Sacred Geography

Karen A. Leeson (leeson_k@CUBLDR.COLORADO.EDU)
Thu, 12 May 1994 09:30:04 -0600

Sacred Geography

Northwestern North America





University of Colorado

Boulder, CO 80309

Submitted for consideration as a contribution to the Ted Stern Festschrift

1. Introduction

The passage of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978
and the impending passage of the Native American Free Exercise of Religion
Act have made the American People increasingly aware of the importance of
sacred geography in Native American religions.1 This paper assumes
safeguarding Native American religious practice is that which makes
protection of sacred sites necessary under the First Amendment of the
Constitution and related laws and not necessarily their archaeological or
historical nature. In my earlier paper (Walker 1991), I have employed the
concept of "portals to the sacred" in an attempt to convey a sense of the
ritual functions of sacred sites in Native North America. Such "portals"
should not be viewed as limited in size or scale. Some may be miles in
their geographical extent while others are quite limited in size or scale.
Likewise, use of the portals concept must include the understanding that
they are not only positioned in geography but also positioned in time, such
that they become sacred "time/spaces."

Although the concept of the "sacred" is employed widely in recent
discussions of geography, no satisfactory definition of this fundamental
idea has been offered. Until agreement is reached on a definition of the
sacred, effective enforcement of the foregoing laws will be difficult.
Likewise, enforcement will also be difficult until agreement is reached on
the broad range of different types of sacred geography. This paper offers
a definition of the sacred and a taxonomy of sacred geography as
contribution toward resolution of these problems.

Basic ethnographic research concerning Native American concepts of
sacred geography is sparse. The recent collection of papers edited by
Christopher Vecsey (1991), stemmed from this absence of research but must
be regarded as only a beginning. Research on this topic is about Asia,
Europe, the Middle East, and Meso-America, e.g., Townsend (1982) and Vogt
(1965, 1969), but with few exception, e.g., Harrington's 1908 The
Ethnogeography of the Tewa Indians (Harrington 1908), is a subject largely
undeveloped for most regions in North American North of Mexico.

In addition to being vital to ritual practice, sacred geography in
Northwestern North American is a source of religious meaning group identity
and group cohesion. Sacred sites in Northwestern North America are
invested through ritual with complex layers of religious meaning. Tribal
religions in Native America differ from most other world religions in their
conceptions of sacred geography. In the following, I shall attempt to
account for their distinctive features, focusing especially on the concept
of the sacred and on a tentative taxonomy of types of sacred geography
typically encountered in Native American religions of Northwestern North
America. Field data for this study is drawn from ethnographic research
among Salishan, Shaptian, Ute-Aztecan,, Western Algonkian, and Lakota

II. Sacred Geography in Northwestern North America: General Features

Traditional Native American spiritual leaders generally assert that
the timing and geographical location of rituals are vital to their
efficacy. They affirm that unless such rituals are performed at proper
times and in proper locations, they will have little or no efficacy. It is
the rule rather than the exception that Native American ritual life is
inextricably linked with access to and ritual use of sacred geography.
Although there are significant differences among Native American religions,
they are generally similar in some respects. For example, they tend to
have the following characteristics in common:

1. A body of mythic accounts explaining cultural origins and
cultural history. These describe a prehuman or precultural
time dominated by animals, heroes, tricksters, and other
mythical figures.

2. A special sense of the sacred that is centered in natural
time and natural geography.

3. A set of critical and calendrical rituals that have social
form and expression to religious belief and permit the
groups and their members to experience the events of their
mythology in various ritual settings.

4. A group of individuals normally described as shamans or
priests who teach and lead the group in the conduct of their
ritual life.

5. A set of ethical guidelines establishing appropriate
behavior associated with ritual and extensions or ritual into
ordinary life.

6. Reliance on dreams and visions as the primary means of
communicating directly with spirits and the sacred. These and
oral tradition are the primary sources of sacred knowledge.

7. For individuals, the major goal of ritual is gaining the
spiritual power and understanding necessary for a successful
life by engaging the sacred at certain special times and in
certain special places.

8. For groups, a belief that harmony must be maintained with
the sacred through satisfactory performance of rituals and
adherence to sacred prescription and proscriptions.

9. For groups, a belief that while all aspects of nature and
culture are potentially sacred, there are specific times and
places that possess great sacredness which I term "portals
to the sacred" in this paper and elsewhere.

10. In their religious life, Northwestern American groups are
not very hierarchically organized; nor do they favor the tightly
constructed hierarchical mythologies or philosophies developed
by priestly elites of with the Old or New World agricultural
societies; calendrical reckoning of ritual life is somewhat less
important among hunting groups of North America.

