In the Light of Reverence
by Christopher McLeod

Every working day bulldozers climb the back of Woodruff Butte in Arizona, quarrying gravel to pave local highways, tearing away rocky sites that have been visited for a thousand years by Hopis on pilgrimage. Woodruff Butte is now private property. The Hopi have appealed in vain to its owner to stop razing their shrines. Over the last ten years, seven of the eight Hopi shrines on Woodruff Butte have been destroyed.

The butte's owner, Dale McKinnon says, "When we all visited the property, I was told if they showed me specifically where it was on the property then it would not have religious value to them anymore. In other words, they couldn't show me. And I cannot possibly work around something that I can't see. So, I guess I did bulldoze it. I couldn't see it. I didn't know what to work around."

I had captured the bulldozer damage and the butte-owner's rationale on film during the production of a documentary called In the Light of Reverence which is set to air on PBS later this year. Last summer, I journeyed to the Hopi mesas to show a rough cut of the documentary to the Hopis who had participated in the making of the film. When my old friend Fermina Banyacya heard McKinnon's statement, she began to shake her head. "What is it with white people?" she whispered. "Seeing is believing and that's all there is to it. It makes me so mad!"

Though sacred mountains may be visible, it is the invisible realm that holds the key to understanding the sites that Native Americans hold most precious. The songs and stories, the visions and prophecies, the secret traditions passed down from the ancestors--these are the intangible cultural practices that honor the life force of the land and carry deep emotional power for the communities that inhabit and protect America's sacred places.

Trying to translate this story into a film has taken ten long years. With funding from the Independent Television Service and Native American Public Telecommunications, co-producer Malinda Maynor (a member of the Lumbee nation), writer Jessica Abbe, editor Will Parrinello and I spent the last year editing 118 hours of material down to 73 minutes. After initial screenings ranging from Native American communities to Capitol Hill, the PBS series POV ("Point of View") will air the film nationally on August 14. There have been many surprises along the way.

When we started making the film, we envisioned threats to sacred sites that were primarily industrial--mining, logging, mega-ski resorts and so forth. We found that native people are just as worried about rock climbers who scale sacred places and New Age spiritual seekers who sing songs, beat drums, make exotic pilgrimages and hold expensive healing workshops at Indian ceremonial sites. It turns out that well-intentioned baby-boomers are harming sacred sites, too.

Another surprise was the discovery of the evolution of federal land management policies. For more than 100 years, the US government repressed and even outlawed native religious ceremonies. The right to practice indigenous religions in the US actually had to be affirmed by an act of Congress. The repression officially ended in 1978 with passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act.

Given this long history of religious persecution, we were surprised to discover enlightened government land managers who were struggling to incorporate respect for native traditions into official US policy. Women like Deb Liggett, former Superintendent of Devils Tower National Monument, who brought rock climbers and Indians together for two years of conversation that has reduced climbing at Devils Tower by 85 percent. Sharon Heywood, Superintendent of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, refused to permit a new ski resort on Mt Shasta after hearing Wintu concerns about the potential impact of the proposed development on the mountain's sacred sites.

In Hopi country there is also some good news. The White Vulcan Mine in the San Francisco Peaks (which was providing pumice to soften stone-washed jeans) was recently closed following an intense campaign by the Sierra Club and 13 tribes ["Sacred Peaks and Stone-washed Jeans," Winter 2000-1 EIJ]. Former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt brokered a deal to buy out the owners for $1 million and reclamation on the damaged eastern slope of the sacred mountain began this spring.

But there are still dark skies over Black Mesa. The Peabody Coal Company continues to pump three million gallons of pristine underground water each day to slurry coal through a 273 mile-long pipeline to the Mojave Generating Station in Nevada. An October 2000 Natural Resources Defense Council report entitled "Drawdown" found that the Department of Interior's own hydrological data shows that Hopi springs are being seriously depleted by Peabody's extraction of groundwater.

In response to the damage to local springs--many of which have ceremonial importance in addition providing drinking water--former Hopi Tribal Chairman Vernon Masayesva has become a grassroots activist. He recently founded the nonprofit Black Mesa Trust [PO Box 33, Kykotsmovi, AZ 86039], which hopes to force Peabody to find an alternative method of moving the coal and to stop the unsustainable waste of one billion gallons of water annually.

"In 1966, when the Hopi Tribal Council signed a mining lease with Peabody, the Council was not aware of the magnitude of the mining," explains Masayesva. "Our lawyer explained to the Council that underneath us is a huge ocean of water, and that the mining company will just take one cup from a sea of water. Today, the mining company is extracting 4,000 acre-feet of water per year. If you take this much water from a desert land that gets less than 12 inches a year, it doesn't take a brainy person to know there's going to be serious damage."

Documents also emerged last year that substantiated rumors that have long circulated around the Hopi mesas. During the 1960s, while the mining lease was being negotiated, the Hopi Tribe's attorney, John S. Boyden of Utah, was simultaneously billing Peabody Coal for expenses. Some Hopis feel that this conflict-of-interest alone should be enough to stop the slurry line and perhaps even void the entire coalmining lease.

Why should people care about Native American sacred places?

This struggle goes beyond environmental concerns about the survival of biological and cultural diversity, the extraction of resources like water, coal, gold, old-growth timber, or the dumping of toxic waste on Indian lands. It goes beyond the philosophical values we ascribe to religious freedom and environmental justice. It goes to the deepest need we all feel for meaning, identity and connection to home, to place, to community and to that elusive presence we call "the sacred." All of those issues are addressed in the struggle of native people to protect their sacred places.

What can each of us do to protect sacred sites? It starts with looking at the land in a new way. It requires asking: "Where are the places that are sacred to me and to my ancestors?"

If environmentalists could incorporate sacred land into models for sustainable economic development and reach consensus on which places are so important to the local community that they must be protected or restored, with Native Americans at the table and directing the dialogue, we would be taking a big step toward reconciliation with our history, with the earth and with indigenous peoples. Surely we are a big enough country--both in geography and in spirit--to respect and protect Native American sacred lands.

Christopher "Toby" McLeod directs Earth Island's Sacred Land Film Project [PO Box C-151, La Honda, CA 94020,]. He produced and directed In the Light of Reverence, which airs nationally on the Public Broadcasting System series POV (Point of View) on August 14 at 10 PM (check your local television listings). The film is distributed by Bullfrog Films (800) 543-3764.

© Earth Island Journal, Summer 2001