Sacred Lands and Human Understanding

By Vine Deloria,Jr.
Hoka Hey! Fall/Winter Issue, 1992

Are you indigenous to North America? If not, do you consider yourself an "alien"? If alien, how can one become indigenous? Does the land itself effect whether one is indigenous or alien? Does sacred ceremony positively effect environment? In 1992 the late Vine Deloria, Jr. allowed Hoka Hey! to publish his essay addressing these intriguing and important questions.

The prophecies of many tribes tell us that long before the coming of the white man, the outlines of the history of North America were known in general terms by the religious leaders of the people. A strange people would come, they would oppress and dispossess the tribes, they would abuse the lands, and many of the tribes would disappear. Toward the end of this age, and as a precondition for the next age, ceremonies would fall into disuse, people would abandon their religious practices, the atmosphere would change dramatically and eventually the earth itself would rebel at the treatment if was receiving and cleanse itself of the cancer that had formed on its skin. A few survivors would remain and for these few new ceremonies would be given and again after a few generations the religious people would receive the knowledge of how this new age would live and how it would end.

When the tribes went on the reservations and came under the forced assimilation of American society it seemed as if these ancient prophecies were being fulfilled but most of the people survived and many of the important ceremonies survived. So, as dismal as the situation seemed, people did not believe they were near the end of the age. Over the course of this century traditional religious leaders have assumed that the inroads of secularism and the rejection of traditional ways of Indians who had become Christian converts gave evidence that traditional ceremonies would end because of the failure of the Indians to keep faith with the ancient revelations and prophecies. Until very recent times the mood of traditional people was very low and it was embarrassing to them to be advocates of the ancient ways when they could see hundreds of their own people adopting new religious beliefs. Their concerns were eventually expressed in a political manner and in 1978 Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Resolution which instructed federal agencies to accommodate the practice of traditional religions wherever possible.

The effect of the Religious Freedom Resolution has been intense resistance on the part of the federal agencies, particularly the National Park Service and the Department of Agriculture which manages the national forests. Thinking that the Religious Freedom Resolution gave them some protection, traditional people, at the urging of attorneys but with great hesitation at submitting Holy things to a secular decision-making institution, went to state and federal courts seeking to prevent the construction of dams, logging codes, and land management practices which would inhibit or destroy the practice of traditional tribal religions. With the solitary exception of the preservation of Kutenai Falls in northern Idaho, the state and federal courts have ruled decisively against traditional religious people. Various doctrines have been constructed, used and abused, and finally abandoned by the courts in their efforts to keep traditional people from, in the words of one Supreme Court justice, "imposing a religious servitude on public lands." There is something absurd about this accusation. If a deity does exist all of creation is presumably under his or her servitude regardless of the sublime nature of the United States Supreme Court.

Rejection of religious freedom rights by the federal courts has radically changed the manner in which traditional religious leaders view their practices. Indians are not falling away from their traditional ceremonies; they are being forced to abandon them by the United States government. This unwarranted intervention then increases the severity of the catastrophic events which will bring this world age to a conclusion because the ceremonies will end with a rather abrupt and decisive ending. The anomaly here is that the ceremonies are those required to keep the balance of the natural world intact and are therefore done on behalf of all forms of life and those people and institutions which are now making it impossible for them to be held.

The average American has great sympathy for the problems of traditional Indian religious people but he or she also has great difficulty understanding why it is so important that ceremonies be held only at certain locations and quite often under conditions of extreme secrecy and privacy. The problems of understanding originate in the very nature of American society which tends to see everything in individual rather than community terms. Individuals within the Indian community always act on behalf of that community and not as a matter of individual conscience or personal belief. The non-Indian person except for a few friends and some family, does not have the same kind of community to which he or she is responsible or with whom he or she shares beliefs and practices. Thus while a belief in sacred lands may become a preferred belief of a non-Indian individual, it is a part of the present, past and future experiences for Indians and hence not likely to be modified by intellectual arguments or logical reasoning. Unfortunately federal court judges and national policy-makers have always interpreted the behavior of traditional Indian religious leaders as if they had some kind of personal belief distinct from that of the rest of the tribe. In fact these leaders are simply passing down to another generation the practices and beliefs that have been passed down to them. Thus although acting in an individual manner, they in fact represent the corporate or communal nature of tribal life.

