Sacred Land Blog

April 7, 2015
Tar Sands Protests Then and Now
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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I’m headed to Dartmouth at the invitation of old friend Terry Tempest Williams, to show Profit and Loss and Islands of Sanctuary on Wednesday. Terry has hiked the area of eastern Utah where development of tar sands is looming, and she and many others in Utah are justifiably worried. Activists occupied the area and were arrested blockading road construction last summer and when Terry and I showed the Standing on Sacred Ground films in Salt Lake City last December many of the tar sands activists were in the audience. They’re now using Profit and Loss to raise awareness in Utah about the ecological and public health impacts of tar sands in Alberta.

The Utah activists have important allies in Canada. With the electric rise of Idle No More, First Nations’ leadership has placed all of the many proposed tar sands pipeline projects in serious legal limbo.

Houston-based Kinder Morgan plans to spend $5 billion to tunnel through Burnaby Mountain, 10 miles east of Vancouver B.C., to triple the capacity of an existing pipeline—to 900,000 barrels per day—and deliver tar sands crude to supertankers headed for China. A November 2014 blockade led to more than 100 arrests. Grand Chief Stewart Phillip of the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs said, “The opposition is widespread and it is vehement, so we’re going to continue this fight until the bitter end. We’re looking at a very litigious future.”

There is also fierce local opposition to the proposed Enbridge Northern Gateway pipeline to Kitimat, 400 miles north of Vancouver, which would require a new marine export terminal for more supertankers.

Lest we forget about the east coast, TransCanada (in addition to Keystone XL) wants to build “Energy East” to the Atlantic coast at a cost of $10 billion, to carry 1.1 million barrels per day across 2,850 miles. Serge Simon, Grand Chief of the Mohawks of Kanesatake, near Montreal, says his community will use blockades to stop the project, which he’s certain will pollute land and water. “Blockades have been a very useful tool in the past, and despite the threat of being locked up for life, I don’t think that’s going to stop us,” he told Reuters.

It’s not just protests and constraints on getting oil out of Alberta that threaten the industry. The low price of oil is killing new tar sands development. A study prepared for the U.S. State Department’s review of the Keystone XL pipeline estimated that tar sands projects become unprofitable at prices below $65-75 a barrel. Prices recently fell under $50 and have been hovering between $50-60 per barrel. The last decade’s rapid expansion in Alberta has all but stopped.

In February, Occidental Petroleum curtailed its activities in Canada’s tar sands. Three large expansion projects were abandoned in the past year: Shell canceled the long-planned Pierre River Mine, which would have produced 200,000 barrel per day; Total, the French oil giant, canceled the proposed $11 billion Joslyn mine (160,000 barrels per day); and Statoil, the Norwegian oil company, shelved a major expansion project worth $1 billion.

This is good news for the climate. The tar sands industry emits more greenhouse gas every year than New Zealand and Kenya combined. James Hansen, the NASA climatologist who was arrested in 2011 protesting the Keystone XL pipeline in front of  the White House, called then for a rapid cut in carbon emissions and challenged President Obama to move “expeditiously to the clean energies of the future. Moving to tar sands, one of the dirtiest, most carbon-intensive fuels on the planet is a step in exactly the opposite direction. People who care should draw the line.”

Were we to burn all of the recoverable tar sands oil in Alberta it would add 22 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere. Scientists estimate this would cause an increase of 0.4 degrees C. in global temperature. Many thoughtful people are now calling for “stranded assets” to be the environmental and social justice movements’ first priority: the tar sands should be left in the ground.

Some good news—and an important struggle you can help: The Beaver Lake Cree Nation is fighting an important court case challenging tar sands leases as treaty violations. You can help the Beaver Lake Cree by contributing to a new crowd-funding initiative to support their landmark case to protect traditional lands and constitutionally-guaranteed treaty rights to “hunt, fish, and trap in perpetuity.” Please donate today!

Next week (the third and final part of this blog): What are the Koch Brothers doing with two million acres of Alberta’s tar sands?

P.S. Proof that great minds think alike, just after posting this blog, The Guardian published a piece by Crystal Lameman of the Beaver Lake Cree Nation, “Life Above Albert’s Tar Sands—Why We Are Taking the Government to Court.” Check it out!

March 19, 2015
Hawaii’s Legislature Should Fund Commercial Free Kaho`olawe
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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As our films head for PBS broadcast in places like Honolulu, it is heartening to continue to cultivate the relationships that led to the film stories being told. Collaboration with the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana has been rich and rewarding—and the process continues. Over the past year, the PKO has used our Kaho`olawe film segment in communities around the islands as an introduction to “vision meetings” where people explore the future of the island, so badly scarred by years of overgrazing and bombing by the U.S. Navy. How to heal and take care of a sacred place for future generations?

As mentioned in the film, a crisis is looming: how to pay for the continued restoration and maintenance of the island? Transportation, scientific monitoring, law enforcement, unexploded ordnance removal (when bombs surface, which they do), erosion control, seeds and plants all cost money.

