Protecting Native American Sacred Places

June 17th through June 21st of this year are the official 2011 days of prayer to protect Native American sacred places. Observances and ceremonies are being held across the country to honor and bring attention to the plight of Native sacred sites culminating in a Washington, D.C. Solstice observance on Tuesday, June 21 at 7:30 a.m. on the United States Capitol Grounds, West Front Grassy Area.

“Native and non-Native people nationwide gather at this time for Solstice ceremonies and to honor sacred places,” said Suzan Shown Harjo (Cheyenne & Hodulgee Muscogee). She is President of The Morning Star Institute, which organizes the National Sacred Places Prayer Days. “Ceremonies are being conducted as Native American peoples engage in legal struggles with federal agencies that side with developers that endanger or destroy Native sacred places,” said Ms. Harjo. “Once again, we call on Congress to build a door to the courts for Native nations to protect our traditional churches. Many sacred places are being damaged because Native nations do not have equal access under the First Amendment to defend them.”

All other peoples in the United States can use the First Amendment to protect their churches, but the Supreme Court closed that door to Native Americans in 1988. The Court, in the 23 years from 1988 to 2011, has declined to allow federal religious freedom statutes to be used to protect Native American sacred places or the exercise of Native American religious freedom at sacred places.

National Sacred Places Prayer Days organizer Suzan Shown Harjo makes special note of the recent fight over stopping the expansion of a ski resort on the San Francisco Peaks in Arizona (an issue I’ve covered at some length here), which involves creating fake snow from treated wastewater. A coalition of local indigenous groups and Tribal Nations see this as a desecration that would be like putting death on the mountain.” In the official National Sacred Places Prayer Days press release (PDF) special mention is given to the San Francisco Peaks fight, making plain that they’ve brought their concerns directly to President Obama at a December 2010 tribal leaders meeting. Indian Country Today, which has been running a special series on Native sacred places in conjunction with these days of prayer, has also highlighted this specific struggle.

“Ben Shelly, Navajo Nation president, is apologetic yet determined when it comes to one of the country’s special places, a place he calls “very important.” He is one of the leaders in the fight to protect the San Francisco Peaks—sacred to more than 13 Southwestern tribes—from using treated sewage water for artificial snowmaking at the Arizona Snowbowl Ski Resort near Flagstaff. [...]  “In the city of Flagstaff, some of the people there are starting to voice concerns that the wastewater is not going to meet the [snowmaking] needs—they are kind of afraid drinking water will be used,” Shelly said, explaining that millions of gallons might be required to create just two feet of artificial snow over the ski season. The Navajo Nation may retain its own attorney on water issues and on what he said was the unsatisfactory level of government-to-government consultation by the Forest Service, which approved the snowmaking and authorized the start of construction on conveyance pipes even as it scheduled a first-time “listening session” with a Hopi group.”

While many tribal peoples are pleased with the Obama administration signing the Tribal Law and Order Act and Obama’s willingness to support the (not legally binding) United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People, they are unhappy with the anti-sacred sites stance of his Justice Department and are asking for Obama to push for a “right of action” under the First Amendment to protect sacred lands (something the Supreme Court ruled Native peoples and tribes do not have in 1988).

“The President has been asked directly to call on Congress to create a right of action so we can defend our holy places, to improve the Executive Order for Indian Sacred Sites and to stop the Forest Service and other agencies from continuing their decades-long assault against Native sacred places,” said Ms. Harjo. “I’m still optimistic that the President will do these things, but not everyone is as hopeful as I am. Nonetheless, we pray that this will be the last year we are denied justice by the Executive, Legislative and Judicial Branches.”

I personally feel that solidarity with Native peoples and tribes on issues like this are essential. Something that goes straight to the core of many of our own values and beliefs. The encroachments and construction on sacred lands is often done in the arbitrary name of economic development, or sometimes just for simple convenience (to non-Native folks of course). During hearings for the ski resort expansion on San Francisco Peaks a government lawyer displayed shocking levels of cultural insensitivity comparing sacred plants gathered on the mountain to “herbs at health food stores.” For some politicians it seems very plain there is no such thing as sacred land at all. However, we know there are consequences and a price to the eradication or desecration of sacred ground, whether it is Tara in Ireland or the peaks in Arizona.

About Jason Pitzl-Waters
  • Ed the Pagan

    I know at PSG they are plannign rituals, and I think that while Pagans have had difficult times with Native Americans, I do beleive their cause is ours as well.

    • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000068923655 Anonymous

      Considering how many pagans have caused the problems with First Nations peoples because of our habit of cultural appropriation and support of plastic shamans, showing active support is repairing fences.

      • Anonymous

        I call bologna. Pagans do not engage in “cultural appropriation” in any negative sense.

