What exactly do these tribal members hold sacred?

What exactly do these tribal members hold sacred? August 18, 2012

Take a moment and peruse this fascinating New York Times report about disputed oil drilling on a Montana Indian reservation. Tell me what kind of story it is:

A. Business story

B. Environmental story

C. Religion story

D. All of the above

Here’s the colorful lede:

BLACKFEET INDIAN RESERVATION, Mont. — The mountains along the eastern edge of Glacier National Park rise from the prairie like dinosaur teeth, their silvery ridges and teardrop fields of snow forming the doorway to one of America’s most pristine places.

Yes, there is beauty here on the Blackfeet reservation, but there is also oil, locked away in the tight shale thousands of feet underground. And tribal leaders have decided to tap their land’s buried wealth. The move has divided the tribe while igniting a debate over the promise and perils of hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, in a place where grizzlies roam into backyards and many residents see the land as something living and sacred.

The obvious right answer is D, which means that in a perfect world the story would encompass all three of those elements (A, B and C).

Since this is GetReligion — not GetBusiness or GetEnvironmental — I’ll focus on the religion angle. After reading the lede, I wanted to understand how and why many residents see the land as “sacred.” The story proved a disappointment in that regard.

Instead, the Times skirts at the edges of those crucial questions:

To find the opposing view, one needs only to drive five miles west from Browning, past the casino, heading straight toward the mountains, and pull off at the red gate on the right. There, on a recent summer afternoon, over mugs of horsemint tea, Pauline Matt and a handful of Blackfeet women were trying to find a way to persuade the tribal leaders to stop the drilling.

“It threatens everything we are as Blackfeet,” she said.

What exactly does that “everything” encompass? Does it relate to these tribal members’ view of their Creator and place in this world? The story provides no real insight, although readers do learn that the tribal members pray:

Ms. Matt and the women who oppose the fracking speak about the streams and meadows and mountains as if they were family members. They go on vision quests in the mountains. They braid native sweetgrass to burn in prayers and collect berries and herbs for food, medicine and ceremonies.

Left unanswered: Any inkling of the tribal members’ religious beliefs. Do they adhere to a Native American faith? Are they Christians? Again, the Times does not deem such questions relevant.

And near the end of the story, there’s this strange reference to Jesus Christ:

Ron Crossguns, who works for the Blackfeet tribe’s oil and gas division, has oil leases on his land, a 10-foot cross in his yard, and little patience for that kind of pastoral veneration. He called it “movie Indian” claptrap, divorced from modern realities. Mountains, he said, are just mountains.

“They’re just big rocks, nothing more,” Mr. Crossguns said. “Don’t try to make them into nothing holy. Jesus Christ put them there for animals to feed on, and for people to hunt on.”

What kind of story is this? How about we add another possible answer:

E. Ghost story

Photo of Blackfeet Nation sign via

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16 responses to “What exactly do these tribal members hold sacred?”

  1. What do they hold sacred? Why haven’t you informed us? The article says clearly that members of the 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? But the real problem is that you haven’t pointed to any errors just a general sense of vagueness. The same vagueness would go unquestioned if it were about Christianity, Islam, or Judaism. You wouldn’t ask the NYT to explain what it meant if they said someone thought the Latin cross was sacred. This points to our ignorance not theirs.

    • You wouldn’t ask the NYT to explain what it meant if they said someone thought the Latin cross was sacred.

      You obviously are unfamiliar with the level of nitpicking that goes on at GetReligion. 🙂 In all seriousness, we would — and do — point out vague reporting on other faiths.

      Re: vision quest. My ignorance is duly noted. I wish they had used just a few words to explain that term.

    • 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.

      The article is respectful of Blackfeet beliefs, as it should be, but a bit snarky about Christianity. (Sure, it was a great quote, but still snarky.) All in all, it was a pretty good article.

      • You’re right that it’s a great quote, snarky as it is. But if these tribal members don’t have any Christian beliefs, why bring up Jesus Christ? That was my reason for calling it a “strange reference.” Again, the article could have benefited some just a little fleshing out of the religion angle.

    • Per,

      The reference to a vision quest does NOT clear up the faith question – there can be a lot of syncretism, and even without that, native american faith systems are not interchangeable. And, of course, the way individuals understand and live their faith and let it affect their lives and actions will differ widely. So I for one would have liked more specifics about both religious references in this story – what exactly do the women believe that makes the land ‘sacred’, and what kind of Christianity does the man quoted profess?

      • Native American faith systems may not be interchangeable but from even a cursory review I’m finding that to the Blackfeet (tribe in question) vision ceremonies were an important part of their traditional practices as were places in the natural landscape. If I hear “vision quest” in relation to Native Americans I assume we are talking about a traditional practice. Is there any evidence that this isn’t what the Blackfoot tribe members in question were referring to? Do you have reason to believe these are borrowed or “syncretic” practices? Is there a single thing reported by the NYT that can be shown to be inaccurate? It’s as if you expect readers to doubt the authenticity of what they have stated in their article simply because they are the NYT and they haven’t written extensively about the practices mentioned. No ghosts here, just a short story that doesn’t go into any depth. Fact is that some tribal members object to the drilling on religious grounds.

        • Please read what I actually wrote. I described the story as fascinating and the lede as colorful. I did not question the accuracy. I said the report failed to answer the religion questions that it raised in my mind. It’s incomplete.

  2. There was to my eyes quite a bit of religious content in the story. The difference between those who consider the land sacred and the other side who considers it, in effect, secular were clearly drawn. So I think you were a bit harsh on the story, Bobby.

    My issue is that I’m not sure what I’d leave out to add more about the religious issues (assuming print not web). What the web version could and should have done is to provide a side-bar link to Native spirituality including considering the Earth as Mother Earth and the sense that humans are one with nature. Even further, there could be an interesting, though separate, story discussing both Native views of the Earth and Christian “Creation care”.