Accepting the basic fact of the community as determinative of traditional religious practices, we are then faced with the necessity of understanding the various kinds of sacredness which Indians have experienced in and on lands. The most familiar kinds of sacredness, that is, the sacredness which stands within the realm of individual realization quite readily, is the sacredness which we attribute to places and sites that have significance for our society and from which we receive our personal and social identity. Gettysburg National Cemetery is a very good example of this kind of sacred land. Abraham Lincoln properly noted that we cannot hollow the battlefield at Gettysburg because others, the men who fought there, have already consecrated it by giving "that last full measure of devotion." There are, within the limits of the United States, many places which now have a religious significance because these sites remind us of the generations that went before whose struggles created our present. If we are to have any identity at all, we forget these people and places to our peril, become a-historical, and eventually irresponsible even to ourselves. There is much in the present condition of American society that suggests that we are reaching this point of secularity.

A deeper more profound sense of the sacred land can be found in the Old Testament experiences with which man of us a familiar through stories told to us in childhood.

After the death of Moses, Joshua led the Hebrews across the River Jordan into the Holy Land. On approaching the river with the Ark of the Covenant, the waters of the Jordan "rose up" or parted and the people, led by the Ark, crossed over on "dry ground", which is to say, they crossed the river without difficulty. After crossing Joshua selected one man from each of the Twelve Tribes and told him to secure a large stone. The twelve stones were then placed together in a group to mark the spot where the people camped after having crossed the river successfully. When asked about this strange behavior, Joshua replied, "that this may be a sign among you, that when your children ask their fathers in time to come, saying, 'What mean ye by these stones? Then you shall answer them: That the waters of Jordan were cut off before the Ark of the Covenant of the Lord; when it passed over Jordan'." (Joshua 4:6-7)

In comparing this event and sacred site with that of Gettysburg we note several major differences. Gettysburg is a sacred site made sacred by the actions of men and consequently it can be described as "dear" to us but certainly not as the location of an event in which something religious occurred. Its sacredness comes after the event and there is no divine activity believed to be present at the time the events happen. Crossing the Jordan is an entirely different matter. Here the active participation by the Ark of the Covenant helps to create an event which itself sanctifies the site and following the event the site thereafter has a sacred dimension which must not be forgotten. Thus the site involves more than human feeling and experiences, it is the location of some kind of divine manifestation of power, albeit on behalf of political objectives and containing both religious and historical significance. Once the sacredness attaches to the site, it becomes impossible to isolate the religious from the political and the historical without distortion of the memory and significance of the event.

A significant number of sacred sites that traditional Indians want to use for ceremonies can be described in terms similar to those used in the Old Testament. Most tribes did not have a linear history of any complexity and consequently the historical dimension of their stories about the place is often sparse and sometimes virtually non-existent. In place of the linear history, however, was the appearance of spirits and other forms of life which participated in the event that made the site sacred. Some of these sites are places where humans and animals first met and established relations with each other. Thus the Buffalo Gap on the southeastern edge of the Black Hills had great significance because it was the site at which the ceremonial year of humans and buffalo began each year. Mountains in New Mexico and Arizona where the people caught and communed with eagles and deer had similar significance and the particular places in the Pacific Northwest where the first salmon ceremony was held come under the same rubic. There is no central "belief" or doctrine involved here other than the memory of the first religious event and the consequent apprehension that the site would thereafter be sacred.