The federal funds that were used for the clean-up provided an initial budget for the Kaho`olawe Island Reserve Commission (KIRC), but those funds have now been almost totally spent. By this coming July, just $1.2 million will remain, less than half of the KIRC’s annual budget, and funds will run out by year’s end. So the state of Hawaii is looking at whether and how to provide funding. Most crucial is the question: what strings will legislators attach to the money? Will Hawaii’s politicians share the vision for Kaho`olawe developed by the people who have lived and died for the island for 40 years? The state Senate and House are considering allocating $6 million for the next two years, with the funds to come from the state general fund. But, as usual, the devil’s in the details.

Some lawmakers want to amend the charter governing the island to allow “limited commercial use.” PKO leaders want to draw the line at continuing to allow “revenue generating” activities, such as use and access fees. Letting the money run out would be a crime, with 1.9 million tons of soil continuing to flow off the island into the sea every year. Commercial activity on the island would undermine all that has been achieved.

Auditors and critics can attack the KIRC for failing to restore more of the island, and for depleting their limited funds. But no less than the U.S. Congress and the U.S. Navy failed miserably to estimate how much it would cost and how long it would take to clear the weapons of war and make the island 100% safe. They didn’t come close. And this is an historic, internationally significant place, a sacred place, let alone the first land set aside for a future sovereign Hawaiian government. It’s priceless. Period. Let Kaho`olawe be a shining success story of activism, cultural revival and healing without forcing commercialism down the throat of the heroes who fought for it. Keep the casinos and wind farms seven miles (or more) away. Let the island continue to be a natural and cultural refuge of experimentation and inspiration, of low impact living, of ancient cultural values like aloha aina, of living with the untamed wind, always keeping an eye on hokulea, the north star.

The Hawaiian legislature should commit continuing annual funding to restore Kaho`olawe, with no strings attached.

Check out the I Ola Kanaloa Strategic Plan to follow the evolution of the vision for Kaho`olawe’s future.

March 16, 2015
Kaho`olawe’s Legacy—as told by Clifford Nae`ole
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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YouTube Preview ImageOur filming in Hawai`i took us to many special places beyond Kaho`olawe. Listening to stories about the amazing, profound impact that the extended family known as the Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana had throughout the islands, offered a textbook lesson in resistance and social change. Honokahua, on the western end of Maui, is but one example.

When beachside construction began on Ritz Carlton’s Kapalua Resort in 1987 bulldozers began churning up human remains from the sand dunes. This was pre-NAGPRA, so there was no legal recourse to stop the desecration of ancestral burials. At least 1,100 human skeletons (iwi is Hawaiian for “the bones”) were disturbed and word spread quickly. The people who responded were seasoned activists midway through their fight with the U.S. Navy over the sacred island of Kaho`olawe, a bombing target that is visible to the south of Kapalua. People on Maui regularly watched red dust clouds soar into the blue sky and then heard the sickening time-delayed thuds of modern war floating across the ocean. Anger over tourism and resort construction on prime oceanfront fishing grounds—and ancestral burials—was about to boil over.

Clifford Nae`ole is now Cultural Advisor and Public Relations Manager at the Ritz Carlton Kapalua Resort, and he graciously showed us the historic site and told the story in an interview. It’s a success story, and you will have to watch the video to find out how the dramatic victory played out.

Footnote: This is one of those sweet stories that just didn’t find a place in the 25-minute Kaho`olawe segment we edited as the concluding story in our Standing on Sacred Ground series. We edited it as a DVD extra and we are happy to post it online.

February 23, 2015
Report From Four Corners
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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In early February, I made a pilgrimage back to the Four Corners area to visit old friends at Zuni and Hopi, to show some films, and to find out about sacred site battles old and new. Tops on everyone’s mind is the proposal to build a resort hotel, and possibly a casino, on the rim of the Grand Canyon near the place of emergence revered by both the Zuni and the Hopi. Above the confluence of the Little Colorado and mainstream Colorado rivers, this new bad idea is called the Escalade Project, and it would include a gondola from the rim down to the river inside Grand Canyon National Park. Some local politicians can smell the profits but community opposition is growing strong as word spreads about the plan.

At Zuni, I showed Pilgrims and Tourists, the first episode of Standing on Sacred Ground, to the Zuni Cultural Resource Advisory Team, an assemblage of a dozen religious leaders. They are concerned about many land management issues in the area, including the ongoing protection of Zuni Salt Lake, education of Zuni youth about the importance of the Grand Canyon, and continuing education of the general public and the National Park Service about Zuni history and the spiritual practitioners’ need for unfettered ceremonial access to important places over a wide area.

After watching Pilgrims and Tourists (on the Altai Republic of Russia and the Winnemem Wintu of California), Zuni elder Octavius Seotewa, a leader of the important religious fraternity known as the Galaxy Society, said: “The message is universal for indigenous people all over the world, not just here. Human rights are important, but the right of water to flow and the right of the Earth to survive is a message the Zuni Tribe would also like to put out there. We make pilgrimage to many places. Pilgrimage is important to all these people, not just the Zuni. We need to get the word out to help each other.”

