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Go to Rekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentRekindling the Spirit: The Rebirth of American Indian Spirituality
DocumentPart 1: The spirits spoke to him
DocumentPart 2: The seventh fire
DocumentPart 3: Christianizing the Indians
DocumentPart 4: One church, two traditions
DocumentPart 5: Where tradition thrives
DocumentPart 6: Ceremony and symbolism
DocumentPart 7: The healing spirit
DocumentPart 8: Returning to the Red Road
Document'The jewelry on American culture'
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Commentary: Is it sacred enough?
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Winona LaDuke. (MPR Photo/Dan Gunderson)
Winona LaDuke is a Native American activist, who runs the White Earth Land Recovery Project in northern Minnesota. She was Ralph Nader's vice presidential running mate on the Green Party ticket in the 2000 election. LaDuke writes about the struggle to protect sites that are sacred to Native Americans.

White Earth Reservation — What is sacred? That is a question asked in courtrooms, administrative hearings, and city council meetings across the country. In the end there is no absence of irony. Indeed, the oppressed must go to the court or administrative hearing process of the oppressor to quantify exactly how sacred something is in this country. Nowhere is the discussion more passionate than the debate over the preservation and protection of sacred sites.

Chris Peters, a Pohik-la from northern California discusses the distinction between Native spiritual practices and Judeo-Christian traditions as having different paradigms. Native spiritual practices are "affirmation-based religions," while Judeo-Christian religious systems are "commemorative religions," in terms of a broad definition.

Native American religious and spiritual practices are often based on the re-affirmation of the relationship of the human to the Creation. Native oral traditions often tell of the place of the "little brother" (ie: the humans) in the larger Creation, and consequently, our need to be continuously thankful for our part in Creation, the gifts given to us by the Creator is always underscored. These teachings are reinforced in Midewiwin lodges, Sundance ceremonies, world renewal ceremonies and many others.

Judeo-Christian teachings and events frequently commemorate a set of historic events: Easter, Christmas, Passover, Hannukah, as examples within two of the dominant religious practices in the world.

The difference in the paradigms of these spiritual practices has, over time, become a source of great conflict in the Americas. The history of religious colonialism, including the genocide perpetrated by the Catholic Church (particularly in Latin America), is a wound from which Native communities have not yet healed. And, the notion that other non-Christian spiritual practices could have validity was entirely ignored for centuries. Consequently, while there may be some "sacred sites" in Judeo-Christian tradition, ie: for instance, the "holy land," the existence of other "holy lands" has been denied.

There is a place on the shore of Lake Superior, or Gichi Gummi, where the Giant laid down to sleep. There is a place in Zuni's alpine prairie, where the Salt Woman moved, and hoped to rest. There is a place in the heart of Lakota territory where the people go to vision quest, and remember the children who ascended from there to the sky, and became the Pleiades. There is a place known as the Falls of a Woman's Hair, which is the epicenter of a salmon culture. And there is a mountain upon which the Anishinaabeg rested during their migration, and looked back to find the place they were instructed to go by their prophets.

A "holy land" cannot be exclusive in a multi-cultural and multi-spiritual society -- yet indeed it has been treated as such. Papal Law became the foundation of colonialism, the church a handmaiden to military, economic, and spiritual genocide and domination.

In their time, each subsequent pope would pass new Papal Bulls, all underscoring the legitimacy of Christian manifest destiny. Those Papal Bulls underscored the supremacy of Christendom, and ostensibly authorized the practices of colonialism.

All of that carried over to the Americas, with perhaps some of the most virulent and disgraceful manifestations of dominance beginning the process of colonization in the Americas.

Indeed, xenophobia, and a deep fear of Native spiritual practices, became the centerpiece of early reservation policy as Native religious expression was outlawed in this country. To practice your traditional form of worship was tantamount to a death sentence for many peoples.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of l890 occurred in large part because of the fear of the Ghost Dance Religion which had spread into the Lakota nation. Hundreds of Lakota and other Native spiritual leaders were sent to the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in present day Canton, South Dakota, just for their spiritual beliefs.

(Individuals were often sent to the asylum on the request of the Indian Agent, as "malcontents" who adhered to native traditions, or were in a quarrel with the Indian agent. From there, very few would ever return. (Bradley and Jennifer Soule) Native Voice, "Death at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians," February b7-2l, Volume 2, Issue, 3. Rapid City, SD, page B3.)

So it was by necessity that Native spiritual practitioners went deep into the woods, or into the heartland of their territory to keep up their traditions, always knowing that their job was to keep alive their instructions, and, hence, their way of life.

