By Roy L Hales
Christopher McLeod was disturbed by the environmental injustice. He saw Native Americans subjected to airborne coal pollution, and their water being taken for slurry lines. The Hopi elders told him there was a spiritual side to the injustice. These violations were taking place within a network of sacred places that their people had preserved for countless generations. These consisted of a sacred mountain, sacred springs that gave the Hopi life, and their ancestral burial grounds. The elders told him the cause of the West’s environmental crises is the disconnect from their spiritual link to the earth. This has become the message behind Standing on Sacred Ground, a four part documentary which can be seen on the WORLD Channel, Sundays at 9:00 PM (ET) until June 14, 2015.
Behind Standing on Sacred Ground Roots
Detained in Papua New Guinea Clip, narrated by Toby McLeod:
The series has been decades in the making. It has taken McLeod that long to distill the message, and make the worldwide contacts for this documentary.
“My Native friends, who I consider most insightful, often say ‘What you folks need to do is go back to your roots. Visit the places where your ancestors lived.’ For me, that meant Scotland. I had an intuition when I was in college, to go to the University of Edinburgh for a year. I went to the area where the McLeods came from, found ancient standing stones and visited the McLeod clan castle. This was years before I had ever been to any Native American sites, but connecting to my own roots really affected me,” said McLeod.
“For my people, the dominant and Christian world, there is so much trauma involved that most families just want to leave that behind. A lot of people don’t know who their great grandparents were, or where they came from. Making this series has made me realize that if you live where your family is actually buried, you have a connection to place, partly because of the responsibility to respect burials.”
“Most Americans don’t even know where their grandparents are buried. I think that is not just a symbol of disconnection, it is part of the disconnection. We are not living in places where our ancestors have been for generations, so that we know them and love them. We do not remember where people had important dreams or visions or those kind of magical experiences you have at sacred places.”
He added, “Native people have been warning us, and sharing their ecological wisdom, for a long time. We have not listened very well.”
In Standing on Sacred Ground, McLeod examined the conflicts that eight widely dispersed indigenous cultures are going through to preserve their sacred places.
“In some cases those are very specific mountains and rivers. We look at the home of the Rainbow Serpent, that is being mined for zinc in Australia. We look at the sacred island of Kaho`olawe, that the Hawaiians won back from the U.S. Navy through a decade of activism,” said McLeod.
An Inconvenient People
One of the stories that aired in the series May 17th premiere was about an “inconvenient people,” Northern California’s Winnemen Wintu Tribe. When the Shasta Dam was built, in the 1940s, the waters submerged 26 miles of their villages and sacred sites. The Winnemen lost much of their traditional homeland. Salmon, the mainstay of their diet for thousands of years, can no longer swim upstream to their spawning grounds. The Winnemem were not given any compensation and the U.S. Government has removed them from the list of recognized tribes. Now that the government proposes to raise Shasta Dam, flooding what remains of the tribe’s ancestral homeland, the Winnemen face possible extinction as a culture.
“We are running out of river. It is a thought we can hardly tolerate. Hopefully there will be good people who will realize dams are not the answer to the world’s water shortage,” said Chief Caleen Sisk.
“The Shasta Dam has benefitted consumers, who eat the food (produced by agribusinesses) and corporate farmers who have gotten rich, but it has wiped out the salmon. It has messed up the Delta, because so much water is sucked out of this incredibly rich estuary that we have in California. So much of this water has been sent to the South that the Delta is collapsing. Shasta Dam is part of a big bad water plumbing plan that is now going sour. The idea of making the dam bigger for a billion dollars, so that in the occasional wet year you might have a little more water to ship south, is really tragic,” said McLeod.
Sisk has become a threat to California’s agribusiness, which already uses 80% of the state’s water. Her message to conserve water, recycle water, and use it more efficiently, rather than throw billions of dollars into mega-projects, is gaining an international following.
During the series first episode, the Winnemen Wintu were visited by representatives from a culture undergoing similar struggles.
A Pipeline, Tourists & Archaeologists
The indigenous peoples of Russia’s Altai Republic are resisting the onslaughts of a proposed natural gas pipeline, tourism and archaeologists on the Ukok Plateau. One segment of the film depicts a visit to the sacred spring on Mt. Shasta where the Winnemem world was created. Another shows two shaman praying for a museum to return their 2,500-year-old ancestor’s bones to her grave.
In California, spiritual leaders from both indigenous cultures prayed for water to return to their sacred stream. The Winnemen Wintu have no memory of it ever drying up.
“For us, the biggest thing is for non-native peoples to understand that there is a way to walk on the land without destroying it,” said Chief Sisk.
A Violation Of Everything That Is Sacred
McLeod describes one of the stories being told in the next episode as the biggest development of modern times. Alberta’s tar sands brought money to the province, but also mounting CO2 emissions and hundreds of reported cancer fatalities. Dr John O’Connor linked half a dozen of the cases at Fort Chippewyan to chemicals from the tar sands.
First Nations elders described the tar sands as a violation of everything that is sacred. “The Athabasca River is sacred,” says McLeod. “The air is sacred. The cycle of life – where the snow comes down, the moose and the caribou eat the plants, fish live a healthy life and people move through that atmosphere – is sacred.”
Standing on Sacred Ground speaks to our need to have a relationship with nature.
The Oldest Form Of Protected Areas
“Sacred places are the oldest form of protected areas on the planet. There is a value system, with taboos and rules. We can appreciate what native people have been doing, respect it, and learn from it. The reverence for sacred places, and the ceremonies that happen there, can be a model of sustainability that can help us all thrive in the future. We need a cultural renaissance, not just for native peoples, but for all cultures,” said McLeod.
He added, “We are with the land. We come from the land. We are born from it, we are part of it. The idea of dominion over nature is probably where this problem starts. We need to let go of that idea. We are not superior to nature. We aren’t just part of it, we are at the mercy of nature. There is a different path, if we think, and live, that way.”
The recording of my interview with Christopher McLeod was published on the ECOreport’s radio program: https://cortescurrents.ca/the-man-who-made-standing-on-sacred-ground/
All images and videos courtesy the Sacred Land Film Project. For more information go to www.StandingOnSacredGround.org