At Hopi, I was lucky to catch the Bean Dance Ceremony in Mishongnovi village, at the home of my old friend Marilyn Tewa Harris. Pairs of kachinas appeared at her door in pre-dawn light to deliver bunches of green bean sprouts, signaling the lead-up to the planting season. The family sprinkled corn meal and prayed over the mound of tall, thin bean sprouts that were piled on the kitchen table, and then spent the day chopping the greens and cooking up a delicious stew.

Marilyn’s son, Howard Dannis Jr., a religious leader in the Squash Clan, offered to take me around to some of the sacred springs near the village to look at how water levels have been affected by Peabody Coal Company’s pumping in concert with climate change. We visited the spring where we filmed for In the Light of Reverence, Toreva Spring (shown at right), which is still very low and far below historic levels shown in old photographs. A few miles away, Asiyva Spring, is also nearly dry during this time of drought and continued anxiety about the long-term effects of coal stripmining to the north. These are the springs that give life to the Hopi villages and are visited during ceremonies throughout the year.

That evening, Black Mesa Trust sponsored a screening of two films in Bacabi village. Vernon Masayesva (below) recounted how Black Mesa Trust led the fight that shut down the Mohave Generating Station in 2005, ending Peabody’s massive pumping of water for the coal slurry line. Vernon said, “Some scientists are finally accepting the Hopi view that water responds to human behavior. It’s not about control of water, mastery by engineers through dams, slurry lines and the Central Arizona Project. It’s the opposite. Water controls humans.”

During the discussion after watching Fire and Ice and Islands of Sanctuary, activist JoAnn Armenta commented on the motives of governments and missionaries: “It is intentional and by design, to sever our bond and spiritual tie to the land,” and her husband Don Yellowman (Navajo) added: “But if people come together, do the research, and unite, they prevail. That’s what I saw in these films. We have to empower people to speak and act in common.”

December 3, 2014
Slideshow from Australia and Papua New Guinea
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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For two weeks in November, I journeyed to Australia and Papua New Guinea for film screenings at the IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia and in rural Papua New Guinea. The journey began at Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park, where Altaian leader Danil Mamyev (at left) and I explored how sacred sites are co-managed by Aboriginal Traditional Owners working with government park professionals. At the World Parks Congress we hosted two sessions on Sacred Natural Sites along with two film screenings and there were many spirited debates about the best ways forward to protect sacred lands. A congress highlight was a new campaign to declare sacred places as “No Go Areas for Mining.” My journey came to a wonderful conclusion in Papua New Guinea with a visit to Mindere village and a screening of Profit and Loss in Madang. A dozen Bosmun men traveled eight long hours to attend the screening and were full of stories about how the filming process helped them revive their traditions of chanting and transcendental flute playing. Very nice to know that the films are having a positive impact.

Please check out my slideshow report.

Thanks to Gleb Raygorodetsky for tireless translation for Danil—and for the photo!

September 1, 2014
Transcendental Flute Ceremony Reborn in Papua New Guinea
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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When we filmed the canoe ceremony in Bosmun village on the Ramu River in Papua New Guinea, there was an all night debate about whether we would be allowed to film the transcendental flute players who started playing at midnight heading into the final day of the four-day ceremony. They play inside a thatched hut, hidden from sight. As the sun came up, the eerie harmonic melodies of two flutes—one male, one female—echoed through the village, and we were told: the elders’ decision was no. No filming. “Someone might die,” was the convincing reason we were given.

The Bosmun leaders admitted at the time that the flute players had to come in from a village upriver because the tradition had died out in Bosmun. Well that has now changed. We received word from PNG last week that the good feeling generated by our 2010 filming expedition led the villagers to decide the transcendental flute ceremony must not be lost, and in fact should be revived.

The Little Green Palai blog reports that elder Anthony Tibong, 73, the local transcendental flute master (pictured at right), taught 13 young men “in the art of making mystical music” and after two years of training Mr. Tibong graduated his students in an emotional ceremony on July 30.

“As tears rolled down his face Master Artist Anthony Tibong is happy the flutes have been given life again after nearly 60 years. He is now at peace,” reports the blog.

We are very pleased that our film Profit and Loss has been well-received in PNG and that the village of Bosmun has such a tangible—and audible—result from participating in the film.

Here is the text of the email we received this week from Rosa Koian, of Bismark Ramu Group:


Hi Toby,

Last night I returned from Bosmun with my BRG colleagues feeling more uplifted. After the canoe making rituals in 2010 for the film production some of the young men wanted to continue with these trainings and so after two years, since mid-2011, 13 men graduated on Wednesday as transcendent flutists in their community. This was their cultural practice some 60 years ago and was kept by Mr. Tibong until 3 years ago. Recognizing that the last practicing artist is now 73, they made sure he left the skills behind. In yet another moving and tearful ceremony Mr. Tibong completed his rituals from 60 years ago and graduated 13 of his students.

