With co-author Greg Greenberg in Wicazō Ṡa Review 28.2; Nov. 2013: 30-59
Although Native American sacred sites are federally and locally protected, hitches in the laws and rampant urban growth and development have allowed these places to be increasingly threatened with appropriation, exploitation, and destruction by nonnative agents, both governmental and private, who do not in general appreciate their significance to traditional cultures. Because belief in sacred places has been linked to greater environmental awareness and concern, we suggest that conveyance of the inherent sanctity of the land to those who do not share it might encourage a new way of looking at the environment—one that respects it and cares for it because of its innate, multi-cultural meanings. The question becomes: what form should this conveyance of belief take? We argue that analyzing the mythic traditions of three California Indian groups—the Chumash, the Kumeyaay, and the Mojave—will confirm that they, like the stories of many indigenous groups, cohere with traditional ecocultural knowledge and articulate belief in a sanctified environment that inspires its ethical care. Seen this way, Native American narratives have potential as ecoethical discourse that ostensibly might be used during land-use discussions. The mandated consultations of California Senate Bill 18 (2004) and Section 106 (2004) of the National Historic Preservation Act would thus appear to be the latest steps forward in the direction of greater nonindigenous recognition of and respect for ecoethical American Indian worldviews. In so doing, consultations may be construed as facilitating a process of indigenization in nonnative planners and developers that might help them experience a reattachment to place and a desire to care for the environment that seems mandatory in order to avert our intensifying ecocrisis.
Since its origins during the past quarter century, environmental ethics—the study of human interaction with and attitudes toward their surroundings—has morphed into a multidisciplinary field, as awareness of a global ecocrisis grows. Awareness, however, has not always translated into ecoethical attitudes and behavior. Many believe that a new discourse is needed: one that is informed not only by multidisciplinary approaches, but that unifies us collectively and points us toward a more responsible treatment of nature. An ecological and psychological—or ecopsychological—approach to the mythic traditions of three California Indian groups, the Chumash, the Kumeyaay, and the Mojave, will confirm that they, like those of many North American indigenous groups, cohere with traditional ecocultural knowledge and articulate belief in a sanctified environment that inspires its ethical care.
Such belief in sacred places has been linked to greater ecoethical attitudes by social science researchers who collaborated on a study identifying “specific religious and/or spiritual beliefs (i.e., beliefs that nature is sacred) that were predictive of pro-environmental beliefs and behaviors.” Although this study used a subject group of Presbyterian Church members and not indigenes, the implications of its results seem clear: “[S]anctifying nature could lead to greater care and investment in its protection.” Thus, it makes sense that Native American mythic narratives like those of the Chumash, Kumeyaay, and Mojave might provide an expression of the sacredness of places with the goal of protecting them. Because of these attributes, indigenous narratives hold promise for conveying the ecocultural value of places to the generally nonindigenous planning and land development fields.
Moreover, mythic narratives offer a template for community action on the part of tribal members when they perceive their sacred sites to be threatened. This activism was observed when the Kumeyaay of California’s San Diego County succeeded in protecting their most sacred site, Kuuchamaa Mountain (Tecate Peak), from the Bureau of Land Management’s (BLM) proposal of a power line over it during the 1980s. However, they managed to communicate their belief about the mountain only after tribal members led a group of BLM officials up it, pointing out along the way each specific sacred site and the story behind it.
The intercultural communication problems encountered during negotiations in the Kuuchamaa and other cases have highlighted the need for a mode of discourse that might better facilitate conveyance of the indigenous sense of connection to the land and its sacredness. Current sacred sites legislation strives to address this quandary by mandating consultations between tribal leaders and government agencies before decisions to develop sites having cultural and/or religious value are made. As the task of such consultations is to convey native cultural attachment to specific places and their artifacts, the Kuuchamaa case suggests that Native American mythic narratives may provide a means for expressing ecoethical ideology as well as psychospiritual meaning.
Growing nonindigenous appreciation for tribal traditions combined with increased political influence of Native American groups have led to the adoption and amendment of such laws as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA), Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act (NHPA), the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), and California’s Sacred Sites Bill (SB 18). Because the latter three mandate consultations between planning and development entities and tribes, we suggest that indigenous myths may be useful for expressing place sanctification during these interactions.
Case studies: the Kumeyaay, Chumash, and Mojave Tribes
The case of cultural site Kuuchamaa shows how a local native group, the Kumeyaay, also known as the Diegueño-Kamia, cooperated with a federal government entity (the BLM) in order to preserve a sacred mountain. Until this event, much of the Kumeyaay spiritual beliefs about Kuuchamaa Mountain had remained secret because of the tribe’s religious views that banned their disclosure. The Kumeyaay believed that speaking about the mountain and the beliefs related to it was forbidden “except on proper occasions.” Inappropriate discussion of either the Kumeyaay religion or Kuuchamaa was thought to result in death.
However, in order to protect Kuuchamaa, Kumeyaay leaders realized the dire need to express the significance of the site, and they decided against tradition to speak up about its religious meaning. The sacred nature of the peak was first brought to the attention of the BLM in 1979 when elders of the tribe publicly identified the site as sacred and requested that a proposed power line be installed below rather than over the mountain. Following this event, BLM officials sought verification of Kuuchamaa’s sacredness “in order to nominate it as a national historic site.” The National Register of Historic Places now lists the mountain from a boundary height of 3000 feet to its peak of 3885 feet—the region considered sacrosanct by the Kumeyaay—as traditional cultural property. Unfortunately, however, being listed in the Register does not guarantee protection; it only specifies that tribes should be consulted before any decision to develop is made.