In l978, some 200 years after the American Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion for most Americans, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and President Carter signed it into law. Although the act contains worthy language which seems to reflect the founder's concepts of religious liberty, it has few teeth.

The act states that "It shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut and native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites."

While the law insured that Native people could hold many of their ceremonies (although Native American church ceremonies remained challenged), it did not insure the protection of the places where many of these ceremonial practices would take place, or the protection of that needed for the ceremonies, ie: the salt from the sacred Salt Mother for Zuni ceremonies, the salmon from the Columbia River for Columbia River Tribes, or the sanctity of these places from desecration whether by rock climbers or bulldozers.

The Religious Freedom Act was underscored with Clinton's l996 Executive Order l3007, for preservation of sacred sites. "In managing federal lands, each executive branch agency with statutory or administrative responsibility for the management of Federal lands shall ... avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites."

Those protections were applied to lands held by the federal government, not by private interests, although many sacred sites advocates have urged compliance by other landholders to the spirit and intent of the law. The Bush administration however, has not surprisingly by and large ignored that Executive Order.

Dr. Henrietta Mann is a Northern Cheyenne woman, and chair of the Native American Studies Department at Montana State University. She reiterates the significance of the natural world to Native spiritual teaching.

"Over the time we have been here, we have built cultural ways on and about this land. We have our own respected versions of how we came to be. These origin stories -- that we emerged or fell from the sky or were brought forth -- connect us to this land and establish our realities, our belief systems. We have spiritual responsibilities to renew the Earth and we do this throughout Ceremonies so that our Mother, the Earth can continue to support us. Mutuality and respect are part of our tradition -- give and take. Somewhere along the way, I hope people will learn that you can't just take, that you have to give back to the land."

So, we have a problem of two separate spiritual paradigms, and one dominant culture. Make that a dominant culture with an immense appetite for natural resources. The exponential growth of the U.S. economy for two centuries was largely related to the expropriation of Native American lands and resources, as colonialism would be replaced with neo-colonialism. But each step of the way requiring more land and natural resources to feed the growing industrial infrastructure.

The United States consumes a third of the world's resources, and to create that level of consumption, a significant level of production had to occur, much of it from Native people's lands. By the l930s, the Native land base had been reduced to 52 million acres, or about 4 percent of our original land base. Indeed, we saw some 90 million acres taken by the federal government from Native people just from l889-l934, and within all of those takings, more than 75 percent of our sacred sites would be removed from our care and jurisdiction.

Native people must now request permission quite often to use their own sacred sites, and, more than not find that those sacred sites are in danger of being obliterated, or just simply desecrated.

To complicate the challenge of attempting to maintain your spiritual practice in a new millennium is the problem of the destruction of that which you need for your ceremonial practice. The destruction of 50 million buffalo in the Great Plains by the beginning of the 20th century caused immense hardship for traditional spiritual practices of the region, especially since the Pte Oyate, the buffalo nation, are the older brothers of the Lakota, and many other Indigenous cultures of the region.

Similarly, the decimation of the salmon on the Columbia, Klamath and other rivers in the Northwest by huge dam projects, overfishing and water diversion has caused great emotional, social and spiritual devastation to the Yakama, Wasco, Umatilla, Nez Perce and many other peoples of the region. New efforts to domesticate, patent and genetically modify wild rice similarly concern the Anishinaabeg people of the Great Lakes region.

In terms of sacred sites struggles in the United States, there are many which are ongoing, and some which have been resolved, favorably, at least for now.

The Valley of the Chiefs was protected by a hair and an immense amount of organizing work. Containing one of the largest collections of sacred pictographs on the continent, it contains a refuge for those involved in many ceremonies. As Dine journalist Valerie Taliman reports, Philip Anschutz, "an oil billionaire and major funder of the Bush campaign was granted rights to drill -- only 12 days after Bush’s election." But major opposition by the Crow, Comanche, Lakota, Blackfeet, Northern Cheyenne and a host of environmental groups led to the launching of a broad campaign to protect "Weatherman Draw."

Anschutz, for instance, is a well-known collector of art of the American West, and his collections were leafleted by activists. In Congress, the coalition was able to leverage support of Rep. Nick Rahall of West Virginia, who introduced legislation to protect the Valley of the Chiefs, terming the proposal to drill something like "erecting an oil derrick in the Sistine Chapel."

The pressure mounted, and a few months later, Anschutz donated its oil leases to the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Bureau of Land Management followed suit, withdrawing an additional 4,200 acres in the area from the mineral leasing process.

