What makes a mountain, hill or prairie a ‘sacred’ place for Native Americans?

July 7, 2017

By Rosalyn LaPier, Visiting Assistant Professor of Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies and Native American Religion, Harvard University, in The Conversation, 2016

Republish for free, online or in print, under Creative Commons license.

A woman holds Pope Francis’ head during his meeting with representatives of indigenous peoples at the Vatican on Feb. 15, 2017. L’Osservatore Romano/Pool Photo via AP

For several months Native American protesters and others have been opposing the building of the Dakota Access Pipeline. The plans for construction pass through sacred land for the Native American tribe, Standing Rock Sioux.

But, within days of taking office, President Donald Trump signed a memorandum supporting the construction of the pipeline. Recently a U.S. federal judge denied a request by tribes to halt construction on the final link of the project.

On Wednesday, however, the protesters appeared to have received support from none other than Pope Francis, a long-time defender of indigenous people’s rights. The pope said indigenous cultures have a right to defend “their ancestral relationship to the Earth.” He added,

“Do not allow those that destroy the Earth, which destroy the environment and the ecological balance, and which end up destroying the wisdom of peoples.”

As a Native American scholar of environmental history and religious studies, I am often asked what Native American leaders mean when they say that certain landscapes are “sacred places” or “sacred sites.”

What makes a mountain, hill or prairie a “sacred” place?

Meaning of sacred spaces

I learned from my grandparents about the sacred areas within Blackfeet tribal territory in Montana and Alberta, which is not far from Lakota tribal territory in the Dakotas.

My grandparents said that sacred areas are places set aside from human presence. They identified two overarching types of sacred place: those set aside for the divine, such as a dwelling place, and those set aside for human remembrance, such as a burial or battle site.

In my forthcoming book “Invisible Reality,” I contemplate those stories that my grandparents shared about Blackfeet religious concepts and the interconnectedness of the supernatural and natural realms.

A member of the Kickapoo tribe of Oklahoma puts up a flag at the State Capitol in Oklahoma City during a protest against the Dakota Access Pipeline. Steve Gooch/AP

My grandparents’ stories revealed that the Blackfeet believe in a universe where supernatural beings exist within the same time and space as humans and our natural world. The deities could simultaneously exist in both as visible and invisible reality. That is, they could live unseen, but known, within a physical place visible to humans.

One such place for the Blackfeet is Nínaiistáko, or Chief Mountain, in Glacier National Park. This mountain is the home of Ksiistsikomm, or Thunder, a primordial deity. My grandparents spoke of how this mountain is a liminal space, a place between two realms.

Blackfeet tribal citizens can go near this sacred place to perceive the divine, but they cannot go onto the mountain because it is the home of a deity. Elders of the Blackfeet tribe believe that human activity, or changing the physical landscape in these places, disrupts the lives of deities. They view this as sacrilegious and a desecration.

A living text

Sacred places, however, are not always set aside from humanity’s use. Some sacred places are meant for constant human interaction.

Anthropologist Keith Basso argued in his seminal work “Wisdom Sits in Places” that one purpose of sacred places was to perfect the human mind. The Western Apache elders with whom Basso worked told him that when someone repeated the names and stories of their sacred places, they were understood as “repeating the speech of our ancestors.”

For these Apache elders, places were not just names and stories – their landscape itself was a living sacred text. As these elders traveled from place to place speaking the names and stories of their sacred text, they told Basso that their minds became more “resilient,” more “smooth” and able to withstand adversity.

The sacredness of the pipeline site

At different national and international venues, Lakota leader Dave Archambault Jr. has stated that the Lakota view the area near the potential construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline as both a “sacred place” and a “burial site,” or as both a place set aside from human presence and a place of human reverence.

A banner protesting the Dakota Access oil pipeline is displayed at an encampment near North Dakota’s Standing Rock Sioux reservation. James MacPherson/AP

Lakota scholar Vine Deloria Jr. described the “sacred stones” in North Dakota in his book “The World We Used to Live In” as having the ability of “forewarning of events to come.”