As you saw when you filmed it was not just the students and elders ceremony. The whole village took part with young people performing various dances.

Bosmun people once again convey their thanks to you and the film crew for realizing the richness in Papua New Guinea.


As the flutes play on, hidden inside the thatched hut, may the Ramu River continue to feed the village and run free of toxic waste from the new Ramu Nico Mine.

And once again we send our thanks to the villagers of Bosmun for entrusting us with their beautiful story, and to everyone at Bismark Ramu Group for your invaluable assistance during production and beyond. Onward!



June 20, 2014
Scenes from Standing on Sacred Ground
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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We’ve created a new web page offering short sample scenes from each of the eight amazing stories featured in our new Standing on Sacred Ground series. Now you can get a taste of each story and decide which film you want to watch first. Please check it out!



April 6, 2014
On Stage with Winona
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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NMAI WinonaIt was a cold afternoon in DC, gray skies but no rain, perfect weather to drive a crowd into an auditorium to watch four hours of films. The Capitol dome sat quiet and irrelevant off to the northeast, spitting distance from the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian. For me, NMAI is the crucible we needed to enter. When Melissa Bisagni, the film curator, agreed to host the entire Standing on Sacred Ground series as part of the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital, it was a very sweet moment for the Sacred Land Film Project. I think the fortress door swung open because my old friend Winona LaDuke offered to appear with the films, and boy did she show up.

When the films started at noon there was quite a buzz in the air. By the time the fourth film began at 4:30 the room was packed, with people standing in the doorways. Quite a few brave souls watched the entire series. It was very exciting to screen at the Smithsonian, with PBS considering our series for broadcast this very week, and the slow-building momentum of independent film distribution starting to build—slowly, slowly…

After watching the tar sands story in Profit and Loss, Winona and I shared the ironic reflection that 35 years ago we started working to stop national sacrifice areas and now we are fighting international sacrifice areas. Winona commented, “We want to move gracefully out of the fossil fuel economy. We don’t want to crash our way out of this. And remember, only 3% of the tar sands have been mined. We can stop it now—and we have to.” Winona poignantly joked that she would rather be growing wild rice and corn at home in Minnesota but this phase of her life has been taken over fighting tar sands pipelines proposed in the Midwest.

After watching the melting glaciers of Peru in Fire and Ice, a young native Yup’ik woman from Alaska described the imminent flooding of her home village of Newtok, from rising sea levels. Her village is being evacuated as climate change continues unabated.

The high point of the afternoon came for me at the start of the fourth and final film, Islands of Sanctuary. A big cheer went up after Hawaii’s Derek Mar said, “If we can take on the most powerful military force in the world, and win, there is hope for indigenous people all over the world.” The room just erupted. It was one of those moments filmmakers dream about.

After Islands of Sanctuary, Native Hawaiian Leimomi Apoliona-Brown told some great stories about the original occupation of Kaho`olawe and how the strategic Protect Kaho`olawe `Ohana activist movement sparked a renaissance of Hawaiian language and culture. Leimomi focused on the deep and complex meaning of Hawaiian words, `aina, kuleana, `ohana, malama — the love, responsibility for, familial relationship with and caretaking of the land that gives us life. Kaho`olawe is truly an inspiring, modern-day success story, and we are honored to be able to help tell it to the world.


Big thanks to Katsi Cook, Akwesasne Mohawk midwife and community health and environmental justice activist, and José Barriero, Director of the Office of Latin American Research at NMAI for excellent commentary after the films, and to Brad Forster of the Environmental Film Festival, for filling my memory card with great photos.

October 10, 2013
Reflections on the Birth of Four Films
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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Peru PilgrimsAs indigenous leaders from around the world head to the Bay Area this week to celebrate the premiere screenings of Standing on Sacred Ground, the excitement heightens my awareness of both the honor and humbling responsibility of directing this project. Bill McKibben has said, “Some of the finest minds on the planet are featured in this documentary,” and I hope you can join me for discussions with Onondaga Chief Oren Lyons, Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk, author Barry Lopez, Altaian leader Danil Mamyev, Native Hawaiian activists Emmett Aluli and Davianna McGregor, tar sands activist Mike Mercredi, actresses Tantoo Cardinal and Q’orianka Kilcher and other remarkable activists and indigenous leaders.

Discussions will take place after screenings on Thursday, Saturday and Sunday at the Mill Valley Film Festival, and in Berkeley and San Francisco next week. Please check out our new website——for a complete schedule and ticket details.

Will in AustraliaOver the past seven years, I have been privileged to visit and film eight astonishing cultures. Whether I came back awed by a Winnemem Wintu ceremony on the McCloud River in California or shocked by the open pit wounds of the tar sands in Alberta, our fantastic writer/editor teams of Jessica Abbe/Quinn Costello and Jennifer Huang/Marta Wohl tackled the sifting and sorting, the weighing and discarding, the crafting and polishing of four unique but interconnected films with skill and patience.

