sacred sites, the Pala Band, other tribes, and a broad coalition of environmental, religious, labor, and planning organizations supported SB 833, a bill that would stop the construction of a proposed landfill next to the Pala Reservation and on the banks of the San Luis Rey River in northern San Diego County. This coalition supported the bill because the proposed landfill would threaten critical drinking water sources and would desecrate two sites considered sacred by Southern California tribes. SB 833 passed the Legislature with nearly unanimous support, and the bill now is before Gov. Brown. We urge him to sign the bill.

The environmental reasons for not burying 30-million tons of waste next to a river and other water sources are easy to see, and claims that the liner to be built would protect those water sources forever must be questioned in light of recent technological failures in the Gulf of Mexico and Japan. Here, a 500-foot high pile of buried waste would threaten water supplies long after the project proponents have left with their money, leaving any cleanup to future taxpayers. Building at this site also would require the construction of a bridge across the river to provide sole access, the relocation of high-voltage electrical transmission towers, and the possible relocation of two pipelines that provide critical imported water to the county.

What makes the site even worse for a landfill is that the garbage would be buried on the side of Gregory Mountain, which forms the eastern side of the canyon. According to Luiseño tradition, Gregory Mountain (known as Chokla to the tribes) is the resting place of Taakwic, a powerful spirit that appears as a fireball to collect the souls of the dead. Both Chokla and Medicine Rock, a 60-foot high boulder located just outside the boundary of the proposed landfill, have been the site of religious ceremonies and spiritual contemplation for centuries. The evidence of that long history is visible in the pictographs that mark the surface of Medicine Rock.

The fact that Gregory Mountain and Medicine Rock are sacred sites was recognized by county officials in the 1980s when the county conducted a series of studies on siting a landfill. The presence of these sacred sites was one of the reasons the Pala Band and other tribes opposed the landfill when it was proposed at that time and one of the reasons the county refused to approve the site for a landfill. When the county would not give its approval, the proponents of the project, who were well aware of these sacred sites, funded a misleading county-wide initiative that avoided the need for the approval of any elected official.

SB 833 was narrowly drafted to prevent this landfill from desecrating these sacred sites. Because it is burying garbage on the mountain that is opposed, the bill would not affect other existing or proposed projects or prevent other uses of the property. The tribes do not oppose all projects near Gregory Mountain, and a peaking power station recently was built across State Route 76 from the proposed landfill without their opposition.

Passage of SB 833 was gratifying because it confirmed the state’s respect for the deeply held values of other cultures, and recognized the need to preserve critical resources that cannot be replaced once damaged. The supporters of SB 833 trust that Gov. Brown will recognize the cultural values at stake here and respect the prudent judgment of a nearly unanimous Legislature by signing SB 833 into law.

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