Native-American: Sacred Land, Ancestors Remains and Sovereignty
You think you own whatever land you land on
The Earth is just a dead thing you can claim
But I know every rock and tree and creature
Has a life, has a spirit, has a name
The rainstorm and the river are my brothers
The heron and the otter are my friends
And we are all connected to each other
In a circle, in a hoop that never ends (Colors of the Wind)
The Native American’s worldview of human and environment relationship is clearly expressed in the song “Colors of the Wind” in the film Pocahontas. In the song, this so called relationship between man and his physical environment is very close and that that everything is interconnected. In a Native’s perspective, human beings’ relationship to the nature is described to be in “reciprocal appropriation” (qtd. in Lecture Notes…3). Here, man is depicted to be having a close and ‘personal connection’ to his natural environment and is viewed as a result, to be in constant communion with each other. Nature serves as the provider of man’s needs (“Grave Desecration” par. 14), on the other hand, man with all his freedom to exploit what his environment can give, is expected to limit himself in doing so. This is for the reason that the other is seen not only as provider but also as an entity with life that is not so much different from him. To add, nature is also seen as a spiritual being that guides man towards his own benefit. As Lewis mentions, “They defined themselves by the land and sacred places, and recognized a unity in their physical and spiritual universe . . . [And] They acknowledged the power of Mother Earth and the mutual obligation between hunter and hunted as coequals” (par. 1).
However, this perception of man in union with the natural world is by far different from the Judeo-Christian worldview which is dominant in the Western culture-and American culture that puts man in the highest position in all of “creations.” This view gives the impression that man is given privilege to do whatever he desires to the environment in order to sustain all of ‘his’ needs. Nature here is then seen as separate and is sometimes subordinate to man, an idea contrasting to the Native’s view of it as an equal that has also life and spirit. In the Judeo-Christian worldview, man and his welfare seems to be the given more importance than any other things in the world. He is portrayed as the custodian of all other creations and is depicted as not having any ‘personal connection’ to any other creation.
It is but good enough to think of the Native’s as natural ecologists. However, as earlier presented, it is important to understand that Natives consider everything in the environment as an extension of themselves which makes a part of a bigger and wider ‘whole,’ other than the physical world. In reducing their understanding of the world in simplistic manner does not lead to a fuller understanding of their culture. It is but important that the distinction in both worldviews on the relationship of man and nature be recognized to avoid misunderstanding and conflict between the Natives and Non-Natives. The failure to acknowledge their difference can lead to an unending struggle between the two specifically on various issues regarding environmental and resource management of the Native’s ‘ancestral land.’ Another issue that can also be affected by this is the difficulty on cultural management of non-Natives’ to their culture. When time comes that complete understanding of their worldview is achieved their “Nativeness” will be shown freely through unrestrained cultural expression.
The reason behind the Native’s ‘real connections to the region’ of Illinois, in spite of them being removed there for a long time now, rests on the general concept that man tends to develop a “personal attachment” to certain landscapes that has been “cared for” by them and their ancestors. It is important to remember that American Indians’ connectedness to the land of their ancestors can be understood with their concept of being “one” with the environment. This very notion of that unique association to the physical world in general has strengthened their bonding to the region. This concept was best captured in a part of a speech delivered in 1854 by Chief Seattle, a Suquamish Tribe leader
Every part of this country is sacred to my people. Every hillside, every valley, every plain and grove has been hallowed by some fond memory or some sad experience of my tribe. Even the rocks,
which seem to lie dumb as they swelter in the sun along the silent shore in solemn grandeur thrill with memories of past events
connected with the fate of my people, the very dust under your feet
responds more lovingly to our footsteps than to yours, because it is the ashes of our ancestors, and our bare feet are conscious of the sympathetic touch, for the soil is rich with the life of our kindred (http://www.suquamish.nsn.us/seattle.html).
Aside from the Native’s view of the unity of man and his environment, language also plays another factor for the rationalization of their affinity to Illinois. As an example, the term Illinois, which literally means, “they speak in a ordinary way,” is a term that comes from their own language. They are also reminded of their ancestors through the names used in different places of the region. Aside from this, the region for them is considered a sacred site where their ancestors’ were buried and is believed to have become a part of the earth (Gonzales par. 3)
In spite of the physical separation of the Natives to their land, it cannot be denied that they are psychically connected to the land because of the memories of their ancestors and to one another. In strengthening their ties to the land, the Natives have actively participated in protecting and preserving the land from those who will use and transform it in any way that may lead to its desecration. One particular example for this is an account on the Kickapoo Indians (see Emmet; Gonzales) effort to purchase a land believed to be a burial site of their ancestor. Though someone purchased the said land where a part of it was dedicated “as a permanent memorial to the Grand Village in the form of a park” (Emmet par. 5), the Natives have managed to return to the “land” to visit the ancestors. During that significant event, the Kickapoo “bathed in the same creeks that the ancestors once used and camped under the same trees” (Gonzales par. 11) and also re-introduced plants and animals that used to be present there. So as not to ensure the continuity of what they have started Gonzales (par. 12) further mentions of “plans to create educational programs at the park so that children will know of the old ones who lived there long ago.” Through this, the legacy of their ancestors will live in the consciousness of generations to come.
