Morro Rock in Morro Bay has long been a landmark within our community — as a navigational aid, as a monument and as a symbol of the Central Coast.
In 1966, the state of California took ownership of Morro Rock, and in 1968 it was officially protected and declared a California Historical Landmark. Since that time, in the name of preservation, the public has not been allowed to climb the rock.
One group has been granted an exception: the Salinan Indian Tribe of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties.
Indigenous to the Central Coast and recognized by the state of California, the Salinan Tribe has been climbing to the top of Morro Rock twice a year, each summer and winter solstice, for centuries to perform religious ceremonies.
In 1999, the climbs of the Salinan Tribe to the top of Morro Rock for religious ceremonies were officially protected by the state of California after the tribe filed paperwork asking for permission to resume its twice-a-year climbs.
Last December, however, the practice was halted when the Northern Chumash Tribal Council claimed the rock to be a Chumash sacred site. According to a December 2014 Tribune article, the Northern Chumash filed a suit in San Luis Obispo County Superior Court, requesting documentation proving the Salinan Tribe’s religious claims to Morro Rock.
Curious about the entire situation, I consulted Carl Artman, the former assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior for Indian Affairs and a member of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin.
“Providing documentation can be a difficult thing to do,” Artman said. “Having a written history is a very European idea — most Native Americans have a long verbal tradition of passing along history and events.”
In addition to the requests for proof of religious rights to the rock, Northern Chumash Tribal Administrator Fred Collins claims the suit was also made in the name of preservation. He claims disturbances caused by the Salinan Tribe could have a significant adverse impact on Morro Rock.
This isn’t the first time Fred Collins and the Northern Chumash Tribal Council have used preservation as a guise for taking control of something. In fact, they have been the drivers in our community for the Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary (CHNMS).
The CHNMS, if established, would invite the federal government to our coastline and eliminate the local control of our waters. Like the proposed sanctuary, Fred Collins’ attempts to protect Morro Rock are a misuse of government and would effectively silence individuals within our community.
Additionally, according to Carl Artman, this basis for this suit is very unusual. Most Native American groups in the United States share sacred areas of religious significance with little incident.
Numerous tribes in South Dakota regard the Black Hills as sacred and share in the area’s sanctity. Similarly, several tribes in the Four Corners region share the San Francisco Peaks for their unique religious ceremonies. In California, coastal Indians have cooperated and shared many sacred sites since early invasions by Spaniards, and again after the Gold Rush of 1849.
“There’s a history of shared cultures among numerous tribes in the United States,” Carl Artman said. “It seems suspicious that the Northern Chumash Tribal Council would attempt to restrict the religious rights of another tribe at a site they would otherwise both share.”
It is suspicious. And it calls into question a bigger issue: The religious practices of the Salinan people are not only acknowledged by the state of California, but also protected by the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
How has this lawsuit not already been dismissed?
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution clearly prohibits impeding the free exercise of religious expression.
If preservation is the main concern of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, as they claim, surely they would know that the Salinan Tribe of Monterey and San Luis Obispo counties must feel the same about preserving Morro Rock.
The preservation of Morro Rock is just as important to the Salinan Tribe as it is to anyone else in our community.
With the winter solstice fast approaching, I believe members of the Salinan Tribe deserve the full protection of the United States Constitution.
Let them climb the rock and perform their religious ceremonies.
John Allan Peschong served in President Ronald Reagan’s administration and as a senior strategist for the campaigns of President George W. Bush. He is a founding partner of Meridian Pacific Inc., a public relations and affairs company, and serves as chairman of the San Luis Obispo County Republican Party. His column appears twice a month in The Tribune, in rotation with liberal columnist Tom Fulks.