In Photos: The Indigenous Protectors of the World's Most Sacred Places
All around the world, sites sacred to indigenous people are besieged by mining, tourism, and other threats. Meet the groups safeguarding and restoring them.
In Photos: The Indigenous Protectors of the World's Most Sacred Places
Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk leads a sunrise prayer ceremony at Mt. Shasta in California. All photos by Christopher McLeod.
By Christopher McLeod / yesmagazine.org

Back in the 1990s, there was an intense debate among my Native American friends about whether public education about sacred places would be a good idea. One activist argued forcefully that: “Sacred places don’t need a PR campaign. They need ceremony and prayer.” But many places, from the San Francisco Peaks and Black Mesa in the Southwest to Bear Butte and Devils Tower in the Black Hills, were being desecrated. Ski resorts. Coal stripmines. New Agers. Rock climbers. Dams. While some battles revealed outright racism, other sacred sites were being destroyed out of ignorance. Though tradition long mandated that “sacred” meant “secret,” more people began to agree that limited information about sacred places should be shared in order to nurture understanding, build respect, and inspire allies. 

“We use the word ‘sacred.’ That’s not an Indian word. That comes from Europe,” Onondaga elder Oren Lyons explained to me during an interview for the Standing on Sacred Ground film series. “It comes from your churches. We have our own way to say things. The way we use it, it’s a place to be respected, a place to be careful.”

Around the planet, indigenous communities still guard their sacred places—mountains, springs, rivers, caves, forests, medicinal plant gardens, burials of beloved ancestors. Everywhere it seems these places are under siege. Each attack is met with a spirited defense because sacred places anchor cultures. They provide meaning. They give life, give information, heal, and offer visions and instructions about how to live, how to adapt, how to be resilient.

There have been many inspiring victories. At Kakadu in Australia, Aboriginal leaders stopped uranium mining and protected a World Heritage Site. At Devils Tower in Wyoming, the National Park Service consulted with Lakota elders and developed a plan to discourage climbing. Native Hawaiians stopped U.S. Navy bombardment of sacred Kaho‘olawe island and are now restoring it spiritually and ecologically as a cultural refuge. But battles rage on at Mauna Kea, on Oak Flat, in the Amazon.

On Earth Day, let us all celebrate the sacred lands and territories of our indigenous friends. And let’s pledge to work harder to respect these supremely important places.

The following photos were shot as we produced the Standing on Sacred Ground films and are shared out of respect—to help us all explore the mystery of what is sacred.

Winnemem Wintu Chief Caleen Sisk leads a sunrise prayer ceremony at Mt. Shasta in California. The Winnemem are fighting a U.S. government plan to raise the height of nearby Shasta Dam, which would flood ancestral village sites, burials, and dozens of sacred places on the McCloud River. The Winnemem wish to restore the Chinook salmon to the river that flows through their homeland.

In the Altai Republic of Russia, shaman Maria Amanchina has worked for years to protect the Ukok Plateau, a sacred burial area and World Heritage Site that’s home to endangered snow leopards. The government-owned energy giant, Gazprom, plans to build a natural gas pipeline to China through this remote mountain plateau. Already, Russian archaeologists have unearthed indigenous bodies here for museum display.

Military and consumer demand propels mining operations into the most remote regions of the planet. In Papua New Guinea, John Kepma and his family were forcibly relocated by Chinese-government-owned RamuNico because their village sat atop a rich nickel-cobalt deposit. Brothers John and Peter Kepma resisted for years, but police came early one morning and destroyed their homes. Mine runoff and chemicals are now polluting the sacred Ramu River and refinery waste is dumped in the sea.

A moral outrage is unfolding in the tar sands region of Alberta, Canada—polluted water seeping through unlined waste ponds, deformed fish, lethal cancers in First Nations communities, and inadequate science serving an industry that has long been in bed with the government. Few Americans realize they are burning tar sands oil in their cars, with 1.4 million barrels per day being imported into the United States, even without the Keystone XL pipeline.

In the Gamo Highlands of Ethiopia, village elders manage sacred meadows and forests according to age-old customary laws and consensus decision-making that starts and ends with prayer. Shortly after this photo was taken in sacred Dorbo Meadow, evangelical Christians disrupted a marriage and initiation ceremony by erecting poles for a church in the heart of the meadow. According to traditional custom, the vivid green grass carpet of Dorbo Meadow must never be pierced. A riot erupted, which we captured in our documentary film.

Q’eros women embark on a pilgrimage to the Quyllur Rit’i festival in the heart of the Peruvian Andes. They pass before sacred Mt. Ausangate, whose glaciers are rapidly disappearing as the planet warms. Q’eros leaders make prayers and offerings to the apus, the powerful spirits of the mountains, and wonder if they have in some way failed to show proper respect, while carbon emissions in far away places are the more likely cause of their water’s demise.

Gudangi women and children dance for the Rainbow Serpent along the McArthur River in Australia’s Northern Territory. The river is held sacred by local Aboriginal clans whose Dreamtime stories include the story of the Rainbow Serpent who created the river and lives forever nearby. One of the largest zinc deposits in the world lies directly beneath the riverbed and when mining giant Xstrata started relocating the river to strip-mine the zinc, Aboriginal leaders sued and stopped the bulldozers. But the Northern Territory Parliament rewrote the law and the river channel was moved.

