Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Sacred Places, Sacred Spaces by Peter Reum

A fellow graduate of Colorado College, Andrew Gulliford, wrote Sacred Objects and Sacred Places, which I feel is the best introduction to the concept of the significance of certain natural landmarks artifacts, and locations to the indigenous peoples of North America. His book fired my imagination, because so many of the places he writes about are near my roots in the American Southwest. Others are significant to tribes I respect and honor for their reverence for the land, flora, and fauna that are endangered by the unbridled and insatiable plunder of resources and native cultures that have lived and loved those same locations.

Tribes in Canada and the United States have taken a strong stand in opposition to initiatives to cross their lands with oil pipelines containing oil plundered from public and private lands through the "fracking" method, leaving aquifers spoiled, subterranean faults pierced with resulting seismic destabilization, and denuding of thousands of acres of previously undisturbed natural areas. Native communities on six continents face encroachment by a new form of hunter.....the hunter who wants the right to change forever the quality of indigenous life for a few months' consumption worth of energy. Around the world, many indigenous peoples are being exploited by energy barons, multinational corporations, and even national governments, who in the words of the current Exxon/Mobil Chairman, have a "philosophy of making money."

Since the first conquistadors entered the Americas, hungry for gold, glory, slaves, and converts to Catholicism, the story of indigenous peoples has been one of extermination, slavery, or eradication of native traditions, lands, spirituality, and languages. The methods have grown more sophisticated, but the basic goal has remained the same. When a major area is preserved, it is often over the objection of entities whose sole desire is to "use" the area for some form of energy development. The rising of "Eco-tourism" around the world is a naive attempt to mitigate these forms of development, often inadvertently leading to the very development such tourism hoped to avoid.

In the last 20 years, the building of dams and reservoirs on Native American reservations across the Western United States has slowed to a small percentage of what was built in the last century. Anyone with any sort of love of maps can examine the various reservations across The West, and easily apprehend the degree to which many of the major rivers in the West were dammed (damned) on reservations. Thousands of people were displaced by these projects, and the rhythms of their lives were changed forever. One can see, from looking at the effect of damming of the Columbia River, the devastating effects upon indigenous salmon populations that were major sources of nutrition and sustenance of native peoples.

Indigenous people in Canada have made very clear their objection to the crossing of their tribal lands by oil pipelines. The same is true of the Lakota people of South Dakota. Their sacred land, The Black Hills, was stolen by gold seeking plunderers in the 1870s, with the relocation of their reservations to marginal locations. The Lakota have thereby refused an offer of settlement from the US Government to mitigate the seizure of The Black Hills. Even the Pueblos of the Southwest have faced encroachment of cities and towns near their reservations, with corresponding demands for water. Development has in some cases encroached upon reservation land without the permission of tribes to build being given.

In visiting the various sacred spots around North America and Hawaii, there are some things that I have noticed. They are often in very stunning natural landscapes, have abundant wildlife, and are often isolated from population centers. Some of them are still on indigenous land, some are on public land, and others are protected by private conservation efforts. One that is not far from my current home is the Medicine Wheel which appears on he cover of Andrew Gulliford's book. It is located high on an escarpment in The Big Horn Mountains, with a stunning view of the Bighorn Basin. Research on this site shows evidence of use by native populations for at least 10,000 years. At times during the year, certain tribes are accorded exclusive use of the Wheel in deference to their traditional beliefs and medicine. One positive aspect of the Wheel's location is that it cannot be readily accessed by motor vehicle, due to its location and potential for deterioration. A walk of 2 miles roundtrip is required to visit.

Deep within the Grand Canyon lie numerous sacred sites of the Hopi Nation, who have visited the sites for at least a millenium. There are oral histories dating back before the Christian Era. It is evident that the sites are important to the tribe, because they still visit them to perform a number of spiritual rites as they have since before the Europeans came. This is also true of the Hawaiian Islands, where Hawaiian sacred sites, called heiaus, are located on lands privately held by the Bishop Estate, or have been set aside by the US Government for their cultural significance. The Pu' uhonua O Honaunau National Historical Park preserves a site sacred to Native Hawaiians where breakers of taboos of the Native Hawaiians could avoid execution and be pardoned in order to return to Hawaiian society. Even this beautiful and stunning park is surrounded by development, and sites where endangered sea turtles incubate their eggs are being destroyed. The sites of heiaus are still utilized by Native Hawaiians, who are fighting to preserve their native culture. Their language is being taught by schools whose mission is to help Hawaiians to return to their traditional rituals, traditions, and culture.

