More than two dozen sites sacred to Native Americans are at risk of being destroyed by 'development at any cost'
By John Schertow
October 18, 2010
Whether it's an ancient burial ground, a simple cave that witnessed the birth of a language not heard in centuries or the mountain home of a spirit that brings abundance to an entire ecosystem, every culture has its sacred sites. They provide an irreplaceable sense of continuity, identity, purpose, sustenance and fulfilment.
However, one culture's sacred site may be nothing more than empty space to another. This is frequently the case in countries such as Canada and the US, where more than two dozen sacred sites are in danger of being desecrated and destroyed.
One such site currently making a lot of headlines is the Glen Cove burial site and shell mound in Vallejo, California. Over the course of 3,500 years, the 15-acre site, known to the Ohlone peoples as Sogorea Te, was a traditional meeting place for more than 100 indigenous nations. Over the centuries, it became the final resting place for thousands of people.
However, as far as the Greater Vallejo Recreation District (GVRD) and the city of Vallejo are concerned, the site is simply undeveloped land which, they say, they have a "responsibility" to put to good use. That's why they're about to convert the entire site into a public park with its own trails, picnic tables, toilets and parking lot. Native Americans say the plan couldn't be more insulting or sacrilegious. But the GVRD and their partners are beyond reproach. A court ruling may not even stop them from getting their way.
Another site making headlines is Fish Lake, also known as Teztan Biny, in south-central British Columbia. Canadian company Taseko Mines wants to empty the pristine lake so it can use it as a permanent storage site for its toxic mine waste rock.
The proposal is beyond unacceptable to the Xeni Gwet'in, who are part of the Tsilhqot'in nation, because the lake and surrounding area is so important to them: it's the site of pit houses and burial grounds, a place of worship and ceremony, a school for children to learn their culture and a place to gather foods and medicines. The lake itself is home to an endemic species of rainbow trout that Taseko wants to transport to a brand new, smaller, man-made lake that can't accommodate the current trout population. In essence, Taesko's plan, which could be approved any day, will rob the indigenous people of their cultural, religious and economic wealth. Whether we're talking about Glen Cove, Teztan Biny or any other endangered sacred site, there is a cultural conflict at play that casually disregards religious beliefs, human rights and people's basic needs.
It is "development at any cost", which is a cultural belief like any other, but one that is decimating what Wade Davis has termed the "ethnosphere". A National Geographic explorer-in-residence, Davis defines the ethnosphere as "the sum total of all thoughts and dreams, myths, intuitions and inspirations brought into being by the human imagination since the dawn of consciousness … humanity's great legacy." Sacred sites are part of it. And without them a culture may lose its foundation, making it as vulnerable as a human body no immune system.
Indigenous peoples are doing what they can to protect such a wealth, but it's an uphill battle. In many cases they're going at it alone: against corporations, their lobby groups and every level of government. If they fail, we are all diminished.