Non-Indians have not had these kinds of experiences with the lands of North America because they are relative newcomers to this land. Individuals in the isolated rural areas of the country may well have had experiences similar in emotional content to what Indians learned centuries ago but for the most part they have not had a community to whom they could bring this information nor has there been any stable and continuing non-Indian community that could pass on the knowledge of place which is necessary to preserve this kind of experience so that the religious feeling toward the site could be retained. The religions of most non-Indians were already well-formulated prior to their arrival on this continent and the teaching of Christianity, Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism precluded their followers from becoming indigenous and native in the sense of the religious dimension of the land. Luther Standing Bear expressed this process of becoming indigenous exceedingly well when he remarked that: "The man from Europe is still a foreigner and an alien…but in the Indian the spirit of the land is still vested; it will be until other men are able to divine and meet its rhythm. Men must be born and reborn to belong. Their bodies must be formed of the dust of their forefather's bones."

The non-Indian thus still has the possibility of becoming a native of this continent but certainly not in a short time period.

Sacred places of this nature are integral to traditional religion because they form the fabric of human society and determine the manner in which it is able to relate to the rest of the animate world. Deprivation of the access to sacred sites means the tearing away of large portions of the religious heritage and placing undue burdens upon those ceremonies, customs and rituals that remain, forcing them to provide the religious experiences which are necessary to hold the people together as a people. That is why the ancient prophecies say that at the end of this age both ceremonies and whole tribes will vanish. It is not the poverty, government oppression, or accommodations to non-Indian society that we determinative but the decline and loss of ceremonies. The continued existence of many tribes is now dependent upon obtaining access to sacred sites and continuing ceremonies that are conducted there. To say that Indians can or should share certain sites with irrigation projects, ski resorts, tourist attractions or logging roads is to completely misunderstand the nature of the religious individual and community.

The first two kinds of sacred lands should certainly be protected within the American constitutional framework because they contain within themselves the possibility of all peoples coming to participate in them. Thus a precedent established for American Indians today will prove to be exceedingly useful to groups and communities of non-Indians some time in the future. But there is a third kind of sacred lands of a nature so Holy as to cause medicine men and tribal religious leaders to refuse to discuss it at all. Thus for some sacred sites very little in the way of evidence and religious belief is articulated by Indian religious leaders because of the peril of subjecting it to secular eyes and ear. Avoiding discussion of specific experiences and particular sites, we can still draw analogies from the non-Indian traditions and examine the nature of this kind of sacred land.

Prior to his trip to Egypt, Moses spent his time herding the flocks of sheep of his father-in-law on and near the Holy Mountain of Horeb. One day he took the herd to the backside of the mountain and to his amazement he saw a bush burning with fire but no being consumed by it. Approaching the spot with the usual curiosity of a person accustomed to the outdoor life, Moses was surprised when the Lord spoke to him from the bush, warning: "Draw not hither; put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place whereon thou standest is holy ground." (Exodus:3:5) There are places that are holy in and of themselves. Their holiness does not depend upon human activity, acceptance or human apprehension. The qualitative difference is so great in comparison with the other two kinds of sacred lands we already discussed that proper treatment of the subject requires that we use "holy" rather than sacred in describing them. The sacred depends at least particularly on our acceptance and experience of it. The Holy stands alone and in comparison everything else becomes secular.

The first two kinds of sacred lands serve human beings by making it possible for human beings to resolve their differences, enhance their knowledge and wisdom, seek information, to remember the past and its lessons and blessing, and enabling human communities to live in a meaningful way. The Holy places require humans to perform certain kinds of ceremonies and rituals that the earth itself may continue to exist. Some evidence of this dimension of the Holy has come through in the testimony of traditional leaders at various times in this century when they have explained to non-Indians that they must perform certain kinds of ceremonies, at certain places and certain times, in order that the sun may continue to shine, the earth prosper, and the stars remain in the heavens. Skeptical non-Indians have sometimes deliberately violated these Holy sites with no apparent ill effects and have thereupon believed that they have demonstrated the false nature of Indian beliefs. The effects of their acts, however, have been comparable to tiny cracks in a strong building for the earth is surely superior in size and power to the mere occasional thoughtless act of one species. It is the cumulative effect of secular disrespect that is important because continued neglect of the Holy places only increases the possibility of total change or collapse.

