A Sense of the Sacred

by Christopher McLeod

Hard rain spattered on the tent, awakening me to a cold, October night in southern Utah. Images recently seen through my movie camera’s viewfinder flooded my mind — mounds of red, blue, yellow and white Hopi corn, ancient ruins perched high on a cliff, mysterious messages carved on red canyon walls, the play of light reflecting off water onto yellow cottonwoods. With joy turning to sadness I remembered my visit a few days earlier with Thomas Banyacya, the Hopi elder who has influenced my life like a grandfather, and who at age 89 has been ill for several months. As he has his whole life, he is fighting illness with prayer.

I was camped at the southern edge of Canyonlands National Park, in the place where this film project began: Davis Canyon. Had government planners prevailed, train tracks would now cross this ground, and trainloads of high level nuclear waste would rumble in daily for burial. Canyonlands is a place that touches people deeply, and widespread popular opposition derailed the nuclear train.

The rain stopped, and owl and coyote began to call. I climbed out of the tent to listen. The brightness of the star-filled sky silhouetted the bowl of rock that encircled me. As the animals talked, it felt as though the place was speaking, celebrating its own story. The nuclear waste dump was defeated by a potent landscape and determined defenders whose victory in essence proclaimed: “A sense of the sacred is more important than economics.”

Imagine our world evolving so that a sense of the sacred informs and precedes decisions, shapes priorities, and clarifies the values and the process of day-to-day life. In a culture where private property is deemed sacred by many and ownership gives meaning to life, we could transcend the either-or mentality of “private property versus sacred land” and “This is sacred, that is not.” We could dethrone private property by restoring a perception of the consciousness inherent in all life. It is the land we claim to own that is sacred, not the owning of it. It is a relationship that has been confused because in all of our education we are not taught one word about it. But we can learn from people and cultures who see the earth this way, like Florence Jones and the Wintu and Thomas Banyacya and the Hopi, the central characters in our film’s story.

After months in the editing room, my October journey to canyon country provided a burst of energy, and I scribbled on a scrap of paper: “We have to do all that we can to help keep that worldview alive and vital.”

This year has proven that we are much more than a film project. We produced our first mid-year newsletter, created a Web site, and worked with anthropologist Peter Nabokov to complete the study guide that will accompany the film. We screened footage and participated in symposiums on sacred land in Telluride and Santa Barbara, and planned the distribution campaign we will launch next year with Seventh Generation Fund in support of activists who are fighting to protect landscapes of spiritual significance.

More good news came in:

  • The Forest Service revoked the permit for a $22 million ski resort on Mt. Shasta, on land sacred to the Wintu and other native people.
  • A federal judge approved National Park Service management policies at Devils Tower, which ask climbers and tourists to respect the site’s spiritual significance to native people.
  • Most climbers continued to voluntarily refrain from climbing the tower in June, when sun dances and other traditional ceremonies are held (climbing in June dropped 85% from previous years).
  • The Park Service protected a Hopi shrine at the Grand Canyon — due at least in part to our filming there!

As we edit and screen our rough cut, interesting feedback abounds:

At Telluride’s Mountain Film Festival, during a day-long panel on sacred mountains at which a rough-cut segment of our film was screened, I was struck by a comment made by old-time mountaineer Charlie Houston. He suggested a simple ethic regarding mountain climbing that applies to sacred places everywhere: ”We should approach mountains with experience, reverence, humility, gentleness and respect.”

Floyd Buckskin, an Achumawi activist, visited me last summer at my home in La Honda and watched some of our footage. I saw him lean forward during the Devils Tower segment as Lakota author Vine Deloria explains that a sacred place needs “time of its own, and once it has had time of its own, then the people who know how to do ceremony can come and minister to it.” When the screening ended, Floyd said, “Ministering isn’t just ceremony, it is responding to the needs of the place. What these places need is restoration. That is why Native Americans now focus on ‘the sacred’— because they see the need for restoration. There is something missing from the sacredness, from the natural state of creation. All people seek and need healing by a clean place, replenishment, for the continuation of all life. At Devils Tower, it is not about the rights of climbers or native rights, it is about bringing it back to benefit all humans.”

Caleen Sisk-Franco (Wintu) also made comments that reinforced the urgency of completing the film as soon as possible. Referring to footage of a pipe ceremony, she said, “There are only a handful of Lakota people doing their job in that meadow at Devils Tower. Same at Hopi. There’s Thomas, but otherwise only a handful are left who believe in the prophecy. What will it be when that thinking is gone?”

In June, we traveled to the Northern Plains to film the Lakota’s 500-mile “Sacred Hoop Run” around the Black Hills. Starting with a prayer at the vision-questing site of Bear Butte, teams of runners headed off, relay-race style, passing staffs from one runner to the next as they made their way around the hills. Children, teenagers and adults camped for five nights in sacred areas, praying together, listening to stories about important places, and joining in a celebration of a landscape still held dear, even though it is physically controlled by private landowners and the U.S. government.

The runners were due at Devils Tower on the fourth day. Late in the afternoon of the third day, a huge rain storm poured down on the two hundred runners. Four inches of cold rain fell as they ran, as they set up camp, as they tried to sleep, and as they broke camp in the morning. The water was so pervasive that the footage we shot shows dozens of droplets streaming down the front of the lens. Everyone was soaked and chilled — but the adversity seemed to lift spirits all around. Determination, perseverance, the joy of a wild challenge rippled through the group and inspired everyone: old and young, runners and filmmakers. As we approached Devils Tower, blue sky appeared on the horizon and the elements calmed. We got the great shots we needed of the runners approaching the tower. The sunset was spectacular. Nature had tested everyone, reminded us of the conditions our ancestors endured, and laid bare the fragile comforts of the modern world.