From the Altai Republic of Russia to the Northern Territory of Australia, my dear friend and cameraman extraordinaire Will Parrinello endured frostbite and flat tires, mid-summer blizzards and crocodile-infested waters to go the extra mile and get the story. Master cinematographer Andy Black and sound recordist Dave Wendlinger had my back when we were detained by gun-toting policemen in Papua New Guinea for filming in a mine site, and also when we were challenged by Native Hawaiians on Kaho`olawe to learn Hawaiian, make offerings to Lono, and experience the four-day Makahiki ceremony with our cameras and microphones stashed away in our tents. Vicente Franco delighted our Q’eros hosts in Peru every time he proclaimed from his horse, “Let’s get organized!” It has been a beautiful ride and a great blessing.

Filming EthiopiaAs we made pilgrimage to Uch Enmek Mountain in Altai, returned over and over to Panther Meadows on Mt. Shasta, and struggled to capture the feeling and power of sacred places, I worried: would the controversial stories we were taking years to film be timely when the films came out? Amazingly, the answer is yes. From the Keystone XL pipeline to the U.S. government’s crazy plan to raise the height of Shasta Dam, from the disappearing glaciers in the Andes of Peru and Gazprom’s pipeline across the sacred Ukok Plateau in Russia to the Chinese-government-owned mining company dumping tailings into the sea in Papua New Guinea, the hot stories are boiling over.

The toughest shoot by far was the tar sands. Plumes of toxic carbon clouds going up, oily waste ponds seeping poisons down into the Athabasca River, moose and eagle and bear grieving for their shrinking, shattered boreal forest. I’d never been to a petro-state before, and the deformed fish and heart-breaking cancer cases in the native community of Fort Chipewyan took a toll on every member of our crew. Each of our spouses saw the sadness we carried home, and it lingered for months after we returned from Alberta.

And as much as we may have intended to help the indigenous communities that put their faith and trust in us, there have been unintended consequences. One memorable shoot involved a long trek to a sacred forest on Milo Mountain in Ethiopia. When a still camera was stolen from our baggage during the shoot, our host Makko Wareo, “the father of Milo Mountain,” insisted that he had to confront the local village leader whose wife had started bragging about her husband’s new camera. Everyone in the small village knew (but we didn’t) as we said our good-byes and left. It turned out that the government leader was a Christian fundamentalist with a grudge against the traditional spiritual leader we were filming. Shortly after we left, Makko Wareo’s son was badly beaten by a band of thugs and ended up in the hospital. We learned about it weeks later. Though Wareo’s son has healed, the incident reminds me of the delicacy of the situations in every community we enter briefly and then leave.

All of this strengthens my resolve to honor the commitments we have made to each of the eight communities in our new film series. We are well on our way to forming an international Sacred Land Alliance to support local struggles and encourage action on national and international levels.

KahoolaweWe have begun to build and support a Council of Guardians of sacred sites from around the world, and have worked together to pass international resolutions calling for protection of sacred natural sites. Our friends and colleagues are publishing books on sacred places, fighting dams, mines and pipelines, challenging insensitive eco-tourism, telling stories of indigenous communities affected by climate change. We hope Standing on Sacred Ground will make a powerul contribution to these important struggles. We still have teacher’s guides to publish, DVDs and foreign language versions of the films to produce, screenings to plan and promote. Hopefully, we will get a broadcast slot on PBS in the coming months. There is still so much to do!

Please join us in the coming days to celebrate the completion of Standing on Sacred Ground after seven years of work by a dedicated team of talented filmmakers who have persevered only because of the invaluable friendship and partnership of eight inspiring and enduring cultures.

We encourage your activism to help protect sacred places from Mt. Shasta to Lake Athabasca, and we challenge you to take a deep breath, reconnect with the mystery of your own homeland and embrace the loved ones who surround you.

In addition to the colleagues mentioned above, my heartfelt thanks go to Ken Wilson, Bob Friede, Barbara and Tom Sargent, Jaune Evans, Patty Quillin, Reed Hastings, Polly and Bill McLeod, Cordy Fergus, Erin Lee, Vicki Engel, Marlo McKenzie, Todd Miro, Audrey Jardin, Anna Heath, Jennifer Castner, Gleb Raygorodetsky, Peter Coyote, Winona LaDuke, Susan Alexander, Pat Koren, Dianne Brennan, Allison Torres, Indra Mungal, Callie Shanafelt, Leroy Clark, John Knox, Kevin Connelley, Dave Phillips, John Antonelli, Chagat Almashev, Maria Amanchina, Luana Busby-Neff, Matt Yamashita, Donne Dawson, Kaliko Baker, Mike Preston, Kayla Carpenter, Rick Wilson, R.T., Nathaniel Wolde, Rosa Koian, Fredy Flores Machacca, Charles Roche, Cara Mertes, Don Weeden, Hadley Grousbeck, Susan O’Connor, Jim Crown, Susan Newman, George Appell, Jenny Abbe, and to friends and family too numerous to name, but in particular Miles and Fiona McLeod, and my ever-patient and profoundly creative partner Jessica Abbe.


