In the time of Thunderbeings and Underwater Serpents, the humans, animals, and plants conversed and carried on lives of mischief, wonder, and mundane tasks. The prophets told of times ahead, explained the causes of the deluge of past, and predicted the two paths of the future: one scorched and one green, one of which the Anishinaabeg would have to choose.
And while I stood there
I saw more than I can tell
and I understood more than I saw,
for I was seeing in a sacred manner
the shapes of all things in the spirit
and the shape of all shapes as
they must all live together
as one being.
“It’s not like a church where you have everything in one place. We could describe how sacred sites are the teachers…. We don’t want the American dream…. We want our prayer rocks.” —CALLEEN SISK, Winnemum Wintu
IN THE TIME of Thunderbeings and Underwater Serpents, the humans, animals, and plants conversed and carried on lives of mischief, wonder, and mundane tasks. The prophets told of times ahead, explained the causes of the deluge of past, and predicted the two paths of the future: one scorched and one green, one of which the Anishinaabeg would have to choose.
In the time of the Thunderbeings and Underwater Serpents, it was understood that there was a constant balance and a universe beyond this material world that needed to be maintained and to whom we would belong always.
The Anishinaabe people, among other land-based peoples, undulate between these worlds. The light of day, the deepness of night remain; the parallel planes of spirit and material world coexist in perpetuity. All remains despite the jackhammer of industrial civilization, the sound of combustion engines, and the sanitized white of a dioxin-bleached day. That was then, but that is also now. Teachings, ancient as the people who have lived on a land for five millennia, speak of a set of relationships to all that is around, predicated on respect, recognition of the interdependency of all beings, an understanding of humans’ absolute need to be reverent and to manage our behavior, and an understanding that this relationship must be reaffirmed through lifeways and through acknowledgment of the sacred.
Millennia have passed since that time, yet those beings still emerge: lightning strikes at unexpected times, the seemingly endless fires of climate change, tornadoes that flatten, King Tides, deluges of rivers, copper beings in the midst of industrial society. So it is that we come to face our smallness in a world of mystery, and our responsibilities to the life that surrounds us.
We are a part of everything that is beneath us, above us and around us. Our past is our present, our present is our future, and our future is seven generations past and present. –Haudenosaunee Teaching
In the midst of this time, land-based peoples work to continue such a lifeway, or to follow simply the original instructions passed on by Gichi Manidoo, the Creator, or those who instruct us. This path often is littered with the threats of a fossil-fuel and nuclear economy: a uranium mine, a big dam project, or the Tar Sands. People work to restore or retain their relationship to a sacred place and to a world. In many places, peoples hold Earth renewal ceremonies, for example, or water healing ceremonies. In an Indigenous philosophical view, these ceremonies are how we are able to continue. This essay tells some of those stories.
This essay also tells a story of a society based on the notion of frontier. Born of a doctrine of discovery, terra nullius, and a papal-driven entitlement to vanquish and destroy that which was Indigenous, America was framed in the mantra of Manifest Destiny. This settler-focused relationship to this North American continent has been historically one of conquest, of utilitarian relationship, of an anthropocentric taking of wealth to make more things for empire. That society has named and claimed things: one mountain after another (Mt. Rainier, Harney Peak, Mt. McKinley, Mt. Lassen, Pikes Peak) all named, and claimed, for empire. Naming and claiming with a flag does not mean relationship; it means only naming and claiming. Americans have developed a sense of place related to empire, with no understanding that the Holy Land is also here. To name sacred mountain spirits after mortal men, who blow through for just a few decades, is to denude relationship.
Americans are also transient, taught an American dream of greener pastures elsewhere. This too belittles relationship to place. It holds no responsibility, only a sense of entitlement—to mineral rights, water rights, and private property—enshrined in the constitution.
In the times we find ourselves, with the crashing of ecosystems, dying out of fish and trees, change and destabilization of climate, our relationship to place and to relatives—whether they have fins or roots—merits reconsideration.
ON SACRED PLACES
Since the beginning of times, the Creator and Mother Earth have given our peoples places to learn the teachings that will allow us to continue and reaffirm our responsibilities and ways on the lands from which we have come. Indigenous peoples are place-based societies, and at the center of those places are the most sacred of our sites, where we reaffirm our relationships.
