1997 Annual Report
by Christopher McLeodBeneath cottonwood trees in the Devils Tower National Monument campground, we awoke at first light on the summer solstice to the sound of bird song mingling with a deep chant sung by Oliver Red Cloud, descendent of the 19th-century Lakota leader, Red Cloud. When our film crew gathered at his camp for coffee, Oliver told us that he had been singing to the spirits of the place, explaining our presence there – and our intentions. An hour later, surrounded by fifty Lakota elders and children, Red Cloud lifted his sacred pipe to the dawn sky. He said, “We might as well show the world.” Then he conducted a pipe ceremony beneath Devils Tower as our camera rolled.
While the Lakota, and twenty other tribes of the Northern Plains, struggle to convey their feelings about the spiritual importance of the rock they call “the lodge of the bear” to the American public, they face a serious challenge from the Wise Use Movement and Mountain States Legal Foundation. The National Park Service has asked rock climbers to refrain from climbing the tower during the month of June, at the height of vision quests and sun dance ceremonies. Commercial climbing guides and Mountain States filed suit, claiming that the Park Service has overstepped its authority by trying to help protect a Native American religious site.
The highlight of our two-week film trip was a three-hour interview with Lakota scholar Vine Deloria, Jr., who clarified the relationship between the spiritual and the political. “It’s not that Indians should have exclusive rights at Devils Tower,” he said. “It’s that that location is sacred enough so that it should have time of its own. And once it has time of its own, then the people who know how to do ceremonies should come and minister to it. Now, that’s hard to get across to people.”
Our experience with Oliver Red Cloud and Lakota ceremony helped us understand how to tell that story.
There have been many other memorable scenes this year as we completed principal photography and moved into the editing room:
In August, we went to Mt. Shasta’s Panther Meadows hoping to capture some of the New Age activity that native people find inappropriate and offensive. In three short hours we filmed a baptism ceremony at the Wintus’ sacred spring, a group drumming in the nearby trees, people running naked through the meadow, and offerings of sage and crystals left at the spring. A few weeks later, in the storeroom of the Chaco Canyon Collection in New Mexico, museum curator Wendy Bustard dumped four plastic bags full of crystals onto a table. Left with other New Age offerings in the great kiva called Casa Rinconada, these materials led the National Park Service to close the kiva to visitors this year.
In September, we filmed Achumawi activist Floyd Buckskin in the Medicine Lake Highlands of northern California, identifying vision quest sites for the Forest Service in an attempt to stop a proposed geothermal energy project. A freak, early snowstorm kept us from seeing nearby Mt. Shasta, but there was drama in the difficulty of searching for sacred sites beneath a blanket of white.
On a crisp October morning, we accompanied Hopi elder Dalton Taylor to the Grand Canyon, where an important Hopi shrine has been repeatedly disturbed by tourists. As we filmed a consultation between Dalton and park archaeologist Jan Balsom, Dalton explained that prayer feathers have frequently been stolen from the shrine, thus interfering with Hopi prayers. Looking out toward the shrine and the vast, multi-colored canyon, Jan said, “Tourists don’t need to walk down this trail. We can block access to the area with boulders and vegetation.” We hope that capturing this kind of scene on film will encourage positive dialogue and concrete action to protect sites in the face of mounting pressures.
A few days later we filmed Leigh Jenkins, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, harvesting his corn field with a rainbow arching overhead. We then drove north with Leigh and sneaked into the Peabody Coal Company’s Black Mesa stripmine, where 2,100 archaeological sites have been destroyed by mining and where 3,000 gallons of underground water are being used each minute to slurry coal 273 miles to a power plant near Las Vegas. As a giant dragline operated behind him, we interviewed Leigh about the slurry line depleting sacred Hopi springs, the foundation of Hopi life and religion.
As we drove home from Peabody, I said to Leigh, “Going into this project, I thought it would be mining companies and the government who would be the main threats to sacred places. But I’ve been surprised. It seems to be equally rock climbers, New Agers, tourists, anthropologists and so-called clean energy sources like geothermal that are the main concerns.”
“And filmmakers,” added Leigh.
A Thousand Years of Ceremony: