Protecting Sacred Places
“Sacred places are the foundation of all other beliefs and practices because they represent the presence of the sacred in our lives. They properly inform us that we are not larger than nature and that we have responsibilities to the rest of the natural world that transcends our own personal desires and wishes.”
– Vine Deloria Jr., 1999
Vine Deloria Jr. (1999) defines four types of sacred places. The first are places made sacred because something of importance to a community has transpired there. He points out that many of these places are where great violence has occurred, such as the Gettysburg battlefield, and that we require such commemorations because they instill a sense of cohesion and a connection to the past. For Native people, many such sacred sites exist due to the long land tenure of Indigenous peoples. These spaces are re-sanctified each time a ceremony takes place (Deloria, 1999, pp. 327-328).
The second type of sacred place is where something holy has appeared in an otherwise secular situation. In essence, Deloria says, these events are where the sacred has become part of our experience. One example he provides is Buffalo Gap in the Black Hills of South Dakota, where the buffalo emerged each spring. He goes on to say that, for these sites, their sacredness “does not depend on human occupancy but on the stories that describe the revelation that enabled human beings to experience the holiness there” (Deloria, 1999, p. 329).
The third kind of sacred lands are places “where the Higher Powers have revealed Themselves to humans” (Deloria, 1999, p. 330). Deloria notes that, while discerning people will always find sacred places in any geography where they live long enough, there are certain places where “the highest spirits dwell.” It is here where humans communicate with higher spiritual powers. As Deloria explains, traditional people must perform certain ceremonies at these particular places according to their prescribed protocols, not for monetary gain or reputation of those participating, but to ensure the survival of the planet and the beings who occupy it. As he states, it is “a simple admission of a moral duty,” and better explained as “gratitude expressed by human beings on behalf of all forms of life” and “the cosmos becoming thankfully aware of itself” (Deloria, 1999, pp. 332).
Examples of this kind of sacred site include Bear Butte, now a national monument in Utah, and Blue Lake, a protected area of Taos Pueblo. Both of these sites have a long history of caretaking by the Indigenous peoples who inhabit the nearby lands. And both sites have been damaged by colonizers. In each instance, long campaigns have been waged to protect the sites and ensure access to the tribal groups responsible for maintaining sacred ceremonies there. Blue Lake is part of 48,000 acres which were taken by the United States in 1906 for use as a national forest. The sacred lake was stocked with fish for recreational fishing by non-Natives (UNM-Taos Library, 2022). In 1926, Taos Pueblo waived compensation rights in exchange for title to Blue Lake (but received neither), and in 1951 filed suit with the Indian Claims Commission, which ruled in favor of Taos Pueblo. The land was not returned to the people until 1970 after the introduction of several pieces of legislation and meetings with US President Nixon. The return of these lands and the sacred lake were a huge victory for Taos Pueblo.
As reported by the Christian Science Monitor, US President Barack Obama proclaimed 1.35 million acres in the Four Corners region of Utah as a protected national monument in December of 2016, acknowledging the “profound sacredness” of the area to the Uintah and Ouray Ute, Ute Mountain Ute, Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni tribes. This action is the direct result of countless efforts by tribal leadership to advocate for the land and the sacred sites contained within it, including the formation of the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition (BEITC), which submitted the proposal for the monument to President Obama. This same coalition continues to defend the area from ongoing exploitation, including the reduction of protected land instigated by US President Donald Trump and the restoration of protected status by the current Biden administration.
Last month, the Department of the Interior and related agencies entered into an intergovernmental cooperative agreement with the five tribes of the BEITC for management of the Bears Ears National Monument. In the agreement, it is acknowledged that “the Bears Ears is a living landscape that provides opportunities for Elders to convey to younger generations the stories, traditions, and practices of their people; to help them understand where they came from, who they are, and how to live” (BLM, 2022). This historic agreement gives participating tribes the ability to protect the intergenerational knowledge of specific sacred places that is so quickly exploited by non-Native people, while ensuring access to those sacred sites to the families entrusted with maintaining the ceremonies and teachings. This agreement is a victory over the cynical and exploitative agenda of the Trump administration (and capitalist extraction in general). Bears Ears is an important example of how these efforts must be ongoing, as the threats against sacred sites are persistent.
The fourth type of sacred place is that which has yet to be revealed. Deloria teaches us that recognizing and maintaining sacred sites helps us, as individuals and groups, to cultivate and enhance our experience of the sacred, a vital dimension of our emotional lives (Deloria, 1999, p. 334). Being free and available to participate in these manifestations of our relationship with spiritual forces, however, will require even more effort, given the long history and present state of religious misunderstanding, which Deloria explains stems, in part, from a fundamental difference in the worldviews of Indian and non-Indian peoples. We must remember, he tells us, that sacred places “are the foundation of all other beliefs and practices, because they represent the presence of the sacred in our lives” (Deloria, 1999, p. 337). I am grateful for these teachings and for the work of so many people to maintain these threads of connection to the divine on behalf of us all.
Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.
United States Bureau of Land Management (BLM). (2022). Inter-Governmental Cooperative Agreement between the Tribal Nations whose representatives comprise the Bears Ears Commission, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, Ute Mountain Ute Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe ofthe Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and the Pueblo of Zuni and the United Stated Department of the Interior, Bureau of Land Management and the United States Department of Agriculture, Forest Service for the Cooperative Management of the Federal Lands and Resources of the Bears Ears National Monument. Retrieved from https://www.blm.gov/sites/blm.gov/files/docs/2022-06/BearsEarsNationalMonumentInter-GovernmentalAgreement2022.pdf
Bruinius, H. (29 December 2016). For Native Americans, New National Monument a Rare Victory. Christian Science Monitor. Retrieved from https://www.csmonitor.com/USA/Politics/2016/1229/For-Native-Americans-new-national-monument-a-rare-victory
Deloria Jr., V. (1999). Spirit and Reason. Wheat Ridge, CO: Fulcrum.
Namba, T., & Velarde, C. (Eds.). (2022). The Return of Blue Lake Library Guide. University of New Mexico-Taos Library. Retrieved from https://taoslibrary.unm.edu/c.php?g=1099069