Sacred lands shouldn't smell

  • Henry SiJohn

    Mark Matthews

Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

In 1994, the Coeur d'Alene tribe spent $200,000 to remove 1,000 tons of lead-contaminated soil from a riverside area long used by the tribe. But when the tribe wanted to construct a levee on private land to protect the site from floods, the other landowner, the Coeur d'Alene Mining Association, said no. Floods last winter then deposited new lead-contaminated sediments on the area. For tribal council member Henry SiJohn, 79, the flooded lands are sacred, and as the tribe's environmental liaison, he has led the fight to regain ownership of the lake and lower river to clean them up:

Henry SiJohn: "When the pollution took effect in the river, the water didn't look right to the Indian, or taste or smell right. And it didn't feel good on their skin. In walking around the marshes they would hear the death cries of wild animals and find the carcasses and they concluded there was something wrong with the water. We didn't have any data or statistics to go on. All we had were the five senses.

"Our people would take sweat baths ... and that involved praying in a completely dark lodge so that your focus is on the Creator. After the incantations, singing and cleansing, emerging from the sweat house was like coming out of your mother's womb and being reborn again. Cleansing the body was like freeing yourself of all the bad things in the earth, and so the water had to be pure.

"When I would apologize to the older people for the devastation that has been wreaked upon the land and water, they would shake their heads and say, 'White people just don't have think power.'

"The effect of the pollution on my people cannot be measured. This ground has been consecrated by the bones of the ancestors.

"The Coeur d'Alene tribe is very optimistic that someday we may have jurisdiction over this very wonderful land and the lake. When we do, we'll see to it that we keep the water clean."

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