Respecting the sacred

Screen Shot 2013-12-24 at 1.27.47 AMThe Hopi Tribe has been arguing for the return of artifacts considered sacred to their traditional religion. A coalition of tribes has also been fighting to constrain land use in an Arizona mountain range considered to be sacred land. What accommodations are appropriate for respecting these religious traditions?

Although I am an Atheist, I do not support gratuitous insults to rituals and traditions that are deemed sacred. As I see it, most Atheists are interested in two things: 1) Intellectual defense of science and a skeptical epistemology (usually empiricist); and 2) Eliminating institutions of religious privilege through secular activism. The concept of privilege is especially relevant for the situation of indigenous populations like the Hopi, who fell victim to colonization by outsiders who were mostly Christian. Since I am also descended from the colonizing group, I’m conscious of the need to tread lightly on matters of tribal religion.

Sacred Artifacts

The Hopi are arguing for the return of religious artifacts, including some that are due to be sold in a Paris auction. I have not found many instances where Atheist bloggers or podcasts considered the Hopi’s situation. I did find one, a recent episode of the “Thank God I’m Atheist” podcast produced in Salt Lake City. In the podcast, Frank Feldman and Dan Beecher give a pretty good account of the artifact dispute. One of the show’s hosts remarks, “I don’t care about what’s sacred to you, but I care about what’s rightfully yours. If it rightfully belongs to you, then you should have it… But there’s a line that I don’t want to cross in order to be a civil member of society.” Frank and Dan exhibit some of the usual struggles faced by white guys trying to understand Native American Indian claims.

The Hopi case is especially complicated due to the tribe’s desire for privacy, as described by NPR reporter Laurel Morales:

The Hopi religion is shrouded in secrecy, so the tribe was in a bind. Tribal leaders wanted the media’s help to bring attention to the sale, but they didn’t want to talk about what those items were…. After the initial story aired, friends wrote to ask me about these sacred objects. I realized in order to explain why the tribe did not want the items sold, I had to explain to people what these objects were…

I asked the Hopi chairman and council at a press event to explain how important these items are. But they were resolute. I asked in several different ways, and I’m pretty sure I offended them in my persistence. The chairman finally explained that it would be as if he went into a church, stole a cross and used it as a fencepost. That was helpful, but it still didn’t say what they were.

I talked to my husband about it. He said, “it’s like saying who Santa Claus is.” Hopis wouldn’t use that analogy, but I thought he’s kind of right.

It has been argued that the Hopi artifacts were most likely obtained through force or theft, since they are not traditionally items used for trade. On that basis, I think there is a good argument for their return. On the other hand, the bigger debate over stolen artifacts is not new, and there are uncertain consequences for museums if we require a uniform standard for returning all artifacts that may have been stolen decades or centuries ago.

Sacred Land

According to NPR, a coalition of Arizona tribes is involved in a separate campaign against artificial snow production on mountains that have religious significance:

“Part of our slogan has been ‘what part of sacred don’t you understand?'” said Klee Benally, a Navajo activist who has protested against the practice of pumping treated wastewater several miles up the mountain to make snow. “Essentially we’re saying why isn’t it enough for us to say a site is sacred and should be set aside and protected and respected because it’s integral for our spiritual practice to be continued.”

To the Hopi, the San Francisco Peaks are where some of the tribe’s ancestors live. To the Havasupai it’s the place of the tribe’s emergence.

Benally said tribal members had difficulty explaining to judges how spraying a mountain with treated waste water snow was desecrating it. Sure, they could still hold ceremonies there. And Navajo medicine men could still pick herbs there, and the mountain was not going away, but the mountain was now contaminated, defiled.

“It’s something that worries me all the time,” Benally said. “When I pray or participate in ceremonies, I question the effectiveness of those prayers.”

To me, the question of land use is more difficult than that of the artifacts. It is very hard for me to embrace restrictions on land use based solely on ancestral or religious claims, much less on the perceived efficacy of prayer. These reasons simply cannot be applied equally in all such disputes around the world. I believe the land belongs to all who live on and around it, it is no one’s birthright. In this instance I’m not sure how it is possible to both respect the tribes’ view of the sacred and also embrace a racially and culturally mixed future with an expanding population. The world will never be what it was. Those who live in Arizona today are not the colonists and the aboriginals; they are all new people with equal rights to the land of their birth. Moving forward we can strive for better equality, but I’m not sure it’s possible to prevent cultural erosion in a rapidly evolving world.


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