Native Americans, Sacredness and Sacred Places


American Indian spiritual beliefs are some of the most misrepresented elements of Native cultures.

Partly due to the idea that all Indians are alike

Partly due to the ethnocentrism of the dominant society and Christianity


“A luxury we can’t afford”


Scalia’s statement in Unemployment Division, Department of Human Resources of Oregon v. Smith (1105 S. Ct. 1595 1990):


“We cannot afford the luxury of deeming presumptively invalid…every regulation of conduct that does not protect an interest of the highest order. [We cannot] open the prospect of constitutionally required religious exemptions from civic obligations of almost every conceivable kind--ranging from… manslaughter and child neglect laws… to animal cruelty.” 


He admits this disadvantages minorities –an “unavoidable consequence” of democratic government.


Indian spiritual beliefs and their accompanying rituals have been and still are being suppressed.


“Beginning in the early 19th century, the federal government supported the "civilization" and "Christian education" of Native Americans. Congress financially supported mission activities, including 200 mission schools which prohibited students from practicing their traditional religions. The Dawes Act of 1887 outright prohibited native religious ceremonies and the practices of traditional religious figures.”  (


Prohibitions of many aspects of Indian religion during the reservation period.


Many practices, such as piercing during the sundance, went underground.


The Native American Church &  Peyote


Passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act 1978 and Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act of 1993 worked to officially undo the prohibitions, but have hardly been easy


Native Religion in prison-Clarence Syrette’s comments at Indiana State Indian commission meeting yesterday.


– We have Devil worship in our prisons!


A worldview we covet


As we’ve already talked, America sees Indians as close to nature and spiritual, characteristics many non-Native Americans seem to lack and to crave.


New Agers (we’ll see them later) borrow from it readily, but take things out of context.


Most who despise or covet Indian religion have very little understanding of its core elements.



The Complexity of Native Belief Systems


The religious views are complex, but are well defined in Vine Deloria Jr.’s God Is Red.

At the core of it are notions about sacredness and ideas of time (we talked about that last class) and space.


Sacredness is a profoundly difficult concept for many people to understand, especially from an Indian perspective.


Various words for it, but with similar meanings


How to understand it? May be impossible, but there is life—an energetic presence—as Stoffle and Deloria say,  in everything, and all things are connected. (Segments that follow are from S & D)


“Aside from the words describing the existence of this energetic presence, unlike western and world religions, there is little effort made by traditional practitioners to achieve a clear definition of the substance, the role, or the meaning of this presence. There is, in fact, extreme reluctance to pronounce the sacred name of this mysterious presence and consequently the language of allusion and indirect discourse are used when referring to this mystery. Sacredness, in its first and deepest encounter, requires that a boundary of respect be drawn around our experience and/or knowledge of this personal energetic presence. At the very deepest levels of religious knowledge, Native people do not, and as a rule will not, speculate on the basic functions of ultimate reality. They simply accept it as a given.”


“Most tribal traditions begin with the process of creation, continue with migration traditions in which the people move through a variety of worlds, through changing conditions within a particular world, or in pilgrimages across now-familiar landscapes to arrive at designated locations where they are instructed to live.”


“A significant proportion of ceremonial activity enacts the primordial experience of creation or migration and is understood as the primary balancing of cosmic forces to ensure continued existence of the world as we know it.”


“No entity in and of itself has value exceeding that of any other but the roles which various entities are asked to play may vary considerably in significance when understood from the human perspective. “


“Given this cosmic parity, there is very little emphasis on "worshiping" these other entities. Rather the concentration is that of petitioning the spirit to assist the human in certain kinds of tasks and in certain kinds of situations. Ceremonial focus could be said to consist of petitions and thanksgivings for past assistance.”

“When a religious practitioner in an American Indian ritual or ceremony states that a rock represents the earth or a familiar mountain, the designation means that the earth or the mountain is actually present in the ceremony, present in the same way as if the entity had personally sent a representative to the ceremony with full instructions to participate in the proceedings. Insisting that the entity is actually present means that the ceremonial event is a real and integral part of the ongoing cosmic process.”


Sacred Sites


A landmark Supreme Court case: Lyng v. Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association (485 U.S. 439 1988)


The Supreme Court narrowly defined the federal government’s responsibility to protect religious freedom. The court allowed for the U.S. Forest Service to construct a road on USFS land, despite recognizing that construction through the cemetery would "destroy the...Indians’ ability to practice their religion." Although a 1996 Executive Order instructed federal agencies to accommodate Native Americans’ use of ceremonial sites and to avoid "adversely affecting the physical integrity" of sites, Native Americans have nonetheless had to struggle to protect sites on a case by case basis.


The Problem still goes on.  Homeland Security fence in SW California. Congress will vote soon whether to suspend AIRFA, NAGPRA, ARPA, and other laws that protect Native sites.


The problems actually are more local and go on all the time.  Buffalo Ridge and Wind turbines in Minnesota


Cell towers in Indiana, Iowa and elsewhere


What is a sacred site?


Tom Ross (Dakota) says that one way to understand it is that the sacred is everywhere, but that like rain, it tends to pool in certain spots.


Stoffle &  Deloria


“Tribal religions view the landscape as an integral part of religious experience because it is not only the locus for human experience but the earth itself is a living entity and manifests its relationship to all forms of life by sustaining them.


Landscapes have interlocking sets of locations which are holy in and of themselves because they are the most specific means whereby the earth can relate to lesser entities.


Attempting to evaluate the relative importance of certain kinds of practices or materials from outside the religious context is difficult if not impossible.


Forcing religious experiences into foreign interpretive frameworks does violence to the understanding of the factors that are actually involved. Misunderstandings and transfers of emphasis can lead to embarrassment and conflict that is unnecessary.


Sacred sites are not unusual in the world religious traditions.


No sacred site stands alone.


It is always within a set of religious relationships best described as "linkage" in which traditions about a particular location do not make sense unless information about the other locations and their part in a larger religious or historical sequence is known.


Linkage can also be seen in tracing the paths of activity of culture heroes, ancient migrations, or the progress of the Creator as the world in which we live was made.


Pilgrimages are sometimes required of the people in which they re-enact the events of ancient times. A pilgrimage may move from one sacred location to another, the path which is used then becoming part of the sacredness of the two locations for the duration of the pilgrimage.”


Types of Sacred Sites

Professor Deward Walker (1991) has, among others, drawn up a useful list of major characteristics of Native American sacred sites that enables one to grasp the cultural and historical context in which Indian people themselves view these locations. The following hold true for many Native American traditions:

  1. a body of mythic accounts explain cultural origins; these are often linked to particular places and features in natural landscapes;


  1. calendrical rituals give social form and express religious beliefs that permit members to experience the events of their mythology in various ritual and geographic settings;


  1. a reliance of dreams and visions as access to spiritual power and as the primary source of sacred knowledge, with dreaming often tied to particular sites;


  1. belief that while all aspects of nature and culture are potentially sacred, there are specific times and places that possess special sacredness; such "portals" may include rock markings.

The following kinds of sacred sites are common, but the list is not all inclusive nor do all tribes have all types of sites:


Creation Story Locations and Boundaries


Sacred Portals Recounting Star Migrations


Universal Center Locations


Historical Migration Destiny Locations


Places of Prehistoric Revelations


Traditional Vision Quest Sites


Plant-Animal Relationship Locations


Mourning and Condolence Sites


Historical Past Occupancy Sites


Spirit Sites


Recent Historical Event Locations


Plant, Animal and Mineral Gathering Sites


Sanctified Ground


Sacred Lands project


Responsible for In the Light of Reverence