July 9, 2013
Fire and Water on the Mountain
Posted by: Toby McLeod
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Altai ShamanThe fire was hungry. It consumed milk, vodka, bread, cheese, lamb’s heads, cow’s legs, barley, cedar, juniper, water and the prayers and songs of a dozen shamans from all over Asia. The fire roared, sparked, smoked, called out to ancestors and spirits, and seemed very happy to be fed by the people. On the summer solstice, beneath Uch Enmek Mountain in the Altai Republic of Russia, our friends Maria Amanchina and Danil Mamyev presided over a three-day ritual that honored and blended many fires into one fire. As Danil described it, the 6th annual ceremony linked sacred sites and their guardians, strengthened lands and waters, deepened traditional knowledge, and clarified the path forward.

When the Altaians made a pilgrimage to Mt. Shasta in northern California in November of 2007 (four months after our first film trip to Altai), a deep bond was formed. Beyond giving us a great film scene to link the stories of the Altaians and Winnemem Wintu, the discovery that the Winnemem sacred spring on Mt. Shasta had gone dry for the first time in tribal memory created a reciprocal relationship — a need for support, dialogue, prayer and mutual care. So when the Altaians invited Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk to visit their Golden Mountains to gather water from a sacred spring there, to help heal her spring back home, the invitation needed to be met with another pilgrimage.

With a grant from the Trust for Mutual Understanding, I traveled to Altai for the fire ceremony with Caleen, along with my wife, co-producer and writer Jessica Abbe, and our two teen-aged children, Miles and Fiona. Caleen’s primary quest was a journey to Uch Enmek Mountain to collect the water to bring back to Mt. Shasta. For Jessica and me, our main purpose was premiering the first episode of our new Standing on Sacred Ground film series in the place the story starts: the mountains of Altai. With the Winnemem story following Altai’s in the first hour of the series, it was appropriate to have Caleen participate in the fire ceremony and then travel with Maria and Danil to sacred places around Altai during our two-week visit. For Miles and Fiona, it was a chance to see why their dad has been going away for such long trips over the past seven years.

Maria and CaleenOn the second day of the ceremony, Caleen was asked to do a Winnemem ritual around the fire. Her suitcase was still lost in transit so her regalia was missing. With the other shamans fully decked out in hundred-year-old feathers and ribbons, Caleen was down to her bare essence, and she shone. She explained that protecting water is her mission in life, helping the earth find a natural balance between fire and water, so her ritual focused on the waters. As she prayed and sent pipe smoke skyward a gentle rain began to fall, a beautiful female rain, a lush enveloping mist. It was awesome — and everyone loved Caleen.

Next year the fire ceremony will move east to Mongolia. When the Mongolian shaman, Buyanbadrakh, whose day job is as a real estate analyst at Khan Bank in Ulaanbaatar, started his ritual on the final morning, there was electricity in the air.

Buyan1Buyanbadrakh went into a trance that lasted more than an hour and had everyone on the edge of their seats. As his assistant gently offered him a pipe, fed him vodka from a bowl, and wrote down the flood of words that flowed like a waterfall, Buyanbadrakh pounded his drum, made the sounds of a horse at work, chanted throat songs, and laughed a storm of wild cackles. When he returned and settled down, with the help of a dozen carefully-selected helpers, Buyanbadrakh reported that he had overcome 33 obstacles, encountered every one of the 99 Tengri gods, and most importantly, met the Spirit of Altai.

After the huge closing fire under a rising full moon, Danil invited everyone to the world premiere of Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven, the first episode of our new four-part series, complete with Russian subtitles. As the shamans ate dinner in the central yurt and the stubborn Siberian sun approached the horizon at 10pm, we set up an outdoor screen and projector with some trepidation: would anyone come? They all came. In the emotional discussion that followed the film, here’s a sample of the comments: “It is very, very clean.” “It touched my heart.” “I just stood there and cried.” “I’m so happy, and a little surprised, that non-indigenous people have made this film.” “Many people were crying.” “We talked about it all night.” “We have just the same problems.” “Caleen is so strong; she is an important leader.” “We are together, we are united, we cannot be defeated.”

Our amazing journey continued on the following day (after Caleen’s suitcase finally arrived) as we mounted horses and headed toward Uch Enmek Mountain. There were nine of us: Chichen the horse handler and guide, Danil, Caleen, Jessica, Miles, Fiona, Irina the translator, myself, and a dog we called Sam (who ran with us all three days and upon returning home we learned was really named Mukhtar). Last time I was up in the headwaters of the Karakol Valley with Will Parrinello and Andy Black we filmed Danil in a blizzard, this time the sunshine was glorious and the wildflowers were everywhere. Caleen’s obstacles continued as she tore a calf muscle mounting a moving horse, but she found a walking stick and carried on with great humor and determination all the way to two small lakes at the foot of the sacred mountain. Caleen and Danil 2Danil lit a fire and introduced Caleen to “the eyes of Uch Enmek.” He told us that one lake is a lake of sadness, “the crying lake,” and the other a lake of joy, “the laughing lake.” Caleen circumambulated each lake slowly and gathered the water to take back to Mt. Shasta, to connect the mountains spiritually. Hearing Caleen sing to the lakes brought tears to Danil’s eyes. He said, “Perhaps the lakes were suprised to hear songs they have not heard for a thousand years. I think they liked it very much.”