In order to determine its cultural value, two trips were made to the mountain, during which beliefs about the site were discussed by the Kumeyaay elders, who related to BLM officials how their “Creator God Spirit, Maayhaay, put the mountain there as the most sacred place [and designated it] as the central location for acquiring power for good, healing, and peace.” The mountain was considered more sacred than any other and was declared by Maayhaay to be the home of the tribe’s greatest spirit/prophet, Kuuchamaa, a shaman (kuseyaay) of great power who led and taught the others to be peaceful, cooperative, and helpful. At his death, Kuuchamaa was cremated and his ashes buried on top of the mountain. Through time it became known as a place for healing the sick and for cremating other powerful shamans of the tribe. The personification of the mountain as Kuuchamaa demonstrates Kumeyaay sense of autochthony—a religious experience of belonging to a place.
The legend of Kuuchamaa highlights how a culture’s spiritual attachment to place may be expressed in its mythology. The Kumeyaay are not alone in this regard; many Native American traditions, including another California group, the Chumash, feature similar cosmogonic motifs of sacred place identification in their stories. The Chumash correlate for Kuuchamaa is ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, a mountain on the border between Ventura and Kern counties in the coastal-south-central part of the state, which is mythologized in a story of the same title.
As is Kuuchamaa by the Kumeyaay, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu is revered by the Chumash as a sacred place, although not because of its anthropomorphism but for its herbimorphism. Called Mount Piños by nonindigenous Californians for its bountiful piñon pines that provided the cherished nuts that were ground by native women into meal and flour, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu had the added dimension of being the tallest mountain in the Chumash region. Also like Kuuchamaa, the myth of ˀIwhɨnmuˀu proscribed certain activities; for example, collecting the prized piñon nuts on its ridge was taboo, and those who defied the ˀIwhɨnmuˀu taboos were subject to punishment and death.
As with the Kumeyaay, the Chumash demonstrated their inspiriting of the cosmos by personifying animal, plant, and inorganic worlds. In Chumash mythology, nothing separated humans from their environment or differentiated human from beast, which through their transformation rendered each theoretically comparable to the other. Chumash historian Thomas C. Blackburn notes that the “ecological and philosophical implications of such an ideological structure are of considerable interest” in that they support the notion of an embedded environmental ethic in Chumash oral tradition. This ethos is communicated through narratives that instill the pantheistic concept that “the world is God.”
ˀIwhɨnmuˀu’s cultural significance had to do with its being the mountain that is nearest the center of the traditional Chumash lands that encompassed some or all of what are now Ventura, Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Kern counties. Because of this it was considered to be the center of the world, or liyikšup—one of three realms in the Chumash cosmos, adding to its sacredness. Similarly for the Mojave of the desert that now bears their name, Avikwame was a sacred mountain and the center of their world. Like Kuuchamaa, Avikwame figures prominently in the Mojave creation myth. Known also as Spirit Mountain, Avikwame rises a mile above the Colorado River near what is now Lake Mead, Nevada, at the southernmost point of the state.
Avikwame is believed to have been settled by Mastamho, the Mojave deity who carried the people on his arms to their new home after arriving by boat at the northern head of the Gulf of California. Although the Mojave more closely resemble other southwestern tribes like the Hopi and Navajo in some ways, one Californian trait they share is the eminence of a hero creator in Mastamho, who functions like Maayhaay for the Kumeyaay. Like Kuuchamaa, Avikwame has been designated a traditional cultural property in its listing on the National Register of Historic Places.
Through their representations as sacred mountains, ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, Avikwame, and Kuuchamaa illustrate what ethnologist Paul Zolbrod calls cosmo-organisms—entities involved in the creation myths of their cultures. New Mexico, Arizona, and other states in addition to California have sacred mountains that mark places where Pueblo, Hopi, Navajo, Yurok, Karok, Tolowa, and other peoples settled upon completing their ancient migrations. Mountains and other cosmo-organisms also mark places where spiritual relationships with the various forms of life who participate in ceremonials were first established. For indigenous cultures, these cosmo-organisms clearly demonstrate the inspiriting of nature.
Although the Chumash “ˀIwhɨnmuˀu Mountain” is not a creation story per se, such as was noted above with the Kumeyaay Kuuchamaa and Mojave Avikwame, it nonetheless functions like them as a mythological narrative of place. By this is meant a story that imparts to its listeners something that may be described as sense of place. In other words, in the telling and hearing of the story, its setting is sanctified beyond even the rest of the natural environment. This perspective—that all nature is sacred, but there are specific sites even more sacred—has been difficult to grasp by nonnatives identifying with organized religions, who are not inclined to view the environment as sacrosanct, according to studies.
From the above discussion, it may be seen that ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, Avikwame, and Kuuchamaa are examples of a type of cultural landscape that anthropologists Richard W. Stoffle et al. call “ecoscapes”—ecological landscapes that express the “special relationship between American Indian cultural landscapes and the natural ecosystems they encompass.” Ecoscapes comprise recognizable terrain like mountains, canyons, or hot springs, and have been named by both Indian and non-Indian people. For example, Kuuchamaa the mountain is said to resemble the Kumeyaay creation being of the same name lying down. Indians ultimately define an ecoscape by incorporating specific geography into their culture and crafting stories about it. In this way, ecoscapes constitute traditional cultural property.
Like the Kumeyaay, the Chumash have succeeded in stopping the development of a sacred site. In 2009, the developer that had applied to build a Marriott hotel complex in Goleta, California, withdrew its request after being threatened with a lawsuit by a group claiming the site had “high cultural and archeological value.” In their lawsuit against the City of Goleta following the City Council’s initial approval of the Marriott, the plaintiffs invoked the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA), which they said the city violated when it neglected to require an environmental review (ER) of the site. The purpose of the ER would have been to study the expressed concerns of Chumash descendants who asserted that the site was a “‘sensitive Native American cultural resource.’” Although the developer ultimately backed out—a victory for the Chumash plaintiffs and sacred site preservation—this experience highlighted the inadequacies of environmental laws that may mandate certain actions but do not provide for the oversight that would ensure they are followed.
