Revisiting tribes, sacred land and holy ghosts

Over the weekend, I complained about the holy ghosts in a New York Times story about disputed oil drilling on a Montana Indian reservation.

Reader Per Smith got a little worked up over my analysis:

The article says clearly that members of the tribe go on vision quests and you wonder if these people are members of a native American faith. If it had informed us that they took pilgrimages to Mecca would you lambaste the NYT for not stating that they were Muslim in those words?

The Old Bill chimed in to defend me:

Per Smith, I think you’re being a bit hard on Bobby. Native American beliefs are not all the same. There are many, many Christians and a good deal of syncretism. (Geronimo died a Christian, but retained an Apache framework.) Going on vision quests does not explain what is sacred and why.

My concern was the extremely vague nature of the religion angle in the Times report. I wanted to understand how and why many tribal members see the land in question as “sacred.” The story proved a disappointment in that regard, as I opined in the original post.

My reason for revisiting the subject is that a reader sent us a link to an Associated Press story concerning Sioux tribes upset over the possible sale of a sacred site in South Dakota. The top of that story:

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — It’s advertised as a one-of-a-kind deal: Nearly 2,000 acres of prime real estate nestled in the Black Hills of South Dakota for sale to the highest bidder.

But the offer to sell the land near Mount Rushmore and historic Deadwood has distressed Native American tribes who consider it a sacred site. Although the land has been privately owned, members of the Great Sioux Nation — known as Lakota, Dakota and Nakota — have been allowed to gather there each year to perform ceremonial rituals they believe are necessary for harmony, health and well-being.

Members now fear that if the property they call Pe’ Sla is sold, it will be developed and they will lose access. The South Dakota Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration are studying the possibility of paving one of the main roads that divides the land, a fact mentioned in the advertisement touting its development potential.

The tribes have banded together to try to raise money to buy back as much of the land as they can. But with a week to go until the Aug. 25 auction, they have only about $110,000 committed for property they believe will sell for $6 million to $10 million.

Can anybody guess my question? Why do the tribes consider the site sacred?

Does AP deliver the crucial details? To my utter delight, yes!:

The tribes believe the Sioux people were created from the Black Hills, and part of their spiritual tradition says Pe’ Sla is where the Morning Star fell to earth, killing seven beings that killed seven women. The Morning Star placed the souls of the women into the night sky as “The Seven Sisters,” also known as the Pleiades constellation.

See how easy that was?

Black Hills of South Dakota image via Shutterstock

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About Bobby Ross Jr.

Bobby Ross Jr. is an award-winning reporter and editor with a quarter-century of professional experience. A former religion editor for The Oklahoman and religion writer for The Associated Press, Ross serves as chief correspondent for the The Christian Chronicle. He has reported from 47 states and 11 countries and was honored as the Religion Newswriters Association's 2013 Magazine Reporter of the Year.

  • mattk

    “I wanted to understand how and why many tribal members see the land in question as “sacred.””

    Yes. Me, too. Especially since the Sioux did begin arriving in the area until the 1700s. Did something of reigious importance happen to the Sioux when they got to the Black Hills? Did they learn of the sacredness of the Black Hills for the earlier residents of the area? Who knows? I’ve never heard it explained.

  • Jerry

    mattk raises an interesting point. But I think there’s only so much that can go into a news story. If a story inspires someone to do historical research, then to me it’s a sign that the story was effective on one level.

    More and more I want to challenge the request to include more religious content with the question: what do you leave out assuming we’re dealing with print/broadcast journalism where space/time is limited. The answer could legitimately be to have tighter editing, leave out something superfluous, or that the religious content is more important than something else in the story. But I’d love to have the GR bloggers address that question from time-to-time.

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Jerry,

    Don’t tell me you no longer believe in ghosts!?

    Seriously, I think you’re letting journalists off the hook too easily. Space and time are limited, yes, but quality journalism must answer crucial questions. Often, those answers can be delivered in a relatively few number of words, as the AP story demonstrated. In the case of the previous New York Times story, simply defining “vision quest” and providing a sentence or two about the tribal members’ specific faith background would have been extremely helpful.

  • northcoast

    The question is an important one. One website tells of the Sioux refusing a multi-million dollar settlement from the Government because it would mean relinquishing a claim to land. My understanding is that the Sioux became dominant in the Black Hills in the 1700′s, but that wouldn’t mean that the mountains couldn’t have been important to them prior to that time. They evidently refer to the Black Hills as “The Heart of All That Is.”

  • Bobby Ross Jr.

    Just FYI: AP reports that the planned auction of the land considered sacred has been canceled.


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