Vine Deloria – Sacred Places and Moral Responsibility

1870s and 1880s:  Native American tribes forced from homelands and confined to small reservations; tribal rituals prohibited by BIA.  To continue religious life, Indians perform sacred ceremonies during Christian holidays secretly in remote places. After WWII, non-Indian population booms, takes more land for non-Indian, non-sacred purposes: commercial farming, mining, timber, recreation; some arrangements between Indians and non-Indians are made, but new personnel increasingly restrict land use and access with narrow rules and regulations.

1978:  Congress passes American Indian Religious Freedom Act (merely symbolic Joint Resolution) to protect and preserve right of American Indians to believe, express, and practice traditional religions, identifying problem as “lack of knowledge or insensitive and inflexible enforcement of Federal policies and regulations.” Section 2 directs president to require federal departments to evaluate policies and procedures, report back, and recommend legislative actions.  Act is cited in litigation involving construction and federal land management, but federal courts rule that resolution does not protect or preserve right of Indians to practice religion or conduct ceremonies at sacred sites on public lands, and hint that to do so would be to establish a state religion.

1988: Supreme Court Decision Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association protects visitation rights of traditional leaders of three tribes to sacred sites in Chemistry Rock of Six Rivers National Forest in NorCal in “High Country”, center of religious and ceremonial life, where Forest Service proposes 6 mile paved road for commercial logging. Lower courts prohibit construction and Congress passes California Wilderness Act, but Supreme Court insists on hearing appeal of Forest Service and rules against tribes, overturning lower court ruling, asserting that Free Exercise clause does not prevent government from using its property as it sees fit. Most troubling is insistence on analyzing tribal religions from conceptual framework of western organized religions, especially in majority statement of Justice O’Connor which equates thousands-year-old ceremonies and rituals with fads, personal preference, and aesthetic choice, suggesting that destroying a religion does “not unduly burden it” and no constitutional protections are available to Indians, and burden of proof is on Indians to demonstrate why some sites are central to their practice, and why others are not as important. Justice Brennan dissents, but fails to get support. Non-Indians don’t understand why ceremonies must be held only at certain locations, in secret, and in private, revealing “great gulf” between individual conscience and commitment of Western religion, and Indian communal tradition. Two contradictory responses characterize non-Indian attitudes toward traditional tribal religions:  either they should share their beliefs in same way that western religious leaders do, or these primitive ways should be abandoned. Neither attitude understands that Indian tribes are communities in ways different from other American communities and traditions. Tribal communities are defined by family relationships, while non-Indian communities are defined by residence, arbitrary political jurisdiction, or intellectual agreement. Ceremonial and ritual knowledge is possessed by everyone in Indian community; few chosen to perform sacred acts by authority in high spiritual powers.

Four major categories of description:

