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Protecting 'important messages': A solstice gathering

WASHINGTON - Suzan Shown Harjo and her late husband got to know John Lennon over music, and later got him (it wasn't hard) to provide great and more or less below-the-radar assistance to Native causes. She knew the late news reporter Tim Russert too, and thanked ''our Irish Catholic friend'' June 20 for keeping tribes out of trouble from time to time, and for knowing when not to advertise the trouble. And on other occasions past counting, in Washington and out through Indian country, she has often seemed to know something no one else really does that makes all the difference, or to say something already known as no one else could.

For just some fleeting moments on the solstice morning of June 20, with the sun seemingly stilled in its passage for a summer minute that we can now know by the clock (previous cultures waited for a range of days), it seemed that maybe Harjo had channeled Merlin as well, who tutored a legendary king in the plants and wingeds and four-leggeds until, flying as a bird, Arthur could look down on a world without borders and conceive of a social circle - a Round Table that might have been a village in prior Native tradition.

The circle only seemed smaller June 20, as Harjo's Morning Star Institute hosted a Native Sacred Places gathering. Some two dozen people gathered for prayers and testimonials to the need for protecting Native sacred places. Consultant Mary Phillips of Laguna Pueblo and the Omaha brought the sage that burned in a bowl at the circle's center, sweetening the air while people spoke. Eli Painted Crow of Turtle Woman Rising played a drum and sang a soft song as her testimonial, Robert Willasch sent out a Robert Tree Cody tune on a cedar flute only finished late the night before, Suanne Ware-Diaz of the United Methodist Church and others beside her spoke of family as a sacred place too, and Barry Glotfelty of the Maryland Department of the Environment brought his family on general principle. And toward the end of the day's first gathering, Cinda Hughes, the first Native Ms. Wheelchair America and well-known policy stalwart at the National Congress of American Indians, motored the bright red of her blouse across the evergreen lawn of the west front U.S. Capitol grounds, under a light blue sky. She apologized for being tardy and Harjo said, ''But you're right on time.''

Harjo, of course, would be the first to say the gathering was about far more than anything she could say. But here is some of what she said:

''This is the circle where we pray to come here, and try to spend the day thinking of the things that we've prayed about. And we've come here for the sacred places, whether they're water places or land places or places where our ancestors are, places where the water families live ... and all of the beings that come there in the whole chain of life.

''And we're a part of that, even though we don't really see it on a daily basis ... we're part of that cycle of telling people what's important about these places, why they are to be protected, why they are in need of being protected. ...

''Some of our places have to be renewed. ... There is one place ... wetlands, where they haven't seen otters for a hundred years, and today there are otters back, because people have been praying for the places and have been reconstructing the wetlands ...

''And they're [wetlands] growing new life, all sorts of new life. Our beautiful National Museum of the American Indian down the road, the minute they put the water in the pond, life came ... So we have a way of reminding people that work in this area [Washington] that we really need to look at all things that are Native as precious - all of these traditional things, the ancient things. Not the latest trends but the ancient things, the things that have come through time as a result of our people trying out different things over many, many centuries, and finally getting it right.

''We have to go to our places where our ancestors sent messages to us.

''We're the coming generation that our ancestors were painting, and scratching, etching, writing to us with their wisdom. And those places are being covered up with graffiti and pounded down for development.

''Those places that still exist, the grandmothers up in Canada have called for all of us to take sage and to cleanse those places, get them free of the graffiti [of] all the people who have hurt them - that that's what we need to do with those holy rocks. ... Those are important messages from our ancestors, even if we don't know what they mean. Maybe our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will know what they mean.''