The problem of oversight has been demonstrated by the recent unearthing of human remains believed to be those of ancient indigenes near the Genesis solar energy project 200 miles east of Los Angeles in the Mojave Desert. Although the project had been approved, the Colorado River Indian Tribes—a federally recognized group of four tribes that includes the Mojave—whose reservation abuts the project area and who consider it to be on their ancestral lands, complained that they were not consulted beforehand, despite the requirement of such consultations not only in SB 18 and Section 106 of the NHPA, but in the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Indians say the discoveries of a human tooth and some burned bone fragments constitute evidence of an Indian cremation site previously undetected in Southern California Edison’s archaeological survey before beginning excavation. When the Indians attempted to rebury the cremains a few hundred feet away, they came upon more ancestral bones, prompting them to demand that the Obama administration step in to slow down the project. The tribes claim that in their rush to build the Genesis solar project, archaeological surveys missed these and another cremation site. Citing the legally powerful NAGPRA, the Indians say Genesis and its transmission line corridor are “proof of damage to sacred lands [and they] are readying court challenges that could alter solar and wind energy projects across the desert.”
Government Resource Planning and Environmental Development
The cases above illustrate that although the establishment of the environmental planning field was intended to serve the common public good, Native American communities have been largely ignored by a mostly Eurocentric group that has “not much involved itself in the concerns of indigenous peoples.” Because of this obliviousness to their culture, indigenous peoples believe that “state-directed land and resource planning has largely failed them.” In fact, the western reliance upon a scientific, “‘rational-comprehensive’” approach to environmental development has “tended to disempower and marginalize indigenous communities and interests, dismiss their cultural, religious, and other concerns as irrational, and ensure the imposition of external values, interests, and plans in indigenous domains.” As a result, Native American groups are overrepresented in the categories of people who lack basic human rights, live in poverty, and work for others under exploitative or unjust conditions.
The Colorado River Indian Tribes case in particular highlights what has been centuries of nonindigenous resistance to American Indian concerns. As David Singleton, a program analyst with the California Native American Heritage Commission, says, “‘We’re at a flash point over a general unwillingness to listen to and respect the tribal perspective and advice.’” This reluctance to consult is reflected by the decades-long collision of interests along the California coast, where urbanization destroyed most Native American village sites, according to archaeologist Jon Erlandson, director of the University of Oregon Museum of Cultural and Natural History who has expertise in the development of California Indian country. “‘The relatively undeveloped deserts are next in line,’” Erlandson says, and they are being threatened by “‘fast-track processes that do not involve a lot of thorough research before building something [and] are setting the stage for future conflicts and potential disasters.’” As a result, developers are learning the hard way that it behooves them not only in terms of intercultural good will but financially “‘to slow down, consult with tribes, and place projects in areas where they do the least amount of damage possible,’” given the strength of the federal and state laws protecting cultural artifacts.
The resolution of this case may come down to one question, according to Los Angeles Times reporter Louis Sahagun, who asks, “Does the cultural importance of long-buried Native American remains outweigh the need to rapidly build solar and wind energy projects to meet the enormous threat of global climate change?” Put more bluntly, “should a project like Genesis be scuttled by what an executive for its owner called “‘a diffuse scatter of artifacts’?” Yet, what one person dismisses as a “diffuse scatter,” others consider sacred. Even when asked to compare sites like these to western cemeteries, nonnatives still seem unable to understand the significance of charred bones seemingly strewn haphazardly throughout large expanses of desert.
From the above response by Genesis’s nonnative management, it seems clear that, as Paul Newman famously observed in Cool Hand Luke, “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” BLM Deputy State Director Thomas Pogacnik acknowledges that Native Americans are justified for their anger toward his agency’s fast-track process, “given that it relied almost entirely on information provided by developers to determine where to place the first ‘high-priority’ wind and solar projects on public land.” To ameliorate this situation, Pogacnik has promised to include more input from tribes in the future, saying, “‘We learned a lot from that first go-round of projects that there is a better way of doing things.’” Presumably he means that it is more efficient—economically and socially—for all interested parties to consult before undertaking development projects.
Intercultural communication seems to be thwarted by three main barriers preventing regional coordination between tribes and local governments: differences in planning approaches, differences in cultures, and jurisdictional obstacles. Differences in planning approaches and culture are deeply rooted. For one thing, the United States was established through the elimination and displacement of Native Americans by European immigrants, many of whom believed theirs was a superior culture, rationalizing their domination over the native population. These biases allowed the U. S. government to justify the physical removal of native peoples from their homelands through relocation and/or formal and informal policies of extermination, followed by programs of social and political assimilation, most notably involving the separation of Native American children from their families and their ensuing placement in boarding schools. The consequence of this forced segregation is that Euro-American and Native American communities have been psychically and physically isolated from one another in the last two centuries.
Compounding this problem, the U. S. removal policy, which amputated people from their original homelands and their sacred sites, means that many of these traditional cultural places are no longer on native-held land. In fact, according to Native American legislation scholar Amber L. McDonald, the “majority of sacred sites that are outside Native American possession are held by the federal government.” Yet, as the above Genesis project clearly demonstrated, predominantly Euro-American governmental agents continue to make development decisions that impact Native American communities, frequently to their detriment and, arguably, to the detriment of the environment.
From the above it may be seen that western and indigenous people often differ in the ways they view landscapes. For one thing, although western cultures view time as linear and following in a progression, indigenous cultures usually view time as cyclical, and at some places the past is still alive. Additionally, westerners are inclined to perceive a landscape as an observable set of objects that can be utilized, but indigenous cultures tend to perceive themselves as in a constant relationship with the land. This difference in perspective is particularly noticeable in land rights issues. For nonnatives, private ownership often trumps whatever traditional cultural resources there might be on a parcel of land. Such conflict has played out many times despite the existence of the AIRFA.
