Fire and Water on the Mountain

The 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.

On 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.

Buyanbadrakh 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. Danil 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.

Please Comment on Shasta Dam Raise DEIS

The Bureau of Reclamation has released a draft Environmental Impact Statement and opened a 90-day public comment period on the U.S. government’s proposal to raise the height of Shasta Dam by 18.5 feet. Heightening the dam would flood 5,000 more acres, add 14% more water (an additional 634,000 acre feet) to Shasta Lake during wet years, and require Congressional approval. The estimated cost, according to the EIS: $1.07 billion dollars. Most of the water is destined for agricultural users who can resell the subsidized water.  New housing developments and Southern California cities are possible end users of increased water storage behind Shasta Dam.  Another possible beneficiary is California’s oil industry, currently ramping up the use of water-intensive hydraulic fracturing (fracking) in the southern Central Valley, raising fears of chemical contamination of groundwater and increased earthquake activity.

Native salmon have been blocked from their historic spawning grounds in the upper McCloud, Sacramento and Pit Rivers since Shasta Dam was completed in the 1940s. No bypass for fish species was included in this proposed project. Still, proponents of the dam enlargement argue that making the barrier bigger will benefit the endangered fish, by creating a deeper cold-water pool behind the dam and lowering the temperature of released water. The project would create temporary construction jobs but not increase long-term employment in the region.

If the project goes forward the Winnemem Wintu Tribe would lose ceremonial dance grounds still in use today, sacred sites such as Puberty Rock, along with the flooding of many burials still located at traditional Winnemem village sites. For details please read our McCloud River sacred site report or visit the Winnemem Wintu Tribe website.

There will be three public workshops to discuss the draft EIS, including one in Redding on Tuesday, July 16 at 6pm at the Holiday Inn, Palomino Room, 1900 Hilltop Drive.

The deadline for public comments is September 30. Here’s how you can comment:

By mail: Send comments to Katrina Chow, Project Manager, US Bureau of Reclamation, Planning Division, 2800 Cottage Way, Sacramento, CA 95825-1893

By e-mail:

By phone: (916) 978-5067

We’ve prepared a fact sheet about the dam raise for you to download (Word Document): Bureau of Reclamation Talking Points

Here is a sample letter you can download and sign: BoR Letter

Visit to review the full report or for more information.

Moscow Premiere of “Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven” on July 1

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.


Maui Film Festival – Let the Screenings Begin!

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!

President Obama Needs to Hear from You!

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.


U.S. Government Acts to Protect Sacred Sites

After joining a 500-year-long struggle, inspired every step of the way by the deep commitment of so many determined allies, it’s nice to watch the wheel of history turn — ever so slowly.

For the last 15 years, the Sacred Land Film Project has worked to improve U.S. government recognition and protection of Native American sacred places. In December 2012, this long-term struggle moved a giant step forward, when four Cabinet secretaries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on improving sacred site policies over the next five years. The Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture and Energy agreed to consult with tribes, create training programs for federal employees, launch a new website and establish management practices regarding sacred sites on federal land.

In a statement, Tom Vilsack, who directs the U.S. Forest Service, said: “The President is insistent that these sacred sites be protected and preserved: treated with dignity and respect. That is also my commitment as Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. I know my fellow Secretaries share in this commitment. We understand the importance of these sites and will do our best to make sure they are protected and respected.”

In March 2002, with the Pentagon still damaged from the 9-11 jetliner crash, I made my way inside the damaged fortress with Hopi elder Vernon Masayesva and Winnemem Chief Caleen Sisk, to screen In the Light of Reverence for Defense Department officials. We had learned that military bases around the U.S. contain dozens of Native American sacred sites, and native people who were working inside the Pentagon wanted to educate the top brass about a little discussed subject. Uniformed officers were scurrying around the halls with huge briefing notebooks as they continued bombing Afghanistan, and we showed the film to a good-sized audience, with lots of interesting questions. On the walls of the room there were military aircraft of every vintage painted in living color…sacred sites in the crosshairs.

To see Leon Panetta’s signature on this document is amazing. Check it out.

