Sacred Objects and Sacred Places

  • Book cover of "Sacred Objects and Sacred Places"

  "When Col. John M. Chivington and his drunken troops killed Cheyenne Indians in the infamous dawn massacre at Sand Creek, Colo.," writes Andrew Gulliford in Sacred Objects and Sacred Places, "the troops also cut off their victims' heads for shipment to Washington, D.C." There, the severed heads were used in attempts to establish a racial hierarchy based on skull capacity.

Last November, President Clinton established a national historic site at Sand Creek, formally commemorating the 1864 massacre's sad place in American history. But a much more difficult job awaits Indians trying to reassemble the pieces of their tribes' shattered histories.

Gulliford's book explores "the ways in which Native Americans seek to preserve tribal traditions and a sense of Indian identity after decades of misguided federal attempts to force them into the cultural mainstream." Gulliford investigates the efforts Indians are making to memorialize sites like Sand Creek, repatriate their ancestors' remains from museums for reburial, return artifacts to Indian museums, and preserve sacred places and landscapes like the New Mexico pueblos and the famous Bighorn Medicine Wheel.

Gulliford points out that the effort to preserve traditional cultures isn't as simple as returning pots to the reservations. He describes how attempts to rekindle living Indian traditions, like the gray whale hunt by the Makah tribe in Washington, have met with fierce opposition from some environmental groups. He also says that a far more daunting challenge awaits. "Indian culture has traditionally been passed down orally," he reminds us, "with language serving as a storehouse of craft, culture, and religion." For many of the tribes, only a handful of whose members still speak their native dialects, there is precious little time left to preserve the original languages.

Sacred Objects and Sacred Places: Preserving Tribal Traditions, by Andrew Gulliford, University Press of Colorado, 2000. Paperback: $29.95, 204 pages plus bibliography and appendix; numerous black-and-white photographs.

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