Where Some Ideas Are Stranger Than Others...
In preparing to write this piece, as usual I paused to look up a few key terms in the OED, because part of the discussion must inevitably be about different views of what sacred places are and who defines them. On one hand, the results of this step were unsurprising. On the other, they were also a bit disheartening. The most important term for this discussion is actually "sacred," which according to the editors of the OED is persistently conflated with a dedication to a religious purpose and so worthy of being treated with respect and care. The problem comes with the "religious" part, not because it is wrong, but because the notion of religion is so carefully defined so that only certain people's practices are ever taken seriously. Taking it as broadly as possible, to qualify as a religion, it seems whatever the practices are they have to be centred on a deity or deities, especially male deities. The recognized religions are in a sort of hierarchy among themselves, with repeated insistent that monotheism based on worship of a single male deity should be in the topmost tier, polytheism with all or majority male deities a distant second, and a distant third for those centred on a single male teacher or purported prophet. After that, the others may be treated as "religions" on sufferance at best. This hierarchy directly affects whose sites are treated as sacred and respected as such. To date, I have not heard of anyone who denies that jerusalem at minimum contains many sacred places, and I wouldn't either. But then a big part of why I wouldn't is because in my view what makes a place sacred is ongoing relationship with the place shared by many people who gather there to perform ceremony on a regular basis. Since that is my view, I am willing and able to accept that many places are sacred to others and should be respected, even if they are not specifically sacred to me or my nation.
People who are willing and able to destroy sacred places on that definition are actually conceding this broader type of definition. If it were otherwise, they could ignore the site, including ignoring whether people went there or not. They would not feel disconcerted and uncomfortable when they observed people treating sports stadia in a way strongly suggesting that they are in fact a type of sacred places. Furthermore, if they stirred up serious opposition to their own access or reuse of the site, they would be open to leaving the site alone rather than insisting on their supposed right to take it over or destroy it. That is certainly not what we are seeing in the real world, and emphatically not when it comes to Indigenous sacred places in the americas and in other lands invaded and currently occupied by colonial powers. The excuses for insisting that other peoples' sacred places aren't really sacred and therefore can be taken over or destroyed generally come down to, "they don't follow our religion" or "we want that." The ongoing struggles over the demands to build yet another giant telescope on Mauna Kea in Hawai'i, where there are already thirteen others while none of the institutions demanding this care about respecting Indigenous sacred places or fighting an actual danger to observational astronomy, increasing light pollution from suburbs and the lates of Elon Musk's harebrained schemes for satellite internet. The demands for yet another telescope are not about science. They are about dominance and disrespect.
Photograph of protesters preventing construction of a massive telescope, one more addition to a pre-existing collection of 13, on Mauna Kea, Hawai'i. Image courtesy of democracynow.org
, july 2019.
The practice of targeting Indigenous sacred places for destruction is not new, and it has long been a tactic of those who hope to finally destroy Indigenous people and their own distant memories of being colonized themselves once and for all. In what is currently called canada, catholic and protestant missionaries developed a mania for using dynamite to blow up large stones and flatten sacred places and then trying to build churches on top of them to end Indigenous ceremonies and attempt to force Indigenous people to use their churches. The notion of a mysterious "Moundbuilder Culture" of of non-Indigenous people was invented when the huge complexes of sacred places and Indigenous cities turned out to be too hard to destroy and hucksters saw their way to making tourist sites and a quick buck. If they could at least insist the sites were not sacred and therefore Indigenous peoples' control and interpretation of them was forbidden, then the way was open to having sheer numbers of tourists beat the places to pieces is no doubt expected to manage the job. On the prairies and plains, farming operations long included deliberate efforts to pull apart pre-existing Indigenous ceremonial sites and plough them under. One of the other documents in this series briefly talks about Aisinai'pi, a powerful sacred place in Blackfoot traditional lands. Over time, despite its positioning by colonial governments as a tourism site, even the colonizers have been forced to restrict general access more and more. For one thing, the site itself acts back on the unwary, for another the Blackfoot Confederacy has never stopped working on putting settler and visitor relationships on a better and more appropriate footing. And colonial authorities finally began feeling humiliated by their own failures of respect and care.
Overall, there is no excuse for doing disrespect to a sacred place. It is always possible to find a better and respectful solution when interests in a place clash, including more often than not, making the best decision of all in the majority of cases, leaving it in the care of the people who love and care for it. Yes, some people come from traditions in which sacred places are not really places. That is, there is not an ongoing relationship that includes repeated ceremonial activity on a longterm basis. Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples alike have sites where they gather and carry out ceremony that are used only once or for a few years before the activity is taken somewhere else. Some spiritual practices remain movable in this way by positive necessity, some by negative necessity. Positive necessity would be simply that people are visiting, they are holding ceremony while on their way between their more permanent places. In that case it is quite sensible and good manners, let alone ethical, not to try to make a more permanent mark or take over someone else's sacred place. Human built structures as opposed to aspects of the land that are sacred may be moved from site to site or taken away all together by the community that builds and maintains them. Negative necessity is primarily an outcome of persecution, and that persecution is inextricable from demands to drive people off of the land, and in the case of colonial powers, taking over the land for their own benefit, using whatever rationalization to salve their own conscience they can find.
It is heartening to see so many settlers call bullshit and refuse to accept those rationalizations, who are refusing more and more often to accept the takeover and destruction of sacred sites, and not just on the grounds of "not in my name."