Protecting the Sacred

Honor the Earth has worked as an advocate with tribal communities to protect our sacred sites for the past twenty years, including Sweetgrass Hills, Badger Two Medicine, PesLa, and many others.  Through our regranting program, we have supported dozens of communities working to protect their sacred sites. For more information, see our regranting page.

What is Sacred?

What is sacred? That is a question asked in courtrooms, administrative hearings, and city council meetings across the country. In the end, there is no absence of irony -- the oppressed must engage in the processes of the oppressor to go to quantify exactly how sacred something is in this country.

“It’s not like a church where you have everything in one place. We could describe how sacred sites are the teachers…. We don’t want the American dream…. We want our prayer rocks.”

Calleen Sisk, Winnemum Wintu

In the time of Thunder Beings and Underwater Serpents, the humans, animals, and plants conversed and carried on lives of mischief, wonder, and mundane tasks. The prophets told of times ahead, explained the causes of the deluge of past, and predicted the two paths of the future: one scorched and one green, one of which the Anishinaabeg would have to choose.

In the time of the Thunder Beings and Underwater Serpents, it was understood that there was a constant balance and a universe beyond this material world that needed to be maintained and to whom we would belong always.

The Anishinaabe people, among other land-based peoples, undulate between these worlds. The light of day, the deepness of night remain; the parallel planes of spirit and material world coexist in perpetuity. All remains despite the jackhammer of industrial civilization, the sound of combustion engines, and the sanitized white of a dioxin-bleached day. That was then, but that is also now. Teachings, ancient as the people who have lived on a land for five millennia, speak of a set of relationships to all that is around, predicated on respect, recognition of the interdependency of all beings, an understanding of humans’ absolute need to be reverent and to manage our behavior, and an understanding that this relationship must be reaffirmed through lifeways and through acknowledgment of the sacred.

Chris Peters, a Pohik-la from northern California discusses the distinction between Native spiritual practices and Judeo-Christian traditions as having different paradigms. Native spiritual practices are "affirmation-based religions," while Judeo-Christian religious systems are "commemorative religions," in terms of a broad definition.  Native American religious and spiritual practices are often based on the re-affirmation of the relationship of the human to the Creation. Native oral traditions often tell of the place of the "little brother" (ie: the humans) in the larger Creation, and consequently, our need to be continuously thankful for our part in Creation, the gifts are given to us by the Creator is always underscored. These teachings are reinforced in Midewiwin lodges, Sundance ceremonies, world renewal ceremonies and many others.

We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present.

Haudenosaunee Teaching

Judeo-Christian teachings and events frequently commemorate a set of historic events: Easter, Christmas, Passover, Hannukah, as examples within two of the dominant religious practices in the world.  The difference in the paradigms of these spiritual practices has, over time, become a source of great conflict in the Americas. The history of religious colonialism, including the genocide perpetrated by the Catholic Church (particularly in Latin America), is a wound from which Native communities have not yet healed. And, the notion that other non-Christian spiritual practices could have validity was entirely ignored for centuries. Consequently, while there may be some "sacred sites" in Judeo-Christian tradition, ie: for instance, the "holy land," the existence of other "holy lands" has been denied.

In the midst of this time, land-based peoples work to continue such a lifeway, or to follow simply the original instructions passed on by Gichi Manidoo, the Creator, or those who instruct us. This path often is littered with the threats of a fossil-fuel and nuclear economy: a uranium mine, a big dam project, or the Tar Sands. People work to restore or retain their relationship to a sacred place and to a world. In many places, peoples hold Earth renewal ceremonies, for example, or water healing ceremonies. In an Indigenous philosophical view, these ceremonies are how we are able to continue.

There is a place on the shore of Lake Superior, or Gichi Gummi, where the Giant laid down to sleep. There is a place in Zuni's alpine prairie, where the Salt Woman moved, and hoped to rest. There is a place in the heart of Lakota territory where the people go to vision quest, and remember the children who ascended from there to the sky, and became the Pleiades. There is a place known as the Falls of a Woman's Hair, which is the epicenter of a salmon culture. And there is a mountain upon which the Anishinaabeg rested during their migration, and looked back to find the place they were instructed to go by their prophets.

Born of a doctrine of discovery, terra nullius, and a papal-driven entitlement to vanquish and destroy that which was Indigenous, America was framed in the mantra of Manifest Destiny. This settler-focused relationship to this North American continent has been historically one of conquest, of utilitarian relationship, of an anthropocentric taking of wealth to make more things for empire. That society has named and claimed things: one mountain after another (Mt. Rainier, Harney Peak, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Lassen, Pikes Peak) all named, and claimed, for empire. Naming and claiming with a flag does not mean relationship; it means only naming and claiming. Americans have developed a sense of place related to empire, with no understanding that the Holy Land is also here. To name sacred mountain spirits after mortal men, who blow through for just a few decades, is to denude relationship.

Americans are also transient, taught an American dream of greener pastures elsewhere. This too belittles relationship to place. It holds no responsibility, only a sense of entitlement—to mineral rights, water rights, and private property—enshrined in the constitution.

In the times we find ourselves, with the crashing of ecosystems, dying out of fish and trees, change and destabilization of climate, our relationship to place and to relatives—whether they have fins or roots—merits reconsideration.