Native Hawaiians arrive on the sacred island of Kaho‘olawe, where they are restoring the island after 50 years of target practice bombing by the U.S. Navy. A decades-long resistance movement based on aloha aina, love for the land, won the island back. Today, Hawaiians are redefining “restoration” as they incorporate spiritual ceremony and cultural revival into their ecological practices.


Christopher “Toby” McLeod wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Toby directs the Sacred Land Film Project. His most recent film series, the award-winning Standing on Sacred Ground, tells the stories of eight embattled indigenous communities around the world. It is now airing on public television stations, including The PBS WORLD Channel. First Nations Experience (FNX), a network of 16 PBS stations reaching Indian Country, started broadcasting the series on Tuesday, concluding on Earth Day at 9 PM (ET). Check local listings. Read more at StandingOnSacredGround.org.

0.0 ·
0
What's Next
Trending Today
Dakota Access Pipeline Permit Denied
Nika Knight · 14,738 views today · 'For the first time in Native American history, they heard our voices.'
All the News Is Fake!
3 min · 9,838 views today · Jonathan Pie finds nothing new in the idea of fake news.
How Romanticism Ruined Love
5 min · 8,508 views today · The set of ideas we can call Romanticism is responsible for making our relationships extremely difficult. We shouldn’t give up on love; we should just recognize that it’s more...
How Mindfulness Empowers Us
2 min · 5,835 views today · Many traditions speak of the opposing forces within us, vying for our attention. Native American stories speak of two wolves, the angry wolf and the loving wolf, who both live...
After Historic Protests, Army Corps of Engineers Blocks Current Route of the Dakota Access Pipeline
3 min · 3,012 views today · The $4 billion dollar project could still be approved by President-elect Donald Trump who is heavily invested in the pipeline. Help support The Real News by making a donation...
The Numbers That Tell the Story of the Standing Rock Sioux's Victory
Tracy Loeffelholz Dunn · 2,529 views today · The Army Corps announced Sunday that the Dakota Access pipeline will be rerouted. Here are the numbers that show what lies ahead.
Post-Brexit Visions of The Possible: It's Time to Imagine a New European Community
Martin Winiecki · 2,339 views today · We live in the beginning phase of a global revolution which will turn societal conditions upside down. We cannot stop this transformation, but we can influence where it will...
Bikini Was Just the Beginning, Bombs Still Threaten the Islanders
John Pilger · 2,281 views today · I was recently in the Marshall Islands, which lie in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, north of Australia and south of Hawaii. Whenever I tell people where I have been, they...
93 Documentaries to Expand Your Consciousness
Films For Action · 2,193 views today · There are over 800 documentaries now cataloged in our library of social change films. That's probably way too many for any mortal to ever watch in a lifetime, let alone a few...
Lifting the Veil:  Obama and the Failure of Capitalist Democracy (2011)
114 min · 1,967 views today · This film explores the historical role of the Democratic Party as the "graveyard of social movements", the massive influence of corporate finance in elections, the absurd...
This is an Anthem for Our Times
6 min · 1,853 views today · I think the world deserves to see the truth about #NoDAPL I tried my best to portray what I felt at camp, I felt LOVE. Love for all people, all living things, Mother Earth...
United Natures: a United Nations of all Species (2013)
103 min · 1,824 views today · United Natures explores the Rights of Mother Earth, Environmental Philosophy, Wisdom, Spirituality and the potential for a Neo-indigenous future for humanity. Directed and...
10 Practical Tools for Building a Resilient Local Economy
Environmental Change Makers · 1,348 views today · The economy is changing. Dramatically. Coping with these changes means changing the way we do things. The path of the future involves root level, radical changes. Things we...
Today I Rise: This Beautiful Short Film Is Like a Love Poem For Your Heart and Soul
4 min · 1,341 views today · "The world is missing what I am ready to give: My Wisdom, My Sweetness, My Love and My hunger for Peace." "Where are you? Where are you, little girl with broken wings but full...
The Venus Project by Jacque Fresco
4 min · 1,228 views today · For more information visit the official web site: thevenusproject.com Facebook: facebook.com/TheVenusProjectGlobal Music: Salomon Ligthelm - Close Horizonz Hanz Zimmer ...
90 Inspiring and Visionary Films That Will Change How You See the World in Profound Ways
Tim Hjersted · 1,128 views today · The world today is in crisis. Everybody knows that. But what is driving this crisis? It's a story, a story that is destroying the world. It's a story about our relationship to...
John Lennon's "Imagine," Made Into a Comic Strip
John Lennon. Art by Pablo Stanley · 897 views today · This is easily the best comic strip ever made.  Pabl
Why Are Media Outlets Still Citing Discredited 'Fake News' Blacklist?
Adam Johnson · 804 views today · The Washington Post (11/24/16) last week published a front-page blockbuster that quickly went viral: Russia-promoted “fake news” had infiltrated the newsfeeds of 213 million...
Austrialian Government Promotes Crap with Adani Carmichael Coal Mine
2 min · 718 views today · The Australian Government just released this advert about the proposed Carmichael Coal Mine and it's surprisingly honest and informative. 6 WAYS YOU CAN HELP STOP CCRAP: 1...
The Fight for Clean Water (#NoDAPL)
2 min · 635 views today · Clean water or Corporate profits? What’s more important? #NoDAPL Energy Transfer Partners: (214) 981-0700 U.S. Army Corps Of Engineers: (202) 761-0010; (202)...
Load More
Like us on Facebook?
In Photos: The Indigenous Protectors of the World's Most Sacred Places