Having recently watched an excellent documentary called “In the Light of Reverence: Protecting America’s Sacred Land“, as well as past experience with Ute, Hopi, and Apache sacred land here in Colorado, I wanted to share some personal insights into this *very* complex issue.
I think foremost that it is important for all pagans to remember that we were not in this land first. One of the most disappointing scenes in the film is when they interview a new-age woman who claims that she has as much right to access a spring sacred to the Wintu tribe because “she was once a Native American” in a past life. She then goes on to list the various cultures that she has been a part of in past lives. What angered me about this point off view, is that it is based on a colonial attitude towards other cultures that says, “Hey I can do what I want to any cultural site because I was one of them in a past life.” A ridiculous and arrogant point of view, in my opinion.
The Wintu have been doing ceremony at this particular spring for thousands of years. They were almost wiped out during the California Gold Rush. When the government payed white folk $5 for each Indian head they brought in, effectively reducing their numbers from 12,000 at time of contact to around 400+. After malaria, head hunting, and a “friendship feast” hosted by white folk in which the food was poisoned it is no wonder that this tribe is small. One of the current members of the Wintu asks a very good and tearful question. “There are a lot of other springs on this mountain, why can’t those people”, referring to Rainbow Gathering members, New-Agers, and Neo-Pagans, “go to one of them?” Indeed, why not?
The Wintu fought a proposed ski-resort that would have effected the spring, and won. In fact, they usually leave the place alone. To many Native tribes it is considered important to leave these sacred places alone. Leaving a place alone is considered a form of respect. The spring, however, is given very little time to be alone, as it’s sacred history has made it a mecca for neo-pagans, and “new-agers” of various ilk. This, in my opinion, is a continuation of cultural genocide on the Wintu. I do *not* think that cultural oppression is the intention of other folk who come to the spring and do ceremony, but ignorance on the impact that it has on Wintu.
I believe it is very important for pagans today to be respectful of these ancient sacred places. For one, the tribe to whom it is sacred has been interacting with that place for thousands of years, they know it and it’s spirits well, very well. To pop on in, do a meditation and think that you know the place fully is, I think, misguided. I look forward to any comments that you may have on this topic. Part II will focus on Devil’s Tower and the Lakota.