Everywhere there are Indigenous people, there are sacred sites, there are ways of knowing, there are relationships. The people, the rivers, the mountains, the lakes, the animals, and the fish are all related. In recent years, US courts have challenged our ability to be in these places, and indeed to protect them. In many cases, we are asked to quantify “how sacred it is … or how often it is sacred.” Baffling concepts in the spiritual realm. Yet we do not relent, we are not capable of becoming subsumed.
THE NUR & THE PEOPLE
In Northern California, the Winnemem Wintu have known since time immemorial of their relationships to the Nur, the salmon people. They have known that they have a sacred responsibility to protect and care for the salmon that have sustained them on the slope of Boyum Patuk, the sacred mountain, now known as Mt. Shasta. It was the Nur who gave the Winnemem their voice, who taught them to sing. The Winnemem were told long ago that if the salmon disappeared, so would they.
The salmon only sing as they course the rivers of the Northwest, and are only to be heard by the Wintu. Legends talk of a time when the Nur took pity on the Wintu people and gave to them their voice. The Wintu, in turn, were to care for the Nur always and were to sing. Millennia later they still try to fulfill this responsibility.
“The people believe that when the last salmon is gone, humans will be gone too,” Caleen Sisk, traditional spiritual leader of the Winnemem Wintu, explains.
Millennia on the river did well for both the people and the salmon, in an area whose remoteness from white civilization was its protection. But in time that civilization encroached, and although they were signatories in good faith to what would be an unratified 1851 treaty, and later identified as the tribe who would be drowned in the 1941 federal act that created the Shasta Dam, the Winnemem Wintu ceased to exist as “Indians” under federal law. This strange irony, that the government created by the settlers and intruders who took your land and killed your people gets to determine if you are still an Indian, remains particularly bitter to many tribes. The Winnemem Wintu are particularly caught in this quagmire.
In 1941, the Shasta Dam drowned more than 26 miles of the lower McCloud River system, engulfing sacred sites, villages, and history under a deep lake destined to benefit cities far away, agriculture for the world, and tourists who could afford the way of life. The dam drowned much of the history of the Winnemem Wintu, and the dam blocked the passage of the salmon people—the McCloud River salmon. The Nur either interbred with the Sacramento River salmon, or died out in California.
Fish Rock was blown up to make room for a railroad track in 1914, which was, like so much else, drowned by the waters that would become known as Lake Shasta. What is left of Dekkas Rock, a prayer site, now protrudes from the reservoir, as one reporter notes, “… a malformed atoll.” It was here, next to the river, that the Winnemem held what other tribes in the region call “Big Times,” where disputes were adjudicated, songs and ceremonies were held, and marriages were arranged.
The Wintu grieved the loss of their salmon, and their sacred doctoring rocks, and the loss of the river, though their prophecies had foretold the loss of the salmon: “Our old people said that the salmon would be hidden behind a river of ice. Indian doctors and prophets had been with the Wintu long ago, and prophesied the time when the salmon would disappear,“ Caleen Sisk tells me.
That was almost unimaginable to the Wintu—or to those who “discovered the salmon” of the McCloud River. Livingston Stone, a fish culturist arriving in Wintu territory, noted that the spawning Chinook were so plentiful he could have walked across their backs from one side of the river to the other. In the 1870s, he established the Baird Hatchery on the McCloud, originally as an effort to breed a Pacific salmon to replenish the now dwindling and overfished Atlantic salmon stocks. The Winnemem Wintu, initially opposed to the fishery, made peace with the white men of the fisheries on the condition that the salmon would always be able to come home.
Then in a strange turning of events, in 1890, Livingston Stone decided to transplant the Wintu Nur to another world, Aotearoa, or New Zealand. Moved in sphagnum moss over a vast ocean, the Nur salmon people came to live in the Rakaia River on the South Island in Aotearoa (New Zealand).
So it was that the Nur, the salmon of the McCloud, disappeared from the Wintu world, but just as had been prophesied, they returned elsewhere, in a “river of ice”—the Rakaia River emerges from a glacial mountain. In 2008, the Wintu went to Aotearoa to visit their salmon. And, for the first time since the dams had destroyed their relatives, the Wintu sang once again for the Nur. It is fifty years since the dam destroyed the homeland of the salmon and much of the sacred world of the Wintu, but the Wintu believe that through prayer, prophecy, and hard work, there will be a return.
