Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Close Encounters with places deemed Sacred

What if your church/temple/mosque was declared part of a national park because of the natural & cultural resources in the area? 
What if your congregation and spiritual leadership couldn't block this distinction and the new tourism? 
What if recreational outfitters were issued permits from the government to let them start rock climbing expeditions on the outside of your place of worship because it's now "public owned land."   Then because climbers have more time during winter and spring break, they come in bigger numbers on Christmas Day and Easter and they don't seem to care about the disruption or noise that they are causing those who have come to worship?
What if a movie producer would film a story about aliens at your place of worship?
What if the government would post signs on the door of your church with the new park name that would be on every map: Devil's House...
This is a commonly held First Nation perceptive of Devil's Tower, Wyoming in the United States and it replicated at many other parks.

So what happens when different values, different religions, different perspectives intersect?
I believe it is one word:  OPPORTUNITY

Devil's Tower (Lakota First Nation name "Bear Butte") is the United State's first national monument.  This striking geologic wonder rises 1,267 feet above the Belle Fourche River in northeast Wyoming and is a known sacred site for the Lakota nation. This is where I'm heading this weekend as the guest of Lakota Chief Arvol Looking Horse as he is interviewed for a documentary about sacred sites and World Peace and Prayer Day to be held at Bdote, Minnesota USA this summer June 18-21.

This natural phenomenon is a popular tourist attraction, made especially famous after being used as a central plot element in the popular 1977 motion picture, Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Rencontre du troisième type).  I remember driving past this site on a family cross-country trip in my early teens and was amazed at its size and the contrast to the flat lands around it.

The Antiquities Act, granting the United States President the authority to restrict use of particular public land owned by the federal government by executive order, bypassing Congressional oversight, was signed into law by President Theodore Roosevelt in June 1906. The action grew out of the result of concerns for protecting mostly prehistoric Native Americans ruins and artifacts on their lands. Three months after signing the bill, Roosevelt declared Devils Tower the first U.S. National Monument on September 24, 1906. The Monument’s boundary encloses an area of 2.1 square miles (5.4 sq km or 1,347 acres).

Ironically, because the tower is a popular destination for rock-climbers and tourists, this original motivation is swallowed by the new recreational resource.  Like the surrounding Black Hills, Native Americans consider the area sacred, a place for prayer and renewal. When tribes lobbied to have the climbing activity banned, a compromise was proposed by officials—a voluntary climbing ban for the month of June, when the area swells with indigenous people as they come for religious ceremonies around the Monument.

Some climbers have brought law suits to challenge the determination because they see this consideration as endorsing a religion and interfering in their rights as US Citizens. Many climbers have chosen to avoid climbing in June out of respect for these religious traditions, even if they do not adhere to the same philosophies or beliefs.  Even if tourists don't climb on the most important spiritual days of year, many continue to climb on the Lakota's "church...   And yes, many still climb.  This is perceived as audacious and rude -- the equivalent of saying to a Pastor:"You can have your Easter and Christmas Eve, but why do your people need to come back each week anyway?"

I am not a history expert.  I'm not a politician with any authority to make policies or laws. I'm not an agent or representative of any First Nation community. I haven't been to law school and I'm not an expert on political science.  And I love to hike and visit national parks.  My brothers both were avid climbers.  I hear the voices from many sides... and this presents an opportunity. 

This isn't an isolated issue that is only at this monument.  After spending some bulk, unhurried time with indigenous elders, I am keenly aware that this same issue is multiplied at location after location across North America, including Bdote at Minnesota.  And there aren't easy identifiable solutions for competing interests that are at such an impasse.

However I am filled with hope that our generation will do something grand and noble.  As we spend the time together, may we hear the voices and heart cry of each other... Perhaps we can create a safe place and time and a blank slate for each other.  Perhaps we can create a new dialogue model that is honoring and respectful.  Perhaps we will be more creative in the future and we will actually find a collaborative answer to how to heal our relationships with each other and how to heal the earth.  Perhaps we will choose to acknowledge that people pray in different ways and are drawn to worship God at different kinds of places.  Perhaps we can help heal generational pain that has been caused by ignorance, apathy, anger and atrocities perpetuated against each other. Perhaps we will be able to forgive -- for their benefit and for ours but mainly for our kids. 
I believe that peace begins with prayer...TOGETHER.  And maybe it includes shutting down a major interstate in the Minneapolis area for two hours to allow people to pray and an attempt at a Guinness record for the World's Largest Group Hug...I am excited to find out!