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Visiting Harvard professor speaks on sacred space struggle

By Abigail Gardener

Section: News

November 11, 2016

Rosalyn LaPier, Ph.D., Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at the University of Montana, spoke to a packed audience on Friday about what makes a space “sacred” to Native American tribes in the northern Great Plains.

When native people lived on prairies and plains, they had a definitive idea of which territory was which tribe’s and how to divide up land-claiming, LaPier said. They even designated areas as “buffer zones,” which were areas not designated as a specific tribe’s; no one lived there, but everyone agreed to use the resources there, LaPier said.

“There was probably not any single piece of land … on the northern Great Plains that was not known and that was empty,” said LaPier. Spaces like these buffer zones may not have been used to live on, but they were known by everyone and reserved for a specific purpose.

Sacred spaces are either made by the divine or made by humans, LaPier said. There are three types of sacred spaces made by the divine: places that humans cannot go, places they can visit but cannot stay (such as for prayer, contemplation or a vision quest) and places where they can go to gather objects used for religious purposes but cannot stay. For example, in the Missouri River people collect mussel shells for religious purposes. Some tribes also collect sweetgrass in this manner.

Spaces like these have become an issue for indigenous people because these spaces are also owned by the government and are public land. For example, Chief Mountain in Montana is considered a sacred space, but people climb it every day. Tribes have asked the government to keep people from climbing the mountain but it is within the bounds of a national park, so people continue to do so.

There are also three types of sacred spaces created by humans: places humans cannot go (usually a burial place or the site of a historic event), places people visit but do not stay (shrines for prayer, medicine wheels, effigies) and places built for specific use by humans (lodges for healing, rituals or ceremonies). The places built for specific use by humans are all temporary spaces, and humans ask the supernatural for sanctification of the built space, LaPier said.

There are no laws protecting sacred spaces, only laws designating what they are, according to LaPier. Former President Bill Clinton’s Executive Order 13007 contains the only definition the federal government has given for a sacred space. A sacred site is defined as “any specific, discrete, narrowly delineated location on federal land that is identified by an Indian tribe,” according to the order.

Essentially what this means is “small,” according to LaPier. Tribes are unable to say “This is our sacred mountain,” according to LaPier, because the government would require them to designate which specific area of the mountain is sacred. “It is very difficult to go to court and … draw what a sacred space is. They will literally draw a circle around a rock,” LaPier said.

One of the most challenging aspects of this is that people can still use public land even if it is sacred. A “no use” policy doesn’t exist; courts always rule that these spaces can have multiple uses. The federal government has lost in court trying to make sacred spaces non-usable, LaPier said.

The best argument for preserving sacred spaces is environmental justice, in LaPier’s opinion. She referenced the Standing Rock protests as an example. People are going there to protest for different reasons; not only is part of the area the pipeline would run through a place sanctified by the divine where bodies are buried, but the pipeline would also potentially pollute the area’s water supply.

Many people are going to protest at Standing Rock for environmental reasons and not because it is a sacred space, LaPier said.

LaPier, an enrolled member of the Blackfeet Tribe in Montana, is an indigenous writer, ethnobotanist and environmental historian. She is spending the 2016-17 academic year as a visiting assistant professor of Women’s Studies, Environmental Studies and Native American Religion at Harvard Divinity School.

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