One week later we all stood in the MultiMedia Museum in Moscow and presented the film to a lively Moscow audience. With Danil, Caleen and Chagat Almashev from Foundation for Sustainable Development of Altai on hand, the discussion lasted late into the night. Our pilgrimage was complete. The film is born — and the waters of Altai are heading to Mt. Shasta.

June 28, 2013
Moscow Premiere of “Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven” on July 1
Posted by: Nico Correia

Please join us for the Moscow premiere of Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven at the Multimedia Art Museum in Moscow on July 1. This hour-long documentary film is the first episode of the new four-part Standing on Sacred Ground series, and it will be screened with Russian subtitles.

The film will be shown at the Multimedia Art Museum, Ostozhenka 16, on July 1 at 7pm, with Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk from California, Danil Mamyev, Altaian cultural leader and founder of Uch Enmek Nature Park, and film director Christopher (Toby) McLeod all appearing in person to answer questions after the film.

In Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven, indigenous shamans of the Altai Republic of Russia and the Winnemem Wintu Tribe of northern California tribe find common ground in defending ancestral burial grounds and protecting their sacred lands. In both countries, communities confront changes from modernism, recreational land use, and resource development. These two stories are the first of eight stories from around the world where indigenous communities are working to protect traditional lands and cultures.

The Standing on Sacred Ground series is produced by the Sacred Land Film Project of Earth Island Institute. Our Moscow screening is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy with funding from Trust for Mutual Understanding.

June 15, 2013
Maui Film Festival – Let the Screenings Begin!
Posted by: Toby McLeod
Posted in:
Thousands came to the opening night of the Maui Film Festival to see Islands of Sanctuary!

Thousands came to the opening night of the Maui Film Festival to see Islands of Sanctuary!

Islands of Sanctuary premiered at the Maui Film Festival on June 12 under a starry sky with more than a thousand people staying to watch the late night screening. I was most touched by the presence of so many members of the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana, who came in from all the islands to celebrate the birth of a film that highlights their decades-long struggle to take care of the island of Kaho`olawe as a sacred place. Emmett Aluli, Davianna McGregor, Luana Busby-Neff, Craig Neff, Derek and Kylee Mar, Donne Dawson, Kaliko Baker, Mike Nahoopii, Uncle Les Kuloloia, and Kim Birnie were all there to chant the audience into the film, which is the fourth episode of our new Standing on Sacred Ground series.

There was a nice review of the film in the Honolulu Pulse before the screening by reporter Matthew Gurewitsch. Also, an interview with the filmmaker in the Maui Film Festival blog as well as a great festival page on the film with a trailer we edited just for this premiere screening.

Next stop: the Altai Republic of Russia for premieres of our first episode in Uch Enmek Nature Park on June 22 as part of a solstice fire ceremony, and then a screening in Moscow at the MultiMedia Museum, Ostozhenka 16, on July 1 at 7 pm. Here is an invitation you can forward to friends in Russia with details about the Moscow screening:

Please join us for the Moscow premiere of Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven at the MultiMedia Museum in Moscow on July 1. This hour-long documentary film is the first episode of the new four-part Standing on Sacred Ground series, and it will be screened with Russian subtitles. The film will be shown at the MultiMedia Museum, Ostozhenka 16, on July 1 at 7 pm. Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk from California, Danil Mamyev, Altaian cultural leader and founder of Uch Enmek Nature Park, and film director Christopher (Toby) McLeod will all appear in person to answer questions after the film. The Standing on Sacred Ground series is produced by the Sacred Land Film Project of Earth Island Institute. This screening is sponsored by the U.S. Embassy with funding from Trust for Mutual Understanding.

Next up after Russia: Redding! We will have the U.S. Premiere of episode one Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven, on the evening of Saturday, September 14, at the beautiful Cascade Theater, 1731 Market St., in Redding, California. Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk will be on hand to mark — and mourn — the 75th anniversary of the Bureau of Reclamation’s completion of Shasta Dam, which flooded her tribe’s traditional homeland on the McCloud River.

After that, we have been invited to screen at the Mill Valley Film Festival between October 3 and 13, details to be determined, and at the Bioneers Conference, on Saturday night, October 19. Please join us!

April 23, 2013
Turning the Corner, Finish Line Ahead
Posted by: Toby McLeod
Posted in:

As we finally close in on completion of our four-film Standing on Sacred Ground series, I find myself asking: Why didn’t I realize that finishing four films is at least four times harder than finishing one film? This is HARD!