11. The sacred sites of Northwestern North America are more
numerous, more diverse, and less geometrically patterned than
is seen among religion of Meso-America and the Old World.

12. Mountains and other points of geographical sacredness are
not so often at the center of religious life in Northwestern
North Americas in the Old World or in Meso-America. Nor are
mountains identified as frequently with the state, with society,
or with the group as in Meso-America and the Old World.

13. Generally, hunting groups in Northwestern North America
seek the intrinsic or embedded sacredness of nature and do not
often force their notions of sacredness onto the land in the
manner of the pyramid builders and earth sculptors we see in
both the Old World and Meso-America.

14. Ritualists in Northwestern North America are generally
shamanic, unlike the priestly figures encountered in the more
complex religious systems of Meso-America and the Old World.

15. Sacred sites are numerous and include the following types
(see Walker 1991):

a) Shrines, vision quest sites, altars, and sweat bath
sites that serve as ritual settings.

b) Monumental geographical features that have mythic
significance in a group's origins or history. Included
are mountains, waterfalls, and unusual geographical
formations such as Pilot Knob, Kootenai Falls,
Celilo Falls, and Mount Adams.

c) Rock art sites such as pictograph and petroglyph panels.

d) Burial sites and cemeteries.

e) Areas where plants, stones, earth, animals, and
other sacred objects are gathered for ritual purposes or
where sacred vegetation such as medicine trees serve
as objects or center of ritual.

f) Sites of major historical events such as
battlefields where group members died.

g) Sites where groups are thought to have originated,
emerged, or been created.

h) Pilgrimage or mythic pathways where groups or
individuals retrace the journeys and reenact events
described in myths and in the lives of mythic and other

i) Lakes, rivers, springs, and water associated with
life and the vital forces that sustain it.

j) Areas or sites associated with prophets and
teachers such as Smohalla, Handsome Lake, Sweet
Medicine, and others.

Ethnographic investigation of several hundred sacred sites suggest
strongly that they are an essential feature of Native American ritual
practice. With access to them, practice would be infringed or prevented
altogether in certain cases. Like wise all known groups possess a body of
beliefs concerning appropriate times and rituals that must be performed at
such sites. The more important a sacred site is in the ritual like of a
group, the more numerous symbolic representations it will have in hart,
music, and myth. It has also become clear in this review that sacred sites
also have very diverse functions in that they serve to objectify key
cultural symbols, illustrate dominant religious metaphors, and sustain
patterns of social, economic, and political organization. Sacred sites can
also serve as indicators of cultural unity as seen among the various
medicine wheels described by the Arapaho and their neighbors of the
neighboring Northern and Central High Plains. In general sacred sites lend
concreteness to the less visible systems of linkages within and among
different cultural groups. Sacred symbol systems, when superimposed on
geography, give to geography a significance and intelligibility similar to
relatives such as father, mother, or simply kinsmen. Through ritual,
sacred sites function to create a conceptual and emotional parallelism
between the objective order of the universe, the realm of the spirits, and
the intellectual constructs of Native American cultures. They are portals
between the world of humans and the world of spirits through which sacred
power can be attained and spirits contacted. Such sites give order to both
geographic and social space, and by thus ordering natural space and time
they give order to all that exists (Walker 1991).

This review of sacred sites suggests that the conjunction of
geographical, social, seasonal, and other transitions enhance opportunities
to access the sacred. In observing these conjunctions of multiple
transitions, I have been struck by the parallelism of these ideas with
those of Arnold Van Gennep concerning rites of passage (1960) and others
who have demonstrated that the rites of passage in the human life cycle are
ritually celebrated as times of great sacredness in the life of the
individual. From this perspective, the sacred may be more easily
experienced as individuals go through life cycle transitions, especially
when such transitions are conjoined with other transitions such as "first
game" or "first fruits" rituals that may coincide with additional
transitions such as equinoxes and solstices. Similar transitions in the
lunar cycle in which the first quarter, second quarter, third quarter, and
full moon are seen as paralleling the human life cycle in birth,
adolescence, marriage, and death are further transitions in nature that my
coincide with transition in the lives of individuals and communities. It
is a conclusion of this study that Northwestern North American the
conjunction of multiple transition provides heightened opportunities for
accessing the sacred, especially at points of geographical and
environmental transition such as mountain tops, waterfalls, cliffs, and
other breaks in the landscape.

