Sacred Landscapes: Meanings and Contradictions

Volume 49, Issue 1 :: By Norman Crowe

Land and landscape are two very different things. A parcel of land as a commodity, defined by its borders and judged by its economic potential, describes a different world than the landscape of nature seen as a vital part of the earth.

Diagram by William Morrish of the landscape where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona come together, drawn as it is understood by Native Americans who have lived there for centuries.

Diagram by William Morrish of the landscape where New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona come together, drawn as it is understood by Native Americans who have lived there for centuries.

The landscape features on the diagram by William Morrish suggest the meaning and form of the landscape as it is understood by the pueblo people in the American Southwest as well as the Navajo tribe whose reservation occupies much of the land depicted in the diagram. Native belief in the sacredness of the landscape of their ancestral homeland reminds us all of what is ultimately important. Of course the actual domain of the Navajo Reservation and reservations of each of the 19 pueblos of the Rio Grande Valley is legally defined by meticulously surveyed borders, but the idea of the landscape is in the indigenous people’s recognition of their lands’ natural features and extent. For instance, the Navajo’s sense of their traditional domain is the land generally defined by the four mountains shown at the ends of those dashed lines in the diagram. All the while the actual shape of their reservation stair-steps at right angles, responding to the continental grid of township lines and sections and the political configurations of counties as well as various convenient points that serve as  benchmarks for surveyors’ reference. In other words, it is as though this place is two places at once: a legal domain marked by legal borders and a natural one marked by sacred mountains.

Inevitably these two ways of understanding natural landscapes across the world come into conflict, especially where the land is regarded as sacred by traditional societies who have been nurtured by it for millennia. This is the case in particular with the mountain to the south in the diagram, labeled “Mt. Taylor.” It was named for Zachary Taylor because he was US president at the time it was recorded on the first detailed map of the region. In other words, its modern name is more or less arbitrary.

By contrast, its significance to indigenous cultures is far from arbitrary. It is sacred to the New Mexico Rio Grande Valley pueblos of Acoma, Laguna, and Tesuque and to the Hopi of Arizona as well as to the widespread formerly nomadic Navajo tribe. Today, most of Mt. Taylor is National Park and National Forest Service land, but unfortunately—because the mountain is believed to hold extensive deposits of uranium ore beneath the grasslands and timber on its slopes—the federal services responsible for it and the New Mexico State Legislature have been pressured by mining interests to open areas of the mountain to mineral exploration. The mining companies’ proposals have so far been successfully countered through lobbying efforts and legal action by a committee formed by the five tribes along with several non-tribal organizations sympathetic to their cause, but their task is a particularly difficult one, and here is why. Defining what is each tribe’s sacred domain and then convincing governmental authorities of its importance to the respective cultures cannot be quantified. For instance, each tribe recognizes certain areas on the mountain as ancestral domains where they have gathered over hundreds of years to conduct rituals that ultimately are important to their identity as a people, but no one lives on any of these sites and each sacred site has no specific identifiable borders to define its extent. These are places in nature, their sacredness sensed by an understanding arising from eons of rituals conducted there. Each site is so inextricably woven into the cultural practices and identity of the tribe that holds it to be sacred, that if it is desecrated, pride, meaning, a shared history, and their dignity as a people is at stake. Conveying all this to hard-nosed politicians and legal authorities takes time and patience, while the economic argument having to do with jobs and expanding economic opportunities for the region by the mining industry can be convincingly quantified with what appears as irrefutable numbers. By comparison, the tribes’ interests seem ephemeral at best.

Mt. Taylor, New Mexico, is called Kaweshtima by the Ácoma; Tsiipiya by the Hopi; Tsibina by the Laguna; and Dwankwi Kyabachu Yalanne by the Zuni.

Mt. Taylor, New Mexico, is called Kaweshtima by the Ácoma; Tsiipiya by the Hopi; Tsibina by the Laguna; and Dwankwi Kyabachu Yalanne by the Zuni.

This situation, as I have described it, takes place in a particular landscape at a particular location on Earth and it is of concern to certain indigenous populations who still live there. But at its base it is universal. I describe it here only as an example. We can all recognize beauty in a landscape, and in response we may sense a spiritual dimension as well. A landscape we regard as beautiful evokes a sense of harmonious order. If ancestral, the order of the landscape defines a sacred place, likely with specific sacred places within it, but if we simply happen upon it and are struck by it, we are nonetheless inspired by those same qualities of harmony-in-the-land that nurture those who may have lived there for millennia. And it is not only the immediately recognizable elements of the land itself that may evoke a sense of harmony, but its temporal presence beneath the sky and the ever-changing light of days, and by extension the more distant but unseen presence of the changing season and even what we may know of its geological formation long before life on Earth and its eventual colonization by evolving life. The landscape of nature is the ancestral home of us all. Our DNA predisposes us to seek harmony out of chaos, and it is in our perception of the natural landscape that we unconsciously seek a harmonious presence on Earth. Spirituality and sacredness is not an all-or-nothing thing, but more often a delicate awareness of the presence of something unique that is at the same time a part of something greater—the earth itself—of which it is a part.

The consummate reductionist finds comfort in viewing the world as a quantifiable thing, its extent and content fully knowable—like the surveyed borders of those Indian reservations. If that is the extent of knowing, it can only come about by wearing blinders that shut out all that cannot be known by the numbers. Pascal, as far back as the 17th century, foresaw the problem: “There are two equally dangerous extremes, to shut reason out, and to let nothing else in.” The great mysterium, a sense of wonder and universal mystery, connects us inexorably with all else. In opening ourselves to the beauty of a landscape we become a part of it, and by extension a part of all else. That seems to me as the right frame of mind to address the broader environmental problems we face today.

The author is an architect, emeritus professor at the University of Notre Dame, and adjunct professor at the University of New Mexico.

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