A major factor in this polemic seems to be that although the AIRFA as originally passed guaranteed religious freedom—the right to continue worshipping and celebrating at sacred places, whether on or off a reservation—it had “no teeth.” What this meant was Native Americans were rarely consulted or even notified before development of a sacred site, and they were consequently forced to file lawsuits to stop the ensuing desecration and damage, as seen in the cases above. In some cases, the Supreme Court has stepped in to decide, as happened in 2000 when a non-Indian landowner sued for the right to cut timber on a Hoopa Valley Tribe White Deerskin Dance Ground in northern California. Although the Court decided in favor of the Hoopa Valley Tribe, the landowner had already begun tree cutting on the site.
A similar case occurred involving Mount Shasta, an extinct volcano in northern California that is spiritually significant to several Indian tribes who considered it eligible for the National Register. The nonindigenous keeper of the Register initially agreed that the mountain deserved protection. However, when local property owners, who wanted a proposed ski lift project to go through, applied pressure, the keeper agreed to tour the site and ultimately changed his mind, allowing the project to go through. It seems the keeper toured the mountain, but did so without consulting with the tribes. As a result, his decision reflected his idea of sacredness—not the tribes’. These two cases thus highlighted the need for a better mode of communicating the sanctity of place to agents with conflicting perspectives about the land. To that end, Section 106 of the NHPA (2004) and SB 18 (2004) were amended and/or enacted.
Place Attachment and Dis-placement
Native American reverence for sacred sites indicates the strong place-sense experienced in traditional cultures. Indeed, attachment to place is the prevailing referent when defining indigenous peoples. Accordingly, place is fundamental to indigenous culture, identity, and social organization. Moreover, it is only within this context that indigenous rights to land and their control of natural resources can be comprehended. Linda Otero, a leader of the Fort Mojave Indian Tribe, which is working with the Colorado tribes on the Genesis project, observes that even though the remains discovered were outside the reservation boundary, they are part of “‘a living spiritual world’” whose ancestral peace and relationship with the land has been disrupted. Moreover, once disruption occurs, there is “‘no mitigation for such a loss.’” Otero’s comments clearly display the attachment to place experienced by many Indians.
On the other hand, nonindigenous Americans are by definition detached from place—they are dis-placed—thanks to the mass emigration of their forebears from Europe in the 1600s. For these nonnatives, this means that they feel responsibility only to themselves and not to society, according to religions historian Mircea Eliade. For them, “the universe does not properly constitute a cosmos—that is, a living and articulated unity; it is simply the sum of the material reserves and physical energies of the planet.” Ecopsycholgically, lacking an archaic connection to not just land but this land—this place where one finds oneself living—nonnatives “otherize” their surroundings, which become mere objects for exploitation. This literal dislocation from the land of their ancestors has created for many nonindigenous Americans a psycho-spiritual sense of alienation that is explained by Eliade in the following way:
That human beings are born of the earth is a universally disseminated belief. In a number of languages [humans are] called earthborn. It is believed that children “come” from the depths of the earth. … It is the religious experience of autochthony; the feeling is that of belonging to a place, and it is a cosmically structured feeling that goes far beyond family or ancestral solidarity.
Such feelings of place attachment may be broken as a result of transcontinental migration, as when the first Europeans to arrive in the New World abandoned the “religious experience of autochthony” that they felt in the Old World and found instead a hostile environment quite unlike their birth lands. This uprooting must have been disorienting, leading migrants to make sense of their new locale the only way they could: by comparing it to the one described in the one life-governing mythology they had, the Bible. Consequently, Euro-American settling was often regarded as something like Jesus’ wandering in the desert. Nature was now a “howling wilderness” to be tamed and dominated. Colonization became a spiritual quest—a test of faith and endurance whose goal was redemption.
Euro-Americans are further compromised by their rationalistic, anthropocentric worldview that began as human consciousness emerged from its unconscious origins, which has contributed to their sense of separation from the earth. Because of this, the western ethos “has encouraged human alienation from the natural environment,” according to J. Baird Callicott. Moreover, because the Judeo-Christian tradition emerged from the Semitic spiritual perspective of a separate and distinct God, as well as from a patriarchal social structure, sacredness for westerners has overtones of authority, power, distance, and maleness. This psychic separation makes it difficult for Euro-American planners to understand or respect the land-use needs of Native Americans, who have such different worldviews and a much more deeply rooted history in America. This inability to grasp the cultural and religious beliefs that tie native peoples to places presents ongoing challenges for nonindigenous environmental planners and developers.
Changing Perspectives on Place
The NAGPRA was enacted in 1990 by Congress to provide for the protection of Native American graves, particularly those on public, nonreservation lands. The NAGPRA specified that cultural items, including human remains, funerary objects, and sacred artifacts, found to belong to Indians and native Hawaiians must be returned to them. In order to determine the rightful owners of these cultural items, a review committee was to be set up that mandated Native American participation. In addition, the intentional removal or excavation of Native American cultural items from Federal or tribal lands for purposes of discovery or study was permitted only “after consultation with or, in the case of tribal lands, consent of the appropriate (if any) Indian tribe.” However, although the NAGPRA gives federal district courts “jurisdiction over any action brought by any person alleging a violation of this Act” and the authority to enforce its provisions, it does not explicitly address legal ramifications for failing to engage in the mandated consultations. As a result of this inadequacy, the Colorado River Indians’ only recourse was to slow or stop the Genesis project with a lawsuit; they could not bring action for not being consulted before the project was begun. Moreover, if discovery of cultural artifacts had been made on privately owned property, the tribes would have had no recourse whatsoever.