        There are no pure Native traditions for that matter. Native peoples freely borrow from each other and also take whatever they like from non-Native religious traditions. This is not “cultural appropriation”. It is human nature. It is what people do when they have the freedom to do so.

        • Baruch Dreamstalker

          I agree that intercultural borrowing is probably as old as the human race. But we have taken everything else from Native Americans and now we’re coming after their culture. I can understand their reaction.

          • Anonymous

            “we have taken everything else from Native Americans ….”

            What do you mean “we”, Kemo Sabe?

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Europeans.

          • NorseAlchemist

            Baruch, way to make racist generalized statements. My father’s family is first gen immigrants from Scandinavia. We didn’t take crap from anyone. And it wasn’t just Europeans to took. Natives took from each other just as much as “Europeans” did. The “Europeans” just managed to hang on to it for the last hundred or so years. Don’t ignore the thousands of years of events before that.

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Europeans currently resident in this continent are here because other Europeans took it from Natives. What happened previously here doesnt’ change that any more than what happened on other continents.

          • Grimmorrigan

            The issue of placing blame or owning the destruction of traditional Amerindian culture is an issue that is no longer even discussed within New Indian history. What is focused on now is the agency of Amerindians in their interactions with ProtoAmericans. Even cursory glances at the Ohio frontier regions will show an amazing amount of political savvy on the part of natives. Amerindians viewed the French and English as trade partners and neighbors. Troubles began with the colonial powers not homeland Europe. For further reading on the matter I would suggest:

            Deerkskins and Duffels by Braund
            A Country Between by McConnell
            Creek Country by Ethridge
            Breaking the Backcountry by Ward

          • Baruch Dreamstalker

            Interesting, thanks. Reminds me of the “1491″ body of study indicating the Americas were not a wilderness but intensely cultivated in ways Europeans did not and by and large still do no understand.

            I responded above in terms of complaints I heard (second or third hand) of complaints from Natives directed at neoPagans which would today be called cultural misappropriation. I empathize but do not sympathize with the complaints.

        • Thomas

          It is not a matter of cultural purity, but of people selectively adopting Native practices and traditions with little understanding of them and/ or their cultural context. Interestingly, pagans in late antiquity (Celsus and Julian, for example) criticized Christians for exactly this sort of reckless appropriation with regard to Hellenism.

          Moreover, it is a matter of power. When outsiders of Native communities appropriate Native practices without regard for tradition and tribal authorities, they then have the power to redefine those practices against tradition and tribal authorities. It is understandable that a people, whose cultural traditions have been largely decimated, should jealously guard the customs and practices that constitute their way of life.

          • Anonymous

            “Selectively adopting” from other spiritual traditions is an intrinsic part of how all human societies develop and grow. As to the claim that such adoptions are done without “understanding”, that is an impossibly subjective position to defend. Within any given culture there will also be wide variations in “understanding”.

            The real question is: what harm is done to anyone by the process of borrowing? Answer: None. Follow up question: Is there less of Native spirituality left over after such borrowings take place? Obviously not. And another: Whose responsibility is it to ensure the preservation of Native traditions and to properly “understand” these traditions? White people? Obviously not.

            And as far as Pagans and Christians in late antiquity are concerned, I think you are mistaken about what the real point of contention was. The Christian campaign to extirpate all other religions was the primary concern, not the incoherent jumble of borrowings that Christians slapped together and called their “theology”.

  • Lady Jake

    Long before I called myself Pagan, I was intrigued by First Nations cultures, which resonated strongly with my spirit. I think the issue of cultural (mis)appropriation comes from this resonance – before we realized there were religious options outside of the monotheistic Big Three, many of us recognised in First Nation spiritualities the “imminantist” thread that runs through the diversity of Pagan traditions. I do think it is vital to support First Nations’ struggles against cultural genocide, along with appreciating our spiritual kinship. Solidarity!

  • Charles Cosimano

    There are only two things sacred to politicians, money and votes. Native Americans bring neither.

    • Daniel

      Unless you count Casinos, which politicians are very interesting in trying to tax.

  • http://twitter.com/TheJeopardyMaze _

    I felt like this needed saying-true culture and cultural transmission does in fact involve real human beings, and would not exist without them. Those people pretending to be Indian and wearing head dresses and etc aren’t ‘borrowing’ in any real sense, because they aren’t directly engaging with the indigenous communities, period. What they are doing, however, is what I like to call bullshitting, since cultural appropriation is more or less based on lies and stereotypes of what these cultures really do, not the reality. And honestly, I can’t blame them for not wanting to share.

    You can’t compare cultural theft of indigenous traditions with historical borrowings and syncretisms, because those borrowings and syncretisms involved engagement with real people and their communities. What’s being done to make bullshit representations of indigenous peoples today simply does not qualify.

    Until people stop viewing culture in the abstract, and not viewing it as something involving real people, the bullshitting/cultural appropriation will continue.

