PAWHUSKA, Okla. - Forty members of tribes from across the state of Oklahoma gathered at the Jeannie Garfield Gray Native American Church grounds in Pawhuska in observance of the National Days of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places June 20. Participants representing the Osage, Choctaw, Shawnee, Creek, Sac & Fox, Cherokee and Potawatomi nations converged on the site to engage in a day of prayer, perform upkeep on the grounds and share a meal.
As part of a series of national events coordinated by the Morning Star Institute, the Oklahoma gathering was held to call attention to the importance of preserving and protecting Native sacred sites there and to pray for the end of racism. The event was sponsored by the Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism and the Redstick Vision Keepers organization.
Louis Gray, TICAR president and a founder of the organization, said the annual event is usually held in Tulsa, a community that is home to Osage, Creek and Cherokee people. This year, however, the event was held in Pawhuska in Osage country.
Under the direction of Osage Roadman Andrew Gray Jr., participants erected a tipi in which he conducted a cedaring ceremony and officiated over the recitation of prayers. ''I am humbled and grateful for the assistance,'' he said. He also marveled over the diversity of the intertribal gathering.
In addition to the prayers and grounds work, participants shared a meal served by the TICAR youth coalition.
Native religions are historically land-based. For this reason, sacred sites are often the focus of a particular tribe's creation stories and oral histories. Without them, this essential information, which is passed down from generation to generation, may be forgotten. Protecting sacred sites is critical in order to preserve Native culture for future generations.
One of the sites the group focused on during the day's prayers is the Ocmulgee Oil Fields, a ceremonial and burial ground in the state of Georgia. The site, which is located in the historic homeland of the Muscogee Creeks, is listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a traditional cultural property. Nevertheless, it is also listed as one of the most endangered historic places, threatened by a state highway project.
Both TICAR and the Redstick Vision Keepers work to raise awareness about sacred sites and their need for protection. The Redstick Vision Keepers are devoted to the environmental preservation of Native communities through garden projects. In 2007, Redstick Vision Keepers member Ben Yahola, Muskogee Creek, shared his expertise on sacred sites at the 13th annual Wisdom of the Elders conference in Marion, Ky.
According to Louis Gray, TICAR was founded eight years ago in response to the mascot issue at Union High School in Tulsa. Since then, the organization that has expanded its focus to other issues, including sacred sites preservation. ''There are certain special places within this country that have been set aside by Native people,'' he said. ''When you enter them, you must respect them and recognize how important and sacred they are. It is our duty to clean up the Earth and take care of it.''
Gray said TICAR has been active in the fight against racism and violations of Native legal and civil rights in Oklahoma.
''We have made a concerted effort to stop the use of stereotypes and mascots; we have been concerned with immigration policies and laws, and acted as a host organization for the 2003 Amnesty International field hearings on racial profiling here in the state,'' he pointed out. ''Through our work, we also hope to encourage the state's tribal governments to establish civil rights legislation in order to address the many violations of Native civil rights here in Oklahoma.''
He believes that prayer is a powerful way to show concerns and to affect change.
''Prayer works. If it wasn't for prayer, Indian people wouldn't exist anymore. We have been the targets of one of the largest genocidal movements in history. They tried to wipe us out, but we are still here mainly because of our prayers. We are living examples of how prayer works.''
National Days of Prayer observances held across the country included religious ceremonies as well as educational discussions. The Pawhuska event included some of both.
''This was a most important event,'' Gray added. ''Our sacred sites are rapidly disappearing and it's up to us to do all we can to help preserve and protect them. Setting aside a day of prayer is a wonderful way for us to get involved. It reminds us about the need to recommit to our spirituality in order to successfully address our common problems.''