Destruction of the Sacred

When the British first came to North America, it was a continent of thriving civilizations. The nations here had politics, art, music, poetry, family life traditions. So different was this culture from England’s however, that it was invisible to them. The colonists saw a vast, open space, a wilderness for them to shape into their own future.

Perhaps most invisible were the “churches,” places where people gathered to encounter the sacred, worship, sing praise, enact rituals.

None of these places looked anything like Notre Dame Cathedral. Older than Notre Dame, these gifts from the Creator were sought out by American Indians* for communication with the Divine.

Far way in Paris, I, and a few million other people, entered a space that took the breath right out of our bodies. Notre Dame’s building with buttresses and ceilings, arches, artworks, most especially the Rose windows, is a glorious manifestation of how people honor the sacred. The history of the construction of the Cathedral contains beauty, exploitation, politics, sacrifice, dedication, and artistry. One iconic story about the building is the stone mason who spent months carving a small part of the exterior that could not be seen. It was his gift to God. It is impossible to summarize all the elements that the Cathedral embodies. Standing inside, there was no need to know any of that. Words have little use in places like that. Music perhaps, but no words. When words fail, God is there. Now, watching the flaming spire topple is a heartbreaking lesson in our own fragility.

, The annihilation of American Indian people’s cathedrals has been a slow, piece by piece destruction. Under the surface of these places are gold, oil, commercial minerals, uranium, the fuels of our economy. This “wilderness” is the perfect place to dump nuclear waste. After all this time, American Indian civilizations are still invisible.

Church buildings seek to create sacred spaces. Actors and musicians who have performed at the First Congregational Church talk about the special feeling inside our building. The history and souls of the congregants reverberate within its walls.

Other sacred places are simply found. The Celts refer to these as “thin places,” places where heaven and earth open to each other. Once a place is recognized as sacred, even after the people move on, the sacredness of the land remains imbedded in that place. Abandoned churches may be converted (sic) to stores or apartments, but sacred places like Bears Ears in Utah, cannot be. 

Some sacred places are targeted for destruction because they are visible. Black churches, synagogues, mosques represent people who gather there to worship. They are centers of love, and targets of hate. And so they suffer graffiti, broken windows, burning. Native sacred sites are targeted for destruction because they do not exist to us. They are targeted because we want the elements they hold within themselves. To extract what our economy wants, we must level monuments, open mine pits, scrape off layers of earth, build roads and machinery, send exhaust and toxins into the air and water. What is most valued are the elements torn from the arms of the Earth.

The land itself is sacred. The only way to destroy these cathedrals is to destroy the Earth itself.

  • Some American Indians prefer “Indigenous People,” or “Native Americans.” I use “Indian” to honor my late friend, Carole LaFave, Ojibway. She, family and friends preferred it. 
  • Russel Means: “The one thing I’ve always maintained is that I’m an American Indian. I am not politically correct.”
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