I heard Winona La Duke, the charismatic Anishinabe (Ojibway/Chippewa) environmental activist, speak at Oregon Country Fair. Winona is from the White Earth Reservation in northern Minnesota. She is a passionate speaker, writer, founder of Honor the Earth, and was Ralph Nader’s vice-presidential running mate in the 1996 and 2000 elections.
Winona spoke about the Native American concept of “the sacred” and how its meaning becomes distorted when translated into the language of the courtroom. She talked about Bear Butte State Park in South Dakota, one of the most sacred sites for all of the tribes of the Plains. This is where the Cheyenne received the seven sacred arrows from the Great Spirit, the foundation of their spiritual life. This is also where Red Cloud, Crazy Horse and Sitting Bull sought vision, and where, in 1857, many Indian nations gathered to discuss the advancement of white settlers into the Black Hills.
Before Mato Paha (Bear Mountain) was declared a state park, the local tribes went to court and argued it would open this most holy place to endless processions of tourists trampling on their vision quest grounds. The court, in its language of evidence and proof, wanted to know how long Indians had been praying there and if there was written evidence. Expert witnesses testified about conflicting evidence regarding how the site was used, and for how long.
The Courts established Bear Butte State Park, for the greater good of all the people, They did acknowledge and make provisos for its sacred use. On the way up the well-marked path, there are signs saying “Do Not Disturb, Indians Praying.” Winona likened it to putting a golf course on Mount Sinai and telling people to be quiet between the sixth and seventh holes because sacred ceremonies were being held there.
A few weeks ago, the U.S. Forest Service gave Arizona’s Snow Bowl, the ski resort atop Mount Humphrey, the go-ahead to make artificial snow. This is the highest peak in Arizona and is central to the spiritual life of the Hopi and Navajo. Twenty years ago, the tribes of Arizona filed suit in Federal Court to halt the development of the sacred mountain, but it was developed anyway. In the ensuing decades, Indian holy places have been desecrated and traditional religious activities interfered with.
The Snow Bowl has just completed its best year ever, but it didn’t make up for several terrible years because of the state’s drought. Some seasons lasted for less than a month, and the Snow Bowl said that they would have to close, unless they received permission to make snow consistently. Skiing contributes an estimated $20 million annually to Flagstaff’s economy and employs about 400 people.
Implementing this snow-making upgrade will require the removal of a thousand trees and grading the slopes. The Indians are suing again, saying something about the continual abuse of the face of the Earth Mother, and so the recent Forest Service decision has been temporarily put on hold. But we know the outcome in a courtroom . . . talk of the face of your mother versus the potential for its exploitation and impact on the economy.
In the legal language of the courtroom, and in our culture as well, the sacred is too poorly a defined concept on which to base our judgements. The sacred cannot be defined in the language of the courtroom. The sacred is defined only in the language of the spirit. To understand sacred peak speak we have to listen to the language of the heart.