III. Definitions of the Sacred

Without an alternative definition and understanding of the sacred,
we might be forced to rely on such conventional definitions in our study of
Native American sacred geography as that advanced by Durkheim. In his
Elementary Forms of the Religious Life, Durkheim defines the sacred as
follows: "A religion is a unified system of beliefs and practices relative
to sacred things, that is to say, things set apart and forbidden-beliefs
and practices which unite into one single moral community called a Church,
all those who adhere to them" (Durkheim 1947:47) Fundamental to this
definition is the distinction Durkheim draws between the sacred and the

"The opposition of these two classes {the sacred and the profane}
manifests itself outwardly with a visible sign by which we can easily
recognize this very special classification, wherever it exists. Since the
idea of the sacred is always and everywhere separated from the idea of the
profane in the thought of men, and since we picture a sort of logical chasm
between the two, the mind irresistibly refuses to allow the two
corresponding things to be a promiscuity, or even to direct a contiguity,
would contradict too violently the dissociation of these ideas in the mind.
The sacred thing is par excellence that which the profane should not
tough, and cannot touch with impunity. To be sure, this interdiction
cannot go so far as to make all communication between the two worlds
impossible; for if the profane could in no way enter into relations with
the sacred, this latter could be good for nothing. But, in addition to the
fact that this establishment of relations is always a delicate operation in
itself, demanding great precautions and a more or less complicated
initiation, it is quite impossible, unless the profane is to lose its
specific characteristics and become sacred after a fashion and to a certain
degree itself. The two classes cannot even approach each other and keep
their own nature at the same time". (Durkheim 1947:40)

This classic distinction does not fit Native American conceptions
of the sacred in Northwestern North American, because the sacred is not
viewed as a domain set aside, distinct, and forbidden as Durkheim suggests.
Instead, the sacred is an embedded, intrinsic attribute lying behind the
external, empirical aspect of all things, but not a domain set aside or
forbidden. The situation is both more complex and more subtle. Fox
example, among the Lakota this embedded, intrinsic attribute is wakan:
among the Algonkians it is manitou; among Ute-Aztecans it is puha; among
the Sahptians it is weyekin; and among the Salishans sumesh. In this large
region, accessing the sacred is a primary goal of ritual and entails
actually entering into sacredness rather than merely propitiating it.
Whereas certain cultures tend to create their own sacred space and sacred
time somewhat arbitrarily by special rituals of sacralization, Native
Americans of Northwestern North America more often attempt through ritual,
visions, and dreams to discover embedded sacredness in nature and to locate
geographical points that permit direct access to it in order to experience
it on a personal level. Unlike Durkheim, Eliade's view of hierophanies is
somewhat more compatible with Native American views of sacred geography.
Citing Eliade, Carrasco says,

"In Elaide's view, all religion are based on hierophanies or
dramatic encounters which human beings have with what they consider to be
supernatural forces manifesting themselves in natural objects. These
supernatural forces manifesting themselves in natural objects. These
manifestations transform those objects into power spots, power objects,
wonderful trees, terrifying bends in the river, sacred animals. The
stones, tree, animals, or humans through which a hierophany takes place are
considered valuable, full of mana, things to be respected and revered.
Human beings who feel these transformation in their landscape believe that
a power from another plane of reality has interrupted in their lives.
Usually, they respond with a combinations of great attractions and great
fear. Their lives are deeply changed as a result of this encounter with
numinous places ( Carrasco 1979:203).

IV. Conclusion

From this view, therefore, sacred sites and sacred geography among
cultures of Northwestern North American functions as fundamental
ingredients of ritual. Points of geographical transition are joined with
multiple transition in the seasons, the sun, the moon, the life cycle of
the individual, and the rhythm of community life to form conjunctions of
multiple transitions that become especially powerful access points to the
sacred or hierophanies. This view of sacredness and sacred geography
stresses the embeddedness of the sacred in all phenomena, distinguishes
between the general sacredness of all things and the specific sacredness of
access points or portals to the sacred, notes the importance of
conjunctions of multiple transition in the individual life cycle, in
nature, in community, and in tribal life, and how such multiple transitions
help establish the times of greatest sacredness and ritual efficancy of
sacred sites. It rejects the Durkheimian view that the sacred is a domain
set aside or forbidden,, and adopts the view of Eliade (1964, 1968, 1972)
that the sacred can be accessed and experienced directly through ritual
practice at appropriate times and geographical locations. It is clear that
Eliade's paradigm is the one to be employed in future research on this
topic and that a proper understanding of this topic must be from the point
of view of religious practice. Likewise, the American Indian Religious
Freedom Act, the Native American Freedom of Religion Act, and related
legislation are designed to protect First Amendment guarantees of practice
rather than associated archaeological or ethnographic values.


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