Native and tribal peoples experience and intuit beneath the plenitude of physical entities in the natural world, the presence of a mysterious, personal energy. One tribe may call this energy Orenda, another tribe may describe it as Puha, a third may refer to it as Manitou, and yet a fourth may refer to this presence as Skan, implying energy with but a hint of personality

Many tribes have the same prohibition on speaking the sacred name that we see in the Old Testament tradition regarding the Hebrew God. Sacredness, in its first and deepest encounter, requires that a boundary of respect be drawn around our experience and/or knowledge of this personal energetic presence.

The Native American and other tribal traditions do not use symbols in the same sense as Europeans or other ancient religions do. When a religious practitioner in an American Indian ritual or ceremony states that a rock represents the earth or a familiar mountain, the designation means that the earth or the mountain is actually present in the ceremony, present in the same way as if the entity had personally sent a representative to the ceremony with full instructions to participate in the proceedings. Insisting that the entity is actually present means that the ceremonial event is a real and integral part of the ongoing cosmic process

When the Sioux could no longer use the buffalo in one of their ceremonies there was great debate over which of the new domestic animals brought by the white man could be safely used as a substitute for the bison. Similarities in morphology, function, personal characteristics, and ways of relating to human beings were discussed before it was agreed that the sheep could be used as a substitute for certain kinds of rituals. But some ceremonies have simply been abandoned because they were so animal or bird-specific that substitution could not be made.

Over the course of thousands of years, Native Americans have discerned the various sacred sites which have power; that is to say, manifest the energy and concern of the earth. Sometimes several tribes will have discovered the sacredness of a site and become aware of the proper ceremonies that must be performed there. Bear Butte and the Sangre de Cristo mountains of New Mexico are good examples of multi-tribal sacred sites. A number of mountains in southeastern Utah have the same status. Within traditional occupancy areas and along ancient migration routes are more locations that have a religious significance to particular Indian tribes. The knowledge of these locations has been passed down within certain families who performed ceremonies for many generations.

A great deal of Native American religious knowledge has been lost over the last century. Consequently many locations which would have invoked a sense of reverence long ago may not have the same status among practitioners of the religion today.


In our sacred legend, Na'pi (Old Man, the Creator) gave us this land as our territory and warned us to protect it, but the events of the late 1800's took a serious toll on our people, and we were forced to relinquish some of our land. From 1892 to 1894, 4,500 of the 6,000 Blackfeet in Montana died of smallpox and starvation. The following year, an the persistence of the US Government, we leased the "rocky ridges" of the mountain land on our reservation to the Government for fifty years. In the resulting 1896 Agreement, our "lease" had become a sale, and we lost the mountains. two-thirds of this land, known as the "ceded strip" and covered by this Agreement, is presently the eastern half of Glacier National Park. The remaining one-third is 128,000 acres of Forest Service land known as the Badger-two Medicine.


The Leon River Medicine Wheel was mapped by participants in Texas A&M University's archaeological field school during the summer of 1990 (Carlson 1993). Medicine wheels are sacred sites traditionally of Northern Plains origin that are significant to many Native Americans today. They are governed by the American Indian Religious Freedom Act (AIRFA; see Chapter One). During that same field school, the participants excavated a rockshelter that included the remains of six persons. Those remains were stored at Texas A&M University.

The Leon River Medicine Wheel was renewed and restored under the direction of representatives of the North American Medicine Wheel Alliance in May 1994. The Medicine Wheel Alliance had been asked by the Native Americans to participate in the renewal ceremony to ensure that a proper ceremony was conducted.  (At Fort Hood)

The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed on November 16, 1990. This Act includes restrictions on the excavation of Native American burials. In order to be in compliance with this Act, the post archaeologist instituted a policy prohibiting the disturbance of human remains that might be uncovered during excavations on the post. That policy was included in the Fort Hood's Cultural Resources Management Plan and archaeological services contract (Jackson 1994). By that time, a small amount of bone from a rockshelter site on Army Corps of Engineers land near Lake Belton had been added to Fort Hood's collection of human remains.