    • Anonymous

      There is no such thing as cultural “theft”. When people in Asia listen to rap music and wear NBA logo clothes, has American culture, such as it is, been “stolen”? Do we have less of it here in the US? Unfortunately, no.

      Cultures can be suppressed, however, or even wiped out. This is precisely what has happened to much of Native culture, and this is especially the case with respect to religion. This suppression has been carried out in the name of two causes: (1) Christianizing and (2) “civilizing” Native peoples. This process of cultural suppression is unspeakably evil, as are the justifications given for it. And the process is still going on, throughout the Western Hemisphere.

      The real problem is not “cultural appropriation” by stupid white people playing Indian. The problem is Christian missionaries, government bureaucrats, “development” experts, and the “good” Indians who work with them and enable them in the ongoing process of systematically destroying what is left of Native cultures.

    • Anonymous

      we used to call people who did this – pretend to “Native Wisdom” and etc – the “Dances with Credit Cards type”.

      some things never change – there’s always SOME number of people who’d rather take some “fancy” stuff from some other culture, repackage it, and sell it to rubes for attention and money.

  • Elnigma

    http://www.arizona-vacation-planner.com/arizona-snowbowl.html
    It seems to me to protest, contact the Forest service

    “The ski resort hopes to begin snowmaking, following the June 2009 U.S. Supreme Court decision not to review the en banc decision of the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in favor of the U.S. Forest Service and Arizona Snowbowl. Snowbowl will work with the U.S. Forest Service to develop and implement the project schedule. However, the Forest Service has not yet approved the permits while it addresses the concerns of local Native American tribes. Note: the snowmaking system will not be available for the 2009-2010 ski season.”

  • Ed the Pagan

    I guess I come from a different Matrix, for see all knowledge is worth knowing, that there is no limit to that knowledge and nothing should ever be forbidden to anyone. At the core that is what makes me Pagan as it is within us, that we can and do learn about Deity in all it’s forms. But it may be just my core tradition, that being everything is a learning lesson.

    • Anonymous

      Hm. I’m at odds about this, myself – On one hand, I agree that the sharing of knowledge is a good thing. On the other hand – TANSTAAFL – there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, and some of what can be learned must be done by experience – you can read as many books as you like, but until you experience it you’ll never truly understand.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Fran-Wisniowski/636418806 Fran Wisniowski

    This issue highlights the fact that while the Tribes are separate and Sovereign nations they are also under the jurisdiction of the federal government WITHOUT the same right as others who are governed by that same body (IE American citizens) in essence they are relegated a lesser degree of citizenship, which is permissible I suppose when they are left alone to manage tribal affairs without the interference of an outside agency, but when threatened from without……it leaves the Tribes without recourse. The rights others take for granted do not exist for First Nation peoples. This is proven time and time again as treaties are violated or outright redacted because the US Government simply doesn’t see the *merit* of upholding the treaty. The fact that a treaty exists is not enough, they can use all the support they can get. If the American People would stop seeing the First Nation peoples in the past tense then they could actively participate in helping them to build their future.

  • Caliban

    Of course these sites, and tribal access to them, should be respected.

    That said, I’d be wary in assumptions of solidarity. We may feel we have a lot in common with them, but ought not to assume they have the same regard for our issues. Some may. Others will no doubt resent the insinuation that their ancient folkway has anything to do with those nutty white people.

    An analogy – For a long time, the gay community has actively supported civil rights measures because we see the issues as inextricably tied to our own human rights battles. To put it mildly, black America has not been in any hurry to return the favor.

    Call your legislators and make your voice heard. But do it because you believe that developing these sites is wrong, and not from any common interest you imagine we share. I doubt the Pagan community has many firm supporters outside our own numbers, except where very specific interests overlap.

  • Caliban

    Of course these sites, and tribal access to them, should be respected.

    That said, I’d be wary in assumptions of solidarity. We may feel we have a lot in common with them, but ought not to assume they have the same regard for our issues. Some may. Others will no doubt resent the insinuation that their ancient folkway has anything to do with those nutty white people.

    An analogy – For a long time, the gay community has actively supported civil rights measures because we see the issues as inextricably tied to our own human rights battles. To put it mildly, black America has not been in any hurry to return the favor.

    Call your legislators and make your voice heard. But do it because you believe that developing these sites is wrong, and not from any common interest you imagine we share. I doubt the Pagan community has many firm supporters outside our own numbers, except where very specific interests overlap.

  • http://www.magickal-media.com Alice C. “A.C.” Fisher Aldag

    Max Dashu just posted this http://www.change.org/petitions/allow-our-tribe-to-hold-a-sacred-ceremony-in-peace-and-privacy … I hope I’m not getting into trouble by posting this link. Felt it was germane to the topic.


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