Beyond Primitivism: Indigenous Religious Traditions and Modernity

By Jacob K. Olupona | Go to book overview

Chapter 12

Assaulting California’s sacred mountains

Shamans vs. New Age merchants of Nirvana

Helen McCarthy

The religious systems and practices of the indigenous peoples of California have suffered numerous detrimental consequences of colonization and hegemony of Western civilization since the time of effective contact in 1769. Indigenous religious observance endured the initial onslaught of the zealous missionary fathers, the initial colonists in California who made a concerted, proselytizing effort, aimed directly at converting the native people to Christianity through agricultural labor in the missions and intended to obliterate local, pagan religious expressions. The California peoples who survived proved to be resistant to the numerous attempts to force them to relinquish cultural and religious traditions. Some of the regions of strongest persistence are, not surprisingly, in rural areas, where the people live within their ancestral territories and thus have access to their traditional resources, including both materials and, even more importantly, their sacred landscapes. In many cases, these traditional lands are under the jurisdiction of federal and state land management agencies (for example, the Forest Service, the National Park Service, etc. ), who, according to public law, must grant Native Americans access to their religious sites and protect those opportunities for the practice of native religion. These lands, however, are also subject to the demands of competing interests, such as lumber companies, ski resort development projects, hydroelectric-generation construction, and “New Age” religions - the whole gamut of modern society.

While on the surface this seems to be a conflict over the use of the lands themselves, ultimately it is over the right of control of native heritage, symbols and tribal identity. Tribal shamans, as traditional guardians of tribal religious expression, are in the forefront of the fight against these modern assaults on their sacred landscapes. There are many struggles today in California between the agents of modernity and the indigenous people over the control of native heritage. But those which pertain specifically to sacred mountains are of particular interest, for it is within this sphere that confrontations with New Agers occur as these contemporary seekers of religious experiences attempt to appropriate native symbols and actuate them for their own redefined purposes. Data here is drawn from my own research regarding four sacred mountains: Mt. Pinos (Ventura/Kern Counties); Chews Ridge (Monterey County); Chanchelulla Peak (Trinity County); and Mt. Shasta (Siskiyou County). The most public controversy has been over Mt. Shasta, which has received national attention in the US Congress having been named in a bill proposing to significantly limit the protection of sacred sites (H. R. 563, introduced by Congressman Herger in 1995). First I will review the cultural context of pre-contact California and the religious essentialisms that have persisted into the contemporary period. I will then discuss the inherent contradictions between California tribal religious practice

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