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Special Edition: Sacred places central to ceremonial life of Indian country

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The disrespect for Native American culture found a brief respite in the 1980s but by the turn of the century it seemed the same old disregard reappeared.

In California recently, the legislature voted down an effort to protect sacred sites. That the vote was very close (three votes) is evidence that Native leadership takes the issue seriously and is pursuing it vigorously, despite the many hurdles put up by the states, the federal government and all manner of disgruntled would-be American patriots who maintain that relationships between human society and special places is anachronistic, and either silly or dangerous.

Such is the mindset in the general society about Indians these days. It is true enough that Indians face many critical issues. But everything is predicated on a proper carrying forward of the understanding of fundamental Native culture. In the California legislative battle, it became obvious that politicians were fearful of confronting businesses well-organized against the bill. These enlisted a veritable army of lobbyists who squeezed the politicians on behalf of powerful developers. As Jacob Coin points out in his excellent column this issue, "opponents spent over $300,000 on a public relations campaign that included numerous articles and op-ed pieces in newspapers from one end of the state to the other."

In Washington state, the Snoqualmie are struggling toward the decommissioning of a hydroelectric facility that desecrates much more than it produces electricity - assaulting "the place of creation for our Puget Sound Natives," according to Lois Sweet Dorman.

No doubt tribal peoples will persist in this issue of protecting sacred sites. The Earth is sacred and ancient prayer places are sacred in themselves. In the tribal cultural context of many Native peoples, the ancient connections and accompanying ceremonies for particular places are still practiced and upheld. The situation of Quechan people in defending their Indian Pass, an area abundant in ceremonial and funereal sites is notable. Promised relief for their sacred area, now mining concerns have been given the go-ahead by the Bush Administration's Interior Secretary Gale Norton. The Quechan vow to keep fighting. In a more contemporary context, a location or eco-system, such as the Haskell Wetlands, can become new places of worship and have cultural significance layered upon their seasons by new needs and uses that infuse the relationship with spiritual meaning.

There truly exists a different sense of place among Native cultures. The Earth herself, because of her ability to bring forth life, is largely thought of as the most sacred of places in the Universe, as contrasted to the spirit world or the places of the dead, where eternity or long-count time recedes from the vibrancy and warmth of life. The eternal memory of connection to the Earth is communicated from one generation to the next through the ongoing ceremonies of the living. Little mystery then that all tribes who have inhabited lands from time immemorial hold special places particularly sacred. For peoples whose languages and cultures formed and whose very creation stories remember particular places - mountain tops, buttes, water sources and river valleys, caves and ridges - addresses and prayers are offered by medicine people. These ancient songs and prayers, in the ancient languages, predate all Christianity on this hemisphere and their ancient orations often contain wonderful teachings about life on this American earth.

Protection of such places, where least disturbance is always better and no disturbance is best, is and needs to be a very serious matter. For those tribes engaged in struggles to protect their sacred lands, we offer our most heartfelt support. It is one of the essential issues; the distinct and Aboriginal connections to the land are crucial. All sovereignty and right of self-government are predicated upon it. Our very identities - the self-worth of our generations - are wrapped up in this reality imbued within our precious indigenous geography.

We second Jacob Coin, as he writes, in these pages, "Our future as indigenous people, as tribal nations, in California and throughout the country, depends very much on what we do today in protecting our culture and religions, our customs and our sacred sites."

We also extend our sincere gratitude to Suzan Shown Harjo for her genuine and passionate commitment to this cause and to the making of this special edition of Indian Country Today.