Sacred sites are places with religious and cultural significance to Native American tribes. Many of these sites lie on land currently owned by non-Native Americans, including the federal and state governments and private landowners. After centuries of pushing Native Americans off their traditional homelands and deliberately trying to suppress their cultural practices, the United States government is now committed to protecting Native American sacred sites and fostering traditional cultural practices.
Sacred Sites in the United States
There are Native American sacred sites all over the United States, including on the islands of Hawaii. They are the result of some 40,000 years of human habitation in North America that gradually developed into a variety of cultures throughout the continent.
Many mountains are considered sacred by Native Americans. These include Mt. McKinley (Denali) in Alaska; Mt. Shasta in California; Mt. Hesperus and Blanca Peak in Colorado; Mt. Washington in New Hampshire; and many others. Multiple Hawaiian volcanoes are considered sacred sites. The active volcano Mt Kilauea, for example, is thought to be the birthplace of Pele, the Hawaiian goddess of volcanoes.
Burial mounds are another type of sacred site. These are mounds of earth built up over graves. Though mounds occurred throughout the Americas, the eastern and central United States were especially known for mound-building cultures. Many burial mounds were destroyed by settlers, but there are still mounds in Florida, Georgia, Missouri, and other states. The Hopewell culture left behind multiple mounds that are still visible today at a national park in Ohio. Effigy Mounds National Monument protects more than 200 mounds in Iowa.
The ancient Puebloan cultures left behind numerous sacred sites in Colorado. The Canyon of the Ancients contains numerous shrines and petroglyphs, which are paintings on rock walls. Colorado's Garden of the Gods contains multiple red rock formations that were of spiritual significance to Native Americans.
Importance to Traditional Culture
Native American spiritual practices are inextricably tied with geographic locations. Without access to sacred sites, Native Americans are unable to practice their religions. Sacred sites are therefore vital to maintaining tribal identity.
Native American tribal leaders explain that sacred sites are not always specific locations with defined boundaries. Sacred sites are more like cultural landscapes. The natural aspects such as plants, animals, and sunlight are as important as the physical locations.
Loss of Land
Land in the United States is either private land, owned by private landowners, or public land, owned by the federal government or state governments. This mosaic of ownership was created during the settlement of the continent before and after the foundation of the United States, and it came at the expense of Native Americans. As European colonists moved in, they pushed Native Americans off their lands into a collection of reservations. Many of these reservations were then broken up during the allotment period of the late nineteenth century, during which reservation land was divided into small sections and given to tribal members. The result of all this was that by 1934, when the federal government stopped the allotment program, most Indian lands were no longer in the hands of the tribes that had originally lived on them. In consequence, many Native American sacred sites are on land that has become the property of non-Indian people.
In addition to forcing Native Americans to move away from their lands, the federal government also engaged in efforts to make Native Americans give up their traditional cultures. Native Americans continued to speak their native languages and practice their religious rites, sometimes in secret, but it was a struggle to maintain their traditional ways.
Native American leaders and advocates have struggled for years to get protection for sacred sites. They have been assisted by organizations such as the Association of American Indian Affairs, for example, has done advocacy and provided legal assistance to tribes trying to protect specific sites.
A number of sacred sites are now protected, but Native American leaders would like to protect more. Some sacred sites are protected as national parks or state parks. The National Park Service administers national parks, maintaining sites and regulating visitors. Some sites have been protected through the mechanisms of historic preservation, such as by getting sites designated as National Historic Landmarks, which protects them from development.
Today, most Indian land is trust land held by the United States government. The federal government holds the legal title to the land but operates it for the benefit of tribes or individuals. There are over 52 million acres of federal land held in trust for Native Americans by the federal government as Indian reservations. Other land is held in trust as allotments, which are owned by specific individuals. Some sacred sites are found on this land.
Many sacred sites in the western United States are on public land, which is subject to logging and mining, as well as recreational use. This creates the constant danger that sacred sites might be destroyed. Other sites are on private land, and their use is up to the discretion of the landowners.
The federal government has agreed to do more protect Native American sacred sites. In 2010, the U.S. government signed the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. This declaration states that indigenous people have the right to practice and teach their religious and spiritual traditions and the right to maintain and use traditional religious and cultural sites.
In 2012, the Departments of Defense, Interior, Agriculture, and Energy and the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation agreed that they would collaborate among themselves on the protection of sacred sites. The agencies had numerous conferences and other communications with Indian tribes and eventually produced several documents and policies intended to coordinate this effort. These policies are aimed at anyone who manages land containing sacred sites, including state and local officials, developers, and private citizens.
These guidlines recommend that land managers learn about the sacred sites in their area by contacting Indian tribes to ask whether they have any historical or cultural interests in specific locations. At the same time, it is important to recognize that some information about sacred sites is private and in fact is protected by law. Respecting local customs is important. There might be feast days associated with traditional practices at a site. Access might be limited to certain times. Certain uses of the land, such as rock climbing, might be considered disrespectful. Visitors should respect objects such as prayer bundles. No one should dig up plants or take rocks without permission. Official permits are required to take anything from federal or state land.