A sense of place is important to Courtney Ann Coyle. As a child, her family divided their time between the Jersey shore and Sanibel Island in southwest Florida. When Sanibel got too busy, they moved to nearby Useppa Island, “when it was still being redeveloped after many years of abandonment … a great and wild place to grow up.”
Trained as a biologist and focused on environmental law, Coyle realized her discipline could encompass cultural as well as natural riches after the Quechan Indian Tribe of Fort Yuma hired her as its attorney in 1998. “People’s belief systems, their religions, their structure for society, their right to happiness and their right to their traditions are all fundamental aspects of our Constitution,” says Coyle. “These cultural rights are basic human rights. In protecting their history and their rights, we are doing something fundamentally American.” Coyle has represented the Quechan Tribe for nine of the 12 years it has fought to protect its sacred land and cultural heritage at Indian Pass. Nestled in the southeast corner of California just west of the Arizona border, Indian Pass is rich with religious sites, ancient trails, relics covered by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and 55 recorded properties eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
“The tribe has used the area since time immemorial for religious, ceremonial and educational purposes,” Coyle says. The site also abuts two designated wilderness areas.
Despite all this, Glamis Gold Ltd. wanted to dig three massive open-pit, cyanide heap-leach gold mines on approximately 1,600 acres in the Indian Pass area. In January 2001, Clinton Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt denied a permit for the proposed mine, the first time in American history this kind of permit was denied. In November 2001, Bush Interior Secretary Gale Norton reversed the ruling.
“In the following 18 months,” Coyle says, “several state and federal legislative initiatives were launched to protect these important resources—precedent-setting mine reclamation, sacred place consultation and confidentiality laws.” In 2002, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Indian Pass as one of the 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. In 2003, Glamis, a Canadian company, claimed under the North American Free Trade Agreement that the value of its mining interest was destroyed and the company was deprived of $61 million in anticipated profits. While the NAFTA filing made the issue exclusive to the United States and the company, Coyle convinced the tribunal to accept a Quechan brief to provide perspective on the sacred significance of the tribe’s ancestral lands, “the first of its kind accepted in an international economic law dispute.” The NAFTA tribunal accepted the first brief, and recently accepted a supplemental submission.
A hearing is scheduled for August or September 2007. Glamis Gold wants compensation. The Quechan Tribe wants the claim extinguished. Coyle notes that “with their long view of issues and long memories of the past, the members of the Quechan Nation will continue to defend their heritage, their religion, their beliefs. This is not a mining or trade issue; rather, the tribe is seeking the promise of the United States Constitution’s Freedom of Religion clause and the American Indian Religious Freedom Act’s policy statement. Sacred places are more precious than gold.”