In 1888, one hundred years ago, in the same area, Horace Cleveland (a designer of the Minneapolis Park System) gave a public address referring to the Minnehaha Falls area as a "most significant Native American landscape". This area contains acres of oak savanna, some oak trees nearly 200 years old, sacred Native American ceremonial grounds and a mystical natural spring at Camp Coldwater. The soldiers and settlers were led to the purifying and healing waters of this natural spring by the Mdewakanton Dakota people, living in the area. After many months of drinking the pure water and gaining strength, the soldiers transported spring water to holding tanks by the river where they were building Fort Snelling. For their reward, the Mdewakanton's became known as "friendlies" and were spared the genocidal slaughter of many tribal peoples victimized by U.S. soldiers. Colonel Josiah Snelling uprooted the Mdewakanton tribe to the south, away from the area around Camp Coldwater and the springs. At their new location, they became known as the Mendota Mdewakanton Dakota.  The Minnesota Historical Society has written proof of the sacred nature of this area in their written definition of Dakota words for The Dwelling Place of the Gods, "Ta -Ku Wa-Kan Ti- Pi", The Beginning of the World, and The Abode of Un-Kte-Hi, the God of Waters, all sites near Coldwater Springs.

The U.S. 10th circuit Court of Appeals has held that the flooding of Rainbow Bridge National Monument - a site of a Navajo deity and a sacred prayer spot - is justified by the federal government's multi-state water storage and power generation project on the Colorado River.

--Development of a ski area on the San Francisco peaks in Arizona, sacred to the Hopi and Navajos (Wilson v. Block, 1983). When the Hopi Indian tribe sued the Forest Service to prevent further development of a ski area in the San Francisco Peaks region of northern Arizona, the court concluded that the proposed development would not impinge upon the continuation of "all essential ritual practices" despite the tribe's contention that the development would disturb deities inhabiting the Peaks.

--Construction of viewing platforms, parking lots, trails, and roads at Bear Butte in South Dakota, sacred to many Plains Indians (Fools Crow v. Gullet, 1988). In South Dakota, members of the Lakota and Tsistsistas Indian tribes complained that the state's construction of roads and parking lots had disturbed the natural features of Bear Butte, a site of religious significance to the Indians living in the Black Hills area. But a federal district court insisted that the states' road construction did not burden the Native American Indian religious practice - for the utterly preposterous reason that the roads improved access to the Butte!

--Flooding of sacred Cherokee sites by the Tennessee Valley Authority (Sequoyah v. Tennessee Valley Authority, 1980). when members of the Cherokee Indian tribe brought suit to halt construction of the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River because it would flood their "sacred homeland", the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the District Court's decision that the flooding caused by the dam would destroy only "cultural history and tradition" rather than any true religious interest.

the university of Arizona is building telescopes on Mount Graham, a site sacred to the Apache; (5) continuing conflict between rockclimbers and Native practitioners at Devil's Tower, Wyoming.

But in northern California, Native American tribes have finally succeeded in proving that their religious interests outweigh a proposed governmental development project. In Northwest Indian Cemetery Protective Association v. Peterson, 565 F. Supp. 586 (N.D. Cal. 1983) aff'd ______ F.2d ______ (1985) rev'd ____ U.S. _______, Native Americans joined ranks with environmentalists to halt construction of a Forest Service road along the crest of the Siskiyou Mountains. The U.S. Forest Service had proposed to complete a 6.2 mile section of road in the high country of the "Blue Creek Roadless Area", including lands proposed for protection as Wilderness by citizen groups under the Wilderness Act of 1964. The proposed road would have cut through the heart of the proposed wilderness area, directly in the high country which Native Americans use for religious purposes. The road proposal included timber harvesting in a 31,000 acre area.

The evidence in the case indicated that for centuries members of the Yurok, Karok, and Tolowa tribes had used the "Chimney Rock" high country of the Siskiyous for religious purposes. A major feature of tribal religion was the "Vision Quest" undertaken by youthful members of the tribe, and this practice continues today. Individuals hike into the high country and use "prayer seats" to seek religious guidance or personal "power" through "engaging in emotional and spiritual exchange with the creator." Such encounters are undertaken only after a purification ceremony, and the religious experiences in the mountains are the cornerstone of the tribal religions. The Indian plaintiffs testified that their religious experiences were possible only by the solitude, quietness, and pristine environment found in the high country.

Other religious practices requiring the sacred lands of the high Siskiyous are purification rites made before religious ceremonies such as the White Deerskin and Jump Dances. These dances, according to Native American religious belief, provide the periodic "World Renewal" essential to the Indian's belief system. Similarly, medicine women in the tribes travel to the high country to pray, obtain spiritual power, and to gather medicines.

Native Americans use of wilderness for religious purposes deserves First Amendment protection.

The Costner Resort Built on Native Sacred Ground