Medicine Lake rests high in the northern California mountains, the area held sacred to the Pit River, Modoc, Shasta, Karuk and Wintu people. The Pit River people recall that after creating the earth, the Creator and his son bathed in the waters of the lake. And then, the Creator imparted his spirit to Medicine Lake. That water is used for ceremonies, and the entire area is recognized as a place to train medicine people from the region.

A coalition of tribes was able to successfully petition the National Register of Historic Places to recognize the Medicine Lake Caldera as a Traditional Cultural District in l999. The Calpine Corp. proposed a geothermal project in the area, with the hopes of harnessing enough steam power to run as many as six power plants.

Court and administrative battles continued, with the Calpine Corp. losing a few rounds, until it filed a $l00 million lawsuit against the federal government and the perception of an energy crisis in California created a political climate, sort of like the "perfect storm" to justify the Bush administration's subsequent actions. In November of 2002, the Bush administration approved a $120 million, 48 megawatt geothermal power plant at Telephone Flat, one mile from Medicine Lake.

Zuni Salt Lake The Great Salt Mother rests peacefully within her domain. It is here, amongst purple mesas, lush grasses, and tenacious trees, that Zuni Salt Lake rises majestically in the center of a gentle sanctuary. She is called Ma;Oyattsik'i by the people of Zuni Pueblo, and stories are remembered of her movement to her present resting place, across the land.

Today, great pilgrimages are taken by the men, not only of Zuni, but of neighboring Acoma Pueblo, Dine Bii Kaya, or Navajo land, Apache, and other neighboring peoples to collect salt for their ceremonial life -- indeed, their lifeblood. That is perhaps why A:shiwi A: wan Ma’k’yay’a dap an’ullapna Dek’ohannan Dehyakya Dehwanne, exists, a 185,000 acre sanctuary, from time immemorial.

The Salt River Project is the nation's third largest public utility, and it is running out of coal at the McKinley mine near Gallup, New Mexico. The company has its sights on 80 million tons of coal just 11 miles from the lake, with the proposed 8,000-acre Fence Lake Mine.

This summer, the New Mexico Department of Mines renewed the original five-year permit for the mine site, despite protests by Native nations and the environmental community. At one meeting in Grants, New Mexico, about 130 people came to voice their opposition to the renewal of the permit; another meeting was held nearby with 75 in attendance.

Perhaps the most interesting question posed was not about the mine itself. Andy Bessler, Sierra Club regional organizer, asked why the meeting was not held in the pueblo communities most deeply affected by the permit.

The Salt River project has been successful in securing all the federal and state leases for the coal, and conversely, by mid-summer of 2001, the Zuni tribe had exhausted all administrative options to stop the issuance of a Life of Mine Permit to avert the SRP's proposed Fence Lake mine. The struggle to protect Salt Lake continues, facing daunting opposition from the Bush administration, and the state of New Mexico.

Black Mesa is the heartland of the Colorado Plateau, and is the region's largest and most productive watershed. It is also a coal body, representing at its prime more than 22 billion tons of coal. But the largest community in the area, Tuba City, receives only a scant seven inches of rainfall annually. The Navajo Aquifer, also known as the N–Aquifer, is the sole source of dependable drinking water for the region. Hence, the massive mining development, combined with the use of water from the aquifer, has been a huge blow to the ecology of the region.

For the past 35 years, 1.3 million gallons of pristine water annually has been sucked from the Navajo Aquifer, just to move coal. Peabody, with its affiliate, the Black Mesa Pipeline Company ship approximately 5 million tons of coal, in a pulverized, powder-like consistency, pushed by up to 4,500 gallons of water a minute some 273 miles west to the Mohave Generating Station in Nevada.

The irony of waste is not lost on the Hopi. Vernon Masayesva is a former Chairman of the Hopi tribe and is now executive director of Black Mesa Trust, a non-profit organization focused on trying to prevent the destruction of the Black Mesa aquifer.

"One billion gallons of our ancient, sacred water -- water upon which we have survived for a millennia, upon which we depend today -- mined to slurry coal, fouled beyond reclamation, evaporates each year in Nevada's desert skies," Masayesva explains. "One billion gallons of living water, enough to provide Hopi for 100 years, dies on a dry wind, and Moenkopi wash is dry."

Now 30 years later, since it began, water levels in some Black Mesa wells have dropped more than 100 feet, and many of the springs are dry. Hopis contend that by the year 2011, the dewatering will leave the Hopi village of Moenkopi without water.