SB 18 (2004) and Section 106 (2004) of the NHPA attempt to broaden awareness of and generate appreciation for Native American sacred places and culture through mandated consultations between tribes and planners. SB 18 requires these consultations “for the purpose of preserving specified places, features, and objects that are located within the city or county’s jurisdiction” to take place prior to the adoption or amendment of a city or county’s general or specific plan. SB 18 defines such discourse as “the meaningful and timely process of seeking, discussing, and considering carefully the views of others, in a manner that is cognizant of all parties’ cultural values and, where feasible, seeking agreement.” In addition, SB 18 specifically mandates the consideration of sacred sites within the planning process. In other words, before a decision can be made about a proposed development, planners must hear what, if any, concerns the local Native American group might have regarding the site’s religious or cultural significance. Native American participation in planning is therefore essential if tribes wish to have any say in what development takes place and where.
The need for SB 18 has arisen due to the past failure to include Native Americans in the planning issues that exist both on and off Indian reservations, as was discussed in the cases above. In addition to cultural preservation, these issues include public health, transportation, and public safety. For years, these concerns have been generally ignored by policy-makers, planners, and developers at the federal, state, and local level. Although the establishment of the planning field was intended to serve the common public good, Indian communities have continued to be neglected by government planners. Yet, incorporating the interests of Indians into the planning system is paramount for greater social equity and stability. Doing so is a challenge, however, when cultural differences and competing interests come into play.
Under the guidelines of Section 106 of the NHPA, planning agencies are required to consult with local tribes about how to identify sacred sites, assess impacts to them, and determine what to do about such impacts. The agency is supposed to make a “reasonable and good faith effort” to locate such places, which must be studied for “protection from destruction or impairment.” Following its 2004 amendment, places have been preserved using Section 106 consultations that have led to agreements between agencies and tribes. Anthropologist Thomas F. King claims that Section 106 consultations, although not highly visible, have brought about cooperation, coordination, and preservation of some places and landscapes.
Although the above stipulations to consult seem to be steps in the right direction insofar as requiring identification and consideration of sacred sites, the onus remains upon the native groups to convey what sanctification means to them, which is not a simple task. To this end, McDonald suggests an education process that enables nonnatives to recognize that while in traditional Indian religions, “all land is sacred,” there are special places that are considered to be even more sacred than others. As noted in the Mojave, Chumash, and Kumeyaay cases above, these sites often include the birthplaces and homes of gods, places where spiritual communion and cleansing may occur, or where the world is believed to have begun. Indeed, she says, “Many Native American religions require that their adherents make pilgrimages to these sites, or that prayers, vision quests, and ceremonies or rituals be held there in a quiet, pristine, undisturbed atmosphere to maintain harmony and balance in the universe.” In other words, these sites are foundational in establishing self and cultural identity.
Moreover, in contrast to the synagogues, churches, temples, and mosques of organized religions, native traditions do not generally use such manmade structures. Unlike Catholicism, whose practitioners may worship at any Catholic church, the particular location of a Native American ceremony is vital to its success. Where places are considered sacred by westerners—for example, Civil War battlefields—they are believed so because some human event occurred there. For most Native Americans, sacred sites have spiritual powers in and of themselves and are not interchangeable. It would be viewed as sacrilegious to substitute another place for an already designated sacred site. Nor may sacred sites be moved or changed, for tampering with the physical structure of a sacred place weakens its spiritual power, renders rituals and prayers ineffective, and risks destroying “an entire ‘site-specific religion.’”
Clearly, sacred places constitute significance for most, if not all, Native Americans, for whom “birds, animals, and plants compose the ‘other peoples’ of creation and, depending on the ceremony, various of these peoples participate in human activities,” says Sioux scholar Vine Deloria, Jr. Compared to monotheists, who see only the action of a single deity as significant, traditional Indian people see the “whole of creation [as] an active participant in ceremonial life.” As a result, nonnatives are not likely to have experienced religion this way, particularly because most churches and synagogues have distinct rituals “designed to denaturalize the buildings” before services can be held there. Nonnative Americans simply have not been on their adopted continent long enough to establish the strong connection to the land and nature that Indians have.
Deloria, Jr. suggests above that the monotheist worldview restricting sacredness to buildings and rituals while “denaturalizing” nature has facilitated environmental alienation. Because western culture tends to privilege human creations over the natural world, many westerners have difficulty understanding the significance of places that lack visible manifestations of such. For example, when westerners see a burial site or a monument, they “may view it as something interesting for purposes of archaeology, or history, architecture, engineering, but its special power eludes” them. They simply do not feel the sacredness. Consequently, it can be difficult for some to understand why such places should be protected.
From a Native American standpoint, the western contribution to the ecocrisis is seen in the “tenaciously held belief that only humans matter in the scheme of things,” says Deloria, Jr. For those followers of Judeo-Christian traditions, human creation as God’s last act after all other creatures privileges humans and allows them through their “claim to naming” to gain “ascendancy over all other beings.” Here Deloria, Jr. reinforces the charge of anthropocentrism made against Christian traditions notably pointed out by Lynn White, Jr. Such self-centeredness exemplifies the disconnection from nature exhibited by many westerners. Deloria, Jr. further observes that western literature and myth contain no stories about ancestors living in a state of wildness. As a result, humans are “created to live an institutional life” which emphasizes control over nonhumans. In this way, the human-environment relationship becomes one of dominator-dominated. Thus commences western history with its creation myth of human alienation, leaving westerners with no narrative that adequately explains how they might relate ethically with the environment.
