Place and the Sacred

The tunnels and reserves are particularly illustrative because each represents identity – shaping forces that certain people on opposite sides of a cultural divide either refuse to accept or are incapable of appreciating.Keith Thor Carlson, The Power of Place, The Problem of Time, Page 8.

For Carlson, the tunnels under discussion are passages between locales. They mystically tie together Coast Salish communities, some quite distant, together. They are also very dangerous to use. The Coast Salish believe in, and occasionally use, these tunnels. European North Americans (hereafter referred to simply as Europeans) mostly do not. On the other hand, many Coast Salish do not believe in the spacial and interpersonal restraints imposed by the European concept of reserves.

A couple of days ago I wrote about ongoing conflicts between European North Americans and Native Communities across the continent. These conflicts are emblematic of this very cultural divide. One one side of the issue are the many Europeans who understand place as the location of resources. On the other, are First Nations peoples for whom resources and spirituality are tightly interwoven with community and place.

Perhaps nowhere is this divide more apparent than in the land management conflict over the San Fransisco Peaks. (I mistakenly identified the issue as oil exploration, b merging it with coal and uranium extraction on the Navajo reservation.) The issue is whether waste water from ski resorts can be sprayed over parts of the sacred mountains. Apparently, in order to expand the resorts need to also expand the area in which they distribute waste water.  Several Native American tribes hold the peaks as sacred and resent the idea of using sacred ground as a waste water treatment facility.

This is an extension of a larger misunderstanding, and it’s resultant conflicts. At the time of first contact, First Nations communities maintained only very loosely defined territories. Often there were well known common use areas in which many tribes safely conducted subsistence and spiritual activities. Often, these areas were managed to maximize renewable resources, wildlife, and access to the Sacred. Conflicts over resources were relatively rare. Native peoples initially readily extended use of these areas to the European newcomers, who promptly put up fences. Fences were a concept First Nations people found incomprehensible and unacceptable. Europeans believed the local Native people were not managing the landscape, and thus had no claim to it.  Conflict was sure to follow.

Reserves were established, like fences, to separate one thing from another, in this case local Native populations from their traditional living and resource areas and the encroaching European populations. Tribes were often moved far from their traditional homes, subsistence activities greatly hindered, resulting in the loss of cultural norms and dietary patterns, and the people separated from sacred lands and sites. It should be no surprise to Europeans that First Nations peoples both resist confinement and the loss of traditional activities and values, and actively seek to reestablish them. It should also not be surprising that even though Native peoples may be separated from sacred lands, they seek to gain access to, and protect those lands.

For First Nations communities, sacred places are alive and powerful. The relationship between place and power evolves over time, and is evidence for the continuing presence, and engagement, of the Holy. These powers are felt and joined by local tribal people, but may not be visible to the untrained. However, invisibility is not the same as absence. The European view of the Creator is He is present, if somewhat distant at times, but unseen. He is understood to be more present in some places, especially buildings assigned the purpose of containing Him. Yet Europeans have been largely unable, or unwilling, to extend to First Nations people, and our sacred places,  the “felt presence of the Creator.” When someone pours waste water on, or in, a European church or temple, that structure is desecrated, and considered impure. Europeans struggle to understand the same might be true for a mountainside.

Finally, sacred lands and sites are central to the practice of Native traditional spiritual beliefs and activities, whether ceremonial or shamanic. Sacred lands are places where the presence of the Holy is immediate and palpable, and the ear of the Creator is tuned to the people. The spiritual beings who inhabit such places are dear to Native people, who have maintained working relationships with them for many generations. It is in such places that we may meet the Dreaming and discover who we may be, and the power to aid the people.

This cultural divide is broad, and growing. Yet it is perhaps not beyond healing. European’s might extend Saint Paul’s maxim to” have faith in things unseen” to the spiritual beliefs of others. They might allow the world itself, like the Holy places of Israel, the Middle East, or India,  to be sacred, the living presence of the Creator. They might put the Creator and Her/His creation about the acquisition of wealth.


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