Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Sacred Smoke and Devil's Tower

We have just returned from a two-week road trip through the west, seeing some of America’s scenic wonders, living a bit of family history (my grandmother grew up in Cody, Wyoming, and we were able to retrace a trip through Yellowstone that she made as a girl in 1904), and visiting with cherished friends (including performing a wedding in Colorado Springs). Susan read sections of “Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee” aloud as we drove through the places where grim massacres occurred. The trail of broken treaties is a sad and shameful chapter in our nation’s history, and I found myself grieving even as I reveled in the remarkable beauty. (Those who wish can read a full record of our trip).

One of the many stops we made was at Devil’s Tower (of “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” fame), where I learned that the tension between Whites and Native Americans is still very much alive. For the Plains Indians, it is a profoundly sacred place, and the month of June is a particular sacred time of year. All about the base of the Tower we saw small flags and bags hanging from trees, left as offerings by those who came to worship.

The Tower also draws many rock climbers eager to test their skills on its sheer walls. And therein lays the tension. Plains Indians regard such climbing as a form of sacrilege, even as the Pope would likely object if the Vatican were used for paint-ball practice. In an effort to strike a compromise, the Parks Service established a voluntary moratorium on climbing Devil’s Tower during June. A reasonable proposal, right? But immediately the “nobody can tell me what to do or when to do it!” crowd launched a lawsuit, claiming that their rights were being infringed upon. The case was tossed out of court when the judge failed to see how a polite request could be interpreted as infringing on anyone’s rights. Many – I would like to think most – climbers are honoring the moratorium, but two parties were climbing the Tower the day we visited. I found myself thinking unpleasant thoughts about those climbers; some degree of cultural and religious sensitivity to others is essential to a civilized society.

Saddened, we went to the picnic area to prepare our lunch. And there we saw something that lifted my heart a bit. A Japanese sculptor is designing a series of works to be placed in the world’s most sacred places. The first was placed at the Vatican. The second was installed at the birthplace of the Buddha. And the third was recently placed at Devil’s Tower. It represents the first puff of smoke from a peace pipe, and is set in such a way that it perfectly frames the Tower. Not everyone who visits the Tower will stumble across this remarkable work, but I would like to think that those who do will think less about the aliens whose spaceship landed on top of the Tower in the Hollywood version and more about its sacred meaning to the Native American tribes who suffered so grievously because of our greed for gold and buffalo hides.

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