Mato Tipi, or Bears Lodge, is a sacred site of great power to the Cheyenne, Lakota and other Native people of the region. It is known as Devil's Tower, largely due to a massive Christian renaming process in which much of which Native people revered as sacred was renamed as "devil, bad medicine," or some other denotation of its position in Native America as opposed to Christian society.

Mato Tipi has been used for millennia by Native people for vision questing and other rituals related to the Sun Dance Ceremony. In l906, it became the first United States National Monument, and thus fell under the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. The Devil's Tower National Monument for many years was largely visited by recreational campers. But in the l990s, a new spurt of interest came from rock climbers.

The vertical rock face of Mato Tipi was of interest to "crack climbers," those engaging in a form of climbing requiring the use of advanced technique and a variety of technological devices. This is one of the most challenging sites for rock climbing of this sort in the country.

By l995, 6,000 climbers annually were scaling the sacred rock walls, many of them during the time of the Vision quest rituals during the summer months. Basically, it is challenging enough trying to pray for a vision, let alone have that meditation process disrupted by an almost constant flow of rock climbers.

The federal government issued some management plans in l995 and l996 calling for a mandatory ban on commercially-led climbing in June, the month most used for the ceremonial practice. This ban, however, was challenged by a coalition of commercial climbing guides and other persons. In l996, the Federal District Court for Wyoming overturned the National Park Service ban on constitutional grounds, citing the ban as an infringement on religious liberty as protected by the establishment clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

The National Park Service modified its regulations, making the climbing ban voluntary in l996, and the Native community filed an appeal of the decision to the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals for the l0th Circuit.

Mato Paha, or Bear Butte. There is nothing quite like Bear Butte, as it looms high on the horizon in the heart of Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, the heartland of the Great Plains, and indeed the Lakota universe.

A new proposal forwarded by the city of Sturgis, South Dakota (home of the Black Hills Classic, Sturgis Motorcycle race), has plans to build a sports complex and shooting range four miles from Bear Butte. Thus far they've spent a quarter of a million dollars of Housing and Urban Development money on the project.

The project will entail l0,000 rounds per day of gunshots from rifles and handguns, and will most likely deeply impact the serenity sought by the Native people who go to Bear Butte to pray and conduct vision quests. The tribes were never consulted with the proposal’s development, and have now launched an initiative to protect Mato Paha.

Spirit Mountain. When the Ojibwe migrated from the East to the West, each of the resting places provided a time for deliberation. From Spirit Mountain, it is said that we came to see our final resting place: Moningwanakwaning, now called Madeline Island. The Anishinaabeg journeyed to this Mountain. Then, we were able to understand our instructions, and view our destiny.

The Anishinaabeg are not the Jews. We did not have a Moses and the tablets of stone. Yet, in Christian analogies, it is perhaps possible that Spirit Mountain would be somewhat like our Mt. Sinai. For years, the city of Duluth has grown in the shadow of Spirit Mountain, but in the past few years, the City Council has taken an interest in supporting development of a world class golf course on Spirit Mountain.

Almost every Ojibwe tribal government in the region, and hundreds of individuals, have opposed the golf course proposal, which, as of yet, remains supported, undaunted by the Duluth City Council. In hearings during the summer of 2002, Ojibwe traditional spiritual practitioners came to the Duluth City Council meetings to present their concerns about the issue, and were told by one City Council man, that indeed the Ojibwe migration story was a fabrication. Instead, he had read, the Ojibwe first saw this land, and the Spirit Mountain, when brought to the region on boats by the explorers.

Other administrators and representatives requested that the Ojibwe identify which parts of the Mountain were sacred, in order that mitigation might occur. Such is the problem of quantifying the sacred, and presenting a Native world view.

Dzil nchaa si an, or Mount Graham. Dzil nchaa si an rises l0,700 feet up from its base in the Sonoran Desert, a home to clouds at the top, and streams and flowing hot springs at its base. It is an oasis in the midst of a desert. It is also one of the largest mountains in the state of Arizona, a part of the Pinaleno Range.

As a consequence, in part of both location and height, Mt. Graham possesses more life zones and vegetative communities than any other solitary mountain in North America. Within those vegetative zones live three mammals, three flowering plants, three snails, a mollusk and many anthropods that have never been found anywhere else in the world.

Mt. Graham is also central to Apache spiritual practices, the source of many of their medicines, and the home of deities. In a battle spanning more than a decade of controversy, and opposition by the Apaches and 30 or more national and international environmental groups, two telescopes have been built on Mt. Graham -- one by the Vatican, and the second by the German based Max Planke Institute.

