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Renewing the Sacred and the Importance of Place

Many tribal nations perform ceremonies at sacred places that are not on their reservations. Do Indians have spiritual claims to their ancient lands?

Many tribal nations remember and perform ceremonies at sacred places that are not on their reservations. Do Indians have any spiritual claims to their ancient lands? Is it possible for Indian people to restore their spiritual relations to lands no longer within their legal and political control? Despite the U.S. government’s legal claims to land off reservations, Indian nations continue to believe they are bound by religious tradition to provide stewardship to all the land bestowed upon them by the creator.

In a deep spiritual sense, land is part of the cosmic give and take within which Indigenous Peoples live and carry out their personal and collective national spiritual goals. Land was sacred and holy, and, in many worldviews, a gift and responsibility. When Indian peoples occupied their spiritual and national territories, they maintained reciprocal relations with the spiritual powers of the land and cosmic order. Exchange, reciprocity, respect, and ceremonial communication were means to engender and maintain healthy relations with the spirit peoples.

In contemporary times, most U.S. tribal communities, usually owing to government orchestrated removals, are separated from their spiritual territories and places. Sometimes tribal communities remember living at a place hundreds or thousands of years ago. Often when tribal communities were forced to leave their spiritual homelands, they took with them their ceremonial objects. They also carried with them knowledge, memory, respect for their homeland, village places, and other places of significance. While the land is a spiritual gift from the creator to the people, and all is holy or of spiritual significance, in tribal teaching some places are significant because specific spiritual or historical events took place there.

The Cherokee carried their sacred fire with them on the Trail of Tears during the winter of 1838-39 from the east to Indian Territory, in present-day Oklahoma, and relit the flames in their new country. The fire embodied a relation directly to the creator. Fire was a gift from the creator to the Cherokee people. By tradition or through necessity to preserve spiritual tradition, Indian people managed to uphold their spiritual ceremonies, beliefs, and relations to cosmic order.

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While Indian people do not forget that they held traditional territories and carried on specific ceremonies at particular places, can they reclaim or continue to worship on lands legally lost to the United States? The legal hurdles of preserving special sacred sites from development or ecological harm is often very difficult for tribal nations. For many Indian nations, the spiritual realm has more significance than United States law. Indian peoples continue to honor ancient holy sites and lands that have been separated legally from them.

The traditional doctrine, held by many tribes, is that during the course of time, the well being of relations among people, and with spirit powers, decline or are tarnished. Periodically good relations are restored through ceremonies. Annual renewal ceremonies, like the Green Corn Ceremony among many eastern nations, or the Sun Dance, held by many plains peoples, are the means to restoring health, balance, and good relations among the spirit beings and peoples, who are also regarded as spirit beings.

Indian ceremonial ways allow tribal peoples, if they wish to restore spiritual ties to beings and places long separated by time or place. The ceremonies most likely will not be performed exactly in the same manner as before, but the purpose of ceremonies is to show respect, good intentions, uphold obligations, and, when necessary, seek renewal of balanced and harmonious spiritual-cosmic relations through symbolic gift giving. Indian nations seek renewal of spiritual relations with their creator-given lands and places. Indigenous understandings of the spiritual-cosmic governing land and place are not congruent with U.S. law. Indian nations hold the cultural tools to recover and renew spiritual relations with the land and cosmic order, and thereby uphold the spiritual task of stewardship of the land and cosmic relations.