COPPER & IRON, WILD RICE & WATER, & WOLVES
“Sometimes it seems like people aren’t interested in
sticking around for another thousand years.”
—MIKE WIGGINS, Bad River Anishinaabe Tribal Chairman
Two thousand miles to the East, on the shore of Gichi Gummi (Lake Superior), the Anishinaabeg Akiing (“the land to which the Anishinaabe people belong”) stretches throughout the Great Lakes region in a territory of lakes and rivers, wild rice, and wolves.
On this land the Underwater Manidoowag, the Miskwaabik and Biwaabik spirits of copper and iron ore, have lived, omaa akiing, since the time of the Thunderbeings. As one early European explorer recorded, “Copper was said to belong to the Underwater Manitouk…. One often finds at the bottom of the water, pieces of pure copper…. I have several times seen such pieces in the Savages’ hand, and since they are superstitious, they keep to them as so many divinities, or as presents which the gods dwelling beneath the water have given them and on which their welfare is to depend.”
The Underwater Manidoowag, Miskwaabik and Biwaabik, were viewed not as spirits by the American government, but as objects of empire. Some of the first incursions by the US government onto Anishinaabeg land, in the early 1800s, were to secure access to iron and copper deposits. Within a very short period, four treaties were signed by the United States, each providing for mining in Anishinaabeg territory. By mid-century, more than 100 copper companies had been incorporated in the Anishinaabeg Akiing. Many of today’s US-based transnational mining companies, including Kennecott, Anaconda Copper, and 3M, were founded in this era on the wealth of the Anishinaabeg.
The wild rice has also been here since the time of Thunderbeings. Indeed, it was a part of the Anishinaabeg migration story and of a set of prophecies instructing the people to “go to the place where the food grows upon the water.” Called manoomin (“a seed of the Creator”) by the Anishinaabe, wild rice is the only grain endemic to North America and is one of the greatest gifts imaginable to the land and waters. There are few other places in the world where such a bountiful gift is delivered to those who live there, whether they have wings or hands. Owing to the unique nature and adaptability of the manoomin, the lakes and rivers each year offer a wild rice crop at some place in the region. That is an amazing food security for a people and for the waterfowl who nest and eat in these same waters. It is because of this bounty that where there is wild rice there are Ojibwe or Anishinaabeg people, and where there are Anishinaabeg, there is wild rice. This is a sacred food and a keystone of the ecosystem of the Great Lakes region, or Anishinaabe Akiing. As copper and iron mining despoiled the waters of the lakes and rivers, so it devastated both the manoomin and those whose life and ways depended upon it.
The decimation of the Anishinaabeg by plagues, starvation, and federal policies closely mirrored the destruction of the ma’iingan, the wolf. The Anishinaabeg relationship to the ma’iingan is deeply sacred in the traditions and history of the people. It is said that the first friend of the half spirit/half human being Naanaaboozhoo, a central figure in Anishinaabeg culture and teachings, was the ma’iingan. In Anishinaabeg prophecies, that which befalls the wolf will befall the Anishinaabeg. The limiting of territories—to reservations for the Anishinaabeg and to a few refuges and a few sparse patches of the north woods for the wolves—occurred for both. Like the people, the wolves were brought to near-extinction.
Yet both wolves and Anishinaabeg have returned to the northland. Today, nineteen Anishinaabeg reservations span the north country, from Michigan into Montana. This same territory is today the home of the largest wolf population in the lower forty-eight states. Where there are 60,000 Anishinaabeg, there are 5,000 wolves—both relatives, one with two legs and one with four, rebounding after catastrophic losses.
THE PREDATOR RETURNS
The companies forged of empire in the 1850s are also returning home now, having ravaged the world, fortified their empires, and left memorials to the copper that once was, in the form of huge pits. New mines are proposed throughout the Anishinaabe Akiing. Thus far they have been fended off by citizens and tribal opposition, but the region is incredibly challenged, as Ojibwes note in a letter to the United Nations requesting assistance: “Currently, an aggressive mining boom throughout Anishinaabeg territory, of present-day Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Ontario, threatens the water quality and ecosystem of almost every sub-watershed of Lake Superior.”