The push behind the projects, however, still comes from a different sort of white men, those at the University of Arizona Department of Astronomy. Congress has given the nod, despite injunctions and lawsuits, to five more telescopes. Each subsequent telescope proposal has been increasingly controversial. It is the University of Arizona's project, the Columbus Scope, and the University of Arizona's ongoing lobbying, that has driven this project, and threatens Mt. Graham.

The Large Binocular Telescope, or LBT, is also called the Columbus Scope. The LBT is considered to be the most powerful telescope on earth, and is projected to cost around $83.5 million to complete -- one of the reasons the lead partner, the University of Arizona, is looking for partners, aka investors.

Present members of the LBT consortium are the University of Arizona (25 percent viewing time), Italy (25 percent), Germany (25 percent), Ohio State University (l2.5 percent), University of Minnesota (5 percent proposed), and the non-profit Research Corporation (8 percent). The money needed to fund the project has turned the University of Arizona, in the minds of many, into a "star whore."

Neither the recent designation of the Mountain as eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places as an Apache cultural property, nor the raging fires of the summer of 2002, have altered the significance of it in the eyes of the University of Arizona. The University continues to move ahead with the Columbus Scope.

Petroglyph National Monument. Between 2,000 and 500 years ago, the ancestors carved their messages into the o a lava formation just west of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Known as Petroglyph National Monument, it was even recognized to be of historic value when it was named a national monument in l990. But greed and the growth of the city of Albuquerque spurn the ancestors.

A six-lane highway to connect Albuquerque to its own sprawl is now proposed to push through the center of the ancient lava chalkboard. All of New Mexico's Native nations, including the l9 Pueblos, have opposed it, and a tenacious group known as the Sage Alliance continues its work to stop the proposal.

Coldwater Springs. It is a spring of water which for centuries has been known for its healing properties, and is used by many for ceremonies in the region. The l0,000 year old limestone bedrock spring flows down the bluff to the Mississippi River, and is estimated to have between l00,000 to l44,000 gallons of water per day going by it. It is said that it is fed from Taku Wakan Tipi (Something Sacred Dwells Here) -- a nearby hill, which was bulldozed to build the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport.

The spring has remained, and prevailed through the development of the south Minneapolis region. But beginning in the early l990s, proposals for highway expansion, in particular Highway 55, would crossect the spring. A bitter struggle ensued between Native people, environmentalists and the state Department of Transportation.

Eventually, much of the highway was built. But some provisions were made to protect the spring, under the promise that MnDOT forwarded, saying the highway reroute "will not impact the Camp Coldwater historical property or Coldwater Spring."

Current flows at the spring are yo-yoing between 55 and ll5 gallons per minute (79,000-l66,000 gallons per day), with a threat of dewatering looming on the horizon. New "compromise" proposals are being viewed with skepticism by the Mendota Dakota, Anishinaabeg and other people of the region, with the hopes that conservation purchases and agreements may be able to save the spring.

The White Man's Law and the Sacred

There remain many more sacred site issues in the United States, but the underlying concerns of "how sacred is it?" also loom in the discussion. In the fall of 2002, the National Congress of American Indians came together with traditional spiritual people and sacred sites advocates to discuss some of the challenges within the context of even the battle to protect sacred sites.

The National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) resolution SD 02 027, adopted a consensus that there was a "Zero tolerance for desecration, damage, or destruction of sacred places," and that among other things, there is a "recognition that sacred places are to be defined only as places that are sacred to practitioners of Native traditional religions. And that sacred places include land, (surface and subsurface), water and air, burial grounds, massacre sites, and battlefields, and spiritual commemoration, ceremonial, gathering and worship areas."

NCAI also joined with other Native people in pointing out some of the most challenging aspects of the sacred site struggle, calling them objectionable elements, which include: Definition of the sacred; prioritizing sacred places; centrality or degree of significance requirements; discrimination against non-federally recognized tribes with traditional sacred places to protect; so-called "mitigation" of impacts to sacred places; reliance on previously published or recorded, coerced or incomplete information regarding sacred places."

In the summer of 2002, the California Legislature passed a bill which would have protected sacred sites within the state, and increased dramatically the consultation with Native nations with regards to many of these development projects. Gov. Gray Davis did not sign the bill into law. Proposals for national sacred site legislation are once again planned for the U.S. Congress, in what promises to be a long battle. It is 200 years after the beginning of America. And it is still hard to be a Native person on the continent. As spiritual challenges continue, Native people will continue, as we have for centuries. In our prayers, songs, and the sacredness of the land, we will always be thankful.

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