Deloria described how Lakota religious leaders went to these stones in the early morning to read their messages. Deloria shared the experiences of an Episcopal minister from 1919.

“A rock of this kind was formerly on Medicine Hill near Cannon Ball Sub-station…. Old Indians came to me… and said that the lightning would strike someone in camp that day, for a picture (wowapi) on this holy rock indicated such an event…. And the lightning did strike a tent in camp and nearly killed a woman…. I have known several similar things, equally foretelling events to come, I can not account for it.”

Deloria explained that it was “birds, directed by the spirit of the place, [that] do the actual sketching of the pictures.” The Lakota named this area Ínyanwakagapi for the large stones that served as oracles for their people. The Americans renamed it Cannonball.

Not just Dakota

Historians, anthropologists and religious thinkers continue to learn and write about Native American religious ideas of place. In so doing, they seek to analyze complex religious concepts of transformation and transcendence that these places evoke.

However, despite their contributions to the academic interpretation of religion, these understandings do not often translate into protection of Native American places for their religious significance. As legal scholar Stephen Pevartells us,

“there is no federal statue that expressly protects Indian sacred sites…. in fact, the federal government knowingly desecrates sites.”

A man opposed to the construction of the Thirty Meter Telescope stands outside a base camp near the summit of Mauna Kea on Hawaii’s Big Island. Caleb Jones/AP

In the past year we have seen protests over the potential desecration of sacred places at Mauna Kea in Hawaii (over the construction of another telescope on a sacred volcano), Oak Flats in Arizona (over a potential copper mine on sacred land) and now at Standing Rock in North Dakota.

Lack of understanding of sacredness

William Graham, a former dean of the Harvard Divinity School, wrote that, “Religion… will long continue to be a critical factor in individual, social, and political life around the world, and we need to understand it.”

The intimate connection between landscape and religion is at the center of Native American societies. It is the reason that thousands of Native Americans from across the United States and indigenous peoples from around the world have traveled to the windswept prairies of North Dakota.

But, despite our 200-plus years of contact, the United States has yet to begin to understand the uniqueness of Native American religions and ties to the land. And until this happens, there will continue to be conflicts over religious ideas of land and landscape, and what makes a place sacred.

Editor’s note: This is an updated version of an article first published on Nov. 2, 2016.

Excerpt from https://theconversation.com/why-native-americans-do-not-separate-religion-from-science-75983

Scientists began thinking and writing about how Native Americans understand the natural world in the 20th century. Instead of seeing a conflict between Western science and Native American knowledge, they started thinking about ways to learn how Native Americans addressed environmental and ecological issues differently.

Ecologist Fikret Berkes pointed out these distinctions in his seminal book “Sacred Ecology,” where he noted that both Western and indigenous science can be regarded as “the same general intellectual process of creating order out of disorder.”

Native American traditions blend science and religion. Carling Hale, CC BY-NC-ND

He provided his own research as an example. He stated that the Native Americans he worked with knew far more than he did about aquatic ecological systems, even though he had academic training. He noted their knowledge was both scientific and viewed through a religious lens.

“One important point of difference is that many systems of indigenous knowledge include spiritual or religious dimensions (beliefs) that do not make sense to science…. This is ‘sacred ecology’ in the most expansive, rather than in the scientifically restrictive, sense of the word ‘ecology.’”

Traditional knowledge

Native American scholars are now writing about this blending of science and religion.

Native American scientist Robin Kimmerer, for example, tells her story as a trained botanist learning about Native American worldview in her book “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants.”She describes how she learned words in her native language, Anishinaabe, that explained biological processes better than Western science could in English.

As a Native American scholar, I, too, have spent the past year at the intersection of science and religion at Harvard Divinity School, researching “ethnobotany” and “ethnopharmacology” – the scientific study of the medicinal qualities of plants and Native American belief.

I learned from my grandmother, Annie Mad Plume Wall, who was regarded as a “doctor” on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana, that certain plants were medicine. She understood the ethnopharmacology of plants that were used as analgesics, antibacterials or anti-inflammatory agents. She knew which plants to use when one of her patients was ill.