Essay # 3
The ashes of our ancestors are sacred and their
final resting place is hallowed ground, (Chief Seattle)
As Chief Seattle has expressed, burial grounds of their ancestors is considered sacred, an idea which is shared by humanity. One of the pressing concerns of the Natives’ at present is keeping and protecting their ancestors’ burial grounds, which is a struggle among them against the state. They have experienced several violations to their right to keep these grounds from desecration. Some of these grave ruin accounts includes the case in Edwardville, Illinois where a “thousand year old remains of Native Americans discovered near Glen Carbon, Illinois have been used as fill for a new highway” and that “Permission to rebury the remains was denied” (“Grave Desecration”). On the other hand, there are cases where violation of sacred grounds can be prevented. One case is that in New Lenox, Illinois, where “a golf course, tennis courts and swimming pool [is planned to be constructed] on the site of an ancient Indian settlement” (Specktor, par.7). Here Indian groups organized protests to prevent the prject from pushing through. Another problem that they face involves non/scholarly digging conducted by looters and archaeologists interested in either robbing or studying their “sacred grounds.” These diggings on their land can cause disturbance in their sites though they can be prevented only if people would be vigilant enough to prevent it from happening.
In responding to these kinds of dilemmas the Natives have been firm in their position that their ancestors’ be “returned” or re-buried to their sacred grounds. They also have fought for their beliefs to be respected. Some of their concrete actions include protests and lobbying to government officials to pass laws and legislations that will protect their interests. One example of their successful struggle is the issue of repatriation of Indian remains from Dickson Mounds Museum (Thomas 2001). Aside from this, tie ups with some private sectors are also conducted aimed at pursuing their advocacy through different get together activities and through cultural education by sharing their ancestors’ way of life. One concrete example for this is the presence of several internet sites containing information and asking and giving support in any way for the causes that the Natives fight for in which the Midwest SOARRING is an example (http://www.midwestsoarring.org/).
The battle of Native Americans towards the realization of their right to be recognized and respected not only as individuals but also as “Natives” possessing a specific culture different from the majority has brought several reactions. As already presented in the earlier part of this essay, there are those who have been deaf and insensitive to their call for the repatriation of their ancestors even to the point of denying their requests in the re-burial of the exhumed bodies. However, on the other hand, they have gained support from different organizations willing to help them in the realization of their cause. Though there are already existing laws that have been passed (such as the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 and the Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act) it is recognized that there are still other issues to be settled. This situation though it causes conflict from different sectors of the society, remains to be a good start in securing the cultural survival of the American Indians.
Emmet, Bill and Emmet, Doris. “How Our Journey Began.” (n.d.) 6 April 2008 <http://www.grandvillage.org/journey.html>.
Gonzales, Patrisia. “Heart of Kickapoo still buried in Illinois.” Column of the Americas
Weblog of Gonzales and Rodriguez 18 December 2000. 6 April 2008 <http://www.voznuestra.com/Americas/_1998/_December/11>.
“Grave Desecration.” Walk for Justice. 6 April 2008 <http://members.aol.com/Nowacumig/graves.html>.
“Human Skeletal Remains Protection Act (Illinois Comp. Stat. Ann. 20 ILCS 3440/0:01, et seq.).” 6 April 2008 <http://www.arrowheads.com/burials.htm#ILLINOIS>.
Lewis, David R. “Essay on Native American Environmental Issues.” Native America in the Twentieth Century: An Encyclopedia (Edited by Mary B. Davis) Garland Publishers of New York 1994. 4 April 2008 <http://cnie.org/NAE/docs/intro.html>.
Lecture Notes on “Sacred Lands, Ancestor’s Remains and Sovereignty .”
Midwest Save Our Ancestors Remains & Resources Indigenous Network Group Foundation (Midwest SOARRING). 6 April 2008 <http://www.midwestsoarring.org/>.
“Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.” 6 April 2008. <http://www.arrowheads.com/nagpra.htm>.
Schwartz, Stephen. (Lyricist) “Colors of the Wind.” Song Lyrics: Pocahontas 21 March 1996. 6 April 2008 <http://www.fpx.de/fp/Disney/Lyrics/Pocahontas.html>.
Seattle, Chief. Speech delivered by Chief Seattle. Seattle Sunday Star Seattle, Washington Territory. 29 October 1887. 4 April 2008 <http://www.suquamish.nsn.us/seattle.html>.
Specktor, Mordecai. “Controversy Looms over Sacred Grounds – Native American Cementeries.” National Catholic Reporter 9 December 1994. 6 April 2008 <http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1141/is_n7_v31/ai_15989953>.
Thomas, Gary. “Dickson Mounds Museum.” Illinois Periodicals Online 2001. 6 April 2008 <http://www.lib.niu.edu/2001/oi011106.html>.