I boarded Quantas flight #1104 to Ayers Rock three days ago. That’s what it said on the ticket and how it was announced before we were invited to board. The Australian aborigines call it Uluru, and it is among their most sacred sites. Tourists come here from all over the world to appreciate its awesomeness and also to climb this holy mountain, even though the aborigines ask them to respect their laws by not doing so. “This is a really important sacred thing that you are climbing . . . . you shouldn’t climb. It’s not the real thing about this place. The real thing is listening to everything.” The tourist industry, however, encourages the climb, hotels offer authenticated certificates attesting to the fact that you made it to the top.
Native people, whether American Indians, African tribes or Australian aboriginals, do not name great mountains after small men. Mount Rushmore is an insult to Native Americans! To carve faces of men into sacred mountains, says to indigenous people that nature is always subordinated to the will of man, and we keep doing it. For example, Bear Butte, just outside Sturgis, South Dakota, is a sacred peak for the Lakota and Cheyenne people; it is the source of their spiritual life. It is now a National Park where their vision quest grounds are open to anybody who happens to be strolling by.
Last week Sturgis became the site of a yearly motorcycle rally. It is a week-long celebration of leather, bikers and beer that draws 500,000 bikers to this town of 6,400 in a state with only 776,000 people. Recently, an entrepreneur bought land next door to Bear Butte, and he intends to build a giant biker bar and entertainment complex where he will stage a rock-and-roll extravaganza. This is always the basic cultural clash between indigenous and Western cultures — if you can buy it, you can do whatever you want to it. The fundamental difference between the two is that Westerners think of themselves as separate from the natural world in which they live.
According to anthropological calculations, the aborigines have lived here for 42,000 years. The Anangu (the people), as they call themselves, say they have lived here since the earth was created. Once numbering in the hundreds of thousands, their population has declined as have tribal people everywhere. Infectious diseases, federal resettlement, the removal of children, alcoholism, and cultural disintegration have all taken their toll.
Here in the middle of this gorgeous desolation, I watch the magnificence of this monolith unveil its holiness in the sunrise. I listen to my Anangu guide who speaks his language and teaches it to his children. He tells them this land is their Mother and that she made sure everything was here to keep them healthy, organically grown and free-range fed. He tells them, “Do not bite the hand that feeds you because it will make you sick.”
Indigenous society’s model for sustainability has the longest proven track record on earth. If we keep climbing to our own drummer, we will become sick in spirit.