In October, I was finally able to make it to remote, back-country sites in Utah that I have wanted to film for five years — places like Moon House (a mysterious double-walled cliff dwelling), the Processional Panel (where hundreds of figures line up in ceremonial approach to a circle — the center of the world?), and an intact, 700-year-old kiva hidden in a canyon on Cedar Mesa. I came upon these sites while backpacking without my camera gear and like magnets they have pulled on me to return.

There is an old Hopi story about Spiderwoman, the feminine spirit of the Earth, who guides young explorers to learn and understand the secrets of nature, teaches people how to weave, and guards a kiva’s doorway between the underworld and this world.

After a long hike into the canyon on Cedar Mesa, I climbed up to the narrow ledge that conceals a round ceremonial chamber. As I approached the kiva ladder to look down inside, I noticed a spider web between the top two rungs of the ladder. It was shimmering in direct sunlight, suspended in the kiva’s blackness. Waves of light pulsed through the web as the wind rippled through. In the center of the web was a spider, guarding the entrance.

I thought about something Thomas Banyacya told me many years ago when I asked him how to approach such places in an appropriate way. He suggested that I offer something, tobacco or pieces of white shell from a beach near my home, as a show of respect for the spirits of the place. I did so at the kiva, and it brought another memory to mind. Two days earlier, as I hiked into the heart of Canyonlands (after my night with coyote and owl), I stopped at the gateway to Chesler Park to pray for Thomas’ health and to make an offering before I entered the inner sanctum of the Canyonlands Basin. As I finished, I looked upwards and saw a giant bird circling. I lifted my binoculars: white head, white tail, a bald eagle, the first one I have ever seen in the Southwest.

“Look how far we’ve come.”

by Malinda Maynor

In August, Development Director Ivy Gordon and I took a road trip to the Indigenous Environmental Network’s annual “Protecting Mother Earth” conference. It was held at Floyd Buckskin’s place in Fall River Mills, near Medicine Lake, an ancient vision-questing site for Floyd’s Pit River community and several other tribes in northern California. The conference theme was sacred sites, and conference organizer Chris Peters (Pohlik-lah/Karuk), asked us to come listen to native activists from all over the country talk about their efforts to protect their homes.

Every activist had a different story, a different way of approaching sacred site protection. Their solutions ranged from letter-writing campaigns to intellectual property lawsuits and purchasing land. Many of those participating had fought desecration for three or more decades, providing a profound example of persistent agitation to someone as young as myself. Seeing them lean forward in their lawn chairs, point a finger in the air and nearly shout with conviction was both humbling and encouraging. It reminded me of what my family in North Carolina has always taught me to appreciate about Lumbee history, especially in the face of despair: “Look how far we’ve come.”

The conference itself was a model of collaboration, and I learned a tremendous amount about the possibilities for our film distribution campaign. Our goal is to raise public awareness about land-based religion and provide a legislative means for effective sacred site protection. One of the first and most important jobs is simply to get people talking, to bring their experiences and resources together in one place. As an organization, we want to create that place. Our film can provide a forum for people from different backgrounds, Indian and non-Indian, to talk about our society’s spiritual and environmental direction, and the impact that respect for sacred places can have on that direction.

This notion of respect was articulated beautifully by Rosalie Little Thunder, a Lakota educator and community leader. In a session on “Language and Sacred Sites,” she spoke about the meaning of the Lakota word wakan, commonly translated as “holy.” It is a tremendously complex word. Devils Tower is wakan, but a gun could be wakan. The word implies a power that one can’t, and shouldn’t, understand—a power that can be misused if one isn’t careful. I learned that the meaning of wakan must be understood within the context of Lakota culture and religion. The word’s meaning cannot be simplified by separating it from what it describes. It must be experienced and its use perfected over generations, in conjunction with a homeland that nurtures the word and the people who speak it.

This nurturing is a way of being. There is no quick fix. It can’t really be experienced in a weekend or on a vacation. One has to give oneself up to the Earth’s care completely, and evolve with nature, not the other way around. What will happen to us if we lose this way of being, if communities’ co-evolution of culture, language and religion disappears because the places that anchor our cultures are desecrated?

This question will be answered in the next millennium, for better or for worse. Since the conference, Chris, Toby and I have met to solidify specific ideas about the campaign, which Chris has aptly titled “Religious Freedom 2000.” The people who gathered at Medicine Lake can only do so much to preserve this way of being. Without the participation of land managers, elected officials, and most of all, ordinary citizens, the First Americans’ civil rights will continue to be eroded and everyone’s health will be endangered. Our film will catalyze this important dialogue.

Staff Thanks

Toby and Malinda would like to thank a great staff for tremendous work through an intense year:

  • Development Director Ivy Gordon, for organizing our work-in-progress screenings in Santa Barbara and San Francisco, and for approaching her multi-faceted job with patience, perseverance, and good humor;
  • Writer Jessica Abbe, for helping us clarify the content and purpose of our film, and for putting up with Toby’s long travel, late nights and working weekends (while raising two small children!);
  • Associate Producer Gail Huddleson, for enormous administrative and graphic design skills in producing invitations, newsletters, and a website;
  • Volunteer Kirk Warren Brown, for invaluable research and creativity in website development;
  • Volunteer Kevin Rardin, for wizardry in designing the website; and
  • Volunteer Amy Corbin, for being flexible and cooperative in her endless quest to enlarge our database.