Sneak Previews in Washington D.C. on March 23-24

The Sacred Land Film Project is pleased to announce advance screenings of the first two documentary films of the Standing on Sacred Ground series. Please join us for sneak previews in Washington, D.C., on Saturday, March 23 and Sunday, March 24 at the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital.

On opposite sides of the globe, a northern California tribe and indigenous shamans in the Russian Republic of Altai confront massive government projects—and find common ground. Pilgrims and Tourists in the Pastures of Heaven will screen at the Letelier Theater, 3251 Prospect St. in Georgetown on Saturday, March 23 at 7:00 PM.

In Profit and Loss, indigenous communities fight mining and confront viewers with the ethical consequences of consumerism. Villagers in Papua New Guinea resist forced relocation and battle a nickel mine dumping waste into the sea. In Canada, First Nations people are divided by a tar sands industry that provides economic growth but is destroying traditional hunting and fishing grounds. Profit and Loss  will screen at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History’s Baird Auditorium at the intersection of 10th Street and Constitution Ave. on Sunday, March 24 at 3:30 PM.

Smithsonian Anthropologists Joshua Bell and Gwyneira Isaac will lead a panel discussion after the screening. Producer/Director Christopher (Toby) McLeod, who circled the globe for five years filming the four-part series, will be on hand to take questions at both screenings. Co-producer Jennifer Huang and editor Marta Wohl will attend the Sunday screening of Profit and Loss.

The Standing on Sacred Ground series is narrated by Graham Greene (Oneida), with storytellers Tantoo Cardinal (Métis) and Q’orianka Kilcher.

The screenings are co-sponsored by the Indian Law Resource Center and the Association on American Indian Affairs.

Please Note: Saturday night’s screening of Pilgrims and Tourists is in a small theater, and online reservations are highly recommended. For reservations visit the U.S. Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital website.

Partial funding for Standing on Sacred Ground  was provided by the Sundance Institute Documentary Fund, Pacific Islanders in Communication and Vision Maker Media.

Colombian Leader Rogelio Mejia Survives Assassination Attempt

We were shocked to learn that SLFP colleague Rogelio Mejia narrowly escaped death three months ago. Mejia, a leader of the northern Colombian Arhuaco tribe, survived an attack that riddled his car with 40 bullets. Such an act of violence committed against the Arhuaco people is not uncommon. Colombian guerilla groups — and the government itself — perpetuate murder and continue to deny justice to the Arhuaco.

The Arhuaco are the indigenous inhabitants of the Sierra Nevada mountains of northern Colombia, comprising a peaceful, agrarian community. They believe in sustaining their sacred land and consider themselves the protectors of the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta, a place they believe to be the heart of the world. Yet they find themselves in the middle of a massive civil war that rages between leftist guerilla armies, paramilitaries and the Colombian government that has the Arhuaco fighting for survival.

The attempted assassination occurred on November 12, and had no clear motive. Mejia, who sustained three bullet wounds, was only slightly injured. He escaped by the time gunmen interrogated the two other people in the car, who also escaped without injury before police arrived. The crime will likely go unpunished and without a thorough investigation, if past response by the Colombian government to similar violent crimes against the Arhuaco is any indication.

The Colombian government turns a blind eye toward the killing of the Arhuaco people and has participated in such murder through the use of right wing paramilitaries. Twenty-two years ago, three Arhuaco leaders were traveling to the Colombian capital when they were kidnapped, brutally tortured, and later murdered by members of the Colombian army.

When Dilla Torres, widow of Angel Maria Torres, one of the three Arhuaco leaders assassinated in 1991, found her husband dead ten days after the kidnapping, his hair was torn out and his fingers cut off. No one has been punished despite government acknowledgment that members of the army had in fact committed the murders. Such crimes continue to go unpunished, such as the rape and murder of a 13 year-old Arhuaco girl last year. An investigation has yet to be conducted.

Left wing guerilla militias, the sworn enemies of the Colombian government, also pose a threat to the future of the Arhuaco community. In 2004, Arhuaco spiritual leader Mariano Suarez Chaparro was murdered by the Fuerzas Armadas de Colombia (FARC), a renegade guerilla force. Chaparro was the 20th Arhuaco killed between 2000 and 2004. Since then, countless Arhuaco lives have been cut short in the civil war between armed forces and the government. Many members of the Arhuaco community have also been forcibly recruited into guerilla armies such as FARC in their fight against the government.