Eagle Rock, known as “the Home of the White Wolf,” is a sacred site and prehistoric navigation site on the Keewenaw. It is considered sacred to not only the Anishinaabeg, but also the Hochunk and Cheyenne peoples. The tribes living today in this territory, as well as the National Congress of American Indians, have requested that the rock be protected as a site of religious worship.
Underneath the rock, in a world below, is Miskwaabik Aabinoojiins, or the Copper Child. This copper ore body, appearing in GIS imaging as a baby, awaits its scheduled end like a convict on death row: Rio Tinto Zinc, a UK-based mining company, through its subsidiary Kennecott, plans to mine the copper deposit adjacent to the sacred place.
It has been a seven-year battle for the sacred site, marked by arrests and legal actions, and now by a petition to the United Nations for intervention under the Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples not only to protect their sacred sites, but to be protected from minerals exploitation, which will destroy the aquatic ecosystems of wild rice and a rich land upon which the Anishinaabeg have lived for five millennia.
The Michigan regulatory authorities, which have taken jurisdiction over the area, have ruled against the tribes, the water, and the sacred site, stating essentially that the site could not be sacred or did not have spiritual significance because a place of worship must be a building. On these grounds, the state approved the mining permit.
Proposals in both Wisconsin and Minnesota would eviscerate water quality laws, with severe impacts on the wild rice or manoomin of the north. In turn, the recent delisting of the wolf by the US Fish and Wildlife seems synchronized exactly with the interests of new mining companies in the region.
But it is a time when relationships are changing. It is ironic that the two largest challenges to the wholesale mining of the north may be manoomin, or wild rice, and the ma’iingan. Tribal communities, joined increasingly by northern residents, have opposed the threats to water and wild rice throughout the north country, and regulatory battles are underway in Minnesota. And, while the wolf has been delisted by federal agencies under the Endangered Species Act, tribal communities are opposing the delisting in their territories. This is significant, as the wolf territories coincide with reservations and the areas surrounding tribal reservations still within tribal jurisdiction due to treaties and court decisions.
In this time, tribal governments and intergovernment agencies in the north pledge to retain their relationship and responsibility to the ma’iingan, and our communities remain vigilant in working to protect the sacred beings from the mines of the predator.
DOKO’OO’SLIID … THE MOUNTAIN OF KACHINAS & RECYCLED SKI AREAS
To the far south, in the realm of the sacred mountains of the Dine or Navajo people, Dine Bii Kaya, the four sacred mountains, are again facing threats. Mt. Taylor is once again proposed for uranium mining, and Doko’oo’sliid, the Sacred Mountain of the West to the Navajo, is being desecrated for the pleasure of skiers.
This volcanic highland area of Arizona began forming over 6 million years ago with the eruption of nearly 600 volcanoes. The most dramatic of those eruptions created a place sacred to thirteen tribes, a cluster of three 12,000-foot mountain peaks known as the Sacred Mountain of the West, one of four cornerstones marking the borders of Dine Bii Kaya, the land of the Dine or Navajo. The Dine know it as a place where the Kachina spirits emerge. In the proud vernacular of American empire, the sacred mountain is called San Francisco Peaks.
The highest point in Arizona, the only arctic-alpine vegetation in the state, which grows here in a fragile two-square-mile zone, and Arizona’s best examples of Ice Age glaciation all can be found here. It has been a place for the gathering of sacred herbs and the practice of religious ceremonies since the dawn of time.
In 1984, the United States Congress recognized the fragile ecosystems and cultural significance of the area and designated the Kachina Peaks Wilderness. Yet here, in this unlikely place, in an ostensibly protected Wilderness in the desert, a ski resort has been proposed, with a plan to pipe treated sewage water from Flagstaff to spray artificial snow on the sacred mountain. There is no water source on the mountain other than what falls from the sky.