  1. Those made sacred by the actions of men; sites where something of great importance has taken place, many related to human violence, generally held to be sacred because people did there what we might one day be required to do – give our lives in a cause we hold dear; every society needs these to instill a sense of social cohesion, and remember passing generations that have brought them to present; a society that cannot remember and honor its past is in peril of losing its soul.
    1. Non-Indian: Gettysburg National Cemetery; Lincoln Memorial in Washington (non-martial)
    2. Indian: Wounded Knee, South Dakota, where a band of Sioux Indians were massacred, and other places where ceremonies are held, and is sanctified each time.
  2. Sacred or higher powers have appeared, or taken action, in the lives of human beings, something holy appears in an otherwise secular situation and becomes part of our experience; sacred land with deeper more profound sense of the sacred.
    1. Non-Indian: Old Testament – after death of Moses, Joshua led Hebrews across River Jordan into Holy Land, with the Ark of the Covenant, and the waters parted so they could cross without difficulty, and Joshua and men from each of the Twelve Tribes made a monument of stones to commemorate it.  Jewish and Christian actions of deities at Holy Land, in churches and synagogues where special rituals cleanse space so services may be held untainted by the natural world. New to this continent, haven’t been here or settled in one place long enough to develop profound relationships with environment; senseless killing of animals and plants; unlikely to understand efforts of other forms of life to communicate with them.
    2. Indian: Buffalo Gap of Black Hills of South Dakota where Buffalo emerge each spring to begin ceremonial year of Plains Indians, starting point of Great Race that determined primacy between two-legged and four-legged creatures at beginning of world; Several mountains in NM and AZ, where Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo people completed migration, were told to settle, or first established spiritual relationships with other peoples (birds, animals, and plants) who participate in ceremonials; American Southwest Apache, Ute, Comanche, Kiowa, and other tribes, sacred to some tribes but secular to Pueblo, Hopi, and Navajo. Difference is in manner of revelation and what people experienced. Sacredness does not depend on human occupancy, but on stories describing revelation that enabled human beings to experience sacred there, and for birds, animals, and plants to participate in human activities. Experience spiritual activity as whole of creation becomes active participants in ceremonial life; discussing nature of ceremony would violate integrity of these relationships.
  3. Places of overwhelming holiness where Higher Powers revealed themselves to human beings; places of unquestionable, inherent sacredness on this earth, holy in and of themselves.
    1. Non-Indian: Old Testament – Mount Horeb, Moses and Burning Bush; Lord warned, “Draw not hither; put off thy shoes from thy feet, for the place where on thou standest is holy ground.”; shrines of present day Europe; Moses and the Exodus; universality of the ideas is claimed.
    2. Indian: Bear Butte, Blue Lake, High Places in Lyng case where people are commanded to perform ceremonies at certain time and place in order so earth and life may prosper; evidence through testimony of traditional people; interpreted by non-Indians as personal code or philosophy, not moral duty. Skeptical non-Indians deliberately violate these sites with no ill effects and believe they have demonstrated false nature of Indian beliefs, revealing adolescent belief in mechanical magic; but it’s impossible for one thoughtless or impious act to have immediate or drastic effect on earth, but cumulative effect of continued secularity led to global warming, acid rain, disappearance of amphibians, overpopulation, and massive destruction of planet, long prophesied by native sacred peoples, who have to hold ceremonies in secret, or are abused or imprisoned for doing so. But ceremonies not for personal gain are for all forms of life, and cosmos becomes aware of itself. Each holy site contains its own revelation.
  1. New revelation at new places; otherwise all deities and spirits are dead.
    1. Non-Indian: Federal courts restrict sacred locations to places historically visited by Indians, implying that God is dead, and refusing to accord credibility to testimony of religious leaders and demanding evidence that a ceremony or location has always been central, and impose exceedingly rigorous standards of proof, allowing the supreme Court to command what should not be done, and lets secular institutions rule on the substance of religious belief and practice, protecting religions if they are dead, but not if they are living. Justice Scalia, for example, protecting statues and golden calf worship.
    2. Indian: Individual and group must both have sanctity if we are to have a social order; instead of denying this dimension of our emotional lives, we should set aside additional places with transcendent meaning. New kind of legal problem: religious freedom only when a set of objective beliefs, not freedom at all because it would be hard to read minds and determine what ideas were being entertained. American religious freedom does not involve consecration and setting aside of lands for religious purposes or allowing sincere but highly divergent behavior of individuals and groups. A number of other tribes have sacred sanctuaries in lands taken by the government and they must be returned for their ceremonial purposes:
  • Taos, and other Indian shrines in New Mexico;
  • Cochiti Pueblo needs 24,000 acres of land in Bandelier National Monument and Tetilla Peak area;
  • San Juan Pueblo, Santa Clara Pueblo requested the Indian Claims Commission set aside 30,000 acres of land in possession of the National Forest Service and Atomic Energy commission;
  • Arizona Hopi regard the Black mesa area as sacred, leased to Peabody Coal;
  • San Francisco Peaks within the Coconino National Forest, believed to be the home of Hopi Kachinas;
  • Navaho: Mount Taylor in Cibola National Forest, Blanca Peak in southern Colorado, Hesperus Peak in San Juan National Forest, Huerfano Mountain, Oak Creek Canyon in the Coconino National Forest;
  • Apache: U of AZ to build several telescopes on Mount Graham;
  • Medicine Wheel, near Powell WY, sacred to many tribes from Montana, the Dakotas, and WY: Forest Service plans a parking lot and observation platform;
  • Blackfoot: Badger Two Medicine areas of Montana, where oil drilling has been proposed;
  • Yankton Sioux: Pipestone Quarry confiscated since missionaries wanted to eliminate Indian access; and
  • Sioux: Black Hills of South Dakota – need return of Bear Butte near Sturgis.

Traditions ridiculed by disbelievers, missionaries, and social scientists; co-opted by non-Indians who seek entrance and participation in ceremonies and rituals. Major effort needed by Indians to demonstrate their views and traditions have integrity, are sensible and respectable, and a valid means of interpreting experience. Many new studies seem to confirm they are reasonable, sophisticated, and indicative of consistent attitude toward world and include knowledge that everything is alive and related. Sacred places are foundation of all other beliefs and practices because they represent presence of sacred in our lives, and inform us we are not larger than nature and we have responsibilities to rest of the natural world that transcend our own personal desires and wishes. This lesson must be learned with each new generation, but technology of industrial society always leads us in other direction. There is probably not enough time for the non-Indian population to understand meaning of sacred lands and to incorporate the idea into their lives and practices. We can but hope that some protection is afforded these sacred places before world becomes wholly secular and is destroyed.