The Wounded Knee Massacre of l890 occurred in large part because of the fear of the Ghost Dance Religion which had spread into the Lakota nation. Hundreds of Lakota and other Native spiritual leaders were sent to the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians in present day Canton, South Dakota, just for their spiritual beliefs. (Individuals were often sent to the asylum on the request of the Indian Agent, as "malcontents" who adhered to native traditions, or were in a quarrel with the Indian agent. From there, very few would ever return. (Bradley and Jennifer Soule) Native Voice, "Death at the Hiawatha Asylum for Insane Indians," February b7-2l, Volume 2, Issue, 3. Rapid City, SD, page B3.)

So it was by necessity that Native spiritual practitioners went deep into the woods, or into the heartland of their territory to keep up their traditions, always knowing that their job was to keep alive their instructions, and, hence, their way of life.


The White Man's Law and the Sacred

In l978, some 200 years after the American Constitution guaranteed freedom of religion for most Americans, Congress passed the American Indian Religious Freedom Act and President Carter signed it into law. Although the act contains worthy language which seems to reflect the founder's concepts of religious liberty, it has few teeth. The act states that "It shall be the policy of the United States to protect and preserve for American Indians their inherent right of freedom to believe, express, and exercise the traditional religions of the American Indian, Eskimo, Aleut and native Hawaiians, including but not limited to access to sites, use and possession of sacred objects, and the freedom to worship through ceremonials and traditional rites."

While the law insured that Native people could hold many of their ceremonies (although Native American church ceremonies remained challenged), it did not insure the protection of the places where many of these ceremonial practices would take place, or the protection of that needed for the ceremonies, ie: the salt from the sacred Salt Mother for Zuni ceremonies, the salmon from the Columbia River for Columbia River Tribes, or the sanctity of these places from desecration whether by rock climbers or bulldozers.

The Religious Freedom Act was underscored with Clinton's l996 Executive Order l3007, for preservation of sacred sites. "In managing federal lands, each executive branch agency with statutory or administrative responsibility for the management of Federal lands shall ... avoid adversely affecting the physical integrity of such sacred sites." Those protections were applied to lands held by the federal government, not by private interests, although many sacred sites advocates have urged compliance by other landholders to the spirit and intent of the law.

Dr. Henrietta Mann is a Northern Cheyenne woman, and chair of the Native American Studies Department at Montana State University. She reiterates the significance of the natural world to Native spiritual teaching:

"Over the time we have been here, we have built cultural ways on and about this land. We have our own respected versions of how we came to be. These origin stories -- that we emerged or fell from the sky or were brought forth -- connect us to this land and establish our realities, our belief systems. We have spiritual responsibilities to renew the Earth and we do this throughout Ceremonies so that our Mother, the Earth can continue to support us. Mutuality and respect are part of our tradition -- give and take. Somewhere along the way, I hope people will learn that you can't just take, that you have to give back to the land."

So, we have a problem of two separate spiritual paradigms, and one dominant culture. Make that a dominant culture with an immense appetite for natural resources. The exponential growth of the U.S. economy for two centuries was largely related to the expropriation of Native American lands and resources, as colonialism would be replaced with neo-colonialism. But each step of the way requiring more land and natural resources to feed the growing industrial infrastructure.

The United States consumes a third of the world's resources, and to create that level of consumption, a significant level of production had to occur, much of it from Native people's lands. By the l930s, the Native land base had been reduced to 52 million acres, or about 4 percent of our original land base. Indeed, we saw some 90 million acres taken by the federal government from Native people just from l889-l934, and within all of those takings, more than 75 percent of our sacred sites would be removed from our care and jurisdiction.

If 57 percent of the energy produced in the US is wasted through inefficiencies, one might want to become less wasteful to survive. And if two-thirds of our material-based economy ends up in waste dumps relatively quickly, we may want to cut our consumption. These are economic choices, political choices, and personal choices. And they ultimately have to do with empire, the need for new frontiers, and making peace, omaa akiing, here on this land.

In the din of crashing worlds, it is possible to watch and breathe. In the 2012 deluge of the city of Duluth, rain fell constantly for two days onto the streets of a city with aging infrastructure. The Anishinaabeg remember a great flood from the earliest of memories, after which the world was made anew. The Anishinaabeg watched the flood from our reservations, an island safely away from this deluge and crash.  A polar bear is freed by the Duluth deluge from the zoo, escaping his pen. As the bear headed north from the Duluth Zoo, we Anishinaabeg knew that the time was changing. We watched and we understood that we, as sacred beings in this millennium, have an opportunity to do a righteous and pono thing—to take a good path.

In the time of Thunder Beings and Underwater Serpents, the humans, animals, and plants conversed and carried on lives of mischief, wonder, and mundane tasks. The prophets told of times ahead, explained the deluge of past and predicted the two paths of the future: one scorched and one green, one of which the Anishinaabeg would have to choose.

All of us have the same choice, and somewhere in this time, there is the potential to take a right path.

The above is from “In the Time of the Sacred Places”,  Winona LaDuke’s contribution to the anthology, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee; and “Is it sacred enough?” by Winona LaDuke, also available online at:

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