Despite the known ecosystem, archeological and cultural issues, and determined opposition from Native nations and conservation organizations, the Ninth US Circuit Court of Appeals recently allowed the Arizona Snowbowl Recreation project to proceed with its plan. Flagstaff-treated sewer water will be trucked to Snowbowl until a 14.8-mile pipeline is complete, and then some 180 million gallons a year of treated effluent from the city of Flagstaff will be pumped up the sacred mountain to the ski area for snowmaking. The treated sewage has been proven to contain contaminants such as pharmaceuticals and hormones. Snowbowl hopes to attract ski-starved desert dwellers to its resort with clever marketing, but it remains to be seen how enticing a mouthful of Snowbowl effluent cocktail might be.
The Snowbowl owners have already clear-cut some 74 acres of rare alpine forest for new ski runs. A 10-million-gallon retention pond and another 12 miles of pipeline will be built to distribute reclaimed sewer water along the ski runs, all desecrations in the eyes of the Dine people. In the summer of 2012, protests continued in defense of a sacred place, in a call for access to water for people and the land, and ultimately in a questioning of priorities.
This is the difference between worldviews, one that views a land as a rich ore body, or a playground, and another that views it as a source of great spiritual and cultural wealth…. This is the story of the time in which we find ourselves.
THE AUCTION OF THE SACRED
As the wind breathes out of Wind Cave, I am reminded of the creation of humans and my own small place in this magnificent world. Wind Cave National Park in the Black Hills is named for the cave itself, called Washun Niya, (“the Breathing Hole of Mother Earth”) by the Lakota People. In the Lakota creation story, it is from here that they emerged to this world.
It is a complex cave system. According to scientists, we may only have a sense of five percent of the cave’s volume and breadth, and likely even less of its power. Some might call this the “known unknown.” Most Indigenous peoples would understand it as the Great Mystery—that which is much larger than our own anthropocentric understanding of the world—reflecting the understanding that, indeed, there is more than one world surrounding people.
So it is that in 2012, a time of change and transformation signaled in an American election year and predicted in the Mayan Calendar, we find the smallness and the greatness of humans in the much larger world around us coming face-to-face in the Black Hills. A most sacred place, Pe’Sla, in the center of the Lakota Universe, came up for sale, and values and worldviews clashed.
Pe’Sla, to the Lakota, is “Center of the Heart of Everything that is … one of a small number of highly revered and geographically-cosmologically integral places on the entire planet,” according to Lakota scholar Chase Iron Eyes. It is “the place where Morning Star, manifested as a meteor, fell to earth to help the Lakota by killing a great bird that had taken the lives of seven women; Morning Star’s descent having created the wide open uncharacteristic bald spot inthe middle of the forested Black Hills. (On American maps,this is called Old Baldy.) The Morning Star placed the spirits of those seven women in the sky as the constellation ‘Pleiades‘ or ‘The Seven Sisters.’”
On August 25, 2012, the Center of the Heart of Everything was to be placed on the auction block, destined to be diced into a set of 300-acre tracts proposed for ranchettes, with a possible road through the heart of what has been, until now, a relatively un-desecrated sacred site. “We didn’t even know it was going to be sold,” Debra White Plume from Manderson told me. “We heard nothing about it until we saw the auction announcement.”
America is a country where private property is enshrined as a constitutional right, but the rights of nature, of the natural world, or of unborn generations are not. In the time of the crashing of ecosystems and worlds, it may be worth not making a commodity out of all that is revered. A 2005 editorial in the generally very conservative Rapid City Journal points out that protecting Lakota sacred sites is of interest to all. “Non-Indians have little to fear if familiar sites are designated as sacred; visitors are still allowed at Bear Butte, Devil’s Tower, and Rainbow Bridge, even though they are being managed as Indian sacred sites. And in fact, expanding non-Indians’ knowledge and appreciation of the Indian lore surrounding such sites could lead to greater cultural understanding.”
With less than two weeks remaining before Pe’Sla was to be auctioned off, word spread through Lakota communities (three of which, all Lakota reservations, are in the economically poorest counties in the country), through the use of Facebook, the Internet, and the media, from the Huffington Post to the Seattle Times. The story of the Lakota people, their sacred site, and the proposed auction was repeated in whispers, and then in rallies and in outrage. Using the Internet, the communities raised over half a million dollars, which was then matched by tribal money originating with the Rosebud Sioux Tribe, and other donations. The auction was cancelled, and the Lakota people have begun to negotiate for the purchase of their sacred site.