The practice of ceremonies at these Holy places is in a sense of grateful return, by all lesser forms of life, of the bounty bestowed upon all of us. These ceremonies complete the largest possible life cycle, the cycle of the earth itself and therefore the ceremonies are done for all living things and not simply on behalf of Indians or even two-leggeds. Of all the religious ceremonies extant and actively practiced at the time of contact with non-Indians, these ceremonies have the highest retention rate. That is to say, these ceremonies were done at the risk of life and limb even when it was not possible to perform other ceremonies at other sacred places which were as important to the life of tribal communities.

Having once begun to use the Old Testament example to illustrate the objective presence of the Holy, we can draw additional conclusions that will help us understand the nature of the Holy Places. Moses did not, we should note, spread the news of his apprehension of this place to other people and he did not even bring the Hebrews back to that particular location when he freed them from Egypt. Thus it would be out of the question for a traditional religious leader to advertise the special significance of a Holy place or to seek to convince others, even of his own tribe, clan or family, of the importance of the place until it was time to pass this knowledge down -if it was to passed down to anyone at all. There must have been countless individuals who passed near or even over the Holy place who had no apprehension at all of its significance. Consequently curious Indians and non-Indians who are not intended to understand the particularities of Holy place could not accidentally find them regardless of the sincerity. There can be no substitution of another place for a Holy place because the Holy place is itself unique. Once lost, the Holy place is lost forever. Some years ago some devout Sioux religious leaders tried to locate the place where the people received the pipe -in vain.

The tendency of the federal courts has been to force traditional people to identify the "central belief", the quintessential element in sacred places, without which the tribal religion could not be practiced. Presumably, although courts have no upheld Indian efforts when some centrality of practice and belief has been established, but presumably centrality of belief will ensure the continuation of the traditional religion in the eyes of the courts. Therefore the tendency which Indians fear is that having identified a number of kinds of sacred places, courts will grant only lip service to those sites which involve the Holy places, denying other sacred sites by arguing that they are not central to the continuation of tribal religion. Thus most traditional religious leaders have not bothered to make the distinction because they will not subject their traditions to a western form of analysis which continues to search for the ultimate constituent of meaning.

It is important, therefore, to review the relationship of the three kinds of sacred lands that we discussed because of a burden placed on any of these kinds of lands immediately destroys the unity of religious experiences that is necessary to continued religious experience. The sacredness of lands which have been consecrated by the activities of man are absolute because they represent a number of things and "represent" here means not a symbolic way of communicating but actual participation within the religious experience. As Standing Bear has observed, people must be born and reborn in a land in order for them to become indigenous. There are many sacred places made sacred by what happened to the tribe at that site. Both physically and spiritually these sacred sites require a ceremonial presence. Here through ceremonies people commune with those who have gone before and experiences at these sacred sites provide the context within which Indian human personality is formed. The only comparable sense of community among non-Indians would be a monastery which had within it a shrine of particular importance. These sacred places are essential as the ground of all other religious activities since they provide the orientation on this earth and this age for everything else.

The sacred sites at which the presence of divine activity coinciding with human activity occurred is itself of utmost importance because the divine or sacred activity is directed toward specific experiences for each tribal group. Without these sites and the ceremonies that take place, there would be no chance of reconciliation among the various forms of life and among the different human societies. Traditional religion is always people-specific and does not have a universal application as to either beliefs or practices. Consequently tribes did not have religious conflicts they might have had, because the effect of their religious traditions was to focus on their own religious responsibilities and not on the defects, apparent or otherwise, of their neighbors. Without these ceremonies, the various forms of life would not continue to exist.

The Holy places might exist in and of themselves but they would have no effect on the rest of creation unless there were different forms of life that acknowledged their importance and primacy and found meaning in their lives in their relationship with the Holy places. Human beings in cooperation with all the other peoples complete the grand cosmic circle of life through ceremonies at these Holy places. Without the sacredness of the other two kinds of sacred sites and their ceremonies, the Holy places would have no one to whom they could be manifest the cosmos would be no more, nothing would run to completion, and we would not exist.