Native Alaskans face the loss of their way of life to a proposed mine called The Pebble Mine in the Bristol Bay area of Southeast Alaska. Anglo American, a multi-national conglomerate, wants to develop an open pit mine in the midst of the most well preserved salmon reproduction zones in North America. The mine was highlighted in a Frontline episode on PBS that illustrated the potential disaster in the making that is the Bristol Bay Mine. The example of pollution and destruction that was cited as a similar consequence that has already occured was Montana's own Berkeley Pit, which is so toxic that birds die within minutes of landing in it. The waters of the Berkeley Pit are pumped out 24 hours a day, because if this is not done, the toxic water would flow over the Pit's edges and flood nearby Butte, and cities downstream from Butte. Anglo American's stewardship of other sites where such mines have been located has been a disaster, as evidenced by press coverage of their South American holdings, particularly in Chile. Native Alaskans have mounted legal challenges to the mine.

Since Andrew Gulliford wrote his groundbreaking book, the internet has grown, and there are several sites devoted to places of sacred significance to indigenous cultures. The most thorough and easy to use is, which literally has mapped and illustrated a number of sites worldwide. The mission of this organization is to highlight and help educate the world about sacred sites and lands, and to help indigenous people get their point of view across to a world increasingly detached from nature and its ways. Chief Oren Lyons of the Onondaga Nation explains the difference between book learning and indigenous peoples' understanding of their place on Earth on this site. His short 8 minute video segment is eye opening in its humility and simplicity, yet profound as well. There is a map of the world that can be expanded to illustrate a small sampling of the thousands of sacred sites across 6 continents. In my adopted state of Montana, there are several, two of which are shown on the map. Weatherman Draw is the largest collection of rock art on the North American continent. The Badger-Two Medicine Roadless Area abuts The Blackfoot Reservation in Northwest Montana, and is of religious significance to the Blackfoot Nation. The area was threatened until recently by oil and gas leases by oil companies until a major change in public policy determined that no further leases would be let on the Rocky Mountain Front of Montana, where the mountains meet the plains. Existing leases were to be donated to prevent disruption of the area.

In my home state of New Mexico, the Taos Pueblo had its sacred Blue Lake stolen by the National Forest service during the Theodore Roosevelt Administration and it took over 60 years to reverse the rape of Taos Pueblo culture that had happened  without regard for their religion or beliefs. In 1970. Richard Nixon ordered the return of Blue Lake to the Pueblo, which is the ONLY return of sacred land by the US Government to Native America in its history. Taos Pueblo commemorates the day as a tribal holiday annually. Each of the other pueblos has similar sites to Blue Lake, which have not been returned. In Bandelier National Monument, there is a place called the Stone Lions which resembled a pair of mountain lions in repose. It was listed on Bandelier Park Service maps, although it was sacred to at least three Pueblos who used it as a sacred site. One of the lions was smashed by vandals in the 1970s, leading to the Stone Lions being removed from Bandelier maps.  But it was too late. Another sacred site had been desecrated.

The hopes of indigenous peoples around the world and their aspirations are fairly similar. First, they want their lands, sacred sites, and culture to be respected and not destroyed. Second, they want to have many of the same things other people have, clean air, clean water, and a place where their future generations can live in the way they have for countless generations. Third, they want the consumer culture to realize that we are a world are destroying the very home planet we live on. Long before science, the indigenous peoples of the world clearly understood the interdependence of various planetary systems upon each other, from the smallest bacteria to the oceans and internal layers of the planet itself.

If this essay has caught your attention, please consider going to the site and peruse the map of the world to find sites near you. If you are so inclined, buy one of their dvds, or donate to their organization. Many of these places will not survive this decade if not protected. Or, you can seek out Andrew Gulliford's comprehensive book about the sites in the American West and Hawaii. Either way, I hope this short article has helped you familiarize yourself with some of the issues facing the world's sacred places.

Text copyright 2014 by Peter Reum-All Rights Reserved