  3. For those who may be new to GetReligion and seeing it for the first time on Patheos …

    Just got an anonymous comment discussing the issues of the story. Just a note that our comments policy requires at least a consistent, familiar nickname and that comments must focus on journalism issues, not your opinions on the doctrinal or political beliefs of other people.

    You are, of course, invited to question the competency of, and positions taken by, the GetReligionistas …

  4. My city (my house, in fact) sits on gas-bearing shale, and I am sympathetic to the issues around fracking. Larger issues of nature versus technology haunt this story. Think: Hobbits vs. Saruman. So I was ready to like this story, and I sort of do. It’s an intrinsically interesting subject.

    But then it slides into stereotypes: the men are all for the gas wells, the women against it. That last quote from a Christian man finishes the picture drawn through the whole story, adding theological justification to what had been economics and technology (all quotes being from men). The women, on the other hand, are spiritual: weaving grass to burn in prayer with a sort of Wiccan respect for nature, our mother, or at least our sister. I’m sorry, I found this hokey.

    Worse than hokey, it’s false: is praying with burned grass so different from incense at Mass? Is a respect for nature antithetical to use of technology? Does the Incarnation not mean that the world has been sanctified? Furthermore, this technology could impact the poverty and alcoholism rampant among the 16.000+ affected people. That might be another story, but it is haunted by it’s own religious ghosts.

  5. Reading the story, the religious elements looked very familiar to me. But then I am a Wiccan, and we would be a very small part of the readership. So, treating religion in a way Wiccans can recognize really does not help the general reader. There needs to be more explanation of the Blackfeet religious and spiritual traditions that are reported. But then, based on what I have seen, reporters almost never do this very well. Or even very coherently. Probably, there needs to be a separate article on the subject.

  6. It also would be interesting to know if Ms Matt was a long time resident who went to ceremonies and wants to preserve their holy sites, or if she was a city bred and western educated Blackfoot who is into ecology.

    I cannot answer this, since I have not worked with the Blackfoot, but I have run into both type activists on other reservations.,
    For example, the article has a photo of a “Blackfoot woman” Betty N Cooper, but a quick google finds her name is mentioned in a book about urban Indian activists in the Bay area, and a Stanford award mentioned she was a Sioux (so is she a Blackfoot, or is she a member of the Blackfoot band of the Sioux, or does she have mixed parantage?)
    Cheryl Little Dog, mentioned in the article, is from the area, and is on the tribal council so does have a say in the matter. She would be a better one to ask about balancing the need for jobs against the need to preserve nature.
    Most tribes have holy men and women who could explain the religious values of their people, but none of these are mentioned. Often the “real” ones are not big at publicity…

    I suspect the problem is that parts of the local mountain are considered holy, used for vision quests (similar to the Sioux using Bear Butte or seeing the entire Black hills as sacred) but without knowledge of the local situation, one is left with the fuzzy “Indians love nature” cliches of the eastern press.

  7. Jerry, there is no one Native American religion.
    Many tribes okayed the gas/oil/uranium/casinos because they wanted jobs for their areas. Others, such as the Navajo, oppose them.
    The outsiders with a “green’ education see mother earth as sacred, but as my Filipino husband often reminds me, you can’t eat the scenery. Most tribal councils are pragmatic and will try to work out a compromise that protects the land and helps alleviate their area’s poverty and reliance on federal welfare that treats them like children.

  8. The other element left off is how native religious beliefs are intimately tied with tribal identities as well as being emblematic of sovereign tribal nations. This confluence of identity and religion means that issues regarding land resonate with particular force. In recent years the resurgence of Traditional practices (e.g. learning of language) is often linked to the recovery of Traditionalist religious beliefs — both of these pointing to the question of sovereignty as a people, and more personally as Native. I take the question of Sovereignty as being the central concept, and with it who controls the land and its resources.

    Traditional practices then acquire not only a religious element but often function in what we might think of as political. These are struggle about identities. With the rise of Native sovereignty, the further question of relation to the Euro-American society becomes central, particularly with the history of missions, thus making religious practices a useful demarcation: in or out. Thus the importing of industry brings to mind the notorious record of treaty violations and even more, the failure of trust policies: Religion then becomes the tool to push back, to not sell out.

    All this is to say, I was not surprised at the Traditionalists asserting a claim to the land. But as others have noted, there is something of an artifice at work here. The difficulty in speaking of native religious belief arises from how many of the distinctives of the older ways have been washed away, leaving behind a sort of soft animism. At the same time that this re-emergent faith relates to the land, many more in urban settings (the actual reality for most native people) use traditionalist beliefs in a more cultural frame. This link with culture means that behaviors may or may not be religious depending on who does it. E.g. does one smudge or not? Inhale or not? Is it one thing on the Rez but different in the City?

    Thus, I can’t blame Bobby. The diffuse nature of Traditionalist belief coupled with its use in cultural definition make it particularly hard for western eyes (and western religious eyes especially) to take in.

  9. I’m chiming in as an authenticator. I’m white but my connection to the Blackfeet goes back to 1961 and includes participation in old-time ceremonies. I am an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister with an MDiv from Meadville-Lombard Theological School and an MA in Religious Studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School. In 1989-90 I served as the interim Methodist minister on the rez.

    There is a whole category of religious thought that does not depend upon buildings, dogma, or ordained leaders. It is often called “natural religion” or “process religion” and honors everything that enriches the lives of all creatures and the ecology that sustains them. It is an inclusive way of thinking. All the people in this article are known to me and are qualified to represent their people, including Ron Crossguns. They are not 19th century folks now, but the usual mix of folks.

    Mary Scriver