Intercultural Communication Dysfunction, Responses, and Remedies
The discussions above point to a pervasive intercultural communication dysfunction between native and nonindigenous Americans—issues that California State Bill 18 was designed to address by mandating consultations. As noted, some of the dysfunction may be attributed to a lack of awareness by many Euro-Americans of a religious sense of place attachment. However, the problem of intercultural communication dysfunction is also due in part to the difficulties many Indians have expressing their beliefs to largely nonnative planning groups. One study found that “geographic isolation, lack of resources, and lack of familiarity with planning and the decision-making process,” not to mention the government’s history of reneging on promises, have made many tribes reticent about initiating dialogues with planning groups.
Additionally, information about sacred sites can be strictly confidential, which poses other dilemmas. Secrecy has always existed among many indigenous traditions in part as a polemic against the threat of intrusive religious and political systems. For two millennia the Eleusinian mysteries of ancient Greece were enacted by followers who were sworn not to reveal any of the sacred rituals to outsiders on pain of death, an attitude shared by many native cultures, including the Kumeyaay. Thus, when their elders were asked to go up Kuuchamaa Mountain and describe its significance to BLM officials, many of them debated whether they should do so because, as discussed above, the discussion of religious beliefs was forbidden. The BLM clearly did not understand the spiritual significance of the mountain or that asking the elders to go there meant breaking a taboo. For, the Kumeyaay also believe one must be initiated as a shaman (kuseyaay)—a religious leader—before stepping foot on the mountain, and no shamans existed in the tribe at the time. Despite the agonizing conundrum faced by the Kumeyaay elders, in the end they decided that protecting the mountain trumped concerns about breaking taboos. They concluded that it was better to “go and tell their beliefs in spite of the injunction to maintain them in secrecy.” This episode demonstrated how ingrained confidentiality can be in native traditions and how it can add to communication dysfunction.
The passage of SB 18 may be a positive step forward in resolving the confidentiality issue, as consultations are mandated early in the planning process, allowing the initial information revealed by tribes to be at their discretion. King points out the possibility for consultations to observe these confidentiality issues when potential conflicts are addressed early on “in a congenial, problem-solving way.” For, if agreement is reached, there is no pressure to release the precise locations of sacred places. Conversely, if no agreement can be reached from consultation, then the tribe may still control how much information must be revealed in order to preserve the site. Essentially, under a consultative law, the tribe must weigh its options and come to what it believes is the appropriate decision regarding a particular sacred site.
Besides the confidentiality issue, Native American expression of reverence for their environment in a consultative setting is impeded by language barriers. McDonald argues that one of the main obstacles to legislative protection “is the lack of an adequate definition of the term ‘sacred.’” Part of this problem stems from its multiplicity of meanings. For example, ethnologist Keith H. Basso notes that the Western Apache have three distinct words to delineate sacredness. In addition, “at least three Apache terms could be translated (all of them imprecisely) as meaning ‘spiritual’ or ‘holy,’” and there is no Apache word for the nonnative understanding of nature. In response to this difficulty, McDonald proposes the following definition: “A sacred site is one which is sacred to those practicing traditional native religions or is otherwise of significance according to native tradition.” She includes any land that by U. S. law is confirmed to be sacred or significant according to the Native American tradition. The problem with this definition lies in proving something intangible like sacredness. Nonnative planners are often suspicious of such claims, contributing to intercultural communication dysfunction.
Another response to the above communication problems inherent in discussions between indigenous and nonindigenous resource managers is community-based natural resource management (CBNRM), a planning movement that emerged in the late 1980s. According to Michael Hibbard et al., CBNRM emphasizes planning with a “bottom-up” method and seeks to change the customary “‘environment versus economy’ approach to environmental management by infusing decentralized decision making, stakeholder collaboration, and citizen participation into the process.” CBNRM thus attempts to revision planning as place-based, views problems from a number of standpoints, and tries to balance the needs of the community, environment, and economy. By working with indigenous groups, agencies can access their knowledge and blend it with the western scientific knowledge already applied in land-use planning.
In essence, CBNRM employs collaboration to blend “‘expert’” and “‘folk’” knowledge in local-level decision making, and in doing so, “it recognizes that many indigenous groups have practiced the basic principles of sustained yield, interrelationships, and balance for thousands of years,” say Hibbard et al. In this way, the folk wisdom of many indigenous groups has proven to be invaluable in the resolution of resource management issues. Folk wisdom, or “traditional ecological knowledge” (TEK), is defined by environmental anthropologist Fikret Berkes as “a cumulative body of knowledge, practice, and belief, evolving by adaptive processes and handed down through generations by cultural transmission, about the relationship of living beings (including humans) with one another and with their environment.” As such, TEK inspires “an ethic of nondominant, respectful human-nature relationship, a sacred ecology” that shapes environmental perception, gives meaning to environmental observations, and provides a central lesson that “worldviews do matter.”
As do many others, Berkes derives contemporary environmental problems from western alienation from nature, but he believes that indigenous, relational epistemologies can teach a way back. By learning from indigenous peoples who are not alienated in this way, it is possible to develop “an alternative view of ecosystems [as] pulsating with life and spirit, incorporating people who belong to that land and who have a relationship of peaceful coexistence with other beings.” In other words, TEK, like the belief in sanctified nature, is an element of a group’s mythology as expressed in their narratives.
Narrative Epistemology, Ethics, and Environment
Anishinaabe academic Lawrence W. Gross is among many who believe that for his and other indigenous peoples, “myths teach morality, especially environmental ethics.” Indeed, environmental philosopher Jim Cheney considers it “axiomatic … that a culture that has not been environmentally ruinous in its long membership in the Earth community must … have a sophisticated and effective ethic concerning its presence and practice,” whose endurance he attributes to the “epistemology of stories.” In oral traditions, cultural knowledge is absorbed and revisioned with each telling of a story, as the narrator presents his or her unique adaptation of it. Indeed, perhaps the “primary means by which humans construct worlds is with myths or sacred stories.” Such world creation occurs as successive narrators essentially offer their versions of how the myths “live” through them, thus becoming their “distinct trails through the world.”