Rogelio Mejia was not the first, and likely will not be the last, affected by the viciousness of the Colombian government toward its indigenous peoples. The attempted assassination of Mejia is not an anomaly, but one of many documented cases of violence against the Arhuaco.

Thanks to Survival International for their original reporting on this story.

Thank You! We Met Our Goal of a $25,000 Matching Donation!

Thank you to everyone who contributed to our year-end funding appeal! Thanks to YOU we reached our $25,000 matching donation goal! We appreciate your continued support of Standing on Sacred Ground. Your contribution enables us to continue with the post-production of our four-part documentary series on sacred places in the United States and around the world. With your help we are now making the final push to completion. We have finished the fine cuts of our first two hours and are busy with final editing of the other two hours: music composition, maps and graphics, archival footage licensing, color correction and sound mix. I’m happy to report that the native Canadian actor Graham Greene (Oneida) is narrating the series, and he sounds great!

Last September, I had the privilege of joining three of the sacred site guardians featured in our film-series – Caleen Sisk, Chief of the Winnemem Wintu, Emmett Aluli of Hawai‘i and Danil Mamyev of the Altai Republic of Russia – in Jeju, South Korea at the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) World Conservation Congress. We screened edited segments from Standing on Sacred Ground and Caleen, Emmett and Danil spoke to a large international audience. The importance of the alliances formed during production of our film series is becoming clearer to me as we plan our distribution campaign. Our indigenous partners are enthusiastically looking forward to putting the new films to work.

As we move forward in this final phase, you can keep up with the latest sacred site news and the progress of our work on Standing on Sacred Ground by visiting our website to watch video clips, read our blog and explore our tool kit to learn how you can take action to help protect sacred places and their indigenous guardians.

Thank you again for your contribution. I am glad to be able to count on you as a valued member of our community of supporters from all over the world.

— Toby McLeod

Feds Drop Charges Against Winnemem

Month after month in early 2012, the Winnemem Wintu organized protests, online petitions and letter-writing campaigns demanding the closure of a small stretch of the McCloud River in northern California. They were requesting the river closure from the U.S. Forest Service so the tribe could hold a coming-of-age ceremony for the young woman who will be the next leader of the tribe. Their past puberty ceremonies had been disrupted by loud motor boats, drunken revelers, racial epithets and women baring their breasts as the Winnemem tried to use their traditional dance grounds and river. Finally, after a meeting with Regional Forester Randy Moore just a few days before the ceremony was scheduled to start, the tribe was granted the permits necessary to conduct the ceremony in an atmosphere of safety and respect. Despite this effort, the Winnemem were still subject to threats and harassment by outsiders, including the Forest Service law enforcement agents who were present to enforce the river closure.

At the end of a four-day ceremony, which was held during the full moon in July, Chief Caleen Sisk was issued two federal citations — each bearing a $5,000 fine. She was charged with violating the very river closure that the Winnemem had requested. During previous puberty ceremonies, the Winnemem used a motorboat to ferry elders back and forth across the river to visit the young initiate in her camp on the far side of the river. This use has been observed in the past by the Forest Service and was clearly disclosed in permit negotiations this year. Nonetheless, after the ceremony was completed, and a few minutes after Chief Sisk’s attorney left the camp the morning after the final dance, law enforcement agents swept into camp in SUVs to serve Chief Sisk with the two tickets.

In a classic Catch-22, the Forest Service law enforcement officers claimed the tribe’s own boat was a violation of the river closure. Though the need for the boat had been clearly communicated to the Forest Service, the law enforcement officers who issued the tickets said they had no knowledge of this.

A federal court date was set for October 16 in Redding, although the feds refused to tell the Winnemem exactly what the two citations were for. The Winnemem Chief planned to plead not guilty to violating the law and spent considerable time finding a defense attorney. But on the afternoon of October 15, as Chief Sisk was preparing to appear in court, the federal attorney in Sacramento decided to dismiss the citations, with no further explanation. The Winnemem are now asking for a formal apology from the Forest Service, along with acknowledgment of the disruption that the citations and harassment caused to the ceremony, and the harm done to the relationship between the tribe and the Forest Service.