Court case known as “G-O Road” set an extremely damaging precedent
regarding legal protection of Native American sacred sites on federal
In 1988, the Supreme Court ruled that construction of a logging road
through Forest Service land in California could not be stopped by
Native Americans seeking the freedom to practice ancient religious
traditions. Chris Peters, of the Seventh Generation Fund, who was a
plaintiff in the case, calls the High Country area “Indian heaven…an
area that is so sacred that there is no mitigation of any
disturbance—you can't mitigate a disruption to heaven.”
History of the Conflict
In the 1970s, the Forest Service
began to make plans for a road that would connect the Gasquet and
Orleans Ranger Districts (hence “G-O Road”) and allow for logging in a
section of the Six Rivers National Forest in Northern California.
The Pohlik-lah, Karuk, and
Tolowa American Indian tribes consider the area to be sacred, with
places like Doctor Rock and
Chimney Rock used for vision quests and prayer. An anthropologist hired
by the Forest Service to evaluate the potential damage caused by the
road and logging project concluded that any intrusion into the area
would destroy the “sanctity” of the entire place, and argued that
mitigation attempts to avoid certain spots failed to grasp the concept
of a sacred landscape.
The Forest Service disregarded
leaving the native people with no option to take the issue to court.
The US District Court and Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals both ruled
that the construction of the G-O Road would violate Native American
freedom of religion, especially in light of the American Indian
Religious Freedom Act, which was passed by Congress in 1978. The Judges
were convinced by statements such as this one from a Native American
witness: “It is said that that area is not even a part of this world
that we live in here. That that place up there, the high country
belongs to the spirit and it exists in another world apart from us.”
However, when the Supreme Court
reviewed the case, the Justices overturned the two lower court
decisions by a 5-3 vote. Incredibly, the opinion written by Sandra Day
assuming that the Government’s action here will
virtually destroy the Indians’ ability to practice their religion, the
Constitution simply does not provide a principle that could justify
upholding the Indians’ legal claims.”
This opinion states that the
government’s right to use Forest Service land as it wishes overrides
the claim of the Native American religious practitioners, because the
government is not literally outlawing their religion.
Amendment protects belief, but not practice, the court said.
decision was a devastating blow to Native American religious freedom.
While the court found that AIRFA allows government land managers to
accommodate Native American religion, AIRFA does not require them to do
so, thus leaving it up to the discretion of individual agencies. In
addition, the G-O Road decision negated the lower courts’ willingness
to consider a “sacred landscape” as opposed to one particular site—a
concept that is central to Native American religion.
While the case was being litigated,
Congress added a significant portion of the area to the Siskiyou
Wilderness Area, which meant that logging was forbidden there. However,
logging was still permitted in other parts of the forest, and a
corridor in the Wilderness Area was left open for the G-O Road.
Protests by native groups and environmentalists continued after the
court case ended and in 1990 Congress passed the Smith River National
Recreation Area Act which included language that formally closed the
road corridor. In 1997, the US Forest Service, in the name of “forest
health,” reopened this sacred area for salvage logging at Little
Medicine Mountain (the area was burned the year before).
There were a
series of civil disobedience actions blocking the entrance road in an
attempt to prevent further desecration. After a few weeks of protest,
the civil disobedience was put down and Little Medicine Mountain was
The Supreme Court decision, Lyng
v. Northwest Indian Cemetary Protection Association, illustrates
the weakness of AIRFA and the need to amend this law to provide
definitive, substantive and enforceable protections for sacred lands.
Until this happens, all other legal attempts to prevent the destruction
of sacred lands will be weakened by the G-O Road precedent. For details
on this and other relevant laws, see our Legal Resources page.
- A detailed
analysis of the case by Professor JeDon A. Emenhiser of Humboldt
- “‘Where There Is No Vision the People Perish’: The Case of
Impacted Sacred Sites of Northwest California Indians,” Inaugural
lecture by Robert S. Michaelsen at the University of California, Santa
- Thomas Buckley, Standing Ground: Yurok Indian
information compiled here from: