2012 has been designated by the United Nations as The Year of the Indigenous People, a recognition of their cultures and connections to sacred places, as well as their forced disconnections from those places. I am coming to understand them.
I write this posting while visiting Madeline Island on Lake Superior. My parents once owned the house I’m in and the land on which it sits. It was their home for ten years, establishing what was for them a place of beauty, rest, inspiration and spirituality beyond their imaginations. Returning to this spot after an absence of almost thirty years has yielded an entire range of emotions: excitement at the return itself, to re-visit the place my mother and father regarded as home; curiosity in seeing how things have changed over the course of a generation; wonderment at the still-pristine forests and cliffs which constitute the Island; a sense of awe at how changeless the land has remained, even after decades of pounding from the lake and sky; wistfulness in recalling the Island as the honeymoon destination for my wife and me, some forty years ago; sadness in recalling my parents’ decision to leave the property with the advancement of age; joy in reliving the memories of the site I always regarded as my favorite place on earth.
Reflecting on these things, I have discovered a new dimension to them, a new feeling about both their meaning and their importance. I have always understood the natural beauty of the surroundings and the value of stealing away to such a place of retreat. I have felt the spiritual renewal inherent in the forest and lakeside. But what I have begun to recognize is my connectedness to this place that extends well beyond its physical dimensions. There is a sanctity about it, something that reaches far beyond immediate senses, a sacredness which doesn’t simply please or soothe the soul, but actually becomes part of it. Sciences may posit that cohesion between place and person exists in poetry alone, but experiences teach a very different conclusion. In a real and physical way, I find that I am actually part of this place, and it is a part of me. Portions of my life are here. Portions of my lineage are here. I have taken from this place and I have given to it. Neither the land nor I can ever be quite the same after we once connected.
It occurs to me that this is also the foundation for the centuries-old claims of disenfranchisement by Indigenous peoples in Nicaragua and throughout the entire world. Losses of language or land constitute egregious diminishment whenever they may occur; it is no less profound a loss than the extinction of an entire species of life, evolution which we often fight with tenacious resolve. But for the Indigenous, the resistance is not simply about loss of land, but the loss of an entire identity, of connectedness, of culture, of the soul itself.
In our own ways, and often without conscious effort, we all seek to discover access to the wholeness of life, that part of our existence which ties us into the fabric of the universe, a place where we belong, where our presence makes sense of our being. We share a deep longing for such connectedness, to help make sense of a world that often feels very disconnected and senseless. Loss of a people’s sacred places destroys such ties. The injustices suffered by the Indigenous extend far beyond the value of lands; their more important claims articulate the unjust destruction of their essential values and patrimony.
It is likely an unfair comparison to make between a small parcel of woods that once belonged to my family and ancestral Indigenous lands; one relationship was forged over a mere forty years, while the other has been developed since the dawn of Indigenous existence. But the importance of walking where my father walked, of knowing the places that my mother held as precious, and retracing my own footsteps as a young man- all within the context of this inland sea and its grounded blemishes- has clarified something elementally important to me. We are part of the whole, each with our own linkages to this cosmos we inhabit. And those links are our lifelines, our context for living, a portion of what defines us and makes us both importantly unique and universally the same. Removing the links weakens the chain of all of our lives.
Yesterday I worked on the wood perimeter fence that my father built. I split wood from trees that my mother may have planted. In the evening we sat quietly in the room where my entire family gathered decades ago. At night I heard the gentle lapping of the lake water against the foot of the cliffs and I gave thanks for the sacred places in my life….
1 thought on “Sacred Places”
This essay elicited a comment from Will Bunge:
Fascinating reflection. Does your repair of the fence mean that you have reclaimed the property as your own? I cannot help but reflect on the 150th anniversary of the war with the Little Crow Indians in Minnesota, a conflict that was described at length in the Star Tribune yesterday. My ancestors came to Minnesota from Germany that very year, though they were in the extreme southeastern corner of Minnesota and thus not directly affected by the war. The land they purchased, however, was probably the common land of the Crow Indians. We are usurpers.