Gross and Cheney’s assessments concur with that of many Native Americans, including Deloria, Jr., who view trail and quest myths as containing epistemological truths about how to live correctly—that is, how to live The Indian Way. Myths have long enabled Indians to “find the proper road along which, for the duration of a person’s life, individuals were supposed to walk.” Ecocultural knowledge thus informed mythic narratives about lives lived in “reciprocal communication” with a metahuman world. Myths accordingly served an epistemological function that established a moral universe and worldview not only for the Sioux but for many Indian cultures. This “moral epistemology” becomes ingrained to the point that individuals behave ethically not because they are coerced into do so but because they know it to be right. Their worldviews cohere with environmental ethics to the point that, as First Nations leader Carol Geddes remarks, her Tlingit people “would never have a subject called environmental ethics; it is simply part of the story.”
For the above reasons, the road/trail motif seems to occur universally in many indigenous narratives. For the Southern Paiutes, who, like the Mojave, inhabit the Mojave Desert region, Stoffle et al. identify two types of “songscapes”—cultural landscapes that are related in songs—“one connected with specific trails and the other connected with the trail to the afterlife.” Because the Southern Paiutes built and maintained an intricate system of trails through the rugged desert terrain, mnemonic songs helped the trail runners remember directions. The “trail songs” were so important that only a select few individuals and their families were entrusted with maintaining them and passing them through the generations as cultural heritage. The Mojave are also known for their place-specific songs devised to lead them through the desert.
Another example of ecocultural knowledge may be seen in the Chumash story, “Momoy and the Tupnekč,” in which Old Woman Momoy, an archetypal shamaness figure, adopts a foundling, raises him as a tupnekč (grandchild), initiates him into the toloache (the entheogen Datura) cult, teaches him to hunt, and criticizes him when he continues killing animals even though they are not needed for food. At one point she says to herself, “‘He has no sense—he just goes around killing!’” When the tupnekč with the aid of Coyote kills a bear, Momoy is clearly disgusted and says, “‘Have you no sense at all? You are just killing for the sake of killing. The bear was doing no harm,’” indicating an ecoethical attitude toward hunting.
Ecocultural knowledge may be observed as well in the Kumeyaay myths once told by their shamans (kuseyaay), including the ancestral Kuuchamaa discussed above. Anthropologist Florence C. Shipek notes that the kuseyaay were responsible for transmitting the stories and legends of their ancestors and for maintaining knowledge of the most effective herbs. The myths told by the kuseyaay thus confirmed their mastery at handling some facet of the environment, whether in their knowledge of various food plants, animals, fish, and shellfish, or in controlling the weather. The Kumeyaay thereby demonstrated themselves to be “natural naturalists,” as pioneer ethnographer Washington Matthews identified the tribes he studied.
In their accounting for the “traits and behavioral characteristics of virtually every species,” Zolbrod says that Native American narratives embody ecological knowledge. It is this “systemic observation” that converges with mythopoietic expression, helping to preserve vital cultural knowledge, “often by projecting primordial cosmic origins from elements observed in the everyday world to produce poetically complex” cosmogonic stories, says Zolbrod. For example, Navajo mythological narratives illustrate that for the people,
… if the world they are charged with creating is to be a harmonious one, [it] means observing carefully the features around them as they shape the earth and fill it, and coexisting with its creatures, natural as well as supernatural. … And it means engaging in an ongoing struggle to maintain that delicate harmony—the Navajos call it hozho—if they want the earth to endure and wish themselves to endure upon it.
Zolbrod refers to a oneness with nature experienced by the Navajo as expressed in their stories. By attempting to balance the nature/human dichotomy, hozho reflects the omnipresent paradoxical oppositions of life. In this way, Navajo narratives “account for the duality within an individual that mirrors the dualities without—earth/sky, male/female, life/death.” All myths, of course, strive to bring an awareness of these oppositional dualities, whose resolution can be approached only mythopoietically—that is to say, in the imagination. Like the Chumash, Kumeyaay, Southern Paiute, and Mojave ecoscapes and songscapes described above, Navajo narratives thus may be seen to contain invaluable ecocultural knowledge.
Their myths clearly present the Navajo, Mojave, Chumash, and Kumeyaay—like many American Indians—as “students of their environment, who developed a land ethic based on long-time experience and the recognition of the reciprocity between inanimate and animate, natural and supernatural, inhabitants of the world,” according to Hibbard, et al. In this way their myths embody TEK, allowing them to practice “adaptive land management as environmental conditions changed over time.” For this reason, Indian cultures that have been strongly influenced by North American ecosystems and have clearly influenced North American ecosystems “provide powerful models for understanding the human dimension of ecosystem management.” Clearly, the time has come for planners and developers to cultivate Indian participation in land-use consultations.
The Neo-Romantic Debate
Resistance to Native American mythology may be seen in the pervasive attitude, particularly among contemporary nonindigenous theorists, that the current western interest in indigenous cultures as custodians of a special land wisdom is simply, as Callicott bemoans, “neo-romantic nonsense with an environmental spin.” The problem for radical ecologist Mick Smith is that this attention to indigenous environmental ethics “consistently romanticizes their lives and their relationships to their natural environs,” an outlook that he traces back to European colonialism and its so-called “discovery” of indigenous peoples leading seemingly idyllic lives untouched by western civilization. He thus links European imperialism with the idealization of conquered natives and considers such romanticism naïve and even pathological.