The knowledge of the medicinal qualities of these plants clearly grew out of a process of observation and experimentation. She learned how to distill the essential elements of a plant to create an extract of its medicinal properties. In fact, her refrigerator was filled with bottles of extracts.

Native Americans believe in a sacred ecology. Here, tribal elder Gordon Yellowman shows several of the tools that he uses in rituals. Nick Oxford/Reuters

However, some of these plants also had mythological stories that spoke of their origin in the supernatural realm. These stories instructed the Blackfeet how to communicate with the plant, to care for it, how to protect its ecosystem, restrict knowledge of the plant and its over-harvesting.

My grandmother believed that a powerful supernatural being, “Ko’komíki’somm,” gave humans certain plants to use as medicine. She also understood, based on their scientific properties, that a plant was indeed a medicine.

Alternative paradigm

It is true that Western science and Native Americans have a complicated history, as the struggle over the Ancient One attests. Anthropologist Chip Colwell discusses in “Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture” that the problem is that the items scientists consider “objects” for study, such as human remains, Native Americans would view through their own worldview, their own belief system.

More recently, there has been a better recognition of the role of indigenous sciences. In 2016, a U.S.-Canada joint statement on Climate, Energy, and Arctic Leadership recognized the importance of both Western science and indigenous science to help solve global issues. It urged that both “science-based approaches” and “indigenous science and traditional knowledge” be incorporated in efforts to both address commercial interests in the Arctic, such as oil and gas development and shipping lanes, and protect the Arctic and its people.

Native American scientists and scholars have also weighed in on this debate. For the March of Science, many Native American scholars, including Kimmerer and myself, have written a declaration of support that states:

“Let us remember that long before western science came to these shores, there were scientists here….Western science is a powerful approach, but it is not the only one. Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm.”

For many Native Americans, like my grandmother, myth and medicine, religion and science, are not viewed as separate, but are interwoven into the fabric of our lives.

**

Indigenous Statement at the March for Science

As original peoples, we have long memories, centuries old wisdom and deep knowledge of this land and the importance of empirical, scientific inquiry as fundamental to the well-being of people and planet.

WESTERN SCIENCE IS A POWERFUL APPROACH, BUT IT IS NOT THE ONLY ONE

Let us remember that long before Western science came to these shores, there were Indigenous scientists here. Native astronomers, agronomists, geneticists, ecologists, engineers, botanists, zoologists, watershed hydrologists, pharmacologists, physicians and more—all engaged in the creation and application of knowledge which promoted the flourishing of both human societies and the beings with whom we share the planet. We give gratitude for all their contributions to knowledge.

Native science supported indigenous culture, governance and decision making for a sustainable future –the same needs which bring us together today.

As we endorse and support the March for Science, let us acknowledge that there are multiple ways of knowing that play an essential role in advancing knowledge for the health of all life. Science, as concept and process, is translatable into over 500 different Indigenous languages in the U.S. and thousands world-wide.

Western science is a powerful approach, but it is not the only one.

Indigenous science provides a wealth of knowledge and a powerful alternative paradigm by which we understand the natural world and our relation to it.

Embedded in cultural frameworks of respect, reciprocity, responsibility and reverence for the earth, Indigenous science lies within a worldview where knowledge is coupled to responsibility and human activity is aligned with ecological principles and natural law, rather than against them. We need both ways of knowing if we are to advance knowledge and sustainability.

We acknowledge and honor our ancestors and draw attention to the ways in which Indigenous communities have been negatively impacted by the misguided use of Western scientific research and institutional power. Our communities have been used as research subjects, experienced environmental racism, extractive industries that harm our homelands and have witnessed Indigenous science and the rights of Indigenous peoples dismissed by institutions of Western science.

Indigenous science supports flourishing of people and planet

While Indigenous science is an ancient and dynamic body of knowledge, embedded in sophisticated cultural epistemologies, it has long been marginalized by the institutions of contemporary Western science. However, traditional knowledge is increasingly recognized as a source of concepts, models, philosophies and practices which can inform the design of new sustainability solutions. It is both ancient and urgent.

