Interior Secretary Deb Haaland Announces Initiative to Protect Indigenous Sacred Sites

To boost the protection of Native American sacred sites and improve access to them, United States Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has announced an initiative to enhance coordination, collaboration and action among government agencies and departments.

(Photo by Jane Rix,
(Photo by Jane Rix,

Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo tribe of New Mexico, is the first Native American to serve as a U.S. Cabinet secretary. Her November 16 announcement coincided with National Native American Heritage Month as well as the second and final day of the Biden administration’s first White House Tribal Nations Summit. The virtual event brought together leaders from the 574 federally recognized Native American tribes in wide-ranging discussions with government officials.

“Since time immemorial, the Earth’s lands and waters have been central to the social, cultural, spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing of Indigenous people,” Haaland said in a news statement from the U.S. Department of the Interior. “It is essential that we do everything we can to honor sites that hold historical, spiritual or ceremonial significance.”

The department noted that federal agencies are responsible for managing millions of acres of federal lands and water, on or within which are many tribal burial sites, medicinal plant communities, and areas distinguished by stone altars and earth structures sacred to Native Americans.

The secretary stated her department is “committed to protecting these sacred sites from desecration, while at the same time collaborating with Indigenous communities to increase access and ensure good stewardship of their lands.”

Eight government agencies, departments and bodies have signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU), building on an initial MOU dating to 2012, according to a Department of the Interior news statement.

Besides enhancing collaboration with tribes to ensure stewardship of and access to tribal, Alaska Native, and Native Hawaiian sacred sites, the MOU is aimed at incorporating “traditional ecological knowledge into management, treatment and protection procedures.”

The eight signatories to the MOU include the departments of Interior, Agriculture, Transportation and Energy, Environmental Protection Agency, White House Council on Environmental Quality, Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, and Tennessee Valley Authority.

The MOU also outlines a set of new goals including creating a working group to further interagency collaboration and coordination, recognizing the importance of sacred sites and ensuring that consideration of them is integrated into decision-making, establishing regulatory and consultation processes, and beefing up public outreach efforts in a manner that highlights the significance or maintaining the integrity of sacred sites and the vital role public stewardship plays in their protection and preservation.


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Native Americans Deb Haaland sacred sites