It is incredibly ironic, however, in many ways, particularly considering that the Paha Sapa, the Black Hills, was never purchased from the Lakota but illegally taken by the United States with the advent of gold mining (the Hearst empire). Though over $105 million was allocated for the Black Hills by Congress to pay Lakota people for the illegal taking, that money has never been accepted. Hence the irony: the people must buy back land they have never considered owned by anyone else.
ON A RETURN TO SACRED LIFEWAYS
There is always hope, and for those of us who remain involved in our ceremonies, there is also faith. That faith is reaffirmed when small miracles of spirit occur, and the world changes.
On the banks of the McCloud River in Northern California, the Wintu gather, despite citations and legal opposition by the state of California, to hold their sacred coming-of-age ceremonies for their young women. This is how life continues.
And, one day, not too far away, those salmon will return home from Aotearoa. And there will be a celebration of the Nur and the Wintu.
In the northwoods, the Anishinaabeg celebrate one round of opposing the Beast. In 2012, the huge GTAC mine in the Penokee Mountains of Wisconsin—the headwaters to the Bad River, the centerpiece of the Bad River tribal community of Anishinaabeg—was defeated, like another four before it in Wisconsin. The defeat may be temporary, but it is breathing room for Mother Earth.
And in 2012, it seems that Pe’Sla will be protected from becoming a set of luxury ranchettes, and may continue as a place where a people pray and reaffirm their relationship to Creation.
And then there is the renaming, or the recovery of names. Several decades ago, Mt. McKinley became Mt. Denali. On the other side of the world, Australia’s Ayers Rock became Uluru, in the name of the people who live there, not the white man who found it. In 2010, in Canada, the Haida homeland was formally renamed Haida Gwaii, eclipsing Queen Charlotte Island, named for a Queen who had likely never seen that land nor understood Haida traditions. And further south, the Salish Sea is emerging in what was Puget Sound, and more reaffirmations of place and history are reframing our understanding of the holy land that is here. These stories join with the stories of a people and their allies who have come to live on this land.
On a larger scale, the New Zealand Courts have recently affirmed the rights of a River to exist, in a court system that emerged from colonial and church authorities. The Whanganui River became a legal entity under the name Te Awa Tupua (“an integrated, living whole”) and was given the same status as a person under New Zealand law in 2012.
The industrial predator, however, is unrelenting. Voracious in appetite, greed, and lacking any heart, all that is becomes prey …
If 57 percent of the energy produced in the US is wasted through inefficiencies, one might want to become less wasteful to survive. And if two-thirds of our material-based economy ends up in waste dumps relatively quickly, we may want to cut our consumption. These are economic choices, political choices, and personal choices. And they ultimately have to do with empire, the need for new frontiers, and making peace, omaa akiing, here on this land.
In the din of crashing worlds, it is possible to watch and breathe. In the 2012 deluge of the city of Duluth, rain fell constantly for two days onto the streets of a city with aginginfrastructure. The Anishinaabeg remember a great flood from the earliest of memories, after which the world was made anew. The Anishinaabeg watched the flood from our reservations, an island safely away from this deluge and crash.
The tally in economic terms of the 2012 flood is somewhere around $100 million. That figure represents just the beginning of climate-change-related expenses in this year. By March of 2012, there had been over 129,000 recorded weather records on a worldwide scale. World insurance agencies project that we will be spending 20 percent of our GDP on a worldwide scale on climate-change-related disasters.
The polar bear is freed by the Duluth deluge from the zoo, escaping his pen. As the bear headed north from the Duluth Zoo, we Anishinaabeg knew that the time was changing. We watched and we understood that we, as sacred beings in this millennium, have an opportunity to do a righteous and pono thing—to take a good path.
In the time of Thunderbeings and Underwater Serpents, the humans, animals, and plants conversed and carried on lives of mischief, wonder, and mundane tasks. The prophets told of times ahead, explained the deluge of past and predicted the two paths of the future: one scorched and one green, one of which the Anishinaabeg would have to choose.
All of us have the same choice, and somewhere in this time, there is the potential to take a right path.
In the Time of the Sacred Places is Winona LaDuke’s contribution to the just-released anthology, Spiritual Ecology: The Cry of the Earth, edited by Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, and is reprinted here with permission.
In the Time of the Sacred Places