Indigenous science offers both key insights and philosophical frameworks for problem solving that includes human values, which are much needed as we face challenges such as climate change, sustainable resource management, health disparities and the need for healing the ecological damage we have done.

Indigenous science informs place-specific resource management and land-care practices important for environmental health of tribal and federal lands. We require greater recognition and support for tribal consultation and participation in the co-management, protection, and restoration of our ancestral lands.

Indigenous communities have partnered with Western science to address environmental justice, health disparities, and intergenerational trauma in our communities. We have championed innovation and technology in science from agriculture to medicine. New ecological insights have been generated through sharing of Indigenous science. Indigenous communities and Western science continue to promote diversity within STEM fields. Each year Indigenous people graduate with Ph.D.’s, M.D.’s, M.S.’s and related degrees that benefit our collective societies. We also recognize and promote the advancement of culture-bearers, Elders, hunters and gatherers who strengthen our communities through traditional practices.

Our tribal communities need more culturally embedded scientists and at the same time, institutions of Western science need more Indigenous perspectives. The next generation of scientists needs to be well- positioned for growing collaboration with Indigenous science. Thus we call for enhanced support for inclusion of Indigenous science in mainstream education, for the benefit of all. We envision a productive symbiosis between Indigenous and Western knowledges that serve our shared goals of sustainability for land and culture. This symbiosis requires mutual respect for the intellectual sovereignty of both Indigenous and Western sciences.

As members of the Indigenous science community, we endorse and support the March for Science – and we encourage Indigenous people and allies to participate in the national march in DC or a satellite march. Let us engage the power of both Indigenous and Western science on behalf of the living Earth. Let our Indigenous voices be heard.

IN SOLIDARITY

Let us engage the power of both Indigenous and Western science on behalf of the living Earth

ROBIN WALL KIMMERER (Citizen Potawatomi Nation). Professor of Environmental and Forest Biology, Director Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY

ROSALYN LAPIER (Blackfeet/Metis). PhD. Research Associate, Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies, and Native American Religion. Harvard Divinity School

MELISSA K. NELSON (Anishinaabe [Turtle Mountain Chippewa]). Associate Professor of American Indian Studies, San Francisco State University, President of the Cultural Conservancy, San Francisco, CA

KYLE P. WHYTE (Citizen Potawatomi Nation). Timnick Chair in the Humanities, Associate Professor of Philosophy and Community Sustainability, Michigan State University, East Lansing, MI

NEIL PATTERSON, JR. (Tuscarora). Assistant Director, Center for Native Peoples and the Environment, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Syracuse, NY and EPA Tribal Science Council.

PATTY LOEW, Ph.D. Professor. Department of Life Sciences Communication. University of Wisconsin-Madison

PATRICIA COCHRAN (Inupiat). Executive Director, Alaska Native Science Commission, Anchorage, AK

GREGORY A. CAJETE (Tewa-Santa Clara Pueblo). Director of Native American Studies-University College, Professor of Language, Literacy and Sociocultural Studies-College of Education, University of New Mexico

DEBORAH MCGREGOR (Anishinaabe). Associate Professor, Canada Research Chair, Indigenous Environmental Justice, Osgoode Hall Law School and Faculty of Environmental Studies, York University

LEROY LITTLE BEAR,JD, (Blackfoot). Professor Emeritus, University of Lethbridge, Alberta, Canada

KARLETTA CHIEF, (Navajo). Assistant Professor and Extension Specialist, Department of Soil, Water and Environmental Science. University of Arizona

LESLIE HARPER (Leech Lake Ojibwe), President, National Coalition of Native American Language Schools and Programs

NAMAKA RAWLINS (Hawaiian), Aha Punana Leo, Hilo, Hawaii

ABAKI BECK (Blackfeet/Metis), Founder, POC On-Line Classroom and Daughters of Violence Zine