Smith further points to the eradication of numerous species since the encroachment of humans in the Americas as an example of unethical indigenous attitudes toward nature. Others also have questioned practices such as running herds over cliffs or into box canyons during hunts and semi-controlled burns once practiced in Yosemite Valley as signs of non-friendly ecological behavior, but in so doing, they overlook the fact that nonnative Americans have perpetrated far worse on the continent than any Indians, and in a shorter amount of time: the mass extinctions cited by Smith occurred over thousands, as opposed to a few hundred, years. These critics also fail to consider that the seemingly nonecoethical practices took place following Euro-American encroachment and could therefore have been responses to enormous cultural upheaval.
Callicott rebuts Smith and other critics of the “current environmental mystique surrounding American Indians” by saying that the argument over the existence of an environmental ethic within the cognitive cultures indigenous to North America has advanced “without benefit of reference to specific Native American intellectual traditions” In other words, critics have conflated the apparent anti-environmental activities of a few tribes with all, while failing to acknowledge the possibility for ecoethical behavior in unstudied subjects. Callicott maintains that when the beliefs contained in particular cultural materials are examined, an American Indian environmental ethic is, indeed, confirmed.
Callicott further suggests that such generalizing by critics about indigenous traditions is an endemic flaw of occidental thinking that “entrap[s] the intrepid comparativist” by creating “conventional intellectual categories like religion, philosophy, history, and science and all their subdivisions—theology, metaphysics, epistemology, physics, cosmology, [and] ethics,” when for many nonwestern cultures, these “categories” are all contained within their mythologies. By viewing traditional cultures only through a western, postmodern lens, anti-romantic theorists fail to see their own ethnocentric biases. By the same token, neglecting to acknowledge the legitimate need for a nonrationalist, mythological component to ecoethics in order to balance the hyperrationality of purely scientific methodology has enabled planning agencies to contribute, however unwittingly, to intercultural communication dysfunction.
In fact, when studied within the contexts of their actual locations, the evidence shows that indigenous inhabitants of the New World actively managed their natural resources. Accordingly, not only did many indigenes of North and South America not destroy the ecosystems they inhabited, they arguably improved them, as shown by studies that measured biological productivity and diversity. In this way Callicott justifies the study of Native American environmental ethics and refutes the contention that privileging indigenous traditions for their pro-environmentalism amounts merely to impossible utopian yearning.
Just as the observations above argue for indigenous narratives to communicate the sacredness of sites and ecocultural knowledge to nonindigenous planning groups, they suggest also that the development of a nonnative American environmental ethic might be informed somehow by a Native American worldview. The possibility of such an ethos is supported by Deloria, Jr., who notes the “great kinship” between western depth psychology and the American Indian traditions that has been developing. In the former he sees the recognition of a “dissociation in western culture due to its separation from nature” as contrasting with the “Indian psyche that has never experienced such a separation and for whom nature is a living experience and spiritual presence.” This affinity between Native American traditions and depth psychology lends credence to the concept that indigenous narratives embody an ecoethic of human/nature connection.
To the claim above that privileging Native American narratives amounts to “Arcadian romanticism,” ecocritic Gary Snyder responds by interpreting the neo-romantic impulse as “a quest for a sense of place.” He believes it is what compels the current fascination among writers and many young people for Native American lore that teaches about “where we all are. It can’t be learned from anybody else. We have a Western white history of 150 years, but the Native American history may be at least thirty-five thousand years.” Snyder iterates the ecological knowledge contained in indigenous narratives that is lacking in most nonnative stories. He consequently advocates for stories that express “harmony with the local place” and a lifestyle that is sustainable and can be passed on to future generations “because that is how we must learn to live.” Looking to indigenous traditions is therefore not merely romanticism but pragmatism.
All this is not to say that nonnatives should start imitating the myths and rituals of indigenous traditions in order to become more environmentally aware. Such replication was tried in the 1960s, to little avail and much ridicule, as Callicott and Michael P. Nelson point out. They further maintain that “the idea that a culture can simply cut itself off from its own cognitive stem and graft onto another seems most implausible.” Worldviews cannot be put on or taken off like clothing; they come from eons of psychic input. The profound and necessary shift in western cultural attitudes toward nature cannot be achieved simply by assuming the values indigenous to the Americas. For, attitudes and values are acquired from narratives that embed an ecoethical worldview, not by imitation. Ritual imitation might reinforce an already ingrained ethic, but it will not create one. On the other hand, transforming one’s perspective ecopsychologically is possible.
Most Native Americans, moreover, do not want nonnatives adopting their religions. A main concern is that if a site “is declared sacred it will be invaded by hundreds of New Agers looking for a spiritual experience,” Deloria, Jr. says. From his perspective, these imitative actions desecrate sites as much as vandalism or development of the place. Rather, attitudinal change must come not only from within an internalized “shift” toward a pantheistic worldview, but from an expansion of awareness of what tribally-centered oral traditions can contribute, as the Mojave, Kumeyaay, and Chumash demonstrate with their cosmogonic myths of Avikwame, Kuuchamaa, and ˀIwhɨnmuˀu, respectively.
Sioux member and scholar Philip J. Deloria suggests, and we concur, that developing such an awareness is not so much about a desire to become Indian as it is “a longing for the utopian experience of being in-between, of living a paradoxical moment.” What this means ecopsychologically is that in its attempt to balance the oppositions of life, the romantic impulse promotes a transformation of attitude. In the same way, adoption/adaption of a native ethos is not about playing Indian or deifying “savages”—it is rather about revisioning the native ethos into an ecoethical worldview that works for nonnatives as well by allowing them an indigenous perspective. The mandated consultations of the Sacred Sites Bill and Section 106 of the NHPA would thus appear to be the latest steps forward in the direction of nonindigenous recognition of the ecoethical Indian Way. In so doing, consultations may be construed as facilitating a process of indigenization that might help nonnatives experience a reattachment to place and a desire to care for the environment that seems mandatory in order to avert our intensifying ecocrisis.