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 /

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

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In Photos: The Indigenous Protectors of the World's Most Sacred Places