The struggle to protect the sacred sites and to grant access to them for traditional tribal religious people is a worthwhile and essential task for all people today. The federal government, particularly the federal agencies charged with managing public lands, have used the argument that to recognize any form of traditional Indian religion that seeks access to sacred places within those lands is seeking -unjustly- to establish a religion superior to every other religion. Such is not the case. The fear of the established religion is that it would, through the offices of government, become oppressive on the people who had other religious beliefs and practices which they wished to continue without interference. No other religious traditions are seeking to perform similar or competing ceremonies nor is there any conflict between traditional tribal religions and western or eastern religions in the important area of ceremonies and practices. Indeed, the conflict is between tribal religions and secular activities since the competing interests that have emerged in the litigation thus far as timber companies, power companies, tourist developers, recreational activities all of whom in their activities seek to make permanent changes in the land which would, in spite of the arguments of their proponents, exclude all uses of restrict them to the level of impotence.

The truly ironic aspect of modern land use is that during the past three decades Congress has passed innumerable laws which purport to protect certain aspects of land from the very developers who now seek to exclude Indians from using public lands. Thus the Wild Rivers Act, the Wilderness Act, the Environmental Protection Act, the Clean Air Act, the Water Quality Act, all take some definite steps toward preserving some of the natural environment in a manner more akin to Indian attitudes toward the natural world than toward uncontrolled capitalism or traditional uses of land by the world religions. As the environmental crisis deepens we will find the federal government taking additional measures for purely secular reasons that might have been taken for wholly religious motives -had any religions attempted to deal seriously with the question of nature of the nature of creation.

All of the above-cited acts are based upon the recognition that we must respect the natural world and we must ensure that some portion of it remains for future generations. Respect and continuation of the world in some familiar form are precisely the two attitudes that best summarize the principles underlying the practice of traditional tribal religions. So profoundly similar are the bases for traditional tribal religion and emerging land use policy that it could be said that federal land use laws are only a secularized version of Indian religion. The question thus arises in the minds of American Indians. Whether traditional or not, of why tribal ceremonies are being burdened and prohibited when the whole trend of land use legislation is precisely in the direction of traditional Indian use of land. We must conclude that the true struggle is between a secular and religious understanding of the world.

The idea of sacred things must have begun with the emergence of profane things, the apprehension of the nature of the profane, and an effort by people to protect the sacred and hopefully control the profane. Every use of public lands except traditional ceremonial use is now measured in dollars and cents. The measurement is not phrased in the long term gain but always in the short term quick profit. Even sustainable yield of lands receives only lip service and rhetorical support. This in a society whose leaders and spokesmen speak in the most glowing terms about the Indian love for and understanding of the natural world. Dr. Charles Eastman, a Sioux, reflected on the changes that civilized life had wrought in him and his analysis describes quite accurately the direction in which American society is headed:

"As a child I understood how to give; I have forgotten this grace since I became civilized. I lived the natural life, whereas I now live the artificial. Any pebble was valuable to me then, every growing tree an object of reverence. Now I worship with the white man before a painted landscape whose value is estimated in dollars."

We may, within our lifetime, have only pictures of the world that used to be real and no real world at all.

Although non-Indians are born in North America, they are not indigenous to North America and they remain strangers in a land they do not understand. They have not had sufficient time to set down roots that will enable them to understand America of themselves. American Indians are indigenous because we have paid attention to what the land is saying to us and where there are sacred places we have become a member of the community of those places, where there are Holy places we have paid utmost respect, and where we have consecrated the land with our lives and blood we have become truly native to this land. If the non-Indian wishes to see more generations of his people succeed in this land, then until non-Indians become indigenous and understand the sacred places of the continent they should allow us to continue to be the spiritual caretakers of the lands.

Related Hoka Hey! archive features:
Frank Waters: Becoming Indigenous
Vine Deloria Jr. Hoka Hey! Winter, 1989 Custer Died For Your Sins Interview

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