Snail Darters and Sacred Places: Creative Application of the Endangered Species Act
Rather than exploring how indigenous people have been alienated from resources by environmental policies, this paper explores how indigenous peoples have worked with environmental organizations to use the broad protections provided by environmental laws to protect cultural resources. The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, along with other concerned groups, partnered with environmentalists in opposing the destruction of the endangered snail darter’s critical habitat by the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Tellico Dam. The dam had been opposed by a shifting alliance of Cherokees, local farmers, trout fisherman, and environmentalists since it was announced in 1963. A previous lawsuit by this coalition delayed the project from 1972 to 1974 under the National Environmental Policy Act. The Endangered Species Act provided this coalition with a powerful tool for opposing the destruction of burial grounds and sacred village sites throughout the lower Little Tennessee River valley. The coalition of environmental organizations, Cherokees, and others was ultimately unsuccessful in stopping the dam from being built, but was successful in establishing a strict precedent for the enforcement of the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit also created a space for the Eastern Band to negotiate for the return of Cherokee remains and halt the removal of any additional burials. In this situation, the strategic support of environmental regulation enabled the Eastern Band to exert some degree of control over the fate of cultural resources in the valley, and also demonstrates the significant role American Indian peoples played in one of the seminal events of the environmental movement during the 1970s.