I’m back in the editing room in Berkeley  after traveling to Toronto to record Graham Greene’s final narration for Episodes Three and Four. Graham has a great voice and he is really into our stories. While I will miss Peter Coyote, we agreed that our eight indigenous rights struggles would be better told — or more appropriately told — by an indigenous insider. Graham is Oneida from Canada, and he really gets it.

Our D.C. sneak preview screenings in March were a great success. On Saturday night we packed a small theater for Episode One, Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven, on the Altai of Russia and Winnemem Wintu of northern California. On Sunday afternoon, for Profit and Loss, on Papua New Guinea and the tar sands of Canada, we had a great crowd in the massive Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium. In the intense Q&A discussion that followed the screening I realized how desperate people are for solutions, as many demanded an answer to the same question: “What are we going to do about the fact that corporations control governments?” I’m working on that answer!

The world premiere of the series will be June 22 in the Karakol Valley in the Altai Republic of Russia, in southern Siberia, where shamans will gather for a summer solstice fire ceremony. My family is coming along and accompanying northern California Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk, who has received a grant to travel with us for a cultural exchange to participate in four screenings of the Altai/Winnemem segment.

After returning from Altai, we should be done with all four films in July and we have started planning a series of premiere events in September and October, so stay tuned and please plan to join us for our rolling out party, where we will give birth to Standing on Sacred Ground!


April 20, 2013
President Obama Needs to Hear from You!
Posted by: Toby McLeod
Posted in:

President Obama has sent a clear message to the environmental community: ‘I need to hear from you loud and clear and often.’ The economic and political pressure on the president to approve the Keystone XL pipeline is enormous. Recent rallies in Washington, D.C. were a great start, but a sustained outcry is imperative if Obama is going to make the courageous decision to deny the permit for the $7 billion pipeline, which would carry 830,000 barrels per day of tar sands oil to Texas refineries, mostly for export.

In the second hour of our new Standing on Sacred Ground series, Profit and Loss, we devote a half hour to the cultural and environmental impacts of oil sands extraction in Alberta. The debate about the Keystone XL pipeline has understandably focused on inflated job projections, the likelihood of spills, threats to the Ogallala Aquifer, destruction of farmland and release of greenhouse gases. However, the best argument against the pipeline is the moral argument: tar sands is causing cancer death in native communities and fish deformities through massive contamination of water and air in territory protected by treaty with numerous First Nations of Canada. This is unethical oil as well as dirty oil.

The United States is already importing 1.3 million barrels of tar sands oil every day and refining that for your car. Killing Keystone XL will not stop the tar sands, though it may slow industry plans to triple production by 2025. Another controversial proposed pipeline, the Enbridge Northern Gateway, would carry the same corrosive crude oil to Canada’s British Columbia coast for export to China. First Nations are fighting that pipeline with equal vigor as the Keystone XL. This is a big, complex fight, and it will need to be sustained.

You can weigh in on the State Department Draft Supplementary Environmental Impact Statement. Comments are due by midnight on April 22. Also, please send a copy of your comments to President Obama. If he does not hear a loud, steady cry of opposition, he will not have the political backing to deny the permit for Keystone XL. This is your chance to make a difference!

Please send your comments to

For more information on the U.S. government position: U.S. State Department’s Keystone XL page.

Click on the links below for more information:

Indian Country Today reports on the response by tribal leaders.

New York Times (3/10/13) editorial against the Keystone XL pipeline.

The easiest route to registering your opposition is signing an online petition.

Read the State Department press release.

Download the Draft Environmental Impact Statement (SEIS) from the State Department

Figures and Statistics from the Alberta Government.


April 20, 2013
Islands of Sanctuary at Maui Film Festival on Wednesday, June 12!
Posted by: Dianne
Posted in:

Please join Standing on Sacred Ground’s director, Christopher McLeod at the Maui Film Festival for a world premiere sneak preview of Islands of Sanctuary, the fourth and final film in our new documentary series. The film will be shown on the festival’s opening night, on Wednesday, June 12. Islands of Sanctuary will play with Hawaiian: The Legend of Eddie Aikau at the Celestial Cinema in Wailea at 10pm. Tickets for the screenings are $22 and can be purchased on the Maui Film Festival’s website.

Check out the new trailer for Islands of Sanctuary while you are there!

A quick film summary: Native Hawaiians and Aboriginal Australians resist threats to their sacred lands in a growing international movement to defend human rights and protect the environment. In Australia’s Northern Territory, Aboriginal clans maintain Indigenous Protected Areas and resist the destructive effects of a mining boom on the McArthur River. In Hawaii, indigenous ecological and spiritual practices restore the island of Kaho`olawe after 50 years of military use as a weapons testing range. Narrated by Graham Greene (Oneida) and Luana Busby-Neff (Hawaiian), with activist Winona LaDuke (Anishinaabe), Chief Oren Lyons (Onondaga), philosopher Satish Kumar and author Barry Lopez. Featuring the decades-long commitment of the Protect Kaho`olawe Ohana.

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