Harjo: Prayers to protect Salt Mother and sacred places

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The Salt River Project, an Arizona utility company, announced this week that it would relocate its coal strip mine from a sacred place near the Zuni Reservation in New Mexico to the Powder River Basin in Wyoming.

The 18,000-acre mine would have been sited 10 miles from the Zuni Salt Lake, home to Ma'lokyattsik'i Salt Mother, causing her disappearance over time. Project plans included a 44-mile railroad corridor that would have destroyed shrines, burial grounds and pilgrimage trails used for millennia by Zuni and other Native people.

The Zuni Tribe tried to stop the Bureau of Land Management from permitting the project since the 1980s, but Interior approved the mine plan 14 months ago.

Since then, Zuni has organized spiritual runs, publicity campaigns and political pressure on the power company's investors. The National Trust for Historic Preservation also listed Zuni Salt Lake as one of its 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2003.

It is not known what won the day and caused the Salt River Project to abandon its plans in New Mexico. The project said it was moving north to Wyoming because the coal is cheaper and cleaner there.

The Zuni Tribe has tried for half a century to reshape its boundaries to include Zuni Salt Lake, which was wrongfully excluded from their reservation lands as part of the federal government's goal to stop Zuni religious ceremonies there.

The late-Robert E. Lewis, the long-time Zuni Governor, worked valiantly to protect Zuni Salt Lake, but enactment of congressional legislation proved beyond his reach. This is a good time to remember Lewis, who was a giant in the movement of the 1960s and 1970s for American Indian religious freedom, sacred sites protection and cultural use of eagle and migratory bird feathers.

Lewis liked to point to Zuni's red sentinel rocks and to imagine that he would take his place with his ancestors there to watch over the Zuni people. I have no doubt that he is there and had a hand in the Salt River Project's change of plans.

Zuni Salt Lake and all the other endangered sacred places were remembered in myriad locations on the June 20 National Day of Prayer to Protect Native American Sacred Places.

Cal Seciwa (Zuni), director of the American Indian Institute at Arizona State University, organized the activities in Phoenix with Tupac Enrique Acosta at the Nahaucalli Indigenous Peoples Embassy. Seciwa then traveled home for Zuni summer solstice ceremonies.

Zuni Salt Lake was at the top of the list of endangered sacred places prepared by the Haskell Indian Nations University and the Lawrence, Kan. community for their observance at the Haskell-Baker Wetlands, which is being threatened by an Army Corps of Engineers-approved highway construction project.

A Prayer Day observance was held at the State Capitol in Sacramento, Calif., for Medicine Lake, Burney Falls, Quechan Indian Pass, Klamath River and all the sacred places under attack in California and elsewhere.

The Tulsa Indian Coalition Against Racism organized Prayer Day activities in Tulsa, Okla., and Muscogee Redstick Vision Keepers conducted a Sacred Sites Fire Blessing and Offering and a Tobacco and Water Blessing for Sacred Mother Earth.

Reflecting on the list of places where Prayer Day observances were to be held, Ben Yahola (Muscogee), said, "All these people gathering in all these places to pray for our holy places to be safe - big things will happen because of this."

Prayer Day commemorations were conducted at the Morning Star House in Albuquerque, N.M.; at the Native American Rights Fund in Boulder, Colo.; at the annual convention site of the Native American Journalists Association in Oneida Territory, Green Bay, Wis.; at Stommish at Lummi Nation, Wash.; at Columbus Park in Omaha, Neb.; and at the American Indian Community House in New York City.

A Thanksgiving for sacred places was offered in Victor, N.Y., at Ganondagan, the former capitol of the Seneca Nation and the burial place of Jikonhsaseh (Mother of Nations), who worked with the Peacemaker to unite the original five nations of the Haudenosaunee (Iroquois Confederacy) under the message of Peace.

Prayers were offered at many sacred places, including Bear Butte, Black Hills, Hickory Ground, Jemez Mountain, Ocmulgee Old Fields, Picuris Mountain, San Antonio Mountain, Snoqualmie Falls, Taos Mountain and Ute Mountain, as well as at sacred places along the Columbia, Mississippi, Missouri and Rio Grande rivers.

Ceremonies were conducted the following day throughout Indian country, including an honoring for sacred sites worldwide that is conducted annually by Chief Arvol Looking Horse (Cheyenne River Sioux), 19th Generation Keeper of the Sacred White Buffalo Calf Bundle.

The circle in Washington, D.C., included Joyce Bear (Muscogee Sweet Potato Clan), representing Muscogee (Creek) Nation in its effort to protect the Ocmulgee Old Fields, Hickory Ground and other sacred places; Carrie Dann (Western Shoshone), who has led the struggle since the 1960s to protect Shoshone lands in Nevada; and representatives of the Medicine Wheel Coalition, Steve Brady Sr. (Northern Cheyenne Crazy Dogs Society), Francis Brown (Northern Arapaho) and George Sutton (Southern Cheyenne).

People gathered on the West Lawn of the U.S. Capitol, despite rain and floods throughout the region. Just when it seemed that daylight would not be able to break through the gray sky, the sun rose over the Capitol, bathing the people in sunrays. The bronze Statue of Freedom in her eagle headdress on top of the Capitol dome looked for all the world like a Native person blessing everyone and everything below.

I don't know what mighty songs they were singing in Phoenix or at Zuni, but the powerful Muscogee closing song that Joyce Bear sang at the Capitol is called, "How Happy Are They." She translates part of the song this way:

"The people are happy. They listen to the Creator. Their thoughts are on a better place. Their tongues cannot tell how happy they are. The Creator is inside of them and belongs to them. The Creator raises them on love wings and sins are forgiven. My spirit rises and I am lightened. This place is good, sacred."

Suzan Shown Harjo, Cheyenne and Hodulgee Muscogee, is president of the Morning Star Institute in Washington, D.C., and a columnist for Indian Country Today.