How do you define sacred?

  • Comanche Gap sacred site in New Mexico

    Steve Collector

Note: this essay appeared in this issue alongside the feature story.

When it comes to sacred sites, what land managers need is a centralized, disciplined Native American counterpart who could cut a deal, sell it to his or her fellow tribal members and enforce it. In other words, the Park Service needs the Vatican, or the Hezbollah. Instead, it is up against the gloriously disorganized and always disputatious Indian community of the late 20th century.

Indians are, inconveniently, rarely of one mind about anything. Most discussions about spirituality begin with false assumptions. It's rarely acknowledged, for example, that vast numbers of Indian people, perhaps even a majority, identify themselves as Christians.

Or that our beliefs and oral histories, crucial to assigning special importance to a place, are frequently in conflict. The beautiful stories I have heard about Devils Tower or the Paha Sapa take on a different cast if you are a tribe displaced by the Sioux. Today, some Lakota Sioux say that they have always been in the Black Hills. This is not only counter to conventional U.S. history and Western anthropology, but counter to traditional stories and oral histories of the Ojibwe and others, which record how they were evicted from the hills by the despised Sioux.

Definitions of traditional Indian spirituality are many. Take sweat lodges. I know lots of Indians and right-thinking white people who believe it is terribly wrong for non-Indians to take part in sweat lodges, and have contempt for the New Agers who do so. It is true there are lots of fakes and sellouts who open ceremonies to whites for money, but there are also many Indians who genuinely believe the sweat lodge is for everyone. Others invite only members of their tribe.

What uniformity exists rarely resembles the popular image of the Traditionals vs. the Sellouts. It is rather a far more nuanced tapestry of traditional leaders deeply influenced by Christianity, as well as by Christians who attend sweat lodges, and lots of Indians who don't take part in any organized religion.

The truth is that our spirituality, or at least its public role, cannot be divorced from the political arguments we are having with each other. Sometimes the local community is united and of one voice; more often, it is not.

The management of sacred sites is also complicated by the fact that non-Indians also revere these sites.

When the time came for director John Ford to choose locations for movies that explore American ideas of freedom and responsibility, he chose, inevitably, the magical, spooky landscapes of the interior West. Ford, a Catholic born in Ireland, was a man of both great faith and great patriotism. His films were often set inside the cathedral the mapmakers call Monument Valley.

Decades after Ford made his last film, another pop genius, Steven Spielberg, a Jew from Arizona, would choose another shrine for a movie backdrop. Devils Tower became the rendezvous point between aliens and an ordinary, hardworking American - a utility repairman played by Richard Dreyfuss in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.

Most Americans might not be aware of it consciously, but I think they know perfectly well that it is in Western landscapes that we find our Dome of the Rock, our Notre Dame, our Wailing Wall. It helps explain why American attics are filled with generations of ancient, faded black-and-white photographs, yellowing Instamatic color prints, Super 8 home movies, and high-band videos of desert canyons.

But we are not conventionally pious in our approach to the landscape. Look at how Richard Dreyfuss used mashed potatoes to make a replica of Devils Tower for a movie about flying saucers - something that has never happened to the Sistine Chapel.

Americans have always had their own way of doing things.

Complications aside, most people instinctively behave with deference when they visit holy places. They understand that concept and at least try to lower their voices when they walk into a Buddhist temple or St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York.

In the fall of 1995, while on honeymoon in Hawaii, my wife and I peered into a volcano. It was somewhat active, but said not to be too dangerous at the moment. The volcano was a mountain that rose from the rain forest, and to get there you drove across a moonscape of black and gray rock. Just beyond the guardrail that kept us from stumbling through the lunar rocks into the lava fields below, I noticed a small bottle of Jack Daniels attached to a note. Next to the flask were cigarettes and loose tobacco.

On the way down I read a Park Service sign explaining that the volcano has religious significance for many native Hawaiians. One way they demonstrate this, the sign explained, is by leaving offerings. Without saying so exactly, the park authorities made clear that if you were not a native Hawaiian they would not look kindly on any offerings you might want to offer. This solution seemed as perfect as could be hoped for. Common sense prevailed.

Not all answers will come so easily. But the good news is that controversies that defy simple resolution can sometimes push all of us to a deeper understanding of the complexity that comes with living here, now.

We should welcome arguments about religion, laws and cartography. The breathtaking land we share scoffs at easy answers. It asks us to work hard, to think, to study - even if we'd rather not.

Paul Chaat Smith is a Comanche who writes from Washington, D.C. His first book, Like a Hurricane: The Indian Movement from Alcatraz to Wounded Knee, co-authored with Robert Allen Warrior, appears in paperback this summer.

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