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Sacred sites and the 'Concentrated will' of the West

When Anglo-European cultures go on spiritual quests, they almost always reach back to some kind of pre-Christian age, conditioned as they are by Adam and Eve to distinguish between sacred and profane time - from the Creation to the Fall, and thereafter.

Always in ancient examples - whether the Brythonic Celts of Victorian England, the Saxon forest "uber" folk of Nazi Germany, the noble Romans of revivalist Italy or the "first Christians" of a thousand unchurched U.S. assemblies - these seekers have discovered untainted ways and tried to emulate them. After that, their thinking generally goes - after that period of early grace came a Fall, and with it impure practices, condemned pathways leading down to a present fit for healing and correction.

In building a present case for these past glories, most such movements will find a shrine and invest it with some form of ancient "concentrated will" that contemporaries can seize upon, add to and share. So it is with Glastonbury.

Glastonbury is the cradle of the pre-Christian Celtic revival in all its forms, but countless other repositories of "concentrated will" abound. Rome, Jerusalem and the so-called Holy Lands, the Pyramids and Alexandria, Athens and the isle of Delos, the Black Forest and the Black Madonna, Lourdes and St. James at Santiago de Compostela, Stonehenge ? these and a host of other shrines offer physical evidences of faith to Western cultures that are faltering in their "concentrated will" toward any defining faith.

Yet here is why all "New Age" spiritualities and shrine-mongering religious movements ring so out-of-true; they are so evidently "born to our desire" for a faith that transcends the material fixations of the West that they can't maintain credibility.

Even in America, which as a supposed "blank slate" in the minds of its colonists might have brought about that "City on a Hill" of Christian spirit ? even here the shrine-minded won out, and how: our shrines are mountainous, masses of cliff and stone, marble, granite or steel ? Rushmore, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, the Grand Coulee Dam and Golden Gate Bridge ?

These and so much else bespeak America's inherited "obsession with visible possession, with self-inscription, with cutting the mountain heights to the scale of the human head" (as scholar Simon Schama has it in "Landscape and Memory").

Here too is why Native sacred sites are so hard to protect. Their sacred element isn't legible. They don't register as sacred with the colonial power; they register if at all, it seems, as inconveniences and sometimes standing insults to progress, the American faith of faiths.

The urge to use sacred sites as a vehicle for Indians to inscribe themselves on their own landscapes, to possess them as a visible signal of faith unseen ? none of this has any place in Native culture. Consider only this: Crazy Horse's people were content to dispose of his remains in secret on the land he walked. We have only a Westernized bias to suggest they buried him; perhaps they raised his spirit on a scaffold to the four winds, which also took his remains. In any case, what could be further from that, or more American, than to carve his imaginary likeness on a mountainside?

The fundamental spiritual motion of Indian culture is respect before Creation, and within it. The best way to express this unseen spiritual disposition in faith is to disown the self-aggrandizement inherent in "cutting the mountain heights to the scale of the human head" ? to de-concentrate the will within the scale of encompassing nature.

For countless centuries, this disowning - this de-concentration of the will as the West would understand it - took place in such a way as to mingle living spirits and last remains with landscape and sky, water and fire, wind, rain and snow.

The tobacco ceremonies express it well: simply considered, they offer a substance useful for human purposes for refinement by fire into smoke first and then air - the essential element, the "without this nothing" of breath itself - before any human use across many Native cultures. Similarly, many other Native cultures ceremonially disown any human use of their great providers - corn, salmon, buffalo, taro, the bear and horse medicines to name but a few - before a spiritual provenance is recognized.

The Native creation mythologies express it equally well, this disowning, not as fact but as a more important mythic core: in story after story, Native people come from the earth, from within it, from being a part of it into being the human part of it, not as an imposition from on high looking to likewise impose itself, and not as an artifact set apart; but as a part of the whole. These mostly oral histories posit no sacred or profane time, but an ancestral time that extends through history into the present, again as part of the whole.

So do the Thunder Beings express it well to our perception, rolling across the sky in an unlooked-for landslip, as it were, of subdued rumbling as a spirit is released in an ancient language whose only known syllables for most of us amount to the very name that is now spirit ? And if the ground around the fire is floored with sage leaves, emulating the fronds of Palm Sunday and offering the fond thought that a departing spirit's feet should not touch this earth, being no longer of it ? Well, it would be strange indeed, after centuries of dire coercion, if Native spirituality had not adapted to a few gestures from the West.

Another, more practical adaptation is to know that law must be written to protect sacred Native sites from Westernized interests intent on commerce and other practical uses, more or less blind to realms of the sacred, and most certainly estranged from any thought that Native sacred sites are not sacred because they are shrine-worthy but because they bear ancestral flesh and breath, because they conjure ceremonies that form a culture and would perish with it without occasions to call them forth.

Accordingly, law is being written by Indian people to truly protect their sacred sites. At the core of the bill-in-progress, informing any final version, will be a list of essential elements that must be included in some form, and another list of objectionable elements that must be excluded, according to Suzan Shown Harjo of Morningstar Institute in Washington, one of the bill's leading advocates. The hope is that the bill will amend the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, providing teeth for enforcement of the act's provisions when Native sacred places come under siege.

A full review of the bill-in-progress, as well as briefer mention of other congressional efforts that are in the works to protect Native sacred places, can be found in the online article for Aug. 8 entitled "Cause of action sought in Religious Freedom Act additions" at www.indiancountry.com. The same article can be found in the paper edition of Indian Country Today (Vol. 23 Iss 9).