Download this Paper Open PDF in Browser

In the Absence of Title: Responding to Federal Ownership in Sacred Sites Cases

1 Pages Posted: 13 Dec 2006  

Kristen A. Carpenter

Independent; University of Colorado Law School


This paper examines the challenge of protecting American Indian sacred sites located on federal public lands. Many have addressed this issue in the religious freedoms context, but I believe the problem is just as much about property law. The Supreme Court's decision in Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association, for example, would appear to suggest that federal ownership of certain sacred sites trumps tribal free exercise clause claims regarding those sites. This holding corresponds with a classic model in which [p]roperty is about rights over things and the people who have those rights are called owners. However, a closer look at property law reveals that ownership is only one factor in any analysis, and property also encompasses interests, obligations, and values beyond the narrow question of owners' rights. Here I argue that recognizing the expansiveness of property law can be a useful tool in developing legal arguments that respond to the ownership bar presented by Lyng.

Keywords: Indian law, property law, sacred sites, religious freedom, public lands law

Suggested Citation

Carpenter, Kristen A., In the Absence of Title: Responding to Federal Ownership in Sacred Sites Cases. New England Law Review, Vol. 37, p. 619, 2003. Available at SSRN:

University of Colorado Law School ( email )

401 UCB
Boulder, CO 80309
United States
(303) 492-6526 (Phone)


Paper statistics

Abstract Views