INDIAN PASS WILDERNESS, Calif. -- A faint footpath threads through volcanic rock and glittering quartz near the Colorado River -- desolate land considered sacred by the Quechan Nation and profitable by a Nevada gold mining company.
It marks a modern-day Indian battleground.
The "Trail of Dreams" crosses Indian Pass, one of 23 places recently identified by American Indians as top priorities for defense in an increasingly visible struggle pitting tribes against companies they claim are impinging on Native American religious sites.
Through several Senate hearings on sacred lands and a planned publicity blitz, tribal leaders and their political allies are linking long-isolated local disputes into a push for comprehensive national legislation. They're hoping to convince regulators and the public that mining or developing the sometimes sprawling spaces is akin to bulldozing a church building.
"We would never destroy a church, or a temple, or a mosque," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif. "Unfortunately, there is no underlying law to ensure that Indian sacred sites are also protected, so we find ourselves having to pass a law every time we want to protect an individual site."
Indians say cohesive sacred lands legislation could protect thousands of natural religious refuges, ranging from tiny gurgling waterfalls to vast forests used for "vision quests."
Million Indian March
At a recent Indian summit in San Diego, activists began planning a Day of Prayer to publicize the issue nationally and are considering a Million Indian March on Washington.
"If we can't protect the earth, can't protect the sky, if we can't protect our sacred sites, then we've failed the world," said Jewell Praying Wolf James of the Lummi Nation in northwest Washington.
Current regulations are muddled. A 1996 executive order from President Clinton asking the Interior Department to define key concepts fizzled, and a new Interior task force has been working since March to unify policy among its eight bureaus.
Every government agency dealing with Indian tribes -- from the Defense Department to the Park Service -- has its own policy on sacred lands, said Jack Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs.
Advocates for Indians turned to legislation since legal efforts were sidetracked by a 1988 Supreme Court ruling. The court found in Lyng v. Northwest Indian CPA that development on federally owned Indian sacred land did not violate a tribe's religious freedom.
Every year in the past two decades at least one individual site has been protected by federal lawmakers. However, efforts to pass broad protection bills have repeatedly failed, Indian leaders and politicians said.
The convoluted route Indian Pass took to its current status -- cleared by federal engineers for an open pit gold mine -- reveals the ups and downs at each site.
Glamis Gold Ltd. began planning a 1,600-acre open pit gold mine on Bureau of Land Management property in Imperial County near Indian Pass.
The Interior Department under President Clinton rejected the proposal in January 2001, citing "undue impairment" to Quechan sacred land. But the Bush administration rescinded that ruling 10 months later, saying its power to determine cultural impact was unclear.
A state bill that would have stopped the project and substantially expanded land protection for tribes passed the California legislature but was vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis in September.
Boxer and state lawmakers then vowed to block the mine through myriad regulatory and legislative actions. If they were successful, Glamis senior vice president Charles Jeannes said the company would sue California for $68 million, the assessed value of the mine.
The back-and-forth has frustrated both tribal leaders and company officials.
"There needs to be some coordination among these various government entities as to how this is resolved," Jeannes said. "There is none at this point. That's hard."
Glamis and other developers who follow existing rules blame tribes for opposing projects after investments are made. In some cases, tribes flat-out refuse to reveal where their sacred lands are, for fear they will be overrun by curious outsiders.
The National Congress of American Indians, the largest and oldest national Native American organization, last month voted to oppose any legislation that tries to define, prioritize, or draw boundaries around Indian sacred places. Indians believe such language limits and denigrates their faith.
Energy company Calpine -- embroiled in a land dispute in northern California -- complains that such fuzzy boundaries unfairly let tribes challenge projects after money is spent on them.
"You can't change the rules at the end of the game," said John Miller, Calpine vice president of project development.