Sacred Landscapes: To Developers They're Just Piles of Rocks. to Native Americans, They're Places of Worship

Article excerpt

LAST SUMMER, MORE THAN 10,000 SHEEP, horses, and cattle perished in the Navajo Nation as one of the most severe droughts in the last century seared the American Southwest. It was a time of great hardship, and many families prayed every day for rain--to water their livestock and crops, to fill dry lakebeds and dams, and to nourish remaining foliage and forests.

Water is sacred to the Dine, or Navajo people. Water is life. We are taught that if we honor our spiritual responsibilities to Ni'hima Nahasdzaan (Mother Earth) as instructed by our ancestors, we ensure there will be adequate blessings of water for survival. If not, there will be hardship.

The Dine holy people long ago warned against destruction of the natural world. Certain sacred places, they told us, must never be disturbed. These places, and certain elements, are interconnected and interdependent through reciprocal relationships that are a model for humans to follow. Life, they said, cannot exist out of balance.

"Our ancestors taught us that if we lose respect for the gods, our clan relationships, and the sacred, we may face starvation, drought, disease, and other catastrophes, just as it happened to the people before us," says Alfred W. Yazzie, a well-known hataalii' or medicine man. He fears the dominant society's greed is leading to a world out of balance, where everything we can see, smell, touch, and taste is commodified and sold. In his lifetime, he has watched the places where he goes to pray, gather medicine plants, and make offerings to the deities be devoured by development in the name of "progress."

A hundred miles away from Yazzie's home in Fort Defiance, Arizona, Hopi elders and activists are also concerned about sacred springs, streams, and wells that are drying up. They blame Peabody Energy's massive coal mine, which pumps 1.3 billion gallons of water each year from the aquifer underlying both Hopi and Navajo land. The water is used to move crushed coal in underground slurry lines 273 miles from Black Mesa in northern Arizona to a Nevada power plant that fuels the bright lights of Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles.

Under the banner of the nonprofit Black Mesa Trust, the Hopi are working with a coalition of other tribes and environmentalists, including the Sierra Club and the Natural Resources Defense Council, to protect their land, water, and culture. They know from bitter experience that it takes more than their pleas and prayers to save what they hold holy. It is a constant struggle for the Hopi and other tribes to retain access to and protect sacred sites that exist in certain mountains, rivers, forests, springs, canyons, mineral deposits, rock formations, lava tubes, craters, and areas where spiritual events occurred or medicines grow. As an increasing population puts greater burdens on the land, many of these sacred places are destroyed or damaged by logging, mining, farming, dams, or other resource-development ventures. The Native worldview of the land as a living, breathing entity is ill understood by those who think of the natural world as real estate to be carved up and sold.

Hopi religious leaders spent the past decade, for example, trying to stop the destruction of sacred shrines at Woodruff Butte, a cinder-cone peak near Flagstaff, Arizona. Tsimontukwi, named after the tsimona plant, was one of nine important pilgrimage shrines that mark the boundaries of Hopi territory. For more than 1,000 years, Hopi people had journeyed to the butte to gather eaglets for ceremonies, to pray for rain, and to collect healing plants.

But in 1990, a private landowner decided to grind Woodruff Butte into gravel to supply asphalt for Interstate 40, which crosses the homelands of a dozen tribes in the Southwest. When Hopi people objected, he offered to sell the property for